The life of Wilfrid Noyce, Mountaineer, Scholar and Poet

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When Wilfrid and Jocelyn were at St Edmund’s, Enid Noyce would come home from India most years and they would spend the summers at the family house, Bryn Hyfryd, at Ffestiniog, tramping over the familiar Manods and the Moelwyns. They also ventured farther and farther afield in the Welsh hills, going over to Tryfan and the Idwal Slabs. Their cousins, Nigel and Guy Kirkus guided by them in more adventurous ascents, ‘educated scrambles’ as Wilfrid described them. Guy, whom Wilfrid admired for his strength and skill on the crags, was inspired by eldest brother Colin who was one of Britain’s eminent rock-climbers at that time. The desire and enthusiasm for greater challenges on the mountains was growing.

In the Easter holidays of 1934 when Wilfrid was sixteen he was introduced by Guy to real rock-climbing and for this his boots were bought specially, according to Colin’s specifications. He took the bus up from Bettws y Coed to the bleak Ogwen Cottage for his first encounter with the dragonish Mrs Jones. Guy joined him the following morning and they left for Tryfan.

Tryfan is for some the iconic Welsh mountain as it rises in a rock ridge right up from the Ogwen valley like a dark lion maintaining guard over the Glyders to the South. It stands almost on its own and is immediately identifiable. It used to be one of the great rock-climbing nurseries and provided a range of climbs with many that were not only interesting but challenging.

They went for the first of very many times up Heather Terrace then up the North Buttress to the summit. That day they also climbed Gashed Crag, ‘A slippery slab above the Gashed Crag I could not climb, but found “the Boots” scrabbling in a hot determination not to leave me stranded like fish on a line.’ He appears to have spent the rest of the holiday on his own scrambling and walking and observed thirteen years later ‘that the crossing of Glyder Fawr (it was most important to go right to the cairn), the Snowdon Horseshoe and back in gym shoes on a day of falling snow and mist, would try me too hard now.’

The summer holiday that year was with his cousin Colin and they stayed at the Idwal Youth Hostel. The first evening they did Monolith Crack, for a long time reputed to be the hardest climb in North Wales. Already intense feelings were being evinced as he climbed, ‘The thought current bubbled out in pattering accompaniment to hasty breathing; in its exactness, impossible to recapture and unprintable’. He then ‘wrote an ecstatic postcard to [the family at] Ffestiniog.’ Colin also led him up the Direct Route on Glyder Fach, and Holly Tree Wall. It was however on Crib Goch Buttress that Noyce made his first lead under Colin Kirkus’s very capable and thoughtful guidance. Noyce observed the balance and rhythm of Kirkus’s movements and sought to emulate them and so developed his own fluid way of climbing.

Noyce had fallen in love with the Welsh hills which had become his native heath and he revelled in the physical exertion in the familiar scenery in a way that he could not on the Helsby outcrops in Cheshire or the trivial chalk pits at Cambridge. In August 1934, he climbed on Craig-yr-Wrysgan and is supposed to have done a Very Difficult but later could not remember exactly where he went. He felt that the Scottish hills where he was in the autumn were still too large for him to feel truly in harmony.


After the Central Gully climb Noyce left to join Arthur Pigou in the Swiss Alps and to meet Hans Brantchen, a noted Alpine guide. They trained initially in the Bernese Oberland and then in the Valais went to the Younggrat of the Breithorn, climbing it from the Riffelalp hut. There was soft slushy snow over ice on the ridge and they had been beaten to it by three Germans. Brantschen’s amour propre was dented, his patriotism took over and they overtook the Germans and crossed a steep ice couloir to gain the summit ridge. This undulating ridge led to the summit. The descent was an anticlimax through sticky snow as they reached the Gandegg and crossed the Gorner glacier in the heat.

They climbed the south face of the Weisshorn, a climb made notable by Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Josef Knubel. It was almost unexplored and they set out to take the most direct route.

‘The face itself, once reached, was a thing of ribs and shallow couloirs – never hard enough to stop us long, always hard enough for caution, with the two sky-line ridges converging above. Much has been written in comparison of face and ridge climbing, from the angle of pleasure. They are pleasurable both, we can only say that, for different reasons. A suggestion on the summit to Hans that we should try the ridge type of pleasure by descending the Schalligrat or north ridge was sedately squashed by him. I was told, small-boy-like to keep something for next season, and not be greedy.’

Noyce describes the ascent of the Zmutt ridge as, ‘surely the most satisfying of all possible Alpine climbs, with the soaring airy arête to the suspended summit.’ This and the Viereselgrat of the Dent Blanche they did and enjoyed the view of ‘the col that hangs itself, like a sheet on a clothes-line between the Dent d’Hérens and the Matterhorn.’

