Friday, 12 December 2014

Castaways on Gritstone Island

Original Mountain Spread. Photo captioned 'Ron Fawcett on Joker's Wall at Brinham.Photo Jean Horsfall

Beyond the mainstream cliffs of Derbyshire gritstone swells the dirty grey-black sea of Yorkshire Industry. Cross the sinuous industrial fjords of the West Riding and you arrive abruptly at the heathered moors of the Yorkshire Dales. You won’t find the long lined gritstone tiers of the south here, but crags twinkling from a moorland setting, pinpoints of black light. The harsh weather, small crags and dour guides have never offered much encouragement to the Visitor.Coming here, one usually found the routes easier than one had imagined, although some gems of the dark days of Yorkshire climbing stood out. Austin’s Western Front and Wall of Horrors were morbid lures to Almscliffe aspirants more than likely struggling to capture the barely lesser jewels of Dolphin’s era - Birdlime Traverse or Demon Wall.

High Street at Ilkley, Heptonstall’s Forked Lightning Crack and Crookrise’s Shelf were all fine but rarely climbed XSs of the sixties. We’ve heard all this before, though.Austin’s nine sweaters, Whillans’s fists: we know more about them than the routes.But now, now the barriers are down. The five years that have passed since the publication of the guide have seen the internal aspect of Yorkshire climbing revolutionized; irreverent intellectuals vie with irrelevant non-intellectuals for revelationary routes. There’s a throbbing youth cult hammering away at the rock, with fingers, fists, feet, and even some head. The rock is climbed for the routes, for the moving, for the thrills: no one cares who adds what to the age-old defacements at Ilkley. Aestheticism is derived from the totally consuming difficulty of the routes, rather than from the surroundings. 

Older aspirant youth-culters try to alter their image, in order to belong once again. A fresh emergent rock group rehearses hard at Leeds University - all lead players in an innovatory band. Concrete backed brick edges wince at the bite of fingernails belonging to solid arms. Bodies revolve about those arms, gaining height with scant regard for traditional posture. The members of the band look alike: all Perrin’s skinny ape-armed type, embellished by pop-group looks. Concentrated competition drives them to perfect ever more ridiculous moves: hand-holds approach footholds as the distance to the next pair increases.

Kinaesthologists would marvel at the vertical awareness of these performers utilizing every inch of their movement sphere from two small central holds. New techniques,knee pressing, arm locking and two-dimensional movement emerge quickly in the competitive but sociable atmosphere; these are ‘friendlies’, soon to be played for real when the shrieking winter gales abate from those gritstone outcrops. On the other hand, it may be that the outcrops provide training for Leeds University’s ‘Wall’ groupie Bernard Newman- weight-trains, runs, and has even been seen climbing in the Alps- in preparation for his winter season on ‘The Wall’. Don Robinson is the man to blame; a sixty four year old lecturer at Leeds University, a skilled caver and a climber of moderate ability, he conceived the wall as an indoor teaching space for his students.

Pete Livesey:Photo Adrian Bailey.

Built for only a few pounds, its superiority over earlier and later architect-designed monstrosities was soon apparent. Today,as every day, it draws climbers from all overthe county to play on its ferociously gymnastic possibilities. The results that can be achieved on such  a training-ground first became apparent to the climbing world at large when John Syrett, non-climber, emerged from a year on the wall to tear about the country climbing everything from XS and up. His progression from nothing to a sight-lead of Wall of Horrors, inside twelve months, set the scene. The conditions of some of his ascents emphasized the inadequacies of the technical difficulties as tests for his ability.

New routes and new names soon followed, but Syrett, sober, was nigh on impossible to follow. His first ascents, often solo, were technically new, and they see little of the traffic that routes like Wall of Horrors now bear. Traditionally-trained climbers did not sit back and applaud this artificial effrontery. Old men with short hair, raggy sweaters and gnarled hands were heard panting and grunting in dimly lit corners of climbing walls. Ken Wood replied to the University challenge with two routes of his own: Chopper (XS) at Earl Crag, and True Grit (XS) at Brimham. Both are unrepeated; Chopper is off-width, and True Grit is a vicious finger-crack looking dispassionately north from the northern shores of Gritstone Island. Syrett also came north and added Joker’s Wall to the fiercely overhanging side of Brimham’s Cubic Block; you’re too high to jump off before you know it - then it gets mean.

Of all the crags offended by these forays into the impossible, none has received the continual battering nor nurtured and harnessed the energy so well as Almscliff. Almscliff  the friendly wart, no, more like a, Freudian nipple - a barometer of the state of the art. Syrett’s Big Greenie (XS) was a high bold problem on the nipple’s biggest blank, a good starter for a concentrated but prolonged attack by the University climbers. Al Manson, without doubt the first man to make the real breakthrough in climbing wall standards, brought his ability to Almscliff and linked two unrepeated problems to produce Rectum Rift (XS). The highly technical start and stretchy tenuous finish make this obscene route one of the hardest technical challenges on grit, a bold statement that someone has yet to refute. 

