Monday, 23 March 2020

Hard Rock 2020.....Reviewed

Hard Rock. Great British Rock Climbs from VS to E4, compiled by Ian Parnell, made up of 288 pages with colour illustrations throughout. Case Bound, Hardback with Jacket. £39.95.

It’s an old Ken Wilson maxim; a picture is worth a thousand words, so snap away, snap away!’ From a song by the author.

This is the fourth edition of one of the most influential climbing books of the 20th century. The first edition appeared in 1975, and a third in 1992; their compilation being by the late Ken Wilson. This new edition compiled by Ian Parnell is now appearing in a changed world, heralded in a new century with digital publishing and communication, and a sea change within the sport of rock climbing, impacted by equipment innovation, the spread in the UK of over 400 indoor climbing walls, and the increasing popularity of Sports Climbing and Bouldering; some might suggest to the detriment of Trad. Hopefully this new re-vamped edition of Hard Rock will capture the imagination of the many newcomers emerging into our sport, mainly now from indoor climbing to embrace all that is adventurous, and challenging about traditional British rock climbing. Set in some of the most beautiful landscapes to be found anywhere.

When a large format Hard Rock book appeared in 1975 its inception by Ken Wilson is now misreported by some of the pundits. Its origins began on the Continent, when in 1970 Walter Pause’s book ‘Im Extremen Fels-100 Classical Extreme Climbing Routes’ first appeared. This was an immediate publishing success, and a staffer who was something of a climber at the London publisher, Hart Davis-MacGribbon noted this and phoned Ken Wilson, who was by that date editing Mountain magazine for his views about producing such a volume of outstanding British climbs. Ken who was always a man with strong opinions, retorted it would need to be different here in the UK; a book with essay type descriptions, literary with good photographic cover, highlighting our tradition of bold and self protected rock climbs, keeping the route, not the climber centre stage. His interlocutor was impressed and Hart Davis-MacGribbon commissioned Ken to compile such a book. In passing, also in 1975 there appeared in France, ‘The 100 best climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif’ compiled by Gaston Rebuffat, which was another ground breaking publication and instant success. But both this and Pause’s book were more of a guidebook style than Wilson’s ‘Hard Rock’.

Life is a succession of accidents, if that ‘phone call had not occurred then Ken’s later publications of ‘Classic Rock’ ‘Extreme Rock’ ‘Cold Climbs’ all in the same format as ‘Hard Rock’ might never have appeared. And if he had not been editing ‘Mountain’ magazine he possibly would hardly have been known to a staffer in a London publishing house. Not enough credit has been heaped on the historical development of this by recent commentators, for ‘Mountain’ magazine would never have come into existence without its predecessor ‘Mountaincraft’, the house magazine of the Mountaineering Association formed in 1947 by another controversialist Jerry Wright. Many climbers of the 1950’s cut their teeth on ‘MA’ courses in the UK, and the Alps and Ken and a school friend, his early climbing partner Dave Cook learnt their Alpine craft on an ‘MA’ course in Arolla. Allan Austin learnt to climb in the 1950’s on a beginners ‘MA’ course in Llanberis instructed by Robin Collomb. But the Mountaineering Association was kept functioning by Jerry Wright, and at his demise it began to unravel. 

The editor of ‘Mountaincraft’ was a Guardian journalist, Roger Redfern, someone I knew from having written articles for him, and he was far seeing, realising that with the winding up of the ‘MA’ a buyer had to be found for the magazine. How he settled on Ken is another story, but to Wilson’s credit he gave up a secure job in architectural photography in 1968 and took this on, eventually changing its title to Mountain which he edited from 1969 to 1978.

Those who were never privileged to know Ken Wilson, who died in 2016, missed meeting perhaps one of the most controversial and influential figures of the British mountaineering scene in the last half century. His brusque approach did not always win him friends, but as a climbing publisher he was pre-eminent and his final effort, a total re-vamp of ‘Classic Rock’ published shortly before his death was his 60th publication! There are so many stories surrounding him that I will only give a single illustration of how his character impacted on his fellow climbers. In 1972 he applied to be a member of the Alpine Club, an application which generated a previously unequalled wealth of correspondence. A group of members threatened to resign if he were ever to be elected, but those were offset by those who threatened to resign if he were NOT elected. Happily he was elected and his scene setting, original historic introduction in the new edition of ‘Hard Rock’ is included in full and gives some measure of the man.

