Wednesday, 19 January 2022

People Watching


In the world of travel, people watching is one thing we all invariably do, even if it’s a subconscious activity. This is particularly true when moving from one airport or railway station to another and subjected to the inevitable delays, which occur sometimes at the most inconvenient times. Mannerisms, dress, appearance and behaviour are all indications to a person’s walk in life and when boredom sets in on long stop over, anything can help pass the time.

What makes people watching an art form is doing it in far flung places where delays of two or even three days occur from time to time. Three days at Lukla airstrip in Nepal for example - waiting in the hope of a break in the weather will be a never to be forgotten experience. Heavy cloud often blanks the ridge which aircraft have to fly over to reach the tiny sloping airstrip perched high above the deep valley. Even today the aircraft carry few navigational aids so the pilots need good visibility to clear the high col beneath the heavy afternoon cloud. Cows nonchalantly move across the runway whilst children play football around the unloading area. Occasionally there is talk and rumour amongst fellow watchers of a flight arriving and a temporary distraction takes over. Shaded eyes are drawn towards the col, squinting, trying to glimpse the insect like aircraft silhouetted against the sky, whilst hand cupped ears strain to hear the drone of aero engines drifting across the Himalayan foothills.

A klaxon sounds announcing the imminent arrival of an aircraft and a change from the sleepy atmosphere. Dust clouds are raised, the noise and clatter of the Twin Otter or helicopter creates a hive of activity. Aircraft bellies are opened and supplies manhandled to be replaced by cargo for the return to Kathmandu whilst passengers hastily gather for the 30/40 minute flight back into the outside world. We are crammed in the fuselage between cargo on canvas seats and a tiny perspex window offers fleeting glimpses of the world below. The strobe effect of the helicopter blades contrast sharply with the patchwork of the fields below where farmers can be seen, ant like figures labouring to produce crops which are so important to Nepal. Interconnecting paths and tracks across the Himalayan foothills where convoys of porters do the work of trucks and lorries of mechanised nations. Every day of the year these “Himalayan juggernauts” carry vast tonnage from one place to another. Many of the porters are women and children as young as 12 or 14, their loads carried in a whicker basket (Doko) supported by a headband and a crooked stick on which the loads are balanced when rests are taken. 

Awkward loads of wood and timber required for building projects are simply tied together in bundles, padded for the back and the weight taken by a simple headband across the forehead. Lukla is a focal point for porters, traders and westerners alike, situated 5 or 6 days walk from Jiri, the road head from Kathmandu and 2 days below Namche Barzaar high in the Khumbu Valley. With the advantage of the airstrip, Lukla is a busy place, particularly when mountaineering and trekking expeditions are in the area. and people watching assumes an important passion necessary to pass the time that hangs heavy when far from home at the end of a trip. The endless stream of people steadily shifting from one place to another. Happy faces, smiling faces, even serious faces will have a story to tell, perhaps more interesting than the stories on western faces at a big international airport.


Smooth, clean cut young men fast talking on their mobiles - rushing - moving - making deals - here - there - no time to spare, very different from kaftan clothed hippies, lounging, looking serene and all the time to spare. Who is right? Young girls fresh from school on their way home - chatter - gossip excitedly, talk of plans for the weekend. Boys of the same age group - talking, greeting in the mono syllables of boy speak, indiscernible, certainly to their parents and understood only to boys of a certain age. Back home, people watching on the London tube, I am reminded of the time when I met a young Sherpa boy just above Thyangboche monastery. It was a few years ago on a winters afternoon, about one hour before dark. He was about 13 or 14 years old and a novice monk studying in Kathmandu on his way home for holidays. He had travelled one day by bus to Jiri and walked a further 5 or 6 days to Thyangboche . He was excited because later that night he would reach Periche, his home a further 5 or 6 hours walk and the first meeting with his parents for 6 months. He was also very proud that day because he was looking after his three young brothers for the first time.


Here was a story indeed - volunteered from a bright cheery face and delivered with the confidence and freshness of youth. Perhaps all those other people I’ve watched in faraway places have similar stories to tell - perhaps however some of the stories are better, not for the telling, but for the imagining! Again in the hills of Nepal I’ve encountered such people as LP (Lakpa Sherpa) and Ang Chuldim both Sherpa hill people and both Sirdars (climbing leader/guides). Their dedication and leadership towards -group members are remarkable. Both have had a limited education, only four or five years at best yet LP is able to communicate in several languages. Both have remarkable intelligence and understandably neither want their children to follow in their footsteps and become Sirdars or farmers.

They want their children to follow further education and take well paid jobs in the city. If this is common throughout Nepal, and I suspect it is, who will be the farmers of the future and produce the crops to sustain life in these developing countries. Aid for educating the young is necessary for the future of these countries but that could lead to fewer farmers, particularly in a country like Nepal where aid is vital to encourage the young to continue the good work of their forefathers. Anyone who has seen the squalor and pollution of Kathmandu will soon realise that life in the country is much healthier, but is it? Again, I am reminded of the time when I met a young boy by the side of the trail in the Hinku valley. He was 6 or 7 years old with a badly gashed and infected wound on his hand. 

