Friday 11 February 2022

A’Chreag Dhearg. Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens: Reviewed


Simon Stewart climbing in Glen Clova;Image-Simon Stewart

 A’Chreag Dhearg. Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens. Compiled by Grant Farquhar.376 pages, paperback, drawn on cover, perfect bound. Scottish Mountaineering Press. £20. Ilustrated throughout by black/white, colour photographs.

They shattered the spell of the mighty Dr Bell, they were all good men and true’

From a song by Tom Patey

When I lived in Scotland in the 1960’s the southern aspect of the Cairngorm massif was hardly known to my Edinburgh companions of the Squirrel’s. Although I used to go to Dundee regularly on business, climbing on the Arbroath sea cliffs on occasion en route, I had not then heard of the climbing revolution that was under away in the Angus Glens. I stayed in nearby Broughty Ferrry where the big attraction was the Folk Club, highlighting Ewan MacColl (I was to learn later that he was from Salford where he was known as Jimmy Millar). So this book, compiled by Grant Farquhar is revelatory and was a joy to read by this old timer.

The first articles in this compilation illustrate the story of the area, that Dundee used to be the centre of the manufacturing of Jute, and that in the First World War, its denizens were very much the recruiting City of the Black Watch regiment, which suffered many number of deaths and injury. We also learn a little of the family history of the compiler of this volume, a local boy; a Dundonian who now resides in the Bahamas but who has a track record of difficult ascents around the UK, and an equally impressive CV as a climbing writer.

Also surprisingly related in this book, there was one of the first access battles, when the regular route, through all the way to Ballater and Braemer from Forfar (the name by which the whole Angus region is known) was blocked by the Landowner. This ended in the Court in Edinburgh, and the claimants won one of the most important cases, in the history of the outdoor movement. This known as the battle for Jock’s Road, so well recounted by Des Hannigan, a local climber who made his name further south on the Cornish sea cliffs. In January 1959 occurred a terrible tragedy following the route from Braemar, along the Jock’s road to Forfar, a distance over 18 miles, and which goes over the 3,000 foot contour. The party of five became lost in worsening conditions and eventually perished; there was wide publicity at that time and led to the present day mountain rescue in the district.

The early mountaineering in the area was at the initiative of the SMC, meets were held at the home of Hugh Munro (a baronet no less) whose family seat was near Kirriemuir, whose name is now so aligned with his list of peaks in Scotland over 3000 feet, published in that clubs journal in 1891.There is a photograph in the book of a five strong party roped together, in winter conditions on the Forfar hills. Whatever global warming is affecting our winters now, in the latter years of the 19th century, the snow and ice could be counted on by these stalwarts. Another famous figure who lived close by was J M Barrie author of the Peter Pan stories, although he was not a climber, inevitably quotes from his work appear with some regularity within this book. 

Simon Stewart belaying Grant Farquhar on 'The Fuerer'- E4-5c, Craig Dubh: Photo Graham Ettle

One of the outstanding pioneers to emerge from this area was JHB Bell, who pioneered some of the great climbs on Ben Nevis, besides local classics in the Angus Glens like Maud Buttress. He was also a writer of some distinction. I can remember how his book, ‘Bell’s Scottish Climbs’ published by Gollancz was well received when it appeared in 1988.

And so the scene is set for what must have been one of the most action packed groups to emerge from a big City to find their way into climbing, winter and summer. A group of teenagers, none who had been on any kind of course, who came into the sport a traditional way, learning by their mistakes, but from the first keen to explore, to new route, but most of all to enjoy themselves and find out what the boundaries were to their lives. They came together and tongue in cheek, called themselves; ‘The Men of Steel’, and many appear in the mss as only their nick names; Dr Evil (Grant), Pot, Hendo etc. One without a nick name but one of the keenest new routers was Simon Stewart. In his writings he claims that he was never the best climber of the group but his new routes on the cliffs of Glen Cova bear a witness to his abilities at that time.