Created from Ken Wilson's original photo of John Beck climbing the now departed upper section of Deer Bield Crag.
This new edition is truly impactful photographically with colour included throughout, but I would have kept a few of the original black/white prints, for instance Leo Dickinson’s picture of Gogarth’s ‘Dream of White Horses’ would have been a must to include for me; as it was for Wilson who on one occasion in a considered judgement awarded this as ‘One of the ten best of all climbing pictures!’ Black/White is sometimes more atmospheric, more moody and sharp edged than colour. The original ‘Hard Rock’ included sixty climb essays, this new edition has sixty-three, but some of the originals have been dropped, including Kilnsey Overhang and The Scoop of Strone Ulladale, the first by Dave Nicol the second by Doug Scott. But their essays appear at the end of the book, as an addendum removed by the fact they are now climbs outside the grades of this volume, existing today as high standard free climbs. Two other originals which have also been axed, really hurt for one is the North Crag Eliminate of Castle Rock, pioneered in 1952 by Harold Drasdo and myself (I was 16 years old at that date), and Deer Bield Buttress, Arthur Dolphins masterful 1951 climb, the essay for which was also by Harold, one of the best in the original book, for both routes have now subsequently fallen down! 
The original essays were by some of the then best known personalities of the British climbing world; Hamish MacInnes, Pete Crew, Chris Bonington, Ed Ward Drummond, Al Alvarez, Ian McNaught-Davis, Jim Perrin, Allan Austin etc but it was the lesser known in 1974 who for me wrote some of the most memorable ones, e.g. Dave Cook on the North West Girdle at Almscliff and Robin Campbell writing about Swastika on the Etive Slabs. Other stand out originals were Royal Robbins on ‘A Dream of White Horses’ and Jimmy Marshall on Carnivore, the first because it is about an ascent Royal made of the climb partnered by Ken Wilson, and he so captured his character in his writing, wittily but kindly and the second because it was such a breakthrough Scottish climb in which he wrote of how Pat Walsh presented him with his piton hammer, left hanging by Jimmy off a retreat peg, after he had made a second ascent attempt on the route; for I was the one who partnered Pat on the occasion when we had actually succeeded. 

I hasten to add that Jimmy soon returned and he too sent the route. And in passing (once more), in the late 1950’s Walsh was amongst the most outstanding rock climbers in the UK. One of the ‘great’ climbs in Hard Rock is Shibboleth, Robin Smith’s route on the Slime Wall of the Buachaille Etive Mor. Pat had opened up that feature long before Robin, and he felt you could climb it almost anywhere! At a desperate standard; Joe ‘Morty’ Smith and I experienced real difficulties whilst attempting to repeat his climbs for so vague were his verbal descriptions. 
The routes included in this new edition stretch across the Scottish Highlands and Islands (including the Old Man of Hoy and Pabbay), the Lake District, The Pennines, The Peak, North and South Wales, and down to South West England; and the climbs chosen include Mountain Walls, Gritstone Outcrops and some epic sea cliff adventures. It includes thirteen routes and essays by nine new authors (which were not in the original), some at a higher grade than the earlier editions which were aimed at the trad connoisseurs range of VS to E2. I think these would be within the capabilities of a majority of climbers, but E3 or E4 has to be a maybe? Unless there has been a vast grade swing upward in the last decade? Of the new authors a couple really did grab me, Dave Pickford writing about Swanage and two climbs at the Boulder Ruckle, one by an old mate Richard Crewe; Mars. I had the ‘grip’ of pioneering a new route with Richard at that cliff, and our equipment included peg hammers with curved picks to climb out up the last section of loose ground to the finish, and Kevin Howett writing about the Vulcan Wall on Skye. Originally pioneered by another old mate Ian Clough and Hamish MacInnes, the latter I first met on the Cobbler in 1951 as a 15 year old. 
The Author soloing on the Pembroke cliffs
For me the whole book is a climb down memory lane, so many friends from the original have now departed the scene and re-reading about their great climbs, Whillans on Extol, Pete Biven on Moonraker, Dolphin on Kipling Groove, Tony Barley on Carnage, and Nat Allen writing about Peak classics like the Chee Tor Girdle etc (I lived at Nat’s mothers house in Derby for three and a half years) brought them back in their pomp for me. One figure resplendent, who still remains with us, is the Baron; Joe Brown. I speak to him regularly by ‘phone, but I can guess anyone reading ‘Hard Rock’ and coming new into the sport as a newcomer must think on reading ‘Hard Rock’ how could one climber pioneer so many of the most outstanding rock climbs in this country? The 1950’s were his decade, and the 1960’s almost the same, in no other sport do I know where one participant has been such an influence for such a long period. We both agree that to be active in those decades was indeed a happy accident of birth. 
Being a pedant I feel I need to provide some further information for Frank Cannings who wrote the essay about Suicide Wall/Bow Wall on Bosigran in Cornwall. He was correct that on the first ascent on the crux pitch of the first route, Peter Biven, stood on Trevor Peck’s head and placed a peg for aid to gain a pair of cracks leading up to the next stance. He also mentions in his article that The Rock and Ice Club visited Cornwall in 1957. On that visit Joe Brown and I, were guided on occasion by Biven and Peck and we all four made the third ascent of Suicide Wall. Joe led the route including the crux free, and Peter and Trevor joined our rope, not wishing to try to emulate Brown’s free lead of the crux. So Brown led the first free ascent of the Suicide Wall. Readers may be interested to know that I had been to Cornwall in 1956, and met on that occasion a very ancient A.W. Andrews who is acknowledged as the original pioneer of sea cliff climbing in this country, and my waywardness in spending my precious holiday time climbing in an area such as West Penwith was met with scorn by Don Whillans. ‘You should save climbing in such areas until your old and past it!’ he advised when we agreed to go to Cornwall in 1957; Don was heading for Masherbrum! 

