No relation to the next generation’s climber J.H.B. Bell, John Hart Bell was a native of the Scottish Borders, living in Dumfriesshire. He joined the SMC in 1894, at the age of 24, a young man of powerful physique and immediately an enthusiastic pioneer of new climbs. He was President from 1922-24.
In July 1898 Bell was a key player on the epic ascent of Flake Route, Church-Door Buttress, Glen Coe. This buttress had been christened by William Tough, who thought that it looked like a church-door seen end on. It was certainly the object of many attempts by the best climbers of the day in Scotland, including the indomitable Harold Raeburn. The history is worth recounting, as it describes not only the determination of the climbers, but also some of the methods they used.
Norman Collie first attempted the buttress, in March 1984, a few days before he moved north to Fort William and the first winter ascent of Tower Ridge. Two years later, in Easter 1896, the formidable English team of Hastings, Haskett-Smith and Bower failed on it. These were, incredible though it may sound, attempts on the route in winter conditions! The route in winter is currently a good Grade IV.
Climbers then began to plan a summer ascent, with Brown and Tough trying and failing in July 1895. During a partial descent from above, the latter pair spotted a grass ledge, which they thought might be the key to the route, if it could be gained from below. By September 1896, Bell had been told of the route by Tough, and made his first attempt at the route. A snowstorm dampened their abilities somewhat, but Bell, along with J & G Napier and E.W. Green, managed to find a way up the initial section of the buttress, by climbing a crack up the lower part of a large flake. Higher up, snow-covered moss on an exposed ledge barred safe progress, and the party retreated.
Raeburn now joined the list of climbers attempting the buttress, taking a look at the route on a wet September day in 1897. Conditions again prevented progress beyond the top of the initial chimney. In Easter 1898 Raeburn formed forces with Bell, but the weather was again bad, and what was normally a one-hour cycle ride from the Kingshouse Hotel to the Clachaig Inn took them two hours against a battering gale. Starting up the hill late, with snow-covered rock, they decided to prospect the route from above, with a 120-foot rope. Bell won the toss of the coin and managed to find a corner leading down to the ledge seen earlier. This ledge led to the top of a chimney, the foot of which they had previously reached from below.
On the 15th July, 1898, the summit team assembled in Glen Coe. It consisted of Boyd, Douglas, G. Napier, G.T. Parker, Raeburn and Bell, though Douglas and Parker agreed to spectate. For once the weather improved, and the rocks were almost dry. The route had been divided into two sections, with Bell assigned to lead the first part, Raeburn taking over for the unclimbed upper section. They gained the ledge after about an hour, and Raeburn went forward to have a look at the chimney.
At the foot of the chimney there were several large jammed blocks, with another large block above them. Raeburn tried to climb this obstacle several times but had to back off as it was obviously very strenuous. They then tried to throw the rope over the top block, using a rock tied to a long piece of string. This failed. Finally Raeburn removed his boots and prepared for another attempt. Bell described the fateful moment.
‘I went forward to the end of the ledge to try to field him if a slip should occur, while Napier jammed himself in the hole in the ledge, worked Raeburn’s rope over the small hitch, and anchored me. This time Raeburn was successful, and wild cheers broke out…’
The way was clear, and the successful team reached the top of the buttress, where there was another burst of cheering. It was not the only significant first ascent Bell was to take part in, but it was obviously one of great importance to them.
Other routes Bell helped to pioneer included several on Ben Nevis; North Castle Gully & East Ridge of Douglas Boulder (1896), Staircase Climb (1898). On Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour, with Brown he did The Great Ridge (1897). On Arran there is a Bell’s Groove on Cir Mhor.
His profession was that of marine engineer, and on retiring in 1917 he immediately placed his services at the disposal of the Admiralty. After the war he held many public offices, including Chairman of the Dumfriesshire Education Authority, and a Justice of the Peace. He had latterly taken up the game of croquet, and it was during a game of this that he suddenly died, in his 68th year.
Finest Moment: First ascents of The Great Ridge, Garbh Bheinn (1897), and Flake Route, on Bidean’s Church Door Buttress, Glen Coe (1898).
Bibliography: ‘In Memoriam’, by W.N. Ling (SMCJ Vol.21, pp.278-9, November 1937); ‘The “Church-Door Buttress” on Bidean nam Bian’, J.H. Bell(SMCJ, Vol.5, pp.135-140, May, 1898); ‘A Wet Day in Glencoe’, Harold Raeburn (SMCJ Vol.4, pp.24-28, Jan. 1898).