BY JIM PERRIN
IN THE HISTORY OF POST-WAR British rock climbing, Hugh Banner was an iconoclast and psychological enabler at a time when rock climbing was mortality-fixated.
Born in Crosby, on the Lancashire coast, he attended the Merchant Taylors’ School in that town. His mother died when he was an infant and his father, grandmother and an aunt raised him. Hugh’s uncle Tom had worked in the same Liverpool insurance office as the great pre-war climbing pioneer Colin Kirkus, and in the 1940s regularly took young Hugh fell-walking in the Lake District. Hugh’s father had witnessed a fatal accident on Tryfan’s notorious Munich Climb, though, and forbade his son to climb on the grounds that it was too dangerous.
At school, Banner was captain of the chess team, but took little part in physical activities. His climbing began only after he matriculated as a chemistry student at Bristol University in 1951. He joined the university climbing club, and explored the limestone cliffs of the Avon and Cheddar gorges, establishing many of the middle-grade standards there. Banner was also visiting the crags of Snowdonia, where he ascended a few good routes of his own—notably Ochre Grooves on Clogwyn y Grochan and Cross-tie on Dinas Mot. He repeated notable climbs pioneered in the late 1940s and some of the easier lines put up on the steep cliffs of the Llanberis Pass by Joe Brown and Don Whillans of the Rock & Ice club. He made the third ascent of Brown’s iconic route Cenotaph Corner and repeated Diglyph, the first of Brown’s new Extremely Severe climbs on the major Welsh cliff of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu to be led by someone outside the Rock & Ice elite circle.
Banner suffered a fractured skull while riding his 1,000cc Vincent motorcycle in 1957. At the time, he lived near the bold sandstone prow of Helsby Crag, where he added several problems, including Crumpet Crack and Gorilla Wall. In 1958 he succeeded on a new gritstone climb in Derbyshire that had bouted both Brown and Whillans: Insanity on Curbar Edge.
Banner had watched the Rock & Ice club stars repeatedly barn door off this thin and precarious overhanging finger-layback, and concluded that the simple expedient of moving one hand up to the other, rather than reaching through, would achieve balance. This shrewd and chess-like tactical appraisal of climbing problems became his hallmark. Slight and short, but with an immensely strong grip, he adopted an attritional approach to rock, overcoming its problems by sheer persistence and force of will. Banner’s finest achievement was Troach on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, an extremely blank-looking wall in the modern idiom and one of two excellent climbs—the other was Gecko Groove—he discovered on the cliff in 1959. His minimal 1963 Clogwyn Du’r Arddu guidebook, written with Peter Crew, marked a clear break from a fulsome tradition, and between its slim covers downplayed some considerable horrors.
Banner moved to Wiltshire and, in 1961, married Maureen McDermott, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life and who survives him. In the 1980s he started his company H.B., manufacturer of technical climbing equipment. He continued to climb right to the turn of the millennium. In his 50s he made ascents of the Nose of El Capitan and the Philip-Flamm route on the Civetta in the Dolomites. In 2000, an 80-mph motorcycle accident left him in a coma for a month and caused his left leg to be amputated above the knee. Undaunted, he modified his Honda Fireblade so he could shift gears by hand, and continued to work on climbing equipment until the brain tumor that was to kill him made this impossible.
He talked in a precisely enunciated nasal drawl with great stamina, and if he at times tended to debunk those climbers whose flair he had never quite matched, he also showed a keen perception about the nature of the sport, an essential affability, and an inexhaustible reservoir of enthusiasm. In an era—for which he himself could carry much credit—of democratization in the sport, he was living proof that application of one’s will could earn dividends that did not fall too far short of those accorded to genius.