We cleaned and sterilized the wound as best we could but I gave little hope for the boy’s full recovery and he would probably suffer permanently from such a wound. What did the future hold for him? How would he cope with a manual job in the fields and with no school he had a bleak future, or perhaps little future at all. Yet once the wound was dressed he wanted nothing more than a cheap biro. He was right handed and only when we gave him the biro did sadness cross his face, with the dressing and injury, he couldn’t hold the cheap plastic biro which a few seconds earlier had created so much joy to his face. We move on in our own world and contact with others all too brief. 

In our western world we are often islands within a seething human sea - isolated, separate identities within the human race. We travel on planes, boats, trains, buses and cars - occasionally we may even walk a little. We may observe our fellow travellers but little do we speak. May be its only those on the pathways and trails of the mountains that we speak to our fellow travellers. A nod, wink or even a word, however brief, its at least an acknowledgement to our fellows that we see them and wish them well. Once in the mountains and hills though, life is very different. A range of greetings throughout the world - Good Morning, Guten Tag, Bonjour - Hi there, Namaste! Most greetings are well known, probably learnt in school or on childhood holidays abroad. 

The last however, is the traditional greeting of the hill people of Nepal and should be used with a slight bowing of the head and clasped hands. People watch., people meeting. Take time to observe your fellow travellers and speak - only then will you get some stories like mine to relate to your friends

 We sit in our Doctors and Dentist’s waiting rooms; reading and re-reading notices and leaflets scattered around, anything to avoid eye contact and conversation with our fellow ‘waiters’.

Malcolm Creasy  ©


All images supplied by the author.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Give us this day


I woke up the other morning and found my teeth chattering. I wasn’t cold, far from it, still warmly embraced in half-sleep. Mornings are not my thing and it can take a morning to realise I am not dead. The chattering was just a nervous impulse. I tried to control it, and of course I could by closing my mouth. But something intrigued me and I concentrated on the tapping. It seemed significant, like messages sent by Morse code. Perhaps my organs could decipher the language innately and let the message roll as I rolled into the day with thoughts of what made me…and for sure what made the universe also made me…and the day is in!

Seems obvious that we humans are out of control and a little mixed up. And yet everything we really need is arranged before us as if we are dreaming and wishing in a fantasy world. We are totally dependent and supported by the air and water provided, the earth’s soil and the distant sun for food and survival. Somehow, by chance, it all worked for us. As wriggling creatures wrapped warm in the female womb after sperm and egg have done their juicy bit, we all wrestle in self-importance, in the culture we create, oblivious within the elements of nature that brought us here. And for that we don’t have a clue. And for sure, this life before us, we didn’t ask for it. We have not chosen the direct bus to human central. We cannot. It is an unknown timetable and destination. As we have zero control over that which our basic premise began, we sure as hell gonna demand attention for the lifeform wriggling before us, that is us, in the stories we tell and enact. From the sacred roots of myths of the planet and the pushing and pulling of faith, legend and folklore, some explanation of birthright and essence is sought and needed. But, as essential as the earth, the galaxy, the universe and multiple universes are to this ‘human central’, abandonment to other stories have been fixated and dwelled upon. Sometimes when I dwell on this randomness, the way we appear to be, the multitude of stories that attempt to fix a belonging, a genesis, a rationale, the fairy tales, a moments succour to that awesome void called creation… I glimpse why I entered climbing the way I did. The culture that we order and enter and rule and the nature in our bones are thus separated and defined? It wasn’t the heroes or guidebooks that drew me into movement on rock…perhaps only Crowley throwing himself at K2 was remotely interesting!

From the third eye perspective with its resident objective view, a bizarre world emerges. As climbers, we can argue the ethics of working a line and discuss the grade of a route, say, The Indian Face on Cloggy. And for the sake of this story, we can argue and discuss the sacramental validity to the making of ‘altar bread’ for what is called ‘Mass’. Both seem utterly ridiculous from this third eye, although a progression from climbing trees and seeking a vantage point seem more natural than ‘drinking’ the blood and ‘eating’ the flesh of a cult hero…? Or is it?

Eaters of their hero need assurances that this bread is prepared properly, as regards to the symbolism of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, its ‘valid matter’, the bread, being the body of the victim and ‘correct form’ and the liturgical text being required. Now, sit back in the company of everyone, and I mean everyone who cannot say who they are, and tell me the joke…?

I took a near ground fall, climbing to my own naive parameters on Tormented Ejaculation, and others, more motivated than I, who practiced, fiddled gear and top-roped this piece of rock. Sit back in the company of everyone, and I mean everyone who cannot say who they are, and tell me the joke…? Likewise, we discuss the ‘valid matter’ and correct form in the terminology of ascent as if biblical. We need the assurances to prove the story. If this valid matter and explanation do not meet these assurances, does it really count in the game?

Wheat bread with gluten is judged to be the valid matter for the catholics. These flat discs of wheat are known as ‘hosts’ and ‘hostia’ is Latin for victim. Victimhood and bread are synonymous ingredients of this weird cult of idols. The perfect duo for a perfect chronic poison. That bread is a powerful drug leading to repetitive cycles of cravings for more bread has consequences for how we view the world.

Give us this day our daily bread…’. No one can worship God on an empty stomach, it seems to say. Or, more likely, keep eating this shit and collude passively to the scam…

Descartes called the pineal gland the ‘principal seat of the soul’, the master-gland. Tucked into a groove near the centre of the brain, this organ, the size of a grain of rice has a massive blood flow, has become known as the ‘third eye’. It has been proven that this organ of alternative vision and spirit cannot function correctly when the body is fed wheat bread on a daily basis. Perhaps this is why the Pope insists that bread is the sacramental ‘valid matter’ that in reality clogs up our ‘true’, alternative sense of perception?