They based themselves in the Carn Dearg Mountaineering Club hut in Glen Clova, and they also became regulars at the pub in that valley. This was in the mid 1980’s, and illustrates how much climbing is now changed with the popularity of indoor walls, diets, training, fitter, stronger, faster. At a later date some of the Men of Steel found places in Dundee; buildings they could climb on notably the walls of the Engineering Department of the University, but they were probably amongst the last groups to find out what climbing was all about by themselves?

We are brought up short by the chapter on the ‘Life of Reilly’, this tells of the story of the twins Ged and Ian Reilly. By this date some of the Angus climbers were travelling further afield. 21st January 1978 Ian Reilly and 19 year old Brian Simpson fell from off a route in the inner corrie of Creag Meagaidh. Ged who was in the area on that day went looking for his brother. By the time they were found it was too late, and both had succumbed to their injuries and the cold. Ged despite this terrible accident still climbs.

In a book of such length there is only space to concentrate on articles that give the feeling of the work, so I will only highlight the ones which I think were typical of the whole.

The first is by Grant Farquhar himself and is titled ‘The Pale Rider’ and goes out on a limb deciding how dangerous climbing really is? This thoughtful article had its genesis, in an e-mail from Simon Stewart. In that he noted that the three most experienced and oldest climbers who he had ever climbed with, Andy Nisbet, Martin Moran and Doug Lang had all died at great ages in climbing accidents. This posited the question do climbers become more at risk as they grow old?

Grant is a psychiatrist so well able to pontificate on risk taking, and he comes to the conclusion that climbing is not as dangerous as some would believe, and for instance other activities like Base Jumping are much so. As someone who gave some lectures on this subject I would say that there are now different levels of risk involved in the activities. Sport climbing should be safe, trad rock climbing less so, winter climbing even more so, with the most dangerous being greater range mountaineering with Himalayan the most demanding in this respect. Freud inevitably is included in Farquhar’s musings, with both, Libido, the sex drive and Thanatos the death wish mentioned. His conclusion that we are all going to die in any case is true and though most of us try to avoid facing up to this, his advice is to enjoy our lives and to get out climbing.

This leads on to the terrible accident on Creag Dubh, under the title Redemption on Creag Death which befell Simon Stewart in the early part of 1987. Pushing his grades he set out on a route on the main wall, Acapulco a badly protected E4. When I lived in Edinburgh it was a favourite haunt of the Squirrels. Bugs McKeith and I even soloed the frozen water course which splits the crag one winter, and with Dave Bathgate I made one or two first ascents. It is a difficult cliff protection wise and unfortunately when Stewart fell off Acapulco what gear he had pulled and he hit the ground and was badly injured. Fortunately a mountain rescue team were training nearby and he was lifted by chopper to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, somewhere that has poignant memories for me for it was where I first met my future wife, who on her way to ski in the Cairngorms was involved in a road accident. It was to be thirty years before Simon climbed again. The accident had the outcome that he concentrated on his University studies, and much to the surprise of his lecturers he became an outstanding student which led him to eventually become a Professor. Much of his early climbing and first ascents was with fellow female student, CAMS. In 1992 his reverie was to be interrupted by a ‘phone call from fellow Men of Steel member, Graeme Ettle informing him that CAMS, Cathy had died in the Himalaya.

The final article I would like to highlight from this book is by Sophie Grace Chappell on the naming of climbs. Many climbers have previously used this has a theme for such, but Sophie has an unusual take on this with the titles of many pop and wider musical pieces, even old music hall favourites. How climbs are named is often the source of much discussion, usually it is up to those making the first ascent to do this, but in the case of Glen Clova it is revealed in this book that many of the new routes are named in keeping with already existing challenges.