I noted in Cannings article that he seemed surprised that we did not achieve more on our visit, but in those days we all worked and enjoyed restricted holidays. So a week in Cornwall was as much as most could manage. Joe by then had his own, one man property repairing business, so he could afford to stay on after we left, and he pioneered the first section of Bow Wall but could not find anyone to second him up the rest of that route. 

Leo Dickinson's classic shot of Ed Drummond and Dave Pearce on the first ascent of A dream of White Horses
So all in all, this ‘Hard Rock’ is a worthy successor to all that has gone before. I can imagine Ken Wilson looking at this from on high and doubtless he would have something to add on incorporating some ideas into the new edition of the book. It is fitting that Ian Parnell has been the one to take this on; for I would guess that in Ken’s eyes he would be a ‘real’ climber, with many different disciplines under his belt; of bold and badly protected leads on British cliffs, a pioneer of Scottish winter routes, an ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, and outstanding success in the Himalaya etc. Wilson would have revelled in that? Finally the books, layout and quality, is what we have come to expect of Vertebrate. The line drawing end papers by Malc Baxter add to the whole excellent appearance of the work. But as a tight wad I am wondering if the price of £39.95 is one that will put it out of reach of most of the young and or the impecunious? However maybe a case might be made that in view of the dreaded coronavirus; a grant to purchase might be forthcoming from the DHSS to help any such activist while away their boredom whilst in self imposed isolation? 

Dennis Gray: 2020 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020


El Capitan-Original Photo- Mike Murphy

An Open Letter From Ed Drummond

The following relates to an attempt in October, 1984 by Ed Drummond to solo El Capitans's North America Wall, and his rescue,after days in a snowstorm, a pitch short of easy ground below the summit. Two other climbers died on the nearby route-Zodiac-in the same storm.

Epilogue: To Search and Rescue Officers Mike Murray, John Dill and all SAR Personnel, National Park Service, Yosemite, California. 

Dear John, Officer Murray and all SAR people...

It's now almost a month since — in a very I real sense — you all brought me back to life. The operation was difficult. After two weeks alone on the North American Wall, I had become a possibly terminal patient in the grip of a condition so overwhelming, as to render it almost impossible for a team to even get near me, let alone operate: ice on the brow of the captain, the sudden relapse of snow that forced even the most skilful and experienced climbers to inch their way for hours tied together, where in summer they could amble with their hands in their pockets. The first October snow in 20 years. It was like trying to get blood from a stone. And I was a long way down. Too far I had begun to think, sunken beneath great overhangs like some pitiful heretic, shivering, beginning to repent. I started to call out, almost embarrassed to be raising my voice: to a  gap in the cloud, to a toy-red and white helicopter spiralling past, wondering if they a could lip-read but worried that they might think I was simply hailing them good-day and a not drowning in the bathtub that my porterledge had become. And to the drab valley floor with its sudden lichen of onlookers.  I — and to the cloudy void where the wind was lurching like a drunk smashing bottle after bottle of distilled water at the wall and tearing a at my fly until that hymen of self-assurance, intact these forty years, had started to come apart... I, I,.... well I, at first shyly, then shamefully — suddenly — savagely — desperately — miraculously — screamed.. "Help! . . . Help!"

I had heard that there were two others in trouble on the Zodiac. And some haunted, hurt part of me knew, just knew, they'd go for double, rather than one on the NA. I in became my own dentist: 'get what I deserve',poking in childhood cavities I'd forgotten I had, living in California these past eight years after chilly Britain. Then I'd start grabbing the drill and imagine I heard voices right next to to my head, like the couple next door . . . to Nothing. 

I'd listen again . . . Just footsteps in my a chest. The pipes kept running. Does hearing go first?  An hour. Two. Three. The web of suspension straps inside the hanging tent had become chains of ice-water. My sleeping bag, like a shrunken mummy in some flooded museum, was oozing through my hands. I had eaten all my food. Is insolite edible? I imagined not, and given the rate of loss of my core heat, even the vomit would be cold. I envisaged the headlines in the National  Enquirer: "Man Saves Life by Eating Bed". And the tawdry photograph of me with the ectoplasmic taco, grinning . . . But the bizarre  scenario helped me stay awake for a minute and generate the idea of padding my back with  insolite. Then a roll inside each trouser leg.  Pretty soon I looked like some punk Galbraith  with my hang dog face and bean pole limbs. Intellectually and emotionally I was a scarecrow — flash of a young man in Reagan country, sleeping beneath the freeway in San  Francisco last winter, with a sheet of cardboard over him. Why do I do this?