As I refer to Cloggy for climbing’s ‘valid matter’, I quote a leading exponent and friend indicating that for him this rock is an idol…

For me the Indian Face came as the final realisation of a dream held solid and perfect some years ago. A purity of expression that was able to be so personal that it could transcend the obvious cosmic futility of life; friendship and activity are some compensation for a deep seated hopelessness, but only climbing appeared to have a germ of profound depth in all its excited little plays of life and death. Cloggy’s east buttress was the idol. So the beauty of the Indian Face lies not in enjoyment or achievement, but in the rejoicing of the exorcism of a self-made destructive cage…’. Johnny Dawes.

For me, Cloggy is more like a cauldron where you gather around the rich brew and feel the heat in your belly. I have my own account of this Face, written for ‘…and one for the crow’.

Dave was insisting that we climb. Climb and become fit for only one line. There are no routes I want to do. I cannot climb. The line seems not to be a climb? Why paint pictures for the sake of? Did the ancient hunters kill for its own sake? But what about preparing for the work? The ‘work’ seems to already exist. Sketched beyond me. Pre-empting training. Mileage is not training for this type of operation’.

Of course we differ and the concept of ‘futility of life’ is a difficult and sensitive one. I think Johnny’s comments are interesting and brave, coming as they did in the soul searching introspective-melee for his book, ‘Full of Myself’. In being honest in his cry for help, and the cathartic potential that climbing offers, he has transcended ‘himself’, to become ‘full’ in the searching that others also do. He was not alone in this dream, just more talented, visionary and driven. ‘Give us this day our daily climb’ could have been his mantra…and is the valid matter that makes climbing a sport…and for me its greatest difficulty, and bete noire. If climbing is seen as a prop can you metaphorically ever walk again? If climbing is a medicine you better watch the dose… or become ‘full of others’.

I would rather be gnashing my teeth on the sidelines, faithless and Godless and in grave doubt than be a convert to some religion, some system, to some brethren where every question can be answered and every answer brings a warm and cosy, complacent, self-satisfied smile’. ‘…and one for the crow’.

It is my opinion that if climbing can be construed as a medicine or indeed a religion then keeping a distance, keeping the joke, keeping its ‘hosts’ at arms length, staying almost hidden behind the life-affirming and/or crippling addiction, behind the conquests, makes sure that this perfect chronic poison doesn’t speak of conversion, or instil into more potent aspects of human activity.

And of course the third eye often fails and after forty years since moving through Cloggy’s mystic rituals, the joke wears thin. It is as if one lives as if already dead, indifferent to the moves of success or failure. But what connects Johnny to myself are those moments when the playful-self, the ego, the group persona, the character were naturally eliminated in the unconscious, effortless, almost entranced connection to the rock as if another being were doing the moves. Perhaps this is what is called ‘satori’? What you choose to do with it, or how long it takes to register, depends on how you relate to the language of the joke…?

My ‘principal seat of the soul’, when not acting ‘sticky’ and silly in a yeasty sketch after scoffing two croissants and a pain aux chocolat, can often see that climbing and indeed all sport can be a unique attempt to ease and relieve suffering, ominously sanctioned in the manner, the vital matter of religion and belief. Hilariously, when the wheat has been totally binned from my diet and the ‘penny drops’ and the pineal ‘blings’ into action, the mystical verbiage becomes more intense and the artist overdoses as if suddenly being free. Here, my perception feels that the training for achievement further inflicts the core values of a redemptive belief in suffering as a destructive and addictive tool - for self and for self it is.

From here I can only assume that the commercial rise of ‘sport’ has greatly increased what I see as the casualty rate of the human soul…but life goes on and despair becomes brave and for the artist who tweeks the ‘moving parts’, sensing this anomaly becomes manifest. They go to ground.

But who can say? Crisis, despair and alienation seem to be major players in the quest to excel and be creative. The outsider role of the artist fills this space. It is this ‘excel’ business what inspires folk to do more and more, which strangely provokes me to do less and less. I took my experiences and worked them through in the studio to my own restless need to create some ‘other’, some rationale, from the chaos. For chaos it is. Art comes from alienation.

For the catholics, a munch of their ‘host’ is quite honestly born from chaos - that God is a sham and we are throwing dice as a desperate act to reason. For a climber, the use of chalk and top-roping is quite honestly born from the same chaos - and that its goals and achievements are inadequate. For an artist to immerse in the ‘inadequate form of existence’, in shams and destructive elements is quite honestly also born from chaos. That the Anthropocene is upon us is effortlessly portrayed, the human impact irreversible.

The difficulty of the wall is not physical but emotional and so the ‘voyage’ remains substantially intact though to have frayed edges on something so beautiful is perhaps to have not so much…’ letter from Johnny.

The shape of my paintings, the connecting of forms, present an atavism as inherent as the shapes, buttresses, slabs and walls that constitute Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Its black bulk floats through pools, amassed for the soul’s release…I cannot climb…too many hours in the field…too many negotiations…I need to paint’. ‘…and one for the crow’.