Andy Nisbet in his natural environment

The book almost finishes with a poem by Sophie in memoriam to Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry, two leading Scottish mountaineers who died on Ben Hope in February 2019, and ends with a list of the sources from where some of the articles originate. The work involved in putting together such a compilation is impressive and Grant Farquhar is to be complimented on that. All profits from this are to go to the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, a Scottish charity whose task is to make grants to organisations that promote recreation, knowledge and safety on the mountains, especially the mountains of Scotland. 


Dennis Gray: 2022 

Monday 31 January 2022

Redemption on Creagh Death

Hermless, hermless,

There’s never nae bother frae me.

Naeb’dy would notice if I wasnae there,

And I didnae come hame for ma tea.

Hermless by Michael Marra

If you are prone to frustration getting the better of you, watch out.It can kill you.We’d climbed a lot already on the imposing walls of Creag Dubh. The routes werenotorious for their seriousness and there were often fallen, exploded sheep carcasses at the bottom, so it was also known as ‘Creag Death’. But, I liked the style: steep with positive holds, and we ticked classics like Inbred and The Hill without much drama.The Great Wall of Creag Dubh could only be surpassed, I thought, if it was relocated to Glen Clova.

By early 1987 I was going quite well on rock, technical 5b already in my rearview mirror. The guidebook to Creag Dubh seemed bursting with a ladder of routes that,literally, just needed climbing. A next-level standout for me was Acapulco, listed as an E4 6a roof pitch above a short 5b entry to the main event. Bruce, Graeme and I got dropped off one rather damp, grey Friday evening and pitched our tents in the trees below the crag.

Saturday morning dawned as grey as the night before. As was the case with my new routing enterprises, the prospect fully occupied my mind, visualizing obstacles and solutions based on whatever knowledge I had access to – the guidebook description in this case. As I lay in the tent, awake from first light, I’d already climbed the route 20 times in my mind when I gave up the fight to stay quiet and I went to the other tents rousing the team. Bruce was not inclined for immediate action. He was never bound by fashion or ethics of the day and would climb in his own time and his own way, following his own route. To his credit he never gave a damn what anyone thought of his approach to rock climbing but it is certain that you’d have to compromise on something, possibly a lot, if you wanted him to partner on one of your own missions. This was a mutual understanding so I didn’t linger outside Bruce’s tent and moved to Graeme’s which was also silent.

Some one-sided commentary on the conditions and options for the day aheadeventually raised some groans and, finally, acknowledgement that he was getting ready. I wandered back to my tent, crammed my rack and rope into the rucksack then embarked on the process of waiting, withdrawing into my layers from the damp and chilly air. Graeme’s approach to climbing is steady, methodical, and as he demonstrated in winter, often unstoppable. But this careful, stepwise approach clashed with my anxiety to jump to what I felt was the point. That morning I was unusually exasperated, fuelled by nervousness about taking on an ambitious route while coping with the energy-sapping damp chill in the air. After some time, that in truth wasn’t so very long, we were trudging up towards Waterfall Wall, the ground giving way to an awkward boulder field steepening up to crag.

Simon Stewart climbing Mental Crack in the Sidlaws: Photo Simon Stewart

It was difficult to locate the first pitch of the route, which wiggles up a short, blocky lower tier. The boulders below it are large and jagged, reminiscent of fractured sea ice and not conducive to comfortable seating for gearing up. Graeme unpacked and laid out his gear like a masterchef, examining everything and rearranging with precision required to underpin his customary success. Meanwhile I’m geared up, booted and pawing at the initial moves, looking for a first runner. Of course we haven’t done any warm up, the ascent to the crag produced a mild sweat but that is now cooling us off. At last the belay is on and I can go. I give up on the first runner, all the cracks being thin and blind and set off up the first couple of moves, heavy rack jangling around my waistbelt. The moves pass fairly easily but they are on sloping hand and foot holds, and are surmounted by momentum and belief that good holds are to come. But they don’t.

