n Thursday, January 31, 1980, a wave swept John Cunningham to his death below the sea cliffs at Anglesey at the age of 52.
Cunningham had crammed more into his life than most. Born in Duke Street in Glasgow's East End in 1927 and apprenticed to John Brown's as a shipwright, he escaped to the Trossachs and Arrochar Alps at every opportunity. Cunningham's talent on the rock was obvious and at 17 he was welcomed into fold of legendary West Coast hardmen, the Creagh Dhu Mountaineering Club. Throughout the war and into the 1950s he pushed Scottish rock-climbing standards into the modern age with a steady flow of bold and difficult routes.
The 1950s and '60s had taken him further afield to New Zealand, the Himalaya and Antarctica. In 1953, he and Hamish MacInnes crossed India en route for Nepal, hoping to be first to the summit of Everest, but Hillary and Tenzing got there before them. Later, Cunningham spent many years working for the British Antarctic Survey, becoming base leader at Adelaide Island. He even has a mountain named after him - Mount Cunningham, 1220m, at the head of Queen Maud Bay on the south side of the island of South Georgia.
In the '70s, Cunningham was back in Scotland, working as an instructor at Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore and taking an active part in developing winter techniques through his enthusiastic adoption of front point cramponing and curved pick ice axes on steep ice. In 1976, he moved with his wife and young family to instruct at IM Marsh College in Liverpool.
Four years later, while instructing mature students below the South Stack cliffs, Cunningham and some students were swept into the sea. The students survived but Cunningham, a non-swimmer by all accounts, drowned. His body was never found.
During the '70s journalist and climber Jeff Connor worked alongside Cunningham instructing at Glenmore Lodge. Auto-biographies by famous British climbers such as Joe Brown, Dougal Haston, Chris Bonington and Don Whillans filled the bookshops. Connor suggested Cunningham should start recording some of the incidents from his life, possibly for a book.
Connor recalls: ''John and I didn't hit it off at first, very few people did, but gradually I got to know him and liked him very much. One day, maybe just after Whillans' autobiography came out, I said to John his story was too good not to write down. He said he couldn't write about himself or his friends, but then he thought maybe it would be a good start for his married life. The idea was he would talk into a tape recorder and I would transcribe it, the usual ghosted-type thing.''
But first Cunningham said he'd have to get permission from members of the Creagh Dhu club of which he had been president since 1967. ''I thought that was extraordinary for a man of his seniority; that he would have to get their permission to write about himself. Anyway, John started meticulously documenting the early part of his life, writing it all down in longhand. I'd moved back to Manchester by then and as things moved on we stopped corresponding. And then in 1980 he was killed.''
Things might have ended there, but in the mid-1990s Connor found himself back in Scotland working as a journalist. ''I was living at Drymen and kept seeing these place names like Carbeth, Whangie, Strathblane and I knew this was where the Creagh Dhu had started. I thought 'I'm living in Scotland, all these guys, John's Creagh Dhu contemporaries will be in their late 60s and 70s. If I don't do it now I'll never do it'.'' Connor packed in his job and got stuck into researching the life and times of John Cunningham.
''Everyone said 'the Creagh Dhu, they won't want to talk to you, it's a secret society, especially if you're English'. But I'd had a long friendship with Ian Nicholson from Glen Coe and Ian was very supportive. I'd already spoken to Bill Smith, John Cunningham's regular climbing partner and consensus among the Creagh Dhu was if Bill said it was OK they'd all co-operate. And that's how it turned out. While I was trying to find out about Bill Smith I learned Smith was also trying to find out about me, so unknown to me there was a discrete screening process going on.''
The result, Creagh Dhu Climber, the life and times of John Cunningham, encapsulates growing up in Glasgow in the 1930s and '40s and the escape from unemployment and the daily grind of heavy industry, offered by Scotland's mountains.
''Cunningham came from an elemental part of Glasgow and found a way of getting out, but he was no means unique in that. What was unique was the theatre he found; the hills and mountains. That way of life doesn't exist any more. People today aren't driven by the same sort of circumstances. I can't particularly think of a poor climber today. Cunningham was looking for something outside of the city, but credit should go to the weekenders who guided him, people like Chris Lyon.''
Connor also hopes the book will cement Cunningham's place in the history of Scottish climbing. ''There were virtually no obituaries when John died and I don't think he was ever really recognised for the personality or climbing talent he was, in the way that MacInnes, Brown, Whillans or even Robin Smith have been. John did have this aura and people tended to listen to him when he was talking. He never said very much but if he spoke people shut up and listened. If they didn't shut up then John had his ways of putting them in their place. He was not a man to suffer fools.''
Creagh Dhu Climber, the life and times of John Cunningham, Ernest Press, #14.50.