I can’t say I wasn’t attracted to the ‘gibbet’ side of climbing, cos that’s the interesting bit, the trigger point that says something more than the moves and moves onto something else. But the bigger part of me knows the flaw. Joining bits of rock into movement can be fluid and beautiful, and Johnny was a devotee and master, and with training and time the language develops grows into an art. And here we are, a person playing with a ball or a person behind the wheel of a racing car can develop the same process. When your health depends on the chosen activity, you are sure as hell to take it seriously…to succeed at the game even though we are defined by a total lack of belonging. When death features as a construct in the game, it is little more than denial of a death already taken place. 


My particular grain of rice is the bastard, dwarf organ that tells me of the futility. I call it the Gnostic chip. It converts ‘normal’ into the ridiculous. But don’t get me wrong, this is also the joy and hope we obviously so desperately need. As ridiculous as eating victim bread to symbolically devour the flesh of one who has apparently suffered to save mankind, to continue the suffering and persecute and kill for the sake of, progressing to ultimate species annihilation. So when I have stated in the past that E9 6c, the given grade of Indian Face and its valid matter, is being enacted out on the streets every night in Liverpool, believe me, it is the knowing, groaning of the possessed, the savage spin-off…

We are such random fucks.

John Redhead. Lous Maners, Costoja. February 2020.


Wednesday, 29 December 2021

The Waiting Game


 Idle thoughts from a tent in the Khumbu

Some years ago I was sitting in my tent high in the Khumbu Valley, snowflakes swirling through the bitterly cold air then noisily slithering down the flysheet; flimsy protection against the bitter elements. As we were unable to move that day I cast a few thoughts on this all too common occurrence for mountaineers. We partake in a sport which, by necessity, is exposed to the vagaries and often unpredictable elements which affect the weather wherever we happen to be. The mountains of the UK are of course exposed to the prevailing and often moist south westerly winds which generally brings a changeable weather pattern. Elsewhere in the world from the Alps to the greater ranges the general consensus is the bigger or more remote the hill – the more extremes of wind and cold should be expected.

The great debate, as a mountaineer, is to wait, or to go. A very difficult decision and, in the circumstances I found myself at the time, even more so. As leader on a Himalayan trip I had to make decisions not only for myself, but also for all the clients and the Sherpa staff. The safety of all was my responsibility

The decision has to be right, we live by the decisions we make - and make a decision to live by. To err on the side of caution is obviously correct but too much caution and we will not achieve. We must have adventure, and therefore risk, to be successful in the mountains.

Making an informed decision or judgement can become easier as you gain experience, however decisions will still be difficult as you become more aware of all the factors for consideration. If your decision to wait is because of danger to life and limb, then waiting must be the answer. However, if the adverse conditions are merely going to make things difficult, then the answer is a little less clear.

Consider now the words ‘awareness’, ‘judgement’ and ‘decision’. We supposedly gain more awareness as we grow older (or wiser)? Shouldn't this make it easier to make a judgement? The pressures on the professional are much greater because we are supposed to get things right! We make judgements for others often with no one to assist in the thought process. Where are the dangers? What is the avalanche potential? How bad will the weather be higher up? These are all questions that must be answered. In this I speak of the familiar problems facing professional mountaineers, instructors and guides, but we are a very small minority. There are many climbers out there who regularly climb in the Alps, Himalayas or even Scottish winter conditions. All, at some time or other subjected to the “Waiting Game”. How do you make your decisions? Experience, weather, avalanche potential, snow conditions or all that and perhaps a little “gut feeling”. 

Experience is obviously important, but how do you get that experience in the first place? Through the school of hard knocks and learning from mistakes in formative years? Perhaps from an older, more experienced friend or on a course at an Outdoor Centre. Either of these methods of learning is valid, but it’s like learning to drive, you only start to build up experience and judgement when you’re on your own in the car with nobody there to help in case you make a mistake. There are numerous Scottish Winter and Alpine Courses to go on (if you can afford them) and also some excellent training Courses Jonathan Conville Trust. There comes a time however, when you're faced with a decision regarding a particular slope, anchor, or indeed the descent route in poor visibility. What happens then when there’s nobody to help in that potentially dangerous situation?

I well remember my first two routes on Ben Nevis in winter, one resulted in an eighty foot slide base over apex (that’s arse over tit in non-metric language), followed by an incorrectly executed, but nevertheless effective self-arrest! No one had shown me how to do it. I just did it! My second route resulted in a lucky descent down into Glen Nevis. Lucky because many have come down that way and not survived. Those two dangerous errors happened because at the time I was not aware. I was naive and did not understand big mountains but I soon learnt! My first few escapades in the Alps would make your hair stand on end (it did mine, literally)!

The basic skills learned from experienced friends or instructors are invaluable, then we must go and arm yourselves with the all-important experience. That way you begin to gain knowledge which helps you form a judgement and get that “gut feeling” that is so important. In that way we can transfer our skills and knowledge to bigger hills, and perhaps gain a little bit of knowledge and know whether to play the “Waiting Game” or not. You may not always get it right, I don’t now, after 50+ years, but at least I’m still trying. In many cases like that day sitting in a tent high in the Khumbu trying to salvage something before we were due back at Lukla. There were pressures that day from myself as well from the group, but then again they may have been imagined.

