Alexander Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) Extract
The Devil you know
Aleister Crowley is one of the more memorable characters of British mountaineering history – for all the wrong reasons. On a collision course with society from an early age, Crowley’s intelligence often expressed itself in schoolboy humour. Being filthy rich and amoral, he could pretty much do what he wanted, with hilarious consequences. Whether it was shooting fruit bats to make himself a waistcoat, climbing on Beachy Head, or feeding dead sparrows to a skeleton in an effort to raise a golom, he did nothing by halves.
Raised in an ultra-orthodox Christian sect, Ali C was isolated and brutalised as a child. His mind saturated with the book of Revelations, he decided at an early age to oppose Christianity by a judicious mixture of masturbation, Satanism and rogering the servants at every opportunity. He inherited a small fortune while young and spent all of it travelling the world as a sexual and magical tourist. He formed occult societies and magical communes, published exquisitely-designed books of scatological and pornographic poetry, wrote what was effectively the Haynes manual of magic, took bucket-loads of drugs and never signed-on in his life. Some of his early days in the 1890s in a rented flat in London with his magical mentor, Allan Bennett, are very reminiscent of Withnail and I. Before summoning up demons, Crowley and Bennett seemed to have subsisted on a diet of oral opium, injected morphine and inhaled chloroform. Needless to say the flat was soon filled with malign forces.
And he was a mountaineer of some note (and later notoriety). His mother had taken him to Skye in 1891, where he stayed at the Sligachan Inn and went climbing with Sir Joseph Lister and friends. He was sent to Wasdale in the summer of 1892, with a tutor to keep him away from the servant girls. There he met John Wilson Robinson» and OG Jones», eventually becoming one of the Wasdale Head regulars during its heyday (and making a new route up Napes Needle: Crowley’s Route, (HS)). Being a free and rebellious thinker, Crowley was innovative in his approach to climbing. He carried chockstones up some of his routes, jamming them into cracks where he would use them as holds and, in an era of hobnailed boots, was one of the first to experiment with rope-soled shoes – the forerunner of modern rubber rock boots. His style and attitude did not please everyone in the conservatively clubby atmosphere of Victorian rock climbing. ‘I must admit that my methods were sometimes calculated to annoy,’ he wrote. ‘But I had no patience with the idiotic vanity of mediocrities.’
At one point, Crowley's outlandish style actually proved advantageous: faced with recalcitrant porters unwilling to cross a steep undercut snowslope, Crowley threw himself head-first down the incline apparently towards certain death, pulling himself up short a few feet from a precipice. His European companions considered this the act of a madman, but the porters were impressed and crossed the slope. At other times Crowley's maverick approach wasn't so useful. Following a violent disagreement with Guy Knowles he unexpectedly produced a ‘huge revolver’ and chased the terrified Englishman around the snowslopes until Knowles was able to disarm him after a struggle. Clearly, Crowley wasn't a team player.
What he said: ‘Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law.’
What they said: ‘He was light years ahead of his time in his attitude to tackling vertical chalk cliffs. The ground he covered was without doubt amongst the most technically difficult in Britain, but his achievements were never really appreciated in his lifetime.” Mick Fowler salutes the old devil.
Well fancy that: Crowley’s scowling face appears amongst the celebrities adorning the cover of The Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Further reading: A Magick Life, Martin Booth, Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.