When I first visited Aberdeen in the mid 1980s, my good friend Rick Allen took me along to an Etchachan Club meeting. Unlike other climbing club evenings, this was not held in a pub, but somewhere in the University, and was a member’s slide show. Pictures were shown of the latest new routes, both summer and winter, hard routes in the Alps, and secret projects in the Cairngorms. At the centre of it all and conducting proceedings was a distinguished looking gentleman in his fifties, and Rick whispered in my ear that this was the legendary Bill Brooker.
Bill Brooker was at the heart of Scottish mountaineering for over 60 years. At the age of 14, he cycled to Skye and climbed Sgurr nan Gillean. Later that evening he heard talk of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and asking whether it was really ‘inaccessible’, he was told, “It is for the likes of you!” This was too great a challenge to be ignored, and next day with no previous climbing experience at all, the young Bill Brooker went and soloed it.
At the age of 17 he burst on to the Aberdeen climbing scene in January 1949 with the first winter ascent of Crystal Ridge (III) on Coire Sputan Dearg. Later that summer he added several new routes to Lochnagar and made the second ascents of Parallel Buttress and Tough-Brown Ridge Direct. The following winter he pioneered of two of Lochnagar’s most loved winter routes – Shadow Buttress A (IV,5) and Giant’s Head Chimney (IV,4), and then in the winter of 1953 in the company of Tom Patey, he made his most celebrated climbs – the first winter ascents of Eagle Ridge (VI,6) on Lochnagar and Mitre Ridge (V,6) on Beinn a’Bhuird. Even today, these are amongst the most sought after winter climbs in Scotland.
The climax of Brooker’s winter climbing career took place in 1956, when during successive weekends, he made the first winter ascents of Parallel Buttress (VI,6), Route I (V,6) and Eagle Buttress (IV,3) on Lochnagar. It is easy to forget these routes were climbed before front point crampons and twin tools. Aberdeen climbers were masters at climbing snowed-up rock, and even though ice was climbed by cutting steps using a single axe, the standard of Cairngorm mixed climbing was extremely high.
Brooker was also an accomplished rock climber and added many first ascents to the Cuillin on Skye including the well known Crack of Dawn (HVS) and Dawn Grooves (HVS). But of all his routes, the first ascent of Waterkelpie Wall (a seven pitch E1) on Creag an Dubh Loch, which he climbed with Dick Barclay in August 1958, I find the most astonishing. This was the first route to venture onto the imposing Central Gully Wall, and to attempt this daunting line with only a small handful of pegs and a few rope slings shows incredible bravery and confidence, and puts our modern armoury of protection into perspective.
Bill Brooker’s charm and outgoing nature meant he was a natural ambassador for Scottish climbing. He became president of the SMC and edited the influential SMC Journal for twelve years. He moved from his job as a teacher to Aberdeen University and he was eventually honoured by becoming a Master of the University. Unfortunately, a cruel illness robbed him of his youthful athleticism and he became increasingly immobile as he became older and was unable to access the hills.
Despite his illness, Bill maintained a keen interest in Scottish climbing. On several occasions Niall Ritchie and I visited Bill’s home and showed him slides of recent Scottish climbs. He always had a twinkle in his eye, and I remember describing the first ascent of Sour Grapes – a corner high on Lochnagar – and his eyes lit up when he recognised the feature projected on the screen. “I always wondered what that would be like as a route,“ he told us.
Bill Brooker’s death in November was a huge loss to Scottish climbing. He was a great man and his life touched many people in both his personal and professional life, but for climbers, he will be forever remembered as the architect of some of the greatest mountain climbs in the land.