The weediest climber in Britain, Pete Kitson, soloed two boulder problems on Virgin Boulder. At HVS, the 35ft lengths of the Gypsy and the Virgin are shattering. In August 1973, when the inhabitants were sunning in Greece or voyeurging to the Calanques, Lancastrian Pasquill sailed in and poked out the Goblin’s Eyes. Climbing an 8ft. roof on eye-like pockets to a long, long finishing pull, he led what Syrett had failed to top-rope. Home teams could not answer. Livesey came with All Quiet (XS), a beautiful climber’s route, starting up Wall of Horrors and swinging from jug to jug across the wall to Western Front, then across again to Crack of Doom; 70ft of high quality climbing in a continuously overhanging situation.

One could almost see a tearful sorrow in the eyes of spectators at Almsclilf and other showgrounds, as they watched the passing of the Average Climber. They could see nothing familiar, nothing to identify with in the preparations of the Lean Men: the Spiny Normans with their chalky hands, deep breathing, vest and shorts, and quick-draw shortened runner racks. 

But come back after the show, you ordinary men, see when all’s quiet what they have done; look at the needle-straight cracks of Ilkley’s Wellington Crack or Heptonstall’s Hard Line; contemplate the audacity of Goblin’s Eyes or the technical beauty of Crookrise’s Small Brown. Attempts were made to strengthen the Western Ramparts: Heptonstall, first line of defence against the Invader, was fortified with Syrett’s desperate-looking Thunderclap (XS). Livesey came next with the similar Hard Line (XS). Both routes follow thin, relentless crack lines and are unrepeated. Peel and Rawlinson answered back for the invaders with Cream (XS) and Strange Brew (XS), two more steep lines.

John Syrett: Photo Gordon Stainforth
At Ilkley, the first new route for years appeared on a most unlikely blank wall in the quarry. Propeller Wall was given the joke grade of VS by Syrett. Repeated twice, it is said to be harder than the neighbouring High Street (XS). Syrett soloed it. Livesey followed with Waterloo (HVS), similar but better protected. Something bigger was brewing at Ilkley though. Someone had cleaned the rotting wedges from the painfully obvious Wellington Crack, a thin diagonal slash up an otherwise featureless 40ft. wall, slightly overhanging with an undercut base. It was going to be done soon, but by whom? Livesey stepped in,inspected it from jumars, then failed.

But still no one else came. Three months later, Livesey returned and got to within a foot of the top, where failing strength forced him to grab a nut to step down for a rest, but the route was completed. Never technically ridiculous, its relentlessness can only be compared with that of its American cousin,Butterballs.

Nineteen-year-old Ron Fawcett was quietly making his mark on the crags about his native Skipton. A narrow lad with a wide appreciation for climbing hard routes, Fawcett can stretch up and surely insert his club-like fists a foot higher than you or I. See him on Ilkley evenings; on a windy climbing wall - a wind that for some cools the heat of competition. Follow Fawcett solo round the routes; you can’t – you should have taken notice of those athlete’s shorts and vests. At eighteen he’d already done more, and harder, routes than Brown and Whillans put together. No one can repeat his free ascent of Small Brown at Crookrise, technical and strenuous in the extreme. 

The rise in standard is by no means ebbing as climbing-wall training gains  momentum. A new wall opens on Gritstone Island: at Rothwell it is bigger and better another Robinson-built effort that is already incredibly popular. Climbers perform unroped, a must for effective training; no meddling regulations here! What will it bring? Certainly routes like the Cow’s right-hand arĂ©te and Milky Way (also at Ilkley). Too hard for now, but soon to become a reality. But then, who knows when to stop?

Note: Rectum Rift and Thunderclap have both recently been repeated; the latter especially was thought desperate.

Pete Livesey: First published in Mountain 42 March 1975

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

John Porter's- One Day as a Tiger- Review

John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger-(Alex Macintyre and the birth of lightweight and fast Alpinism) is an absorbing literary hybrid that is part biography and part autobiography. Ostensibly, the reader will get the impression that the book revolves around the eponymous doomed mountaineer whose star burned bright in climbing’s firmament for less than a decade before he was killed, aged just twenty eight on Annapurna. However this is just as much John Porter’s story; and why not... for the author’s achievements stand up in their own right and the Massachusetts  born, Lakeland dwelling mountaineer has his own fascinating tale to tell and that tale is skilfully woven into the life and times of his subject.