There are many other waiting games, that elusive Alpine or the Scottish Winter route which is not often in condition, for instance. Alpine routes especially, with the recent series of hot dry summers, many of the “Classic” mixed routes are now safer in winter. There will be more difficulties, short days, long, hopefully snowy approaches and an ability to ski, combined with a little lateral thinking to avoid the avalanche prone slopes. There are however several distinct advantages. Modern layer system winter clothing is far more effective at keeping you warm and the technical advances in crampons, axes and protection make a tremendous difference on those long adventurous run-outs. Settled weather and a good snow cover will make the route safer from stone fall but more prone to avalanche, but at least the route will be there, which is more than can be said for some of the Alpine North Faces of recent summers.

We should call this the “Tempting game” where you may be tempted to try a route when it's not in perfect “nick”, you have travelled a long way, not much holiday, cost you money to get there, your mates done it, etc.

The difficulty arises when you have to make decisions and conditions are not quite right. There may be doubts in your mind about the weather or fitness, or lack of confidence in your abilities. Conflicting thoughts which persuade you to have a go interspersed with nagging doubts and fears, but it's still your judgement. We all take a risk, that is what mountaineering is about, but we must make these acceptable with the odds in our favour. When everything has been considered, it’s still that “gut feeling” which is often relied on. Sometimes in your head and your heart you know you’ve overdone things, you know you shouldn’t be on a certain route or in a certain place, but (sometimes) you are lucky and you get away with it, vowing never to return. We’ve all done that if we are honest and admit it!

Taking falls on modern rock and mixed winter routes can be a non-serious affair, but what of traditional routes with minimal gear and much more to hit on the way down? An ascent of The Orion Face, Zero or Walker Spur calls for a much larger safety margin than some of the technically much harder routes. Perhaps then we must play the “Waiting Game” much better on these routes and not be tempted when conditions are not “right”. There is then, little difference between the professional and amateur mountaineer, we all play the ‘Waiting Game’ Tempting Game’ and hopefully the ‘Thinking Game, however as a professional you are expected to get things right much more so. 

These original thoughts were my way of filling time and waiting for the next event of the day, yes, you got it right - a brew!

Malcolm Creasey ©

All images supplied by the author.

Saturday, 11 December 2021



John Redhead:'There but for the grace of God go I'.

Forty two years down the line the ‘art of knee maintenance’ fell upon me. From a youth playing football, and at home on the couch haphazardly clicking the joint to some geometric pattern and ‘strange lights’ in my head, or to the beat of the Rolling Stones track ‘satisfaction’ on the radio, whilst my Mother danced with a mop, plus the early forays of cragging in Yorkshire, the tearing damage in the ball-joint reached critical. Whilst on the famous mantleshelf move on Carnage at Malham Cove, without the rock n roll backing, or weird mop work, the left leg took my weight from an acute angle, and a final ominous click locked the leg into a v-shape. It said, ‘No no no’. From there, my one-legged finish to a break and right into a groove saw my injured leg arcing behind me, wobbling like a puppet’s appendage, in an effort to unlock the badly serrated cartilage.

The walk into the limestone cove is, for me, like the entrance to an atrium of vertical delight. Ceremonial stage lights are switched on and ethereal props arranged like a visceral palette, provoking a feeling of expected good news and of anticipated wonder as if awaiting a performance from the spirits revealing a testimony of wisdom.

Formed from glacial meltwater, the volume cascading over the limestone pavement must have been awesome. Its wings always provided a movement of joy in my soul in my early days of rock climbing. Its central, overhanging body and capping roof system captured the imagination of possibility as if thinking of a moon landing or core strength unknown. Always a glance and a dream, of possibilities, looking for a tenuous way, at this time, a revolutionary stage-set, unbelievable from the wings…and, strangely, almost unnecessary as if wishing that dreams are dreams and needed as such and kept safe in that internal world, where to know your limits is a curse of adventure and a stopper of those ‘strange lights’. As unbelievable as thinking in terms of climbing as a sport, and yet as time gathered, Malham became host to Britain’s first 9b sports route, Rainman.

The fearful air from the cliff’s cutting-edge to Malham Beck, a glory for water fed up with levels, heavy with the rock below, had not yet witnessed John Syrett’s desperate stirring, beyond reach, beyond limits, a whiskey fuelled fall or plunge, either or…test pieces indeed.

So true that the awesome wonder of the Cove and its curved, citadel, ice-age magnificence should also be the sacred ground, attached to that troubled void, that vulnerable balancing of dreams, hopes and desires, where that personal inner logic of despair weighs in heavy to become manifest to the endgame as the fun dries out.

Unlike John’s final act and dark theatre exit, this particular walk out of the Cove, however, became a series of painful hops to the car and the pondering of a solution. Pete Livesey’s steamy-windowed chat room and cafe with egg beans and chips was not yet on offer. Indeed, truthfully, painfully, can the climbing culture offer anything other than a leaning towards the pushing of luck, even suicidal tendencies…almost poetically accepted, acknowledged as brave sacrifice…a smarting of misanthropic joking with death? When the release becomes the burden, perhaps no horrors can be side-stepped…?

