On an early visit, in a glorious Portland sunset, Michele and I wander along the top of Wallsend. She passes her binoculars to me. Clumsily I fumble with a plethora of blurry images. Suddenly they focus, with almost unbearable clarity. Far away, a tiny figure is fighting his way into a belt of overhangs, his top fluttering in the wind. Even from this vast distance, you can tell he’s giving it all that he’s got. And, instinctively, I know who it is. Already I’ve exchanged harsh words with two editors on his behalf. But he cannot know that, any more than he knows he’s being watched. Moments later, he disappears. I lower the binoculars, try to explain. It will be ten more years before I finally meet him. And, by then, I too will have fallen in love with Wallsend.
Pete Oxley’s dad was a Geordie, who came south for work, in the cruel 1930s. The family settled in Potter’s Bar in London, "the middle of nowhere," Pete wonderingly laughs. He was the youngest of four brothers. Holidays introduced him to wilderness. "We were away in the Campervan, all the time, hill-walking, scrambling…" As a teenager, he moved into outdoor sports, such as cycling and orienteering, unwittingly following the top climbers' syndrome of "becoming totally obsessive," getting good quickly, dumping them, moving on. Then, in 1979, came the television programme, 'Rock Athlete', where Ron Fawcett soloed with haunting, iconic grace. Suddenly Pete knew what he wanted with his life. He wrote to Ron, received a signed poster and kind, encouraging words, from the man who would always remain his hero. "I’ve still got that poster. I owe it all to Ron - he saved me from becoming some mountaineering greybeard!"
But Pete’s youthful desire for climbing quickly met obstacles. The family moved to Dorset, where the local climbing club wouldn't let him join. "They said I was too young; it contravened insurance." (Ironic when one considers how teenage climbers are encouraged today!) Undeterred, he trained on a local bridge, necessarily alone, like his exemplar, Hermann Buhl, his mates having no interest in the outdoors. Right from the beginning, he was discovering that, if you wanted to get things done in sleepy Dorset, you would have to be prepared to do them alone. Pete trained on that bridge nearly every day for two years. 4b became hard 6b, stamina traverses were extended into F7b+ routes (unknowingly!), at a time when established rock stars struggled at this grade. His first 'new route', with a single, home-made bolt banged into the eight metre bridge wall, for protection, was E5 6c, (F7b+), harder than anything else in Dorset. And Pete still hadn't touched real rock. Unsurprisingly, when he was taken to the nearby beginner's emporium of Cattle Troughs, by, "some 75 year old guy, with about three wires and clunky World War Two krabs," it was less than enthralling. "I buggered off and soloed a VS!" Finally allowed into the local climbing club, he did his first 'proper' Extreme, Stroof, E1, in the rain, and was sternly admonished. "Don’t ever do that again - it’s against club policy!"