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Commando Climbers Reunion - 21 November 2009

Floods in nearby Cockermouth, heavy rains and even a hailstorm - fitting conditions for a reunion of the school’s ex-Commandos in Cumbria, although nothing could dampen the spirits of 17 Old Rugbeians reunited after more than three decades to pay tribute to two former teachers who changed a lot of lives -- Richard Smith and Brian Elvins.

Masterminded by Nigel “come and see Blackpool” Seddon (K 74-79) and inspired by Archie Stirling (B 74-79) -- almost fresh from conquering the Himalayan peak of Ama Dablam -- the former “elite” of the school CCF came from afar as New Zealand (Maurice “the lump” Maclaren M 71-76)), Calcutta (Tim “Grandad” Grandage W 71-76)), Switzerland (Jock McTeague (M 73-76) and Nick Hammond (Sh 75-79)) and Italy (your scribe, Guy Dinmore (T 71-76)). It has to be said the Midlands were well represented too, though rather apologetically by some!

Ever wondered whether you would recognise old friends after more than 34 years in some cases? A few beers in the Strickland Arms, outside Kendal, launched the weekend reunion (Nov 21-22) and helped us pass the test, although some are still recovering from the shock of a hobbit-like Mark Weeks (Sh 73-77) transformed into a barn door of a GP in Chichester.  Richard, now living in Wells, and Brian, in Worcestershire, were unmistakeable however, both in fine fettle and full of memories of climbing weekends in Wales and fortnights in Skye.

As Richard noted we were in a way “the last of a generation”, the lucky ones baptised with a sense of adventure before the advent of “health and safety” rules that would prevent teachers sharing a tent with teenagers, blasting primus stoves with paraffin and meths, let alone throwing youngsters abseiling off the roof of Temple Speech Room, swinging out of the back of three-tonners on the highway, hurling ourselves down scree and falling down ice slopes. 

“It was great fun and we had enormous luck with some of the things that didn’t quite happen!” said Richard, confessing for the first time that he was “not really a canoeist” while recalling the several crafts that snapped going over the River Dee weir near Llangollen.

A bit of history. Eric Morgan, a Mitchell tutor, is credited with setting up and “christening” the Commandos in 1967. Two years later he handed over to Richard, former artillery captain-turned German teacher, and Brian, a major then a chemistry teacher. Together they kept the section going until they stepped aside in 1977. It closed down just a few years later. The army provided financing and the transport came from a nearby Signals regiment. The boys rarely wore uniform but Brian proudly recalls winning the drill contest as well as shooting. “The cadet force was never really a recruiting ground. It enabled people to have the challenges of war without the casualties,” says Brian, who would earn a major’s daily wage from the army for time spent with the Commandos.

As Tim said in his toast of thanks, over a three-course Strickland lunch, “you shaped our futures and gave us a taste of adventure… and Talisker”. In Tim’s case this meant swapping the burden of carrying others’ rucksacks up Bog Brittle to his lifelong task of rescuing and educating the street children of Calcutta in his Future Hope charity. Those experiences also helped send Chris Imray (St 72-77), now a vascular surgeon, on a medical expedition up Everest, and Jock into the Gurkas and combat in the Falklands before turning his hand to ending wars and charity work as well. The entrepreneurial spirit was also well represented around the table in various careers pursued by Mark Lavelle (T 72-76), Peter Dickson (W 75-79), Charles Norwood (M 69-74), Quentin Hayes (W 73-77), David Kydd ( K 75-80) and Thurstan Crockett (K 75-79) (the latter helping the environment around Brighton). It has been left to Paddy Craig (M 70-75)  to take up the challenge of classroom teaching (maths in Manchester) while Richard “India rubber man” Townshend (W 69-74) was the only man present to follow the outdoors life, teaching mountaineering and rock climbing to next generations. Indeed his well-stocked camper van could have doubled as a mountain rescue outfit with the amount of gear inside.  Thanks also to spouses and partners -- Rosie, Mary, Sylvia, Ann and Karen -- for joining in and seeing the living proof that not all those wild tales were invented.

Archie gave the rest of us armchair climbers an amusing and breathtaking account, with pictures, of his climb up the 6856-metre Ama Dablam in 2008, starting with Yeti Airlines, a blessing by a Lama and crowned by a long drop dump from Camp 3 where the ledge is so narrow you sleep roped up. That weekend being the Kendal Mountain Festival we were given an evening talk on a very different kind of climbing by Chris Sharma, a young Californian billed as the world’s greatest rock climber and surely a cousin of Spiderman. But to some of us purists, all those drilled bolts and top-down plotting of routes took away the edge a little.

Our landlord at the Heaves Hotel kept the bar open to the early hours, closing just in time for him to make a superman change of jacket to serve us breakfast the next morning. Naturally it was still raining. Nigel assured us that a local couple renewing their vows at Kentmere Church would not mind a few gatecrashers, while others tramped through a hailstorm and Falkland-like bogs, wondering where all those years had gone, but vowing to do it all again. Jock is proposing a hut in Switzerland, Tim something on stilts in India.