Something fluttered in my trousers. Greasy, slow bubbles down my thigh, not at all my usual colourful fart. And cold too. Now that alarmed me .. . Suddenly sleepy I tried to curl up — like when the bullies, Ormerod, Evans or Jeremy Bentley would corner me. I felt nine years old, just lying there in the freezing water, like I used to in the bath at home a long time ago. And wait and wait and wait for my mother to come and get me out and pat me, and dry me and warm me .. . Deep, soft, sweet, Death was brushing my hair, running its reptilian fingers across my  damp forehead, whispering in my grubby ears: "Relax, relax. Try to sleep." "He's here." Out of my mind, out of the flapping tent, hanging like a lynching as he swayed to fro, there he was: the other, thou, my not-me, the god-man with a radio, out in space at the end of a white and blue line, swimming in towards me, with the new moon on his shoulder. "How are you?" 

Words stick in my throat. John: young, shy, quietly competent as a carpenter straddling the roof beams as he comes in, hand over hand down my tied-in haul line and plugs me back in. I touch him. "Can you jumar?" "What about all your gear?" The rest is history and this story. How you all came back to me, one by one. Walt — Cagney-tough at the last edge, snapping pits and talking down the great north american wall that hung under us; Werner: silent, reassuring, with a wink in his eye as I dredged myself upwards. And then, now, there, here, all of you: grinning, grubby as pirates, efficient as pilots, snow sticking to your ears and beards, eyes shining: Gary, Des, Mike, Livia handing me her head torch — the clan, the tribe, my family I never really believed in or knew I belonged to — reaching for me, clipping me in, guiding, slapping me quietly on the back "Too bad, so close" — my eyes tighten, glowing, liquid, making their faces wavery, dream-like as they peer in, pushing, pulling me across dark, slick slabs and shepherding me past the boney rope in its integument of ice, through bottomless brush, feet dying a bit now in tight Fires, eddying upwards on faint trodden tracks through the fourteen inches that had clubbed the Sierras, to Paradise: huge, orange tongues, crackling logs, melting the snow, illuminating the big tents, licking the night. 
 Ed- Image John Cleare.

And two witches, with warm clothes, tending the fire, ladling from an ancient cauldron, dripping spaghetti over sourdough bread, passing dry socks, hot coffee and, unbelievably, when only the embers were glowing, large, flashy, red apples, under the stars, scattered like implacable dice. No matter — who can say whether for or against us? —I was home. Without all of you — from those in the office who made vital calls and kept the lines open; the drivers, the pilots, Jim and the camp people, those two women who'd downed tools from trail repair to go up in the snow and keep house in the night for total strangers, the climbers themselves; the anchor men, those at the edge, and John — you who all came in like surgeons, parting the dark blue void and the webs of red and blue knotted together, searching beneath the polypropylene clothing, inside the sodden sleeping bag and the funny reputation, for that unique, red flower, each carries from the cradle to the edge of cliff, fading and fountaining every second —without everyone of you, I would be dead. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Edwin Drummond 

Ed Drummond: January-1985

First published in High 

Friday, 28 February 2020

The Last Blue Mountain....Reviewed

The Last Blue Mountain: Ralph Barker. 232 pages Paperback
Perfect Bound £12.99. Re-Published by Vertebrate, Original in Hard Back by Chatto and Windus 1959.

I must go where the fleet of Stars is anchored and the young Star Captains glow’ James Elroy Flecker.

When the first edition of this work was published I like most others of the then climbing world were wondering who Ralph Barker was? There was a great antipathy in that era about non-climbers writing about mountaineering, even more so its tragedies, and Haramosh is one of the most poignant such events in our sports history. We were surprised to learn that Barker was a none climber, but had to admit he had written this daunting story in detail and with an accuracy of a kind rarely matched by someone who had not actually witnessed the events described. He had access to the personal diaries of the participants, and was able to interview the two survivors of the accident, the medical student John Emery and the soldier, expedition leader Tony Streather. ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ has remained for climbers of my generation the most gripping survival story of its genre, and also a most readable one when compared to the many formulaic ‘Expedition’ books that had appeared prior to its publication. 
The story begins with an Oxford University student Bernard Jillot, the President of that bodies mountaineering club proposing that they organise an expedition to the Himalaya. In 1957 that was a much more difficult proposition than it would be today, although the OUMC, founded in 1909 had many members over its years of existence who had taken part in major exploratory mountaineering ventures, and for instance Sandy Irvine of Everest fame was a member, but what Jillot was proposing was an Oxford University Expedition to reconnoitre and possibly to ascend ‘Haramosh’ a 24,270ft mountain in the Karakoram Himalaya. He recruited three other members of the OUMC to join him, his regular climbing partner John Emery, a New Zealander Rae Culbert and an American Scott Hamilton.
Left to Right..Tony Streather,Scott Hamilton,John Emery, Bernard Jillot.

