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 


Wednesday, 20 October 2021

A Feeling For Rock...Reviewed


Sarah-Jane Dobner's ,A Feeling for Rock, is in many ways, a tricky little book to review. It's not a Bio/Autobiography, technical guide, travelogue or philosophical treatise on the subject of climbing rock. It's a scrap book - in paperback form- recounting experiences in the field, sprinkled with poetry, polemical essays, cartoons and contributions from friends who offer their thoughts on what climbing means to them. I was going to describe it as something of a smorgasbord of writing but flipping to the rear cover upon finishing the book, I see that Natalie Berry of UKC got in first with that description so lets plunder Hemingway and call it a moveable feast. A book that weaves this way and that without following a discernable path.

The author writes from the perspective of feminist and politically aware observer. Offering strong opinions on issues within the climbing game but never falling into the pit of zealotry. In an early essay she contemplates which activity she prefers, Sex or Climbing? A subject first broached by Geoffrey Winthrop Young I believe!  Which to choose? After all these years I'm still not sure. I figured I might plump for climbing if push came to shove. In another essay she contemplates the patriarchal structure which has always held the activity in a vice like grip. Shaped and controlled by men and where women were until fairly recently only grudgingly accepted by the climbing establishment. After all, many of our established climbing clubs operated like London gentlemen's clubs until relatively recently. I believe I am correct in stating that Ken Wilson was a key figure in pushing for female emancipation within the Climber's Club for example.

However, that historical stain on climbing history aside, the author does take a detour occasionally into 'Right On City, Arizona'! In 'the decolonisation of climbing which is part of a wider essay, The Perfect Line, Sarah-Jane offers the suggestion that when it comes to naming and claiming routes in developing countries, then it should perhaps be left to the indigenous communities to name these routes. Why not leave marked up topos with,say, the village elders, the school, the local women's cooperative and ask them to name the lines?' I sense a flaw in this suggestion. First off, climbing is essentially an activity carried out by comparatively wealthy westerners. For the majority of people in the developing world, climbing must be seen a pretty silly and pointless activity. Enjoying a passion for climbing is a luxury that even in the UK, only those with money can afford. For many people, flying off to the Alps or Spain for a few days climbing or buying a new pair of rock boots for £130 is not an option when you are living on benefits and struggling to survive. Taken to the next level, in a place like say Mali, then if you are having to walk ten miles a day to collect water or firewood then perhaps the honour of naming a westerners' rock climb will not fill your bosom with pride! 

Photo: McKenzie Lloyd-Smith

Taken as a rule, I don't think that the naming and claiming of new routes is an issue or has to be controversial. But that's just to pick out one of around sixty short pieces in the book. The majority of which veer from practical technical advice to poetry which escapes the damning critique of being described as 'interesting' by virtue of their undoubted quality. In fact, its nice to see poetry within a climbing work as since the decline of the paper media when climbing writers like David Craig and Terry Gifford were not afraid to strut their stuff in the mags and journals from 40 years ago, climbing poetry has receded into the less visited world of personal blogs these days it seems.

While there is no doubt that the author is passionate about her subject matter and offers strong opinions laced with humour, she nevertheless remains on the right side of the divide between the climbing enthusiast and the climbing fanatic. The latter being somewhat trapped in a world of punishing training schedules, strict dietary regimes and an obsession with achievement. Rather than just enjoying the ride as the author clearly does.

Photo- SJD

So....overall a scrap book of thoughts, feelings, memories and advice which was pretty unique in its way. There have been similar collections of writings published in the past. Such as Jim Perrin's climbing articles lifted from magazine and club journals, but A Feeling for Rock is nothing like works like this through its range of subject matter. I've no doubt that the book will not be to everyone's taste. Certainly for those who like their climbing literature to be structured in a style which they are used to, the book might seem discordant and a bit too edgy for their liking. Certainly the pieces don't follow a clear trajectory in the way they are set out. There is almost a nervous energy here which usually works but occasionally, like a hex dropped from the top pitch of a climb, the piece ricochets down. Glancing off rocks until you lose sight of it in the undergrowth. But then, who asked for perfection in a climbing book. Its a personal odyssey which will always mean more to the writer than reader. The pleasure for the reader is when there is a meeting of minds and emotions with the author and many of these pieces will I'm certain, chime with the reader.




John Appleby: 2021 


Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Sir Leslie Stephen: Spirit Of The Age


Father and Daughter : Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.

Fleetest of foot of the whole Alpine brotherhood’ Edward Whymper

This country is almost unique in the number of climbing clubs that exist throughout Britain, unlike other countries where the sport has a major presence, France, Italy, Germany etc; almost every city in the UK has its own climbing club. There are also the long established organisations which draw their membership nationally, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, the Climbers’ Club, the Fell and Rock, and the Alpine Club. The BMC has 280 clubs in membership and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland 160.

How did this come about?; it really has its origins during the Victorian era when so many organisations were formed and the world’s first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club was founded in 1857. The men (and they were all men in what was then still a most patriarch society) who were responsible were all from the upper/professional class. They were the ones who had the income and leisure time to follow what was then seen as a new sport; a new challenging activity in what they believed themselves to be the experts. It was a Golden Era for many of the peaks were still unclimbed in the Alps, and the Public’s interest was aroused by the 2000 performances over 6 years by Albert Smith in the Egyptian Hall Piccadilly, of his illustrated ascent of Mont Blanc which began in 1862, and was attended by thousands of people.

One of the earliest mountaineers to join the Alpine Club was Leslie Stephen, the year after it was formed. He was already a mountaineer, who with the Mathews’s had pioneered ascents in Austria and North Italy. He was educated at Eton and Trinity Hall Cambridge where he had also been ordained as a priest. At school he had been somewhat sickly and physically weak but at Cambridge he took up rowing and this built up his physique and he started to visit the Alps.

The first ascents which he made in the years 1858 to 1871 stand out, especially in the Valais and Oberland, and mark him out as one of the outstanding early pioneers, but he did not always win favour with his fellow alpinists, who believed in his writings he gave his guides too much praise who he credited with so much of his success. Melchior Anderegg born near Meiringen was one such, who was lauded as the ‘King of the Guides’. In 2014 a statue of Anderegg and his adventurous ‘Herren’ was unveiled in that town.

I suppose Stephens success in completing the Eiger and Jungfrau Joch’s in 1859 made his fellow Alpine Club members aware that a new force was in membership. The number of first ascents he was to make over the next decade highlighted this, Mont Blanc from St Gervais, the Schreckhorn, Zinalrothorn, Alphubel, Wildstrubel, Monte Disgrazia, Obergabelhorn, Bietschorn, Rimpfischorn, Mont Mallet, and he made many second ascents the Weisshorn, Obergabelhorn, and the Fletschorn plus many other successful climbs. He was elected Vice President of the Alpine Club 1863 to 1865 and President 1866 to 1868.

In 1862 he had a personal rejection of being a clergyman; he resigned his position at Cambridge, his fellowship depending on this. Eventually he was to publish a book on this change in belief, ‘Agnosticism and Aetheism’ confessing he had never really believed in the Christian message, swayed by his family, who were evangelicals of the Clapham sect. His father had been the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies for which public service he had been knighted. Stephen moved to London and from thereon was a journalist and editor of some renown, initially contributing to the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette. 

