It is difficult to imagine a Lake District without Martin Willey. I climbed and hiked with him in the years 1974 to 1985, and I cannot think of some dark corner of the hills, particularly Wasdale or the Pillar Rock area, without thinking of Martin and his energy, his solid reliability and his enthusiasm, looking at the weather resignedly as if to say, “there’s only one thing worse than being out on a wet day and that’s not being out at all”. He had a sense of humour that beguiled us all, an intelligence that shone its light on all our discussions from national politics to the state of Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team.
He and I climbed as often as the crags were dry in summer or in condition in winter. On rock our collective strength was Martin’s; he made easy work of the strenuous pitches and left the delicate stuff to me, which suited both of us. So he waltzed up the second pitch of Rift Wall, a VS on Craig Ddu in Llanberis Pass, commenting, “You’re going to find this strenuous”, which I did; “eyes like chapel hat-pegs” was how Martin described me, gasping up the last of the pitch. But at other times it worked like it should; I got the long jam-crack on Scylla on the north face of Pillar Rock, and Martin the steep 5a pitch that followed. On ice we had a day of transcendental glory on Great End in 1981, the snow like ice like solid polystyrene, whooping up the climbs one after the other until at the end of the day we solo Central Gully and Martin, up front, takes off up the Middle Way pitch, “Hey Martin, what about a rope?” and both of us buzzing with the sheer exultation of it. This was Martin in the hills; it could be a simple hill-walk or it could be a climb, winter or summer, at the limits for both of us – it was where he wanted to be and he absorbed every minute of it.
He loved jokes and the humour of life and shared them all with our little group, commenting, perhaps after some story of persistent bad luck, “Ah well, all part of life’s rich tapestry”. I saw him reflective; I saw him thoughtful; I never saw him sad. He didn’t drink and our group, given to the odd pint of something cask-conditioned at the end of the day, welcomed his services as designated driver. We had a standard line when it was his round, “Hey Martin, there’s something wrong with this glass, it’s gone kinda clear and transparent”, and he’d pick it up, say “Looks like a perfectly good glass to me…” and go for refills. He had a way with people and perhaps all it consisted in was the ability to arouse the charitable instinct. Once after a wet day in the mid-70s we were gathered around the fire in the living room at the Wasdale Head Inn and someone, a staff member also on the Rescue Team, took pity on us and brought out three plates of pork and stuffing – but no cutlery. So guests were treated to the sight of three Lakes climbers dining in what was assumed to be local fashion: fingers, no forks, and knowing us at the time, probably only just not licking the plates.
So he’s gone. There’ll be some quiet corners in the Lake District now. Think of him when next you pass one. Or look in your empty glass and understand thanks to Martin that it’s really perfectly good – just refill it, and then, ever so quietly and inconspicuously, tip a nod to the shadow in the corner.
Picton, Ontario, Canada
November 17, 2014