Readers may be surprised at this International representation, but it is typical of the OUMC which even in recent times when I have attended at their gatherings the membership was made up of several different nationalities. Jillot was to soon find that organising such an expedition was no sine cure, and doubt about both the experience and strength of the party emerged once he started applying for support and permission. He was recommended to seek an older person to be the leader, someone with a good previous Himalayan climbing record, and he decided to invite Tony Streather to take this on. The latter had summited Tirich Mir in 1950 with a Norwegian Expedition, been a member of the American attempt to K2 in 1953 and had gone to the top of Kanchenjunga in 1955 as a member of Charles Evans (another OUMC member) British Expedition to that mountain. Streather a Professional soldier who had stayed on in Pakistan post independence had good contacts in that country that would smooth permission and travel arrangements, and though he had then only recently married and fathered a son, he could not resist the invitation to lead such a party into his favourite part of the mountain world.

Barker makes a good job of introducing into the narrative the character and personality of each of the expedition members as the story unfolds. We learn Jillot is a somewhat driven character, having gained entrance into Oxford’s dreaming spires from a working class background in Huddersfield, and that at 23 years old his life was dominated by climbing, especially ascending hard rock routes in Britain. John Emery also 23 years old was from an entirely different background to Jillot, his schooling being via a high grade Public School, but with other keen interests besides mountaineering; fencing (he was Captain of his College’s team), medicine, literature etc. Rae Culbert the Kiwi was studying Forestry and at 25 years old he was perhaps the most mature of the four OUMC members; he had good mountain experience in his home country working for its Forest Service, whilst the American Scott Hamilton at 29 though the oldest of the four had not had as much experience of wilderness as Culbert, but he had good climbing skills gleaned in the USA. And he gelled well with Jillot whose rock climbing ability he admired, but found John Emery the person he most liked and enjoyed being with. 

In retrospect although one could imagine Jillot and Streather on occasion having disagreements over strategy on the mountain, they were as a well together team as one might expect for a party who apart from the leader had no Himalayan experience.
Haramosh even in 1957 was easily approachable from Gilgit, in fact you can see the mountain from that viewpoint, and a few days of travel and walking, led to the team setting up their base in the Kutwal valley, under the mountain, well aided by some local porters, including some Hunzas who were to help establish their lower camps. Unfortunately they were extremely unlucky with the weather, and delay followed delay due to this. But finally in mid-September they had established a Camp lV high on the mountain circa 20,000ft under Haramosh ll. The delays now meant there was little hope of summiting the main Peak, the best they could do was reconnoitre the route for the future as their planned for time was running out.

Rae Culbet
15th September found Jillot, Emery, Streather and Culbert all at Camp lV deciding how best to proceed, up or down. But Jillot and Emery with the agreement of Streather decided to climb further up the North East Ridge they were set below to scope the difficulty of the route from there on, and get some pictures of this. Watching from Camp lV Streather and Culbert were horrified to watch as suddenly the slope that their friends were mounting, started to move, welled up into a huge avalanche taking them with it up and then down the other side of the ridge. Climbing up onto the ridge Streather was amazed to see a 1000 ft below him, in a sort of basin set in the surrounding cliffs, a figure emerge out of the avalanche debris and stand up, and realised it was Jillot, who then moved across the snowy mass to pull Emery out of the icy blocks that were holding him fast. Unfortunately they had lost their ice axes, and other equipment and Emery his gloves.

There was nothing that Streather and Culbert could do that day, but they prepared a rucksack, put in their down equipment and other warm clothing and pushed it off down the slope towards their stricken companions, but they watched helplessly as it landed into a deep crevasse, which was unreachable by its intended recipients who were now faced with a night in the open with no warm outer clothing. This was the start of this terrible tragedy, for the next day Streather and Culbert tried to climb down to them, but Culbert lost a crampon and they also fell into the basin. And like their companions they also had lost their axes. 
Trying to climb out on the 16th September the whole party fell, twice more, this ascent being complicated by it being necessary to make a long exposed traverse from right to left, to avoid a set of steep cliffs. Finally on the 17th September Jillot and Emery managed to climb out but it took them so long they arrived in darkness at the top of the ice slope whilst still seeking Camp lV. Moving around without lights and unroped; first Jillot fell over the ridge again not realising he was on a cornice that gave way, and on this occasion this led to his certain death and this was followed so terribly by Emery falling down a crevasse.

Nearing the north-east ridge. The track bends to the left over the snow bridge crossing the crevasse in the foreground and then winds up towards the ice cliffs to the right of the Cardinal’s hat.Nearing the north-east ridge. The track bends to the left over the snow bridge crossing the crevasse in the foreground and then winds up towards the ice cliffs to the right of the Cardinal’s hat.
Meanwhile Streather and Culbert following on behind fell again for Culbert could not climb the icy slopes on a single crampon. 
Streather then decided to climb out on his own, thinking Jillot and Emery would be safely at Camp lV and ready to return for Culbert having refreshed on food and most importantly liquid. This latter is so important at high altitude, and they had not managed such for two days. Emery with a last desperate effort managed to get out of the crevasse he had fallen into, and subsequently found the tents at Camp lV. But his hands were so badly frostbitten he could not make a drink, light a primus or get his boots and crampons off and he collapsed unconscious in the tent doorway and it was there that Streather was to find him. 