1865 occurred, the accident after the first ascent of the Matterhorn when four of the party were killed on the descent. Alan Lyall’s impressive book of almost 700 pages gives full details of this, especially the aftermath; the enquiry, the main figures who were involved and the media reaction. I do not think any event in mountaineering history has received such coverage, even the Monarch was reported to comment as one of those who died was distantly related. Much of the media coverage initially was anti, so much so that Whymper the sole survivor of the amateur climbers had to defend himself and write a full account of the disaster in the ‘Times’. Stephen, who was then a Vice President of the Alpine Club spoke up for the sport, and he defended the role of the senior guide who to survive was accused of either cutting the rope, or purposely using a weak one to save his own skin.

In 1871 appeared two books which had a large affect on the subsequent development of mountaineering. Edward Whymper had published ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ which included his many attempts to climb the Matterhorn and his eventual success, clouded by the accident on the descent, and the ‘Playground of Europe’ by Leslie Stephen both of which became instant mountaineering classics and played a part in popularising the activity. The first of these ran to five editions in little more than a decade and both books are still in print. In 1868 Stephen became editor of the Alpine Journal, and he was well suited for such a role, his knowledge of the Alpine ranges was probably unsurpassed at that time in Britain, for in 1861 he had translated from the German the best selling, in that country a book which also covered widely many of the less visited areas, ‘The Alps’ and may have led him on to make the first ascent of Monte Disgrazia? He was an early enthusiast for winter ascents, but he made it obvious that he took a very serious view of the dangers inherent in mountaineering, besides the enjoyment and challenge of the sport. Many of the early pioneers suffered serious accident or death who had become friends or rope mates with him. Most of the volumes of the Alpine Journal he edited are still available on the internet.

During the Victorian period the Alpine Club gained in numbers and influence, some of those who joined were enthusiasts for mountain scenery, and commented on this but preferred to view this rather than climb to summits; John Ruskin, Mathew Arnold and the well known publisher John Murray (Byron was one of the poets who he published) were some of these. Stephen became editor at this time of the Cornhill magazine and the writers for that organ were amongst those who were to become household names; Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray. Stephen married one of the the latter’s daughters, known to everybody by the nick name ‘Minny’ who bore him four children, two who were to become more famous than him, but who cruelly died whilst the children were still young.

Stephen is best known now as the founding editor and contributor to the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ of which he edited many of the volumes. This incredible academic work is still being updated and published by the Oxford University Press and is referred to almost daily, particularly in our University and Public Libraries. The original publisher was the same as the Cornhill magazine, and that explains Stephen’s involvement in the whole project? an editorship which was to lead, amongst his other works to a knighthood. At the death of his first wife, Stephen eventually married a lady, a close friend of his wife, a widower who also had four children. One can imagine the noisy atmosphere at his house in Hyde Park Gate, now a blue plaque site, with so many children growing up there. But he did employ several maids to look after this brood.

Obviously with such domestic demands and sadness at the loss of his first wife, plus editorial work, his involvement in the world of mountaineering was limited. But every Sunday along with like minded friends he took off on what became legendary long walks amongst the South Downs and further afield. His band of Ramblers became known as ‘The Tramps’ and 20 to 30 miles were often covered on their outings. In a history of walking in this country, ‘Ramble On’ by Sinclair McKay full detail of ‘The Tramps’ can be found. What is memorable about this was a list of all who took part in these walks, everyone from those who made their living by their pen to Judges and Queen’s Councils.

Stephen died in 1904 but the family’s fame was to rise, and rise for two of his daughters eclipsed his memory. His oldest Vanessa married Quentin Bell, and moved to Bloomsbury, where they were joined by Virginia who had married Leonard Woolf. And this was the beginning of what became known as the Bloomsberry set which included E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and so many other prominent figures of that time. Vanessa Bell and Virgina Woolf in their respective fields are lionised for their achievements, Vanessa in the field of art, particularly abstractions. Virginia is one of the most famous novelists worldwide, a leader of modernist fiction and an archetypal figure in the feminist movement. I was surprised to learn that now her biggest fan base is in the USA. Her father is very much caricatured in her most famous work ‘To the Lighthouse’. He is the Mr Ramsay who leads his family on an adventurous holiday to the Isle of Skye.

Leslie Stephen was very much a product of his time, when everybody had beards like the Taliban, and Victorians of his background did not worry too much about their privileged existence. But they did leave a society that was capable of change. The Alpine Club is a prime example of this, to be a member now depends on ones climbing record, not social standing. And so Sir Leslie Stephen set the sport on its path for which today’s climbing fraternity should be grateful.


Dennis Gray: 2021. 



Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Olympic Dreams

It's climbing but not as we know it! Photo- Eddie Fowkes.

Citius, Altius, Fortius’

To represent a country at the Olympics is the ultimate dream of a games player and a participant in the athletic events. I am still in awe of the Czech athlete, Zatopek who won the 5000m, 10000m, and the Marathon at the Games in Helsinki in 1952. I was privileged to meet him when young and this feat stands as likely to be unrepeated. I am a supporter of the Games, but I believe the inclusion of ‘Sports Climbing’ at the recent Tokyo Olympics begs questions at least with the old timers like me.

The modern Olympics were brought about by the initiative of the French nobleman, Baron de Coubertin, and the first of these was held in Athens in 1896. Mountaineering was one of the physical activities that he envisaged should be recognised as an Olympic discipline and the members of the 1922 Everest Expedition were awarded a gold medal at the 1924 Winter Games held in Chamonix. Awards continued until the Dyhrenfurth’s in 1936 for their Himalayan explorations but were then discontinued. It is interesting to report how climbing was seen by commentators and artists to almost modern times, let us be dog in a manger about this and Ernest Hemingway could opinion there are only three sports; ‘bull fighting, flying and mountaineering......the rest are merely games’. I guess what brought him to such a view was that the sports he nominated were undertaken for keeps. The obituary section in the Alpine Journal at this time would illustrate where he was coming from?

In my own times I have to ponder on the many who so felt ‘the romance of mountaineering’ that they pushed the boat out, were caught out by a run of bad luck and they paid the ultimate price. But we survivors paid our respects and kept alive their feats and memories. One of the salient facts being there was little or no money in it, recognition such as it was, mainly was by one’s own peers. I still think of how we all, in our milieu greeted the news that Brown had climbed the Boulder on Cloggy; and he had run out 270 feet of rope in a single lead, on sight because none of his companions could follow him because of the conditions. So how come that such a committing activity can be cut down to racing up an artificial wall, on plastic holds, safe because such ‘climbing’ is done on top ropes.

At the 1972 Olympics held in Munich was the first time that ‘speed climbing’ was a demonstration sport. This by a group of climbers from Soviet Russia, wearing on their feet what appeared as galoshes to us western climbers who witnessed this, on a limestone crag outside the city. It transpired that the climbers had spent some days practising the route/s and their ascents were at speed on top ropes. All who witnessed this (including many different nationalities) thought this style of climbing was rather pointless and preferred to climb the excellent traditional routes that were on offer at this cliff. One can understand a group of climbers, moving fast up routes in a friendly, rivalry, but to make this an Olympic sport/discipline is surely bringing such an activity down to a questionable level? And yet some of the-none climbing commentators thought this was like the wacky races, and conferred on some of the participants instant recognition, and liking. 

Shauna Coxsey in competition mode.Photo- BMC

I suppose it will go well when those involved are collared by agents and sponsors. And that is a problem for those so involved, are they to declare that this really has nothing to do with ‘real’ climbing or do they milk this surprising turn of events. For the first time real amounts of money is involved, when one is apprised by UK Sport that one of the Olympic programmes of the National sports bodies was under-written by £27 millions. And any of those who might win a medal, their day to day living is being under-written, as are their coaches, medics and dieticians. It is being estimated that each gold medal is costing around £1 million and the athletes involved can if they wish it become full time professionals. Such designation leads on to sponsorships, deals with equipment firms, and large amounts of money changing hands.