I never met John, but must have surely met his energy bouncing about on the Leeds wall. He seemed obsessive, competitive and nostalgic, a party animal, and judging by his gritstone essay in Extreme Rock, caught in a halcyon day. This is no criticism however, as I write this from the comfort of remembering the internal landscape of my own youth, my own memorable ascents, ground up, of Western Front, Wall of Horrors and Big Greenie at Almscliff, it is easy to be ‘unclipped’ and talk of ‘halcyon days’. My ground fall from over the lip of John’s ‘Big Greenie’, almost remembered with glee and pride. My subsequent solos of Wall of Horrors can only be compared to the obsessive Paul Williams, who met his demise on Brown’s Eliminate, a route he had soloed many times. So, halcyon? That the climber loves the pleasure of the body moving freely and fluidly through a series of moves, and is elated at the successful conclusion…of course this is wonderful, and style its icing…but how sad to rely on excessive hubris for one’s well-being. If only it were that simple.

A loving testimony of John by his friend Steve Dean appeared in Climber and perceptively concluded…

‘…the overall experience of climbing both physical and mental, is so powerful and meaningful for some people when they are young, that it can seriously disrupt the remainder of their lives…’ 

John Syrett: Photo - Gordon Stainforth

The language of ascent is very much concerned with the minutiae, in much the same way that poetry explores the detail of subject through the intense looking through a lens, pairing down the words for essence and effect. It is the nubbins and textures under the nose that moves the climber upwards, filtering the moves and joining the dots to the rhyme. But not just. I guess both forays are a primitive search for that which threatens, for meaning, for some enlightenment through the dark violence circulating in our joints…? So, like a dark art, when ‘burden’ transpires and consumes the text, how to step back from the edge, when the edge led us in from the beginning? Upon venturing here, do not be surprised at what sits on your shoulders.

My nearest stirring, beyond reach, was to push my luck by soloing the fourteen flights of the Hull Royal Infirmary, after my emotional and complicated first affair of coming of age. I was literally ‘beyond reach’ from the third floor of the building as the extending ladders from the fire brigade failed to reach that high. But I was never alone clinging to the concrete pillars, as floors of infirm folk from inside flocked to the windows and stared in disbelief. I had left a little note in my blue Renault 4 in the car park below explaining why my sudden ascent was such an urgent affair…death by battle. But I soon forgot this ‘urgent affair’ as a perverse optimism took over the controls of my life. The concentration needed became pleasurable and the movement easier and more stylish than expected and a banquet of self-preservation took over. Not suffering but observing. I had curiously become detached. A narcissistic, petulant and foolish enterprise maybe, as I stared at my fourteen reflections superimposed by the shocked faces of hospitalised inmates. Again, upon venturing, do not be surprised at what sits on your shoulders.

Foolish man, what do you bemoan, and what do you fear? Wherever you look there is an end of evils. You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty…do you enquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein of your body’ Seneca - teacher of Nero.

So, back to the limbs. The surgeon I chose liked my work as an artist and offered to do the deed for a painting. He had seen my work at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, and chose an exchange…a bonny number of a landscape, the view looking out from a rabbit hole, a perceived rabbit’s eye view. I came to see him hobbling into his surgery with the aid of an Interalp ice axe. He noted with nonchalance the little dents on his brown lino that led to his desk, like the dotted line of a route in a guidebook. Like Carnage was to climbing, this was my first historical landmark into injury. I just hoped that this pre-keyhole operation was not inspired by such a gnored-out, ivy-entwined, ragged view from inside the rabbit hole. I hoped his attention to detail and technique surpassed the trade off. Deal done, he gave me the sad, ragged, pale-cream cartilage in a plastic specimen bottle, like the canopic jar preserving the viscera for the afterlife…

Three, physically static months went by, painfully changing dressings and frantically facing the canvas with my leg propped up on a chair. Works poured out of the studio and my quads became stronger, and my leg bent a little more each day, inspired by the routes in mind. A trip was planned by the East Yorkshire Mountaineering Club to Agden Rocher in the Peak. Too keen for sure saw me cranking up a VS solo. I hadn’t realised how unfit I was as I indulged my appetite for rock. I became seriously pumped two thirds up with no strength to reverse. I had entered the arena too soon. Pain erupts from the end of my fingers and spreads into my core where mockery takes on a lead weight. My arms cannot hold on and I prepare to take an horrendous ground fall onto rocks. I shouted to the blurred figure of Pete above who was belaying his second. A loose slack of un-coiling rope flew over the edge as I departed from the rock. It somehow draped around an arm and leg unknown to me and dragged me sideways into a tree fifteen metres to the side of the climb. I fell chaotically through the tree and collected myself. It was a wonder. But my knee was a mess. It had opened up on the angle of impact and the internal stitches were all torn. This was carnage of a knee and not unlike the view out of the rabbit hole I had swapped, and envisaged for the operation.

Accidents and failures are remembered much more than a quick smooth ascent. Proven beyond doubt by a vast portfolio of adventure stories that have taken on epic movie status and captured imaginations at the box office. But there was more to this episode than met the eye. I mentioned to Chris who had been watching, “Did you feel that?


The wind.”

No, but you fell diagonally across the wall.”

It seemed to me, in my extremis, that this wind had blown me into the tree. It felt like I had been pushed by an invisible playmate. I took a deep sigh. And there I left it. Left my invisible playmate, licked my wounds, and retreated into my studio in Hessle, put my leg up on a chair, and painted. And I forgot the script as the canvas remembered something else.