In their enfeebled condition there was no way they could go back for Culbert, for Emery could not stand on his own and it took them two days in recovery before they could begin to descend. Fortunately Scott Hamilton had stayed on at Camp 3 guessing something must have gone wrong, but in helping Emery and Streather off the mountain, he too was involved in a forced bivouac with them above the ice fall, and they were not safe until the Hunzas came up to their Camp l to help assist Emery and Streather descend to their Base Camp.

So ends this heart-rending story? But not really for just imagine the thought of having to leave one of your friends behind, just because of a faulty crampon strap, how that must have ranged on the survivors minds? And John Emery’s rehabilitation and recovery from his terrible frostbite injuries was just beginning once back in Britain, for eventually he lost all his toes, and finished with a flap of flesh and a stub for fingers and a thumb. He still managed to qualify as a Doctor in 1959 and married that same year to Sara. I later became friends with Emery when I was the Secretary of The Alpine Climbing Group, and he was our Treasurer. I spent some hours in various pubs in the climbing areas of this country with John at our meetings, but I soon learnt not to waste time feeling sorry for him for he was always so cheerful, though I never, much to my regret dared to ask him his feelings about the Haramosh Expedition; but a good memory is of him telling at one of our gatherings of his joy in climbing ‘Longland’s’ on Cloggy a previous weekend. 
 Diagram of the routes from base camp

John returned to Alpine climbing in 1960 and over the next few seasons climbing with an American friend David Sowles he ascended many classic routes such as the Ferpecle Arete on the Dent Blanche and the Cresta Rey on Monte Rosa. Unfortunately in 1963 having successfully climbed the Schalligrat- Nordgrat traverse of the Weisshorn; on the descent they were caught in a Lightning storm, causing a fall from which both perished. John’s death affected me deeply and I wrote a tearful condolence letter to Sara at this event, and I am sure all my colleagues in the ACG felt the same. A wonderful tribute is included in this new edition of ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ by including at the end of the story, John’s article, ‘The Runcible Cat’ about his passion for climbing and his return to the sport after Haramosh although like Edward Lear’s cat he also had no toes!

Tony Streather made a remarkable recovery and continued with his military career, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He led the successful Army Mountaineering Association 1976 Expedition to Everest, and he was President of The Alpine Club 1990-1992, he died in 2018 at the age of ninety-two. Haramosh was climbed in 1958 by a strong Austrian party; the long ridge from the scene of the accident took them eight days to overcome. They paid tribute to the help the OUMC reconnaissance had made in their success.

Haramosh Peak.
The Last Blue Mountain’ phrase comes from a poem by James Elroy Flecker, who it might seem has the right words to impart to any group setting out on a dangerous enterprise, including the SAS from this country and those same kind of units from India and Israel. That is why I precluded this review by another quote by him. Because I was privileged to know John Emery, this book holds a special place in my psyche, but it is an epic tale of friendship and tragedy and one I believe deserves to be on every climber’s book list. 

Dennis Gray: 2020. 

Photographs Provided courtesy of the Streather Family.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Death,Logging and Life


If the word ‘death’ were absent from our vocabulary, the great works of literature would have remained unwritten…creativity and pathology of man are two faces of the same medal, coined in the same evolutionary mint’. Arthur Koestler.

Hey John, still climbing?” “What are you doing back here?” Reply, “Losing my tan.” “How’s the art?”

Usual one liners on my return to Llanberis. I had popped over to mourn and celebrate the passing of a friend, Andy Pollitt. For some time I had been saying to myself, ‘go see him before it’s too late’. It certainly was too late for his ashes already coat the Arapiles. But, having a stroke, in the bar, beer in hand amongst friends sounds about right for a deal with death. Gathered in the Mowberry Bar in Sheffield were the semi-aged climbing elite of the 80’s and 90’s. Although most seemed to be fairly fit and still active and involved in the climbing world business, most conversations were centred around arthritis, the cold dampness of Sheffield and trips to dry Spain, new knee joints, new hip joints, sports physiotherapy, massage, memory loss and worse. The worse comprising of diabetes, heart operations, cancer diagnosis, self-catheterisation and attempted suicide. No mention of anxiety, depression or stress, surely the precursor for most illnesses? For some, unable to lift a kettle or perform simple domestic duties, but managing to climb 7b plus is a workout to disintegration. 

For the minority, no ageing seems to have taken place, but dietary needs were enthusiastically talked about as if they were a life-support machine. I had thought that at least one name had died, so was pleasantly elated to converse with a voice ‘from the past’. I mentioned that the climbing culture needs a ferryman, a reaper, who goes around and collects personal messages, the words chosen by the climbers upon the event of their own death, kept in an archive ready for use upon departing. Every year there should be a gathering of these lifeforms, the Andy Day, where life’s gems and troubles, injuries and disabilities are celebrated and messages reaffirmed or brought up to date. The class of the 80’s and 90’s gradually descending into joyful extinction. In this sporting gathering you will find, I am sure, the same if not more illnesses as you would in a heroin rehabilitation centre.