A worry is how this came about without the traditional defenders of the British way of climbing not really taking an interest. Their attitude being if a group within the mountain world wish to do this, ‘let ‘em get on with it’. Without at least discussing how in the long run it might affect the activity, which as recent as the 1980’s was a new kid on the international climbing scene. We came to accepting organised competitions after months of argument and discussions at the BMC in 1988, but we were only willing to accept them as long as they were held on artificial walls and not on the natural outcrops and crags. This decision was influenced by what was happening on the natural cliffs; Ron Fawcett was despatched to competitions held in Russia and reported back that many of the routes involved in these, were chipped and manufactured and visiting CzechSlovak climbers who had taken part that year in competitions held in Arco reported that the final route of that event was similarly prepared specially for that competition.

Despite the above what finally swung the then British climbing fraternity behind supporting competitions but only on artificial walls was the attempt to hold a major competition at Malham. Those involved were leading climbers of that era, the BBC were interested in covering the event and this was in opposition to the wishes of the locals, the RSPB and the National Park. The view we came to at the BMC was this could damage climbing in the future and I was tasked to contact all concerned and use what argument we could against such an ill thought initiative? Pointing out that if it rained and conditions changed the whole competition could become unfair and farcical; to say nothing of the safety of the inevitable spectators roaming around an area like the Cove. We had to go almost to the head of the BBC to head off the interest in covering the event. Fortunately our arguments were soundly based and eventually all came round that competitions should be held in the UK only on artificial walls. Since when the growth of competition climbing and climbing walls has being impressive with over 400 noted in the last complete survey. Many run bouldering competitions in the winter, and the Leeds Wall did that when I was the Chair of its Board.

However we never expected, but it is now a fact, that some of the attendees at climbing walls never climb outside, and for their own personal reasons have no wish to do so. If I was still an active climber, selfishly I would declare ‘good on ‘em! ’ for that would mean less traffic on popular crags but frankly they do not know what they are missing, a special activity that as the web master on this site has opined is life enhancing going to the hills to refresh ones soul. Easily dismissed as romantic gibberish but it is true as those who experience such feelings bear witness.

International Competition Climbing became a fact in Leeds in 1989, this organised by the BMC and DMM the equipment firm on behalf of the then recognised body, the UIAA for such an international event. It was in Leeds because that is where I live and friends interceded for us and we managed to obtain the Queen’s Hall, which previously had staged massive rock concerts and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Who had strutted, their stuff on its stage. The women’s event was won by the American, Robyn Erbesfield and the men’s by Jerry Moffat. It was very much a learning event for such a competition, and it made me think that whilst the finals were electrifying the events leading up to them were so boring that I could never believe it a spectator sport. In fact one of the sports journalists collared me after some of the preliminary rounds to declare ‘he was departing......this was like watching paint dry’. I could understand this as the majority of the participants did not get very far up the routes. It is a mystery to me that climbers can sit and watch such a competition whilst close by, for instance at Arco is excellent climbing on natural rock. But as Cyndi Lauper warned us ‘money changes everything’ and I suppose there is a vicarious pleasure in watching the winner and losers. 

Malham Cove. Venue for a proposed speed climbing competition that thankfully never got off the ground.

Finally my reaction to the Olympic climbing is ditch, the speed competition, it is a cuckoo and not only has no place in such, and in the long run it may damage the sport? None climbers will think that is how we proceed on the natural crags and outcrops and the land managers may react in ways that no one has yet experienced. The walls should be designed like crags to be more realistic, I have been lucky to climb at such in dozens of countries and have never found features as those that were a part of the Olympic bouldering competition. Dali would have been exercised by their design. I am very aware that by expressing such views that I will be the subject of criticism and gales of laughter, the wish to compete is part of the psyche in a lot of humans, and we must accept that climbing is changing and a part of mainstream sport, no longer the preserve of a band of clubbable types. But we have to point out what is worth preserving, and that the rock faces and mountains of this world we expect will always be there posing a challenge and enjoyment to those who answer their call.

Dennis Gray : 2021


Thursday, 19 August 2021

Jim Birkett


Jim Birkett belaying above Gimmer Crag, Langdale in the English Lakes District. Image-Bill Birkett collection

It was in the Golden Rule, Cumbria's popular climbing pub, that two years ago and buzzed-out after climbing his Slab & Groove (VS 4c) on Scafell, I phoned Jim on a whim to tell him what a mega-effort his climb was. Considering that the route stood among the six hardest on the crag in the last Scafell guide to contain league tables of the climbs placed in order of difficulty, his reply was something of a surprise. "When Len (Muscroft) and I did the climb," Jim said, "we thought it was only severe. But thanks, Tony, you've made my day." "Thank you, Jim," I heard myself say. "And you nearly made mine." There via British Telecom glinted the steel of the man, minus any fuss or shouting the odds whatever. Jim was schooled in the hills as a boy by a well-meaning uncle who would take him hunting with a local fell pack. Gradually he realised there must be more to the hills than killing foxes. And the same thing happened with his enthusiastic birds-nesting. He even taught himself to abseil to collect eggs. But then he did an abrupt about-face and today is an active member of the RSPB, licensed to protect peregrines. Birds and the locating of rare plants are a great passion of the man, and his son Bill remembers many days spent on the hills from when he could first walk with a Dad patiently showing the boy the wonders of nature.

Like Ron Fawcett was to do, Jim did not begin making new climbs until he'd climbed all the hardest challenges going. These included —with the help of a number of trusty motor bikes to drive him from the Lakes Diagonal on Dinas Mot, Raven's Gully in Glencoe and Central Buttress on Scafell. This he did in nails to make the second ascent so shod, the first having been done by Menlove Edwards in 1931 (and Arthur Dolphin was later to take a flier endeavouring to do the same). As Jim says: "It was a point of honour to try the hardest routes in nails". Together with pals like Len Muscroft, Vince Veevers, Charlie Wilson and Tom Hill he began producing his vintage climbs in 1937 when he was 22. And, sorry Jim, but what greats they are! They are surely epitomised by Overhanging Bastion, the ascent lauded by The Manchester Guardian, and flashed on that first ascent with the super-cool of a natural matured before his time by those solitary escapades where he'd find bits of snakes — and once a dead cat — in the dizzily sited eyries of buzzards and eagles. He'd had a shaky start when he placed three pegs on Mayday (HVS 5b) the year previously. "It was a big mistake," he says. "I was a bit over-awed by the occasion." But he quickly learned and never repeated the mistake again. His forte was crack lines until then thought unjustifiable. "F Route on Gimmer had a hell of a reputation," he remember. "Yet when Vic (Vince Veevers) and I did it we couldn't see what the fuss had been about."

There were downers of course. The lines eventually to become Gimmer String, Poacher, Sidewalk and Extol were all tried and backed down from when "things got a bit out of hand." Jim's shot at Central Pillar on Esk ended with Great Central Route (VS 5a) rather than the projected dream - though Jim did launch out on the upper wall with a long probe before giving it best. And, no, Jim didn't take it hard when Jim Haggas had pipped him to the post on Gordian Knot (VS 4c) on what was to become Jim's. preserve, White Ghyll. "I was glad for him! Jim (Haggas) put up two great climbs, what with Gordian and Hangover (Dove) but he was never the neatest climber to watch. He went blinding out from the overhanging corner on Gordian Knot in a way I could never have done. But he got up! I managed to break off a bit of loose rock and climb it more directly and I'd think a bit more easily." "Hell, no!" Jim Birkett could not have been more definite. It was his reaction to anything appearing in print that might make him look big headed. And my musing on the lines of A GREAT CLIMBER IMMORTALISED FOREVER BY HIS ROCK CLIMBS was quickly melted down. But I persisted, surely he was proud of routes like Haste Not, Slab & Groove, Leopard's Crawl, Mayday cracks, Do Not and Harlot's Face just to mention a few of the classic Lakeland rock climbs he so ably created in the immediate pre- and post-war years and which make such an outstanding contribution to British climbing? Well, yes he said. He was. But he didn't want anything appearing even remotely over the top. Jim is the essence of modesty while appearing still at the age of 71 as a hard man indeed and in every way that is admirable. He has allowed hardly anybody ever to interview him and his dislike of the ostentatious and loud comes through clearly. He is essentially a man who lets his climbs do the talking.