The next day Noyce spent reading Paradise Lost at the Schönbuhl Hut while looking with the other eye at the huge cirque of cliffs around it. The day after, early in the morning, they went quickly over the Col Tournanche. The rock-climbs seemed to him to be less severe than in Britain but nonetheless with greater exposure. Comparisons with British crags no longer seemed appropriate and he became used to the long, continuous and narrow, but safe, paths in the Alps. Good rope discipline was essential as there was ice in the cracks. Then there was the joyful relief as they descended the other side down on to the glacier.

A few days later they did the north ridge of the Dom which Noyce regarded as a ‘rather artificial rock climb with easy snow close by its side.’

Returning from Switzerland Noyce joined the family holiday at the Royal Hotel, Capel Curig, where he did a bit more work with Menlove Edwards on the Lliwedd guide and in September the two of them were at the Pigou house at Buttermere. Ronald Noyce and other friends joined them. There was great swimming in Crummock Water and Buttermere and a new climb was made on Eagle Crag up in Birkness Combe. On 19th September a large group set out and at Styhead Pass Ronald and a couple of friends went over to the Napes to climb. Noyce and Edwards headed straight on for Scafell. They looked at the first-aid equipment at the pass and wondered if they should ever need it! “People so seldom fell.”

Noyce was leading on Tophet Bastion, which was not a difficult climb, according to Pigou, but it is subject to violent gusts in a storm, as the locals all knew well. He was blown off his holds and fell some thirty feet and broke a leg. When Elliott got down to him he was swearing volubly – at himself – for Elliott a good sign. The latter went off immediately to Seathwaite, where there was a telephone some three miles away to get help. He found two Scouts, told them to get hold of some climbers, then went back to Noyce, all within the hour! Colonel ‘Rusty’ Westmoreland, a man named Filds, who knew about first-aid and tying people to stretchers, having participated in six rescues, and three hefty men followed Elliott up. It was a very difficult rescue. By the time the rescue party got to Noyce night had fallen and there was light snow. Noyce had to be strapped to the stretcher and pulled in an upright position to the top of the cliff before they could lower him rope’s length by slow rope’s length to the bottom and take him across country. They started to move him at 18.20. They managed to get Noyce down over the scree and difficult terrain to Wasdale by 06.00 in the morning in the mist, violent storm and, by then, snow. It was an heroic effort as afterwards it was said that fifteen to twenty men would be normally required for the task. From Wasdale the RAF ambulance took him to Whitehaven hospital.

If the fell-walkers had reached Gatesgarth earlier, Noel-Baker could have gone with Pigou to Seathwaite and led the walkers, who had agreed to help, to the right place. In fact those walkers refused to venture above Sty Head as they said it was too dangerous. One of them said that he had seen Noyce and said that, “…he was in a bad way”. This was quite untrue. If too Elliott had gone to Wasdale, where in fact there was no telephone, the rescue party could have gone up with him and got Noyce down quickly. Scott came back to Rosalind and Noel-Baker at Gatesgarth at 01.00 and said that Noyce was still up on the mountain and would not be down that night. Pigou spent the night at Seathwaite. At 07.30 on the following morning Scott took Noel-Baker to Seathwaite. Finally those at Seathwaite heard from a walker who had come from Wasdale that Noyce was down. There was no telephone at Gatesgarth so Rosalind went down to the Buttermere Hotel to await a call from Noel-Baker who called at 11.00 from Seathwaite to say that Noyce was at Whitehaven hospital.

The Times of 25th April 1946 reported, with a strange indifference to the facts:


Two search parties were out in the Lake District last night in the hope of rescuing Captain Wilfred [sic] Noyce, son of Sir Frank Noyce, of Grayshott, Surrey, who fell 150ft. into Hellfire Gap while climbing yesterday with Mr. P. Noel-Baker, Minister of State, and Mr C. Elliott, head master of Eton. The climbers were on the bastion of Napes Ridges of the Great Gable at the time of the accident. Mr. Noel-Baker walked five miles across country in a blizzard to fetch help. Blankets, food, and tea were lowered into the gap, but Captain Noyce had not been found when the search was discontinued till daybreak.’

Rusty Westmorland from Keswick was a well-known local mountaineer who after the accident founded and became the first president of the Keswick Mountain Rescue. He subsequently became President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and was awarded the OBE for his services to mountain rescue. He died in November 1984 at the age of ninety-eight.