So, for my fancy, my brief example of a ‘halcyon day’ involving no beer on the crag, this extremis was but a few seconds of my life, but as combustable as shaking hands with a suicide bomber. Like one of those occasions where one stumbles out and wakes up way beyond one’s limits, at the end of an era almost, into a mythic landscape. Limp-tangled into a random rope, a hopeless plummet, a significant breath of wind into the folding arms of the tree-scape. Now, there’s a sport!

I realise that it is not the act that is significant, but a means of becoming awake to a wider field of consciousness. Such an act can only be thought of as food for this purpose. Resigning to a fall was not a passive resignation - I had not put my head in the oven encouraged by the rancid fat of dead animals and turned on the butane to escape confusion and trivialities. No, the arena was entered with the innate faculties of an artist overriding the bad judgement of a climber. Nothing more and this is how I climbed. I call it otherworldly. It seemed that I merely became neutral and unconditioned, in the hands of whatever had the time or inclination for play. I call it evolving. I like that. My studio likes that. The heart that is receptive to cosmic knowledge and not the chimeras of the intellect, also like that. Whatever it is…it doesn’t serve or call the politicians, bureaucrats or corporates or those who do not serve the planet well. As far as any sport goes or any new Rainman goes, they’re bank-rolled ventures. The more they shit gold the more the planet loses.

it…calls for human beings who feel in their souls in fullest measure everything that can activate spiritual awareness…” Rudolf Steiner

Malham Cove, Yorkshire.

Well, there we have it, thanks Rudolf. But when it comes to this intimacy, I struggle with the narrative. And this is the most intimate struggle of humanity pressing heavily on world affairs. Direct mystical experience is not conspiracy theory, it is owned by the soul with evidence and identification at the deepest sense of being…but beware of anyone who has disciples. Call me a cynic, Rudy, but one hundred years on, the spiritual debate fluffs on and on with the ‘oracle seeking beings’, the mysteries for the brave, the cool thinking dudes meditating from Sprinter vans. This activation seems just another process, a pin code of acceptance, a means of commodification, to address nature as a named, fashionable miracle, a multi-million dollar miracle, style zone…washing its slaves passionately more than ever with the balms of self. Badges and scarfs all round. I maybe wrong but this awareness is lost more than ever in the bantering and bargaining with increased malevolence from the harmers and impotent yoga-mat vanity. To live or to die, no matter, murder it is.

So the artist once again gets to play in the mortuary of souls and more and more realises that the best thing for spiritual awareness and the planet is the spilling of blood on earth.

Thanks John and bless.

John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges. November 2021.


Monday, 1 November 2021

Paul Pritchard's The Mountain Path....Reviewed


The Mountain Path: Paul Pritchard. Vertebrate Publishing £24.

192 pages hard back, case bound with 8 page art paper colour section.              

Live it up, fill your cup and be merry, sow your wild oats whilst you may, for the toothless types of tomorrow, they were the tigers just yesterday!

Tom Patey

This is the most unusual mountaineering book I have ever read, a combination of the philosophy of risk, the psychology of why we climb, and how it may unexpectedly change our whole being. I should have been warned as to what was included by Hazel Findlay’s outstanding introduction in the foreword; a committed climber she confessed that most climbing books she finds rather boring, too full of machismo but not in the writings of Paul Pritchard!

In the style of Dylan Thomas, let us begin at the beginning. Paul grew up rather hedonistically on the moors of Lancashire, favourite occupations were setting fire to them, spitting competitions and cutting school, but a master at the latter introduced him to the life affirming activity of rock climbing in the local quarries of Wilton at the age of 16 and he was hooked. From then on climbing was to dominate his life. I know from personal experience what a vibrant climbing scene there was at that time in the rather low key climbing environment of those quarries; Anglezarke, Houghton, the various Wilton ones and that boulder-freakies delight, Brownstones and Paul quickly became one of leading pioneers of the area.

In 1986 Paul moved to Llanberis, to what was to be one of the most innovative scenes of British climbing history, with totally committing new routes on the sea cliffs of Gogarth and desperately run out climbs in the Llanberis slate quarries. There was besides the climbing scene the wild partying and this unfortunately led some of its participants to the dead end of drug use and a promising climbing career snuffed out, but fortunately Pritchard was not to be one of these! It was the time of the Thatcher revolution, the rundown of heavy industry and the coal mines, leading on to mass unemployment but Paul, who had sacrificed a joinery apprenticeship happily became a full time climber.....on the dole. Going climbing every day the standards of these dole boys went through the roof and I recall giving a lecture in Sweden at that time, being asked at its end ‘as to why there were so many hard free rock climbs in the UK?’, and the reply was ‘we have to thank Mrs Thatcher for this!’ which rather confused the questionnaire by this answer.

Climbing the Rainbow Slab once again for the film 'To the Rainbow'. Image Bamboo-Chicken Productions

Paul was to experience the first of his brushes with death at this time whilst repeating a route on the back wall of the Wen Zawn at Gogarth. When he reached what he expected to be the crux, it was seeping water, but he was not too worried for he believed he had good protection below him. The inevitable happened and he slipped off, but to his surprise the wired nut just below him broke and this led onto a chain reaction and his whole line of pro followed suit and he landed in the sea. The fall had rendered him unconscious, and he was under water for many minutes before his partner, the Australian climber and photographer, Glenn Robbins managed to climb down, fish him out and pull him onto a ledge above the high tide mark. Glenn then gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation and Pritchard came back from the dead, but remained injured by the fall. Robbins then tried to climb out but failed and things were looking serious when another climber appeared at the lip of the Zawn, who was alerted to Paul’s predicament, and a rescue helicopter was eventually summoned and the injured climber ensconced in Bangor’s accident and emergency. But you cannot keep a man like Pritchard off the rock/mountain for long.