"Anyway," he said. "The routes are good ones and I had a lot of fun climbing them but to make them out as masterpieces would be going a bit far. I mean, it would only take a small earthquake to wipe them out." As happened to Sepulchre, the Kern Knotts route — and one of his favourites — which suffered after an earth tremor? Yes, agreed Jim, but no he didn't follow when I mentioned that the smell of gunpower persisted around the crag for weeks afterwards. Had he never smelt it before during his time in slate quarries when large rockfalls emitted a sulphury smell? "I'll tell you what, mate," he said, laughing. "You're wasting your time at that typewriter. With a nose like yours you could earn a fortune with the Drugs Squad." When Jim Birkett laughs his love for life comes through. Of a statesman-like mien, you can quite believe he worked his way up from being a reiver in slate quarries from the age of 14 — when he left Little Langdale school — to becoming a quarry manager. You can also easily understand the directness with which he faced down crags in nailed boots and with frail ropes and produced such great climbs. Indeed, once watching a bold youth soloing Cracked Actor (E2) on Trowbarrow Quarry while wearing a weighted diving belt, my partner said at the time "Jim Birkett was doing that kind of thing years ago!" Jim is fully aware that modern gear and the protection it affords is light years on from his tricounis, clinkers, pumps and "ploughcord" rope. I'd heard that when somebody had told him recently that I'd done one of his best routes he'd said: "If Tony Greenbank is leading F Route (Gimmer) I'm starting climbing again." 

Two Lakeland classics. Jim Birkett poised on the arete of Napes Needle: Photo-Bill Birkett collection

Never were truer words spoken. The comment says it all. As the first Lakeland climber to climb really hard, Jim did it with negligible protection, rarely using runners of any description and cranking up those heavy boots on a number of his first ascents. Like on the excellent Square Chimney (VS 4c) on Esk. In all he created over 60 new climbs, though for some reason only 45 are recorded today. And while he climbed in pumps for some of the harder ones like Do Not and Harlot's Face, the first Lakeland extreme, the absolute golden rule, was not to fall off, pumps or no pumps:

"The fun and sheer enjoyment I've had from climbing is everything," he told me. "I wouldn't exchange that pleasure I've had for anything. Cameras? I never needed one. I can remember every priceless moment." And then comes the glimpse of heavy metal again and this time told by his son, Bill. He had broken down in Preston on a wild winter's night last and plaintively rung his Dad in Little Langdale to come and rescue him. "I'm too old," said the admirable Birkett Senior, after hearing him out, then breaking the connection. 


Tony Greenbank: First Published in High -July 1986 


Tuesday, 27 July 2021

The Finger of God


Photo- Carlos Perez Couto (CCL)

THERE ARE A FEW great cities in the world that live with mountains and quite a number of these lie in South America—C a r a ca s, Quito, Lima, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro. But in none does the mountains enter the city, sit astride its traffic arteries, and chop up its suburbs as in Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, the urban dweller has a choice of "umpteen" grade 5 and 6 routes a short sweaty stride from the nearest bus stop. One or two are a thousand feet high, others are two-pitch problems. The city counts at least one three thousand foot peak in its parish, and more virgin faces, smooth and unsullied by holds or cracks, than any other accessible spot on earth. Climbing in Rio has one great disadvantage: the heat. But every now and then, even in the hottest weather, a clear day will afford that distant visibility that brings the 7,000 foot Organ mountains into clear focus from the streets of the city. And there, climbing skywards, a gigantic replica of the pinnacle ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, is the multi-pinnacled ridge that culminates in Pedro do Sino, the Bell peak, at 7,400 feet. And the second of these pinnacles is enough to make the visiting, sweat-sodden, heat drugged climber straighten his curving spine.

Vertically sided, this pinnacle is a finger of rock pointing to the sky; a tropical dream that has no place in a real world. But it is real. Fifty miles of driving and a fine climbing road up the jungle clad flanks of the Organ mountains takes on to a favourite belvedere of Rio citizens, and there, right above, no less incredible at close quarters is the peak they have chosen aptly, to call the Finger of God. It was Harvey, my American friend and colleague, who had never climbed before, who introduced me to Carlos Costa Ribeiro, one of the best climbers in that part of Brazil, and who as a result arranged my visit. We fled the phantom city of 4.00 a.m. and arrived at the parking place as the granite finger turned red, and a tomato orb climbed out of a sea of white mist. "The normal way is round the other side?" I suggested to Ribeiro, from my casual reading. "Yes, but we shall do the east face." I thought of all the cheap gin I had drunk, and of Harvey, and looked at the sparse system of chimneys that held the seemingly overhanging blocks apart. But my immediate worry was the jungle, which holds for me terrors unimaginable to normal people. The vestigial trail led through dense forest, with little light. I watched for snakes. I listened for Oncas, I waited to be stung by insects. There was a slightly rotting smell, and I avoided Ribeiro's enthusiastic noises about the beauty of the forest.

We clambered up moss covered grooves, and edged an overhang by the virtue of a tree whose roots seemed to have finally died. Eventually the route is doomed. More hen-like scratching at slippery red mud and rotting vegetation brought us to clearing. Light, and a moment's dalliance on .a slab drenched in sunlight, and then back into the gloom, and a delicate traverse of some avalanched trees. "Here we leave the sacks," announced Ribeiro, adding, "And you do not need those things." I was lifting out some pegs and karabiners. He did not know I had heard about Brazilian safety techniques. At least I should remain attached to the face if the worst happened! We crossed another avalanche channel of trees and red mud, and leapt like apes from branch to branch along the foot of the steep south wall. Harvey never faltered. Using immense energy, and climbing wholly on his arms, he fearlessly followed where Ribeiro led. No ropes were used, and to one accustomed to the old fashioned handhold, the joys of couch grass, red mud, and greasy holdless chimneys, all too womb-like, offered me little joy. Their voices, chattering like monkeys, vanished into the vertical forest ahead of me. Only a deep red orchid growing wild and parasitically on a tree brought me any reward. Suddenly the forest was gone. Dense bushes had replaced them and a step further I was looking down the vertical north face. 