John Porter was Alex Macintyres’s friend and mountain partner for almost as long as Alex was active. From his early days with the infamous Leeds University Mountaineering Club until that final fatal day in 1982. John watched his friend graduate from the confident if limited crag rat, to the international respected mountaineer whose light weight ethic has been taken to the limit in modern times, by climbers like Ueli Steck.

‘Dirty Alex’ as he was known to his friends-which reflected his unkempt appearance and chaotic lifestyle rather than any unsavoury sexual predilections!- began his climbing life in the time honoured manner of his contemporaries. By working his way through the UK rock and ice classics before taking on the Alpine biggies. Porter describes Alex’s early days as unremarkable in that his talents at the time remained largely hidden. A solid if unspectacular performer who was happy enough to let better climbers take the lead on technical ground while he observed and developed his craft.
However, it wasn’t long before he had accelerated past most of these partners, bringing a fearlessness and almost fanatical drive to his armoury of technical skills. It was time to apply this potent force and passion to the challenges of the greater ranges of the Himalayas and the south American giants.

His achievements in this arena were extraordinary and his application of lightweight ‘hit and run’ Alpine techniques were revolutionary in an age when Himalayan climbing was defined by the vast scale of the enterprises. Throwing vast armies of mountaineers at a goal and almost battering the target into submission through weight of numbers, equipment and time. This was an anathema to Alex and his revolutionary approach harvested a rich reward . With equally committed partners he made eye-catching  Alpine-style first ascents and first attempts on, Changabang, Shishapangma and Makalu and with the author, took on some hair raising challenges in the Andes.

In train with his growing catalogue of achievements came a role with the BMC alongside Denis Gray. In many ways, his role as a climbing bureaucrat was in sharp contrast to his image as a mountaineering free spirit and trail blazer. Notwithstanding this apparent contradiction, he appears to have applied himself to the role with the same single mindedness and commitment as he applied to his mountain activities. At the same time, he followed on in Don Whillans’ footsteps and began to act as equipment consultant and designer for companies like UK based Karrimor ,who at the time was a respected player in the mountaineering equipment field, prior to it becoming just another arm of the Mike Ashley/Sports Direct empire and the importer of Chinese made goods which the company has evolved into today.

The ‘Alex Macintyre rucsack’ was amongst the more popular items he designed and which went into commercial production ( currently on my eBay watch out for list!) but seemingly as rare these days as hen’s teeth. Try looking for an image or info on Google.

As Alex entered the final period of his short life, friends including the author, had noticed a change in his previously determined but principled approach to climbing. His latter-day excursions into the mountains were marked by a ruthlessness and ambition which had no place for journeymen or 'tourists'. To say he didn’t suffer fools gladly would be an understatement. He put his bold climbing style- where he would often take on potentially life threatening sections on gnarly ground with non existent  protection- down to an ability to detach himself from reality and climb within a protective mind bubble. He also however, believed he could achieve astral projection and leave his body when he was in the Himalayas, to be with his partner in the Lakes. Not a gift you imagine someone like Don Whillans boasting about! 

This otherworldlyness allied to a ruthlessness in his latter day quests is most clearly defined  in a 1981 expedition he undertook to Shisha Pangma. An expedition led by Doug Scott. This ill tempered affair and the fractious nature of the campaign can be quite squarely attributed to Alex’s’ ambition and ego. As Doug Scott attempted to keep his team focused and united, Alex put personal ambition before anything else and appears to have offered nothing but contempt for a leader who was doing his best to accommodate everyone; not least the weaker members of the team. Alex was quite clear, he wanted to cut loose the weaker team members who were perceived as holding himself and partner Roger Baxter-Jones, back.  In this as in every campaign, success was everything. More so it would appear, than respecting and accommodating those climbers who were not in Alex’s league when it came to ability, drive and stamina.

It was during this period that he had announced to the author that ‘I want to be one of the world’s all time great mountaineers’. In this regard critics will say that to achieve that ambition a mountaineer needs to have more than drive, ambition and technical ability in their locker. Respect for others and respect for the environment have to come into the equation. There appears to be little doubt that Alex Macintyre-as one of an elite core of top end mountaineers- was single minded to the extent that his hit list of mountaineering targets became a holy grail to the detriment of relationships.

If he had lived through to his 60th birthday in 2014, would he have made a great mountain leader? John Porter’s book suggests not, as he was certainly no Shackleton when it came to accommodating and respecting others. Did he respect the environment within which he lost his life? There is no doubt that he did although like all mountaineers at the sharp end, he was prepared to take risks and often though, risks which appeared disproportionately pointless and unnecessarily dangerous in relation to the end goal.