A few years later Paul was winter climbing on Creag Meagaidh, via its route the Centre Post Direct, when he came upon a section of egg shell ice, a frozen exterior but soft snow underneath. This is a rare occurrence in Scotland but it happens, and inevitably in trying to climb this he was in difficulty and was sinking up to his arm pits, breaking through the surface ice into the powder snow beneath. He tried to retreat, to descend the steep ice below him but the inevitable happened and he took a monster 50 metre fall, severely injuring his back. Fortunately a fellow guide was on the mountain that day, Nick Kekus who took over and arranged a lower to the valley floor and the eventual arrival of the Lochaber Rescue team in their shiny, yellow helicopter which deposited him in Fort William Hospital. Besides his back injuries the ice hammer he was carrying hit him in the face as he was falling, injuring an eye and making his face look like he had tussled with the Terminator. You would think after such a close call that Pritchard would seek some solace on a couch and watching TV, but that was not for him. The mountains called and he was off to Patagonia, the Himalaya and still wending his way up extreme rock climbs. But this was all to change at his third near death experience on Tasmania’s Totem Pole, but that was in the future.

Paul had begun to write about his climbs and journeys, and from the first the articles he produced received wide acclaim. In 1997 a collection of his writings ‘Deep Play’ won the Boardman/Tasker prize and though this was so richly deserved, set in motion the most challenging of Paul’s mishaps whilst climbing. Along with Celia Bull he used his prize money to fund a world tour of climbing and in 1998 arrived on the Isle of Tasmania with an ascent of its Totem Pole as their objective. This incredibly thin sea stack looking almost as if a strong wind would blow it over, poses a challenge that Celia and Paul could not resist. What happened that day in 1998 was fully described in Pritchard’s second 1999 Boardman/Tasker prize winning book ‘Totem Pole’, and the Mountain Path informs and educates us that though this left him hemiplegic, he has somehow crafted a life of adventuring and doing, albeit of a different style and objective but none the less worthy. In fact he writes in his latest book that his life, enhanced and enlarged spiritually by the experience of this tryst with the grim reaper.

In, what was to be his closest call!

After a long period of rehabilitation in the UK, learning to deal with his inevitable reduced physical ability, he returned to Australia, to Hobart in Tasmania where he now resides, having married and become a family man; but the spirit of enquiry, and wide reading on every subject from psychology to philosophy, to which the pages of Mountain Path strewn with observation and thought pay tribute. This I can sympathise with, recovering from a Stroke and a serious infection I have found one lives in thought and mind rather than in physical roustabout, and it is not surprising that Paul became enamoured of this, especially whilst practising meditation, Vipassana, originally also by the Buddha.

A chapter I found so interesting because of personal experience was ‘Pilgrimage’. This describes first the train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa, then Paul and friend’s challenging journey by tricycle beginning in that City to the Mount Everest Base Camp, then on to Kathmandu. Whilst lecturing at Sichuan Da Xue (University) in Chengdu, we had relations with the Tibetan Da Xue in Lhasa and thus I was able to visit Xizang (Tibet) without the usual difficulty surrounding permits etc. I was one of the first to ride on the train which runs from Chengdu to Lhasa, surely the finest mountain train journey in the world, running at over 5000 metres on the section Qinghai to Lhasa, which equally impressed Paul and his female companion. As did the visit to the Sera monastery and its Tangkas once they had started out on their multi-day challenge, and I posit that nobody can travel in that country without it affecting them spiritually, and it certainly did Pritchard who was more than intrigued and then committed to the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism. A word of warning here though, I have travelled that country in the company of educated locals, fluent English speakers and they paint an entirely different picture to such as the organisation ‘Free Tibet’. Whilst acknowledging the uniqueness of their culture, they wished to move on and not be held in aspic by their past. 

When I was first recovering, I never imagined that I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to the highest mountain on earth. Image Sharyn Jones

The final chapter is about Paul’s return to climb the Totem Pole, 18 years after the accident which nearly cost him his life. A jolly team assembled on the promontory above this and belayed by Steve Monks, he set forth. Steve is English ex-pat and I well remember him in the south west, burning up the classics and pioneering test pieces. But a journey to Oz, and fetching up at Arapiles made for a change in this viewpoint and he has become a local to what in Paul’s book, is in his opinion ‘the best crag in the world’. Steve who had climbed the Totem Pole before led with his usual flair despite the advancement of years, whilst Pritchard prussiked up behind achieving one arm pulls with his one good hand. Two long pitches and the summit was reached and Paul could finally put to rest his Totem Pole ambitions, though he was as we say in the north, completely banjaxed physically.

Mountain Path is like the writer unique. I would recommend it as a read to all who love, and aspire to climb in wild places. But I would also place it on a list by anyone studying the psychology or philosophy of risk. The reading list at the end of this volume illustrates where the author is coming from and is comprehensive. Vertebrate, its publisher is to be thanked for the courage in publishing such an impressive work.


Dennis Gray: 2021