A little pinnacle was free of vegetation and we sat surveying our route, a steep serpentine crack occupied by the occasional tree. It looked impossible. Harvey talked of descending, and we talked him upwards. It was about grade 4, but grade 6 if the negligible belaying techniques were taken into account. Desperately I tied the party to all holds I could find—a meagre branch here, a piton driven in there; there was nothing more. Ribeiro climbed fast and well, Harvey fast and badly, his whole weight on his arms, legs flailing, calling out and getting continual uplift. I found the rock superb, almost holdless,and hand jams the only security between trees. After 200 feet we came to a cave, and on the floor of which Harvey lay heaving like a stranded fish. I joined him, prostrate from heat. In Rio that day it was almost 100°F. Ribeiro contemplated the way ahead—a steep wall leading out under an overhang which was circumvented by traversing. Where all vestige of adhesion by counter-pressure was gone, there was, Carlos assured me, a series of expansion bolts. A word here. Expansion bolts in Brazil are meant to last. They are inch in diameter, and often set in a full inch. Entire cordees will dangle from one of them without batting an eyelid. I lent Carlos two tape etriers, and he set forth. Just then Harvey decided to return. But he had waited a moment too long, and he was told how the mountain code forbade his solo descent, and now called for his heroic pursuance of the object of the day—Up! Carlos disappeared round the overhang, and the only thing that linked him to us was falling globules of sweat that he flicked from his fingers. I coaxed Harvey to the point of no return, and then withdrew so that his only moral support came from above—a support that remorselessly enjoined him to climb and seemed deaf to the words "I can't". Since I had no absolute confidence in Ribeiro's belay I tied us to a huge jammed block, and waited in the back of the cave just beyond reach of the sunlight. The rope tugged me up. It was awkward. Once clear of the overhang a crack slanted rightwards on a vertical wall. 

Malcolm Slesser
One could get a partial hand jam and one leg in. I landed tired and gave one baleful look at Ribeiro's belay—a loop of rope round a cactus whose roots could be lifted with my toe! Harvey was all in. But the worst was over. From there on we were in the mountain, not on it. Deep cracks led us upwards in perfect safety, and a final slab to stance twenty feet below the summit Harvey was agog with delight. We munched pineapples, and we revelled in the vista of peaks too innumerable to count. Many of them with fin walls. Three thousand feet below, the little town of Terespololis went about its business, and we thought of bee and sauerkraut and pork in the Restaurant Alpina at the end of the day. The final point of this peak is not possible without recourse to unmanly ladders. A huge crevasse separates it from the lunching place, dire and overhanging. But a thoughtful tourist agency had propped a ladder of metal against the upper lip of the crevasse and one by one we gingerly ascended acutely aware that the natural span allotted to untreated iron has elapsed and the moment of collapse was a hand. Appropriately, some rotted electric flex held the thing on to the upper lip. The top is flat and could hold a battalion and enough trees grow there to keep it comfortably in firewood for weeks.

A plaque recorded the first ascent by the easier west face in 1912. I quickly had reason to admire that first ascent. It is one steep hold less chimney after another and with the equipment of those days it was a very fine feat. In the first rappel Harvey lost his glasses. We heard the tinkle of their broken glass working down some great internal cleft. In the third, Harvey took one look over the edge, perceived a small ledge and then a continuing massive drop to a flourish of yellow blossomed Ipe trees a good thousand feet lower. He sensibly asked for a top rope. I went first and sat on my ledge contemplating in my foreground, a foreground of bearded lichen dripping from gnarled old trees. Behind, shiny black precipices appeared through windows in the mist. Harvey was on his way down ; myopically scanning the rock at his feet for purchase. About twenty feet from the ledge his safety rope jammed and the strain was taken from his abseil rope to that roundt his waist which promptly slipped to his chest. "Slack!" he bawled, and Ribeiro as he told me later, tried to de-kink the safety rope which was locked round a karabiner. He cried to Harvey to lift himself up on the abseil rope so that he could work on the safety rope, but poor Harvey had spent his strength. "Cut the rope" he ordered. The words shot through me like an injection. Cut the rope! My rope here in Brazil, seven thousand miles from another, and the whole panoply of Brazilian customs arraigned against me before it even got into the country; and then the parcels service, whose reputation was sufficient to deter most comers.

I was appalled. "Wait!" I cried. "We haven't tried all possibilities." I exhorted Harvey to climb. Suggested footholds, offered chimneys, even climbed up to almost his level and tried to swing him into a little ledge. But his strength was failing. He took no weight now on his hands, and was dangling full on the jammed rope. Eventually he would suffocate, and he had sensed this. "Cut the rope!" he howled. "I'll buy you another, I'll buy you as many ropes as you like. Cut the rope!" Ribeiro and I exchanged glances and the knife did its work and down I slid Harvey. He was beat. But Harvey was American, and tough. A long traverse brought us to a broad ledge, with a view over a remarkable smooth rock pinnacle towards the flatlands and Rio. Dusk etched the rock profiles, and laid the lowlands in an obliterating haze, and then with no more than thirty s minutes half-light left to us, we hurried down to our abandoned sacks, where there was one torch. One torch in the night, the black night of the jungle interior, is insufficient for three tired climbers handling greasy rock, greasy mud, twisting almost untraceable trails. I forgot snakes and scorpions, oncas and mosquitos. I merely memorised , the point a few feet in front of me where Ribeiro put his feet, and where Harvey followed. We tripped over lianas that hung from the trees like ropes. We got caught in snares of roots that looped out of the ground. We fell, and crawled, and swore, and pressed on, refusing all pleas for rest. 

I knew that to stop was to be there for .the night. Though the road was a few hundred feet below, the forest swallowed all sound and light. We didn't see the road, we tripped over it. As we walked up the road, ragged and mud spattered, to bathe in the river pool, I realised with pleasureable surprise that I was neither scratched, nor bitten, nor bruised. In fact I was very happy. Next day at work Harvey was showing on his bruises and scratches. He looked the luckier survivor of a bad automobile accident. An hour later as the smoke from his cigar wafted over our partition he said--"I'll buy you a rope. Abercromby and Fitch have the best mail order service in the world. You specify it, and I'll get it here in a few days." "Not at all, Ernie, it's just one of those things." An hour passed unspoken. "Malcolm, you got whisky?" I had not. It cost £10 a bottle in Rio. "I get it cheap," he said, -"Would a case be any good?" Every man, I reflected with a guilty sigh, has his price. As a Scotsman I had mine. From then on our climbing partnership was secure, and the hospitality of my household assured. 

 Highline Traverse to The finger of God: Ryan Robinson 2018.


Malcolm Slesser:  First published in 'The Climber'-February 1968


Friday, 16 July 2021

Bearing Up : A cool line in the Cuillins


Author Paul Taylor has a point.

An odyssey (noun) - A long and eventful or adventurous journey or experience.

The fairy world is inhabited by many different types of fairies. Like the humans themselves they live in all kinds of houses. Time does not matter in the land of the fairies.

The Motif of the Mermaid in English, Irish, and Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales

Stephanie Kickingereder

What is a true wilderness experience? A long, exciting, mythical journey or a spiritual odyssey? What is the aim and what bearing does it have on the traveller? Is there any target or goal? After many years of chasing blue lines on the bottom of swimming pools, I changed my ways, preferring to scale rock or ascend mountains or both. Finding thrills following good lines. As a keen photographer, I’ve learnt the importance of lines-of-sight, discovering that landscape images frequently show a body of water in the foreground or background. It took many years of my time-line to piece things together, but the key that unlocked recent route plans was with the purchase of an open water wetsuit, then it all began to fit. I’d found merman skin. My wilder adventures have usually been by climbing, but surely water and rock don’t mix?... and rain stops play. My latest projects all have a common linear theme, across water and up rock, striving to create classic, memorable lines. Off we’ll go…. Bearing Up!

Planning from home in Halifax, I found myself looking at maps, zooming into significant water features, thumbing through guidebooks and searching for lines in the land. I had some knowledge of landscape art and was particularly drawn to the land art and photography of “A line made by walking” by Richard Long in 1967. This work was drawing me closer to focus in on an objective, to find a new simple way to plan some “good days out” and “get out there…” to “boldly” go… and go and keep on going… straight ahead, on one bearing.