Andy Pollitt:Image-John Kirk

I understand the workout to disintegration, ‘forcing the heart, nerve and sinew’, not in a climbing sense as I never pushed too hard, but in an essential sense - a workout with the woodland as my gymnasium. By this I mean no disrespect to the woodland in relation to the banal enterprise of sport related fitness and exercise. I refer to logging, an outdoor pursuit more suitable to my spectrum’ssensibilities of what survival means. The woodland is steep and access is only by foot and carry-outs difficult and becoming longer. This steep terrain is closed canopy and is streaked with the pale skeletal trunks of dead chestnut. Like ghostly white antlers forking above a green sea, they have had their day, dry and brittle, their bark pealed off like papyrus, standing up as if suddenly shocked to death, almost beer in hand. Their youngsters are already forming their own tight canopy with glossy, broad leaves spreading out to reduce precious sunlight filtering down to competitors eager and alert for a way in. Youth eh.

The chestnut is a survivors tree, planted as a measure to control erosion, for its nuts, flour, culinary and medicinal use. Great for bees, and getting wild boar ‘drunk’ and gnarly, it produces strong building timber, but its chief advantage is for seasoned, hardwood fuel to feed the woodburners. Keep the hearth burning is my heartfelt mantra, the soul of the home and one’s connectivity with the land. There is nothing more important… Politics and religion is not how we survive… we survive by knowing that the earth and us are a complete sentient being… we are the dwelling…

My workout is simple. I log till I drop. It is a full body workout involving every muscle in the body and yes, muscles ache, the heart pumps, tendons fail and sinews struggle to lift that proverbial kettle in the kitchen. It is my campus board, chalkless, shared with ravens, snakes and wild boar. For this, my approach has to be logistical. I work out the access through the woodland, cutting steps on steeper sections as and where necessary. I fell five or six dead trees and saw into six foot lengths. Half the tree is left to decompose. This amounts to about eighteen carries, each the weight of a small child. On this terrain, falling is expected, normally controlled, but sometimes a lurch for the chainsaw brake is missed and a dangerous, painful tumble onto rocks, spiny burrs and colonies of ants are remembered. The large leaf of the chestnut is extraordinarily slippy and carpets the land as thick as a gym mat. Lucky so far. I meet the hoofed footfall of deers, the sprung, predator intent of badgers, foxes and creatures unknown in passing, as the speckled sun contours their foot-shape and movement up and down the hill. A large cat print the size of a fist joined my bruised elbow after a silly fall. 

A lynx undoubtedly. Since moving onto this land I have seen her twice, and twice a brief and glassy stare joins us. The established naturalists in this area refer to the ‘phantom lynx’, cat of a few sightings but supposedly extinct in this area. Stabbed, scraped, bitten and stung, probed by antennae, among worms, borers and blights, I am branded under the aegis of the green world. I think of pathogens and microbes that slithered off prehistoric creatures. I laugh upon every fall, every nose-dive into scrub and soil, every branch on high that knocks me off my feet, is surely a celebration of living and belonging here. As a stumbling creature of the woodland I am sure the griffin vultures are keeping their noses open for my final move, and meanwhile, alarmed or amused at my behaviour and methods of keeping warm. Every night the ‘tea-tree and a needle’ expel the bits of woodland that have penetrated my fingers.

Threshing Circle

Dropping down here, chainsaw idling until empty of gas, chewed and chomped and dismembered by creatures better than I, is my idea of a beer in hand in the pub among friends… ‘eaten where he fell, they said’. Delicious.

Meanwhile, until then, there is carrying, and keeping warm. I drop the gears down after six or seven trips, slowly becoming more exhausted with the carries and almost stop. The will to energise is in itself a fascinating business. Being a slave to the consciousness of the job is a weary business, but when stepping out of this obvious role into more of a ‘dream’ role, meaning is altogether more rejoicing. This instant glimpse of joy is strangely harder to find than the fatigue that comes with the doubt of each step and the pain of stopping. That this doubt is so much easier to fall into is surely a human trait, a brain fault? I find that any movement, in leaf, grass, branch or bird help in the effort. There always seems to be a single leaf nearby, waving frantically as if sprung-coiled or animated by unseen pixies. The overflow from the source, bursting deep through the earth’s structure, flowing, gurgling, alive and free, inspires energy and meaning, and a final push to the chopping camp.

We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey’. William James.