He was killed after being struck on the head by a rock on terrain which was notoriously loose and prone to rockfall, but then again, acting as a skittle in a bowling alley is not a unique role that Alex Macintyre played when pushing the envelope in the Himalayas. I’m left pondering what he would be doing today if he had lived? Would he have become a Bonington or Brown; a respected elder statesman within the community or would his ego and ambition mark him out as an outsider. I’ve already alluded to this above but I would guess from John Porter’s insider account that he certainly would have been respected but perhaps without becoming a popular personality within the community. Certainly you couldn't see him evolving into an avuncular Chris Bonington figure.

John Porter’s Banff winning  book, written from his unique perspective will, I’m sure, promote speculation and inspire debate  around Alex Macintyres’ place in the pantheon of mountaineering greats. At least his comment ‘I don’t want to play this game just to have a rucksack named after me’ hasn’t come to pass. His achievements will always speak for themselves and his influence continues to be recognized throughout the mountaineering world today.


John Appleby:2014

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Redemption: The James Pearson Story.......Review

James Pearson is something of a veteran in rock climbing film circles these days. Having featured in several productions over the years, but usually as part of an ensemble alongside people like Hazel Findlay. In Redemption however, James gets the stage to himself  in a production which sets out to record an extraordinarily difficult period in his career. A period within which his reputation as one of our leading trad climbers was called into question and his achievements were dissected and undermined by that most viperous of climbing constituencies..the UKC forum!

Redemption begins with James setting out his stall on his local Peak crags. A section which uses footage of the young tyro repeating, and then very quickly establishing his own top end routes on the short, unforgiving edges within his local orbit. Setting himself the task of repeating Neil Bentley’s 2000 test piece- Equilibrium:(E10-7a)- footage taken at the time shows the bold James setting out above a blanket of snow and a hushed expectant audience. The brooding menace of his perilous situation is brought home by the contemporary commentary which reveals just how ‘outside the zone’ he was as he set off, and just how close to potential disaster he came as he hovered between the rock and a hard place. We watch with bated breath while James describes the dream like sequence where he watched as his thumb and finger began to peel from the tiny hold just as he psyched himself up to make the crucial crux move.

With Equilibrium in the bag, he sets out to establish his own hard test pieces in the area and within a short space of time, has routes like Burbage South’s The Promise (E10-7a) and Cratcliffe’s oft eyed but never led The Groove (E10-7b) on his CV. However, it is a difficult and dangerous ascent on a friable Culm sea cliffs on the Devon coast that acts as the spark which eventually ignites controversy.  After eventually bagging what becomes Walk of Life, James, believing it to surpass routes like The Promise and Equilibrium in difficulty, grades it E12-7a. A unique grading which would bracket it amongst the hardest climbs in the world. Footage taken at the time show him taking some big falls onto dubious gear. Most of which appears to rip out!  

Within a short period, James’s state of the art routes begin to attract the attention of fellow top end activists. Notably, a team of visiting American rock jocks who repeat his Peak routes quickly and without fuss before proffering their own opinion that routes like The Promise are actually no more than E8. To make matters worse, the venerable Dave Macleod arrives in the south-west whilst recovering from injury, repeats Walk of Life and gently suggests that the route is more like a straight E9-6c. Enter the Trolls! Actually, Dave Mac does admit in the film that he knew that his comments would unleash the forum hounds upon James and it’s something he felt uncomfortable about, but he felt he just had to put the record straight. Adding that James had nothing to feel bad about as he is ‘an amazing climber’ who has done some incredible things.

James on Culm's Walk of Life
Not that that JP’s achievements would dissipate the outpouring of scorn from the more vituperative ethics Nazis who patrol the climbing forums. A variation of ‘Yes...but what's he done on grit?’ very quickly became ‘Yes..but what’s he done on Rhapsody!’. (Rhapsody is Dave Macleod’s awesome Scottish E11 on Dumbarton Rock). Not surprisingly in the circumstances, James took this tidal wave of criticism to heart and took off to pastures new; living in Austria for a while and just taking in new locations and getting into sport climbing. A style which he felt brought on and complimented his solidly trad background.

It was while cruising around the continent that he met a mademoiselle who would become very much part of his life. In fact he liked her so much he married her! In this case, the beautiful and talented Caroline Ciavaldini. No slouch she on the rock face. Rare talent which can be seen in the Hot Aches 2012 film Odyssey

Back in the UK and imbued with a new steely resolve and confidence, James seeks redemption on Rhapsody. A route which appears to have surpassed The Indian Face as the holy grail of rock routes for all budding rock Gods. Not surprisingly, the film climaxes with James strung out on Dumbarton rock with the master himself, turning up to see if the pretender from the south can gravitate from apprentice to sorcerer!

Redemption-The James Pearson Story is everything you would expect from a Hot Aches movie by now. From the filming to the creative editing. Its sharp, focused and absorbing throughout.

Rating on the Krabometer

John Appleby:2014

Available soon from Hot Aches.