Not long after, I read some of Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places” and a passage that clearly described his swim in the sanctuary of Loch Coruisk. I too have an attraction for the Cuillins, perhaps it’s the magnetic rock, but I couldn’t fail to glance an eagle eye over one line, stretching along the map and forming “The Skye-Line.” It wasn’t just that many of Skye’s main tourist attractions lay on this line, bisecting the Cuillin mountains, through Loch Coruisk, to the Fairy Pools, there was more; an in-land island, sea and summits, a ridge, the most awesome wall of rock in the UK and all in a wild and remote environment. I didn’t have a ruler long enough to link all the points…! I reached for the longest, straightest edge I could find, and joined the dots…


“Bearing Up!” Mascots, two teddy-bears, from A to Z, Azimuth and Zenith, ideas raced and there was no way back. I plotted route after route on my phone’s Viewranger mapping app, quick and simple, just a start, a lake, a good climb and a finish point.” When is a line not straight…? Answer: Everywhere. Light has been described as travelling in straight lines. But according to Einstein’s general relativity… As a matter of fact, ‘straight’ is a very relative term… to keep it simple and straight-forward... There is NO straight… since gravity alters the very fabric of space-time, bringing in curvature, it is safe to assert that nothing is actually ‘straight’. So by extension, light doesn’t really travel in a straight line. It just follows the curvature of the space-time fabric, whatever that may be. A pretty cool example would be when this was actually observed for the very first time- when it was proved that General Relativity actually holds good.

Faraz Ahmad

The first observation of light deflection was performed by noting the change in position of stars as they passed near the Sun … by Arthur Eddington … during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919

The absurdity of straight lines soon dawns on me. My new routes cannot be completely rigid, I’m not mad! Of course it may all be rather eccentric, I would clearly need to occasionally bear left or bear right or I’d travel straight into dire straits… I needed flexibility in my approach. These straightforward ventures, linear from a bird’s eye view, would have their ups and downs… U-turn if you want to… but of course there was no going back. Cancel the alpine holiday, we hope for fair weather, out with the midge hoods, we commit to a summer of Bearing Up! … over the sea… to Skye.

Heeding some very sound advice from the Mountain Rescue Team, Rachel and I make a brief reconnaissance dash over to Coir an Uaigneis. We set off despite grey and gloomy weather, with the ridge looking distinctly imposing. I identify a rake that leads up to Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh and my angle up onto the Cuillin ridge. This would then meet the adjoining spur adjoining Sgùrr Thuilm. “Keeping on the straight and narrow” tested by jagged gabbro rock, I hope that there’s a thread that stretches higher into the mists. Peering into the cloud gives me no further clear clues but the gloom lifts enough below, to enable us to take a back-bearing photo down to Loch Coruisk and Sgùrr na Stri, the “Peak of Strife.” I point “Bolt-like” along my elected future bearing. The obstacle course stretches out, baring its teeth.

Why Go On a Walk, When You Can Go On a Bear Hunt?

We're going on a bear hunt.

We’re going to catch a big one.

What a beautiful day!

We’re not scared

Michael Rosen

We pitch up, with a fine dawn forecast, and I set off alone at seven in the morning, straight from the tent at the road junction (Grid Reference NG 5432 1561) on a bearing of 309°. The hill immediately climbs steeply and I am led by a small herd of deer high on the horizon. The weather is clearly set for a good day. Ben Mèabost rises up on my left, the deer flee off right. The Cuillin are obscured behind the horizon. Boggy topped, flowering with various marshland species, Ben Mèabost is the most southerly Marilyn on the Elgol peninsula. Its flat plateau reaches only 345 metres and is separated by Glen Scaladal from nearby Beinn Leacach. So time to “tick” this, then tramp over a Tump, splash across a sea bay, scramble over another Marilyn, make a long loch swim, with an island hop, “bag” a Munro (also classed as a Murdo) and finally scramble along a rocky ridge. What a wilderness feast! Sgùrr na Stri peeks its head up. 

An eclipse of its summit occurs as I continue down into the small glen. Climbing up the other side, a new panorama is revealed, the mild but still wild nature exchanged for the more remote and rugged views of the Cuillin. Then, down to the bay, where I’ll swim over the sea, in the realm of the selkie or seal folk where perhaps I’ll encounter… … water spirits … merfolk and … kelpie. The Scottish kelpie either appears as a horse or as an old shabby man. He can be found in all types of waters. He is a mischievous creature who likes to drown lonely humans. As an old man the kelpie walks behind lonely [travellers] tearing them apart and eating them up… A spirit called shellycoat who lives at the Scottish sea coast also … is depicted as wearing a coat full of shells which make a strange sound whenever he appears. He likes to play jokes by giving wrong directions to humans who are on a journey.

The Motif of the Mermaid in English, Irish, and Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales

Stephanie Kickingereder 2.1.3. Water Spirits and other Fairy Types

Shellycoats are considered to be relatively harmless; they may mislead wanderers, particularly those they think are trespassing upon the creature's territory, but without malice. A common tactic of a shellycoat would be to cry out as if drowning and then laugh at the distracted victim.

Camasunary (Camas Fhionnairigh) is a beautifully isolated bay lying at the foot of Blaven (Bla Bheinn). There are only two notable signs of habitation, a bothy and another larger property, privately owned, it’s a lovely spot perhaps to stay a while. I hear faint cries of children playing near the house as I prepare for the first aquatic adventure of the day. Three oyster catchers flit about the water’s edge on a gabbro boulder. I pack my kitbags. These buoyant, waterproof vessels are in fact an unusual eclectic mismatched collection of water containers, an orange tow-float and some bargain-choice black bin liners! I giggle at the possibility that a refuse bag manufacturer might sponsor such adventures.

 “From our classic Cuillin range of rubbish bag products, our best-selling black waste sacks are perfect for everyday use and swim-trek expeditions. Made from 160 gauge polythene, they strike the perfect balance between bag strength and price - thick enough so they don’t rip easily, but not too hard on the wallet either. Tested at sea and on Scottish lochs to always keep afloat. A popular choice, these are our recommended bags for Bearing Up! as well as chucking out…!!”

 I stick both boots in… don my merman-suit, and orange swim hat… cochall draoidheachd = magic hood

Merfolk wear a special hat which enable them to dive beneath the waves. If they lose this cap, it is said that they will lose their power to return beneath the water.

The water is cool, clear and calm. Changing from front-crawl to back-crawl, looking around, taking in the view, this is no place to race and no fun without lapping up the atmosphere. The waves crossing the bay buffet, disorientate and put me off balance. Overhead a small group of gulls, dive down to inspect their invader. The water is clear and shallow and I rarely lose sight of the bottom. My forward sightings are fixed on the lofty summit ahead but breathing to the right I regularly glance over to the little white houses onshore in the valley. A flash of a jellyfish below pulls me up but is rapidly replaced by sweeps of seaweeds and the shallows soon reappear as I approach the craggy shore. My swimming distance so far, about a kilometre. Unpacking boots, I happily find them dry. I wrap up the damp wetsuit in my tow float’s pocket. All remaining kit is bone dry and feels warm. I soak in sun and the satisfaction of having swum Camasunary bay. Sunshine, boots and socks warm my slightly chilled feet.