I think the process of moving through the woodland is like the pushing and mixing of paint on the palette, but its meaning, the work in question belongs to a more objective, esoteric reasoning, where both the logs and the painting can seem like a by-product…

The psychological and motivational approach to achievement and success in sport that I see as belonging to reptilians and professional cyborgs may have a place for the hunter gatherer here. I recall the task of carrying down 2000 slates from a mountain in Wales -

Some days my resources to cope with the effort were infinite and on others such resources could not be tapped… the task was like mountaineering, summoning the energy whilst knowing that there is no summit or goal to attain, only numbers to count. Following through when hit by fatigue eventually creates this control over the messy business of accounting or attempts at routine that try to package the effort…’

I had reached one thousand and sixty eight slates. This was the problem. I had no heart to continue. I had created a mental block that took two thousand as the next aim. I had taken a month to date, and, with four trips a day, should already have two thousand. Thinking of another whole month exhausted me and drained all my spirit and will. I knew from previous days that to think in these terms made the going slow and laborious. I had to ‘tone down’ to the realistic aims of another hundred slates. That is a maximum of three days. Three days were a manageable mental proposition…’

So, surveying the hill, logistically thinking, I worked out a line that took in two camps. A complete trip from logging to base is too demanding, knowing there are eighteen more long trips. The break between camps is crucial and gives space to consider that before me is a world hardly known. I force my energy against the weight of gravity and gases above knowing there is sensational stuff above and below my feet, small stuff, ancestral organisms, spores, just getting on with it…waiting patiently to seek an entry or not…and make soil. When people talk of there being no more wildlife left, I say hang on, get a microscope, just look under my fingernails. 

In my experience, the topmost of the trees are more likely to contain colonies of ants. These habitats are sawn and left, together with the bark and it’s black millipedes that scamper out of fissures menacingly. I often made the mistake of shoulder carrying a length without checking its inhabitants, only to find rashes and bites throughout my torso. This territorial invasion can last for days, as the clothing is brought into the house. Each ‘toddler’ that I carry to the chopping block is a world. It is a thriving business, a habitat in its present form for a short while still. Regardless of the sawdust that goes in the compost toilet, and the ash that is spread on the garden and the logs that fire the woodburners, they are home, food and shelter for a myriad of creatures living off the dead and dying.

There are a few really old Spanish Chestnuts, with wide bases, cleaved apart, exposing a core of dead wood. They are grounded, steady, but gnarled, spiralling creatures, twisting to their own dance. The heartwood is a nacromass, a gathering of dominant lifeforms and matter, locked in and held tight by its life-giving folds, looking dead to us, but is a biomass-bank store for its sustainable future and progeny, stored safe from other plants.

There is fullness and plentitude here, and the more I sit by it and contemplate the richness and mystery of it’s being and spirit, the more I consider the planetary habitat of our own being, the Magna Mater and myths of origin. I cannot see that the unfolding of human life as I look around me in the world, the confusion and chaos and hatred so manifest, is remotely connected with that before me, but perhaps I am wrong. We seem to have departed that guided tour of experience sponsored by what I would like to describe as ‘a sacred instruction’. It is like we are full of ourselves, of nonsense, busy, holy, negligent, left with no trace, or way of knowing our ancient story, and travelled to another planet where we can do what the hell we want, reap havoc, instill fear and kill for the sake of…because we can…be clever and dangerous…strong, cocky and holder of the fire. As I sat there, as if in the company of Aeons, imagining the human genome created by ‘galactic’ minds of the Pleroma, drifting as thoughts and ideas and jokes and future washing machines and coffee grinders into terrestrial materialism…with life emerging, and to all intents and purposes, fucking up, seemingly.

I like the visions here, sat, still, looking, working dreams into the necramass, the poetry of our own meaning and purpose. This has no name I guess apart from the language known to me through what is called art. If we evolved from this ‘death’, the microbes and bacteria, the small microbiomes, protozoa that are us, seeking, probing, multiplying, forcing their agenda, fighting their cause, and on and on and on, do not be alarmed at today’s conflicts and war…Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc etc etc, or climate change, or indeed, the ease of catching a cold or virulent bugs. In my visions, there are also migrants and the homeless here, waiting a chance encounter to be churned out of their ‘holding’ camp in the soil, or blown by a favourable wind…or not. 

Abiogenesis of Acari

In 1837, Andrew Crosse reported to the London electrical Society concerning the accidental spontaneous generation of life in the form of Acurus genus insects while he was conducting experiments on the formation of artificial crystals by means of prolonged exposure to weak electric current. Throughout numerous strict experiments under a wide variety of conditions utterly inimical to life as we know it, the insects continued to manifest. The great Michael Faraday also reported to the Royal Institute that he had replicated the experiment. Soon afterwards, all notice of this phenomenon ceased to be reported, and the matter has not been resolved since then’.

Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were any other than an incipient mineral formation; but it was not until the 28th day, when I plainly perceived these little creatures move their legs, that I felt any surprise, and I must own that when this took place, I was not a little astonished. In the course of a few weeks, about a hundred of them made their appearance on the stone.

Andrew Crosse

John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges. December 2019

All images- John Redhead apart from John Kirk photograph

Taken from a forthcoming collection of essays 'Amuse-Bouche for the Hero Gone Bent'