Next… a classic scramble, one that I was very much looking forward to. The direct route up the south east ridge of Sgùrr na Stri is a grade 1 route, gets two stars and is described as “only for experienced scramblers.” Many reckon the summit to be Britain's finest viewpoint. By taking the ridge route I would avoid the infamous Bad Step and take in the glorious view. Strictly speaking the summit would be slightly “off bearing” but sometimes making a minor diversion returns major rewards. I am not disappointed. The Cuillin lie stretched out ahead, bisected by Loch Coruisk. The image surpasses that which I had imagined it to be. A brief stop at the top and then I’m off again bearing down on Loch Coruisk to the "Cauldron of Waters". The descent is more awkward. The rake to the west of the summit leads down through precipitous gabbro slopes which in turn aim directly for an erratic boulder perched upon a slab and perfectly in line with a long thin island in the middle of the loch. This would surely be a lonely isolated, disorientating place in the mist. However, I have warm sunshine on my back, a clear view ahead and, as my photo shows, my own shadow as guide to point the way down. A perfect navigator. Boat passengers are clearly enjoying their day ashore having been ferried there by the Bella Jane.

 At the water’s edge I test its temperature. Not exactly balmy. There is not a soul in the lake despite a small number of walkers about its edge. I feel conscious of an audience as I line out a procession of burdensome baggage strung out on bungee cord and tapes. My orange swimming cap does nothing to help me blend in… I decide to set sail. With a simple glide, I’m off, heading to my island in the sun…The loch has been atmospherically painted by Turner, George Fennel Robson and Sidney Richard Percy. Lord Tennyson reported his own visit somewhat wretchedly:


“Loch Coruisk, said to be the wildest scene in the Highlands, I failed in seeing. After a fatiguing expedition over the roughest ground on a wet day we arrived at the banks of the loch, and made acquaintance with the extremest tiptoes of the hills, all else being thick wool-white fog.”

Sir Walter Scott also visited the loch in 1814 and described it more intensely:

 “Rarely human eye has known

A scene so stern as that dread lake,

With its dark ledge of barren stone...”

 Perhaps you’d best visit Coruisk, like me, on a good clear day. Rumours abound that the loch is the home of a water horse or Kelpie, the shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland usually described as appearing as a horse but able to adopt human form. All that I can see is rocks, water and weed but my imagination gallops off wildly none the less. Any Kelpie would hopefully let me pass! I leave the outflowing Scavaig River which flows down to meet the sea at Loch na Cuilce, an inlet of Loch Scavaig. Only a few hundred metres long, it may be the shortest river in the British Isles. Submerged on my chilly course, but with the sun shining down on my back, I swim towards a mysterious island. Curious tourists ponder my progress. Whether they think my journey is mad or admirable is difficult to tell.

The water is once again clear and sparkling, perhaps swimming is spoiled by the need to wear goggles. Occasionally I stop to take them off and take in the view above water. A slope to the north east of me shows evidence of rock-fall down to the loch, most slopes are barren slabs. There are no trees. My bearing is parallel to the long ridge Druim nan Ramh, the name meaning "Ridge of the Oars." Each stream that tumbles down its slopes perhaps signifies a blade for the enormous “hull”. I paddle alongside, like a sailor, lost overboard from this giant long-boat but heading for a rocky “life-raft” ahead. One of a few isolated islands, this feature is also ship-shaped, anchored midway in the loch. Its sharp gabbro rocks prompt me to wear my purple “crocs” to protect my feet when standing up.

You tern if you want to! Gulls being the only residents are surprised by my arrival aboard. Feathers and the occasional pile of bones hint that birds are the only residents. The green woodrushes carpet and conceal the rocky isle under my “crocodile” shoes. I hear my name called out from onshore. So, Rachel has seen me at last! I wave back to her then, on the “bows” of the island slip back into the loch and take another photo. My strange selfie featuring feet could be titled “Crocs but no Gaiters.” Less than one mile of swimming to go, I tug steadily on my trailing baggage and pull away from the island… The steep continuously steady slopes of the Dubh ridge are on the left, “a contender for the best easy climb in Britain”. It’s a very long route in a remote setting. A few tiny tourists traverse its huge foot. The rough weathered rock climbs continuously up from sea-level to the summits at 3000 feet!

Sighting my target ahead, the line stretches out straight through the middle of the narrowing loch. Intermittently I lift my head forwards above the waterline. The V notch high on the ridge marks out the Skye-line. Despite such a clear target, I make a few zig-zag diversions off line, frustratingly buffeted by the steadily building waves. Nearing the shore a cheer goes out to my right. A couple call-out, something on the lines of, “Keep going!” Thank you whoever you may be! (I hope that they are not mysterious shellycoat tricksters.)

Giant boulders mark the entrance of the Coruisk River flowing into the loch. Rachel is waiting on an adjacent beach ahead, acting as a witness and marshall at this glorious transition checkpoint. The bottom comes up to greet me and I struggle to stand on the uneven ground. The changeover from water to land is tricky. The surface of the water refracts and reflects complex patterns of light, and bends or warps the images of any solid, firm or stable ground and confuses and befuddles my sense of balance. I concentrate on sensing a new centre of gravity as I escape the water’s upthrust and move back from being horizontal to the vertical world. I only just manage to adapt to the weighty heaviness of gravity and seem to impersonate an ungainly monster wallowing out of the lagoon. Perhaps I could be mistaken for an alien creature from the deep, an ancient merman or even a new-born shape-shifted Kelpie!

I wade through the clearer than crystal blue waters of the Coruisk River. I can’t hold back my enthusiasm, retelling the day’s events so far to Rachel who follows me along the river bank. We cross over and step up onto a warm dry slab where I lay out my dry kit, change into warmer clothes and produce my lunch from my chain of drybags. I have everything I need for a full day in the Cuillin and have either towed or carried it all this way including a dry 30 metre line of 8 millimetre rope. I really enjoy the feeling of transition from water to land, knowing that all is going to plan and I’ve left nothing behind. Rachel takes a few photos and we chat within the rock architecture about the splendid surroundings that had been sculpted here, drawn out along an almost perfect line by what must have been an unswervingly deep glacier. Erratic boulders litter the valley floor along with smooth whaleback glaciated slabs, scoured with striations. Everyone becomes a geologist in Coruisk, it’s impossible not to see the naked evidence around.

Lunch refuels my wobbling limbs. Trading in tired shoulders for less weary leg power is a welcome exchange. I check the arrangements for meeting Rachel on the Glen Brittle side of the Cuillin and set off on the next leg of my 309° journey, across the flat, marshy, boggy wetland stretching on for a thousand metres towards the Coir' Uisg Buttress guarding its head.  The buttress has been described by climber, Dave Birkett as 'the most awesome wall of rock in the UK.' Ascending its steep wall, Moonrise Kingdom is a new 130 metre high climbing route, scaled in three pitches and graded E9 (6b/c). Established by James McHaffie and Dan Varian the previous May, it is claimed as a contender for the most serious multi-pitch climb in the country. It’s not my line, nor ever shall be. Too hard for me…! but if anyone’s considering chasing the title of a true Bearing Up! champion, this would be my certain line for any purists’ adventures…

Looking back is as enthralling as looking forward. I take a glance along my back bearing towards Loch Coruisk, its central island and my rocky descent route from Sgùrr na Stri. It’s clear why the peak might give someone strife… Turning around to focus on the wall of Coir' Uisg Buttress on my forward bearing, I’m struck by how impossibly steep and sheer it all looks. There is nothing by way of vegetation other than some dusty algal deposits below overhanging faces. Adrenalin surges around my system and heightens my senses, I feel my lonely isolation as an insignificant, tiny visitor, and pushes my imagination further. Coire an Uaigneis, aka the Ugly Cauldron in my mind brews images of witches mixing potions high in the shattered rocky cirque above. “Cirque des Sorcières?” I spook myself thinking in French. Glen Brittle’s pools may have friendly fairies on the sunny far side of the Cuillin, but this side of the mountain is more like Mordor. Tolkein, Dante, Hieronymus Bosch all had visions of such vast, jagged landscapes. This is a pivotal point on my linear odyssey, where a poor route choice could lead to misfortune and misadventure…

Indeed the ascent is no easy feat. The route is along the edge of a steep sided ravine, described in the guide book as a “defile.” Water thunders down the falls on the right. I find my way up a challenging scramble passing old abseil slings discarded perhaps by long departed mountaineers maybe descending and in retreat. What a truly awesome adventure!

The slopes and walls reveal no obvious route but a tiny zig-zag takes me up to rather loose and slippery slabs below steep overhanging walls. My mind conjures up cautionary warnings, stressing the need to keep calm and carry on up. I pause, take a deep breath, test the holds, weight my footing and then gradually make the necessary moves. Will the way lead ever upwards or will I be forced back? I feel uncertain. But, eventually the angle subsides and the potential fall factor reduces to give way to an atmospheric amphitheatre split by a stream. Only a few days before, I had stood a little higher, on the spur perched on top of the wall to my right, scouting out the possibilities of getting through this section. I am increasingly confident that now the “only way is up” and once I have crossed the stream a pleasant scramble will place me at the bottom of the rake.

The ridge map shows two parallel crag markings. I aim to take a way between them, climbing a “stairway to heaven” rather than slipping down through any “gates of hell.” The scrambling becomes more entertaining, less precarious and I gain height confidently. It is hot work and I’m looking forward to a breeze over the bealach, to a pause, a drink, some food and breathing in the satisfaction of reaching my favourite ridge. I climb through a constricted section, breaking through to talus, boulders and some firm scree. I now know that the ridge will soon be within my grasp. With relief, I reach the notch on the crest below the summit of Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh, the fox’s (or wolf’s) peak, but no sign of any furry friends. I am completely alone. I had somehow imagined a welcoming party of ridge traversing mountaineers, climbers or even nimble fell runners at this point, but no one makes an appearance. Even on such a beautiful day, on such a classic ridge, you can be entirely on your own.

Having completed the full Cuillin ridge traverse a few years ago, the craggy way now looks more familiar. I teeter along the ridge, clamber down to step onto a large slab and saunter across to gain my line to the summit of Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh. At 918 metres altitude, the view stretches out to Glen Brittle and down to mean sea level. The Munro bagged, ticked and recorded. My Skye-line Bearing Up! done.

Perhaps the upward journey is over and a further bearing of 309° from here is just stubbornly bearing down but the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm is coincidently on the same line! I start to descend the steep face towards this outrigging ridge spur. This will clearly be no picnic, so I stop and have something to eat… The guidebook informs me that the Thuilm Ridge is graded as an Easy rock climb, “…contains sections which are both exposed and hard. …is a fine scramble for those with the nerve and ability...” It is indeed steeply precipitous and route finding proves trickier than might appear from a map. I descend a route that others usually ascend and it’s more than a little challenging.

Two deep gashes split the ridge and neither gives me a way down. Instead, I follow the main central buttress and eventually find the col. Here, a stunningly beautiful aerial pathway between the rocky Coire An Dorus and Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh separates the “wolf” from the “door”. The way up to the summit is both straight up and straight forward. Sgurr Thuilm might seem to read as an oxymoron, “the jagged rocky peak of the rounded hillock”, or maybe it’s the “rocky peak of Tulm” but google translates it as the “peak of the flood”. From its top I see crowds of parked tourists’ vehicles, stretching out and sprawling, serpent-like along the single track road to Glen Brittle, “flooding the way” with cars and campervans in their pursuit of “wild swimming” at the Fairy Pools, creating the paradox of a “wilderness car park.”

He went thataway!

But one last challenge concerns me. The descent from this pyramid shaped peak into Glen Brittle is cut by gullies and scarred by scree slopes. The deepest of these is best avoided by side-stepping just over to the west. I ride down on the shards of rocks, pleased that I chose to wear mountaineering boots rather than lightweight shoes. Isolated foxgloves eventually appear, poking through the rocky, rugged hillside, and lower down the marsh cotton populates the boggy slopes. My transect following the “Skye-Line” is nearly complete. A distant lone bird soars skyward over the high horizon. The eagle’s aerial bearing bisects my own terrestrial-path, a fitting conclusion to a fabulous day.

So, did travelling straight from A to Z provide me with a truly wilderness experience? Was my new, long and exciting mythical journey, my spiritual odyssey coming to its end? What has been my aim and what bearing did this line leave on this lonely traveller? Was there any target or goal?... All becomes clearer during my concluding steps…

The route fords the River Brittle and leads me up to the car park. I am once again in the company of many fellow tourists. The combined results of such large visitor numbers at my chosen terminus have clearly left an unpleasant trace at the finish. A surreal landmark has been placed in the landscape, there’s no crock of gold at the end of this line, no “coire òir,” instead two large wheelie bins overflow with their daily input. Do the fairies mind? Does the Kelpie know of this rival monster? May the curse of the boggarts be upon the perpetrators! Will any fairy folk stand together united against this foe? As I turn to wave farewell to my linear pathway through the land of the selkies, can I perhaps hear a shellycoat cry out and then laugh, “Is the Isle of Skye refuse service bearing up?” Should I unpack my 160 gauge polythene black waste sack? Such a devious and ironic final twist to my tale. Despite it having been a very straight-forward day…

there are no straight-forward answers…

…at the end…

…of this…

…line... !


I’ve been going 11 hours on a bearing… but it’s been a beautiful day!

"The Skye-Line" Route Summary 10/8/2017

A swim across Camasunary Bay and a cross-sectional-bisector of Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin mountains to finish near the Fairy Pools, Glen Brittle on the Isle of Skye.

Bearing 309°

Start location NG 543 156 ? Finish location NG 422 255

Walk length 15.6 km ? Sea Swim length 1 km ? Loch Swim length 2.4 km ? Scramble grade 3***

Total Ascent: 1820 metres

Leave Big Trace!

Postscript 2018: Jack McGregor reports in The Herald 31st August 2018 on one “answer” to the overcrowding conundrum and the riddle of the Fairy Pools tourist trap, “a new 130-space car park and toilets [have been] built after receiving over £650,00 of public funding including £300,000 from the Scottish Government”

Only time will tell how the fairies will fare at these pools in the future… but then perhaps “ Time does not matter in the land of the fairies.” I am also pleased to report that on October 13th 2018, the Real3Peaks Challenge gathered 10 black bin bags of rubbish at the Fairy Pools led by Adrian and Bridgette with a team of volunteers from All Things Cuillin. May the fairy force be with you…

What is Bearing Up!?

The Bearing Up! project is a set of wild challenges that hopefully might "bear fruit" for the benefit of Mountain Rescue teams following difficult lines on one bearing within mountainous landscapes along adventurous lines, swimming challenging open waters, scrambling and climbing up steeper ground to support others in straits and also raise awareness of the rising number of floods that have reached new levels in our valleys. All lines are followed with a "leave no trace" philosophy and a target to "do each route in one continuous push within a day".

For more information visit:

Other successful tales of epic odysseys include;

"In Llyn and Incline"- Llyn Llydaw to Lliwedd.

Braving the water of Wales avoiding encounters with the Afanc.

The "Wast-Line" - Wastwater, Napes Needle and Needle Ridge.

Swimming over deep subaquatic gnome gardens that lurk far below and on to reach Gable’s famous pinnacle.

For donations to Mountain Rescue England and Wales visit

For donations to my local Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team visit

For Skye Mountain Rescue donations visit

Bearing Up!

Paul Taylor 2021 

Images provided by the author.