I wriggle in a tiny RP, barely enough to resist the gravitational pull of its quickdraw. Another move up, even more sketchy,that one felt irreversible,going from a sloping undercling to an extended position without any positive holds, the rock steep and bulging. Looking down, the scene looked bad, the ground consisting of a jumble of sharp, multimetre scale boulders that you couldn’t walk on without twisting an ankle.

The cold air was getting to me, making my fingers and toes numb, even though they were clammy with the realization that I was getting to be stuck. Logic told me to continue, I’d read so many times of climbers heroically facing a crunch and climbing through it to success. But it’s a biased dataset – the climbers who fail in these situations don’t write their stories because they’re dead. Opposite logic said that the higher I climbed, the worse it was going to be if and when I came off, given that I had, basically, no runners. I hesitated too long, trying to muster the clarity to proceed or at least make the best decision, eventually reckoning the least worst option was to descend. But I was pumped, numb and the rock was greasy. I made one move down, my feet back at the RP. Now came the move that had been difficult to climb, I knew it was 50/50, at best, to reverse it; I was still 20ft or so from the ground. I didn’t have the courage to make a jump to a controlled landing on the jagged rocks because broken bones were guaranteed. At least downclimbing offered a chance. But it didn’t work. My foot slipped and I was off, out of control, falling in a sitting position without a chair. I went straight down with no arrest from gear and landed back-first on a pointed shark’s fin of a boulder, the first two points of contact being my lower back and left hand. I remained conscious. Graeme and Bruce were there immediately asking if I was alright. I knew I wasn’t – I could move my toes which was good news, but I could only take shallow breaths. Vaguely aware of conversation I heard Bruce ask if he should get the mountain rescue.

‘Yes. Please. Now.’

It was obvious from what he could see that this was the real thing. I saw Bruce, man of the family, sprint down the hill and off towards the local hotel and the nearest phone. If you have a minor injury you get over the initial shock and work around it. More major and that initial shock is difficult to surmount. Add significant internal damage and you are getting worse with time, possibly without ever turning the corner. After a few minutes it was clear I was in the latter category. It was getting harder to remain conscious. My vision would go in and out of focus, the colours from regular to a yellowish monochrome. Graeme was right besideme, doing what he could but this was a personal struggle; my main injuries were unseen.

It took a supreme effort to remain conscious, I could feel myself getting weaker. I had to force myself to breathe, something was preventing my chest moving. I felt that if I went unconscious, no longer in control, that could be it. Nonetheless I was close to that point and would snap to, having been somewhere, aware that I wasn’t breathing. Graeme held my head; I couldn’t hold it up. In moments of lucidity after I’d snatched a few breaths, I could see, and accept, that I might not make it, that’s how it is when you face unknown odds. I wanted to survive and was fighting with all my will power but I was losing.

My thoughts in those clear moments were sadness and self-pity: here I was 18 years old and now I’d miss out on all the things, whatever they might be, that I my future once held. Friends and family? They’d be just fine without me. Then, I died. At least, that large part of me that was the forceful, impatient climber, left, taking one if not more of my nine lives with him. He left behind a wrecked body clinging to life with an unknown but surely profound set of broken bones and internal injuries.‘There’s a helicopter coming, you’ll be OK,’ said Graeme.

I was annoyed by this seeming fabrication but couldn’t talk anymore. Then I heard it, the sound of a Wessex chopper, familiar from so many times I’d seen the mountain rescue practising and operating in the hills. For me? I couldn’t understand how it could have appeared so quickly, even in that state I could compute that a straight line from Lossiemouth or Leuchars would be more time than I might have left.

In a supreme, unwarranted stroke of luck It happened that the mountain rescue had been on training that day within a few miles of us. A medic appeared and laid me out on a back brace, broken spine being an obvious possibility. Next I’m being winched up into the chopper. It’s loud and the medic is giving me shots. It’s a familiar trip for these guys to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness and at that end it’s a well-oiled machine into A&E. Someone’s asking, ‘Road traffic accident?’ But I can’t reply and realise they’re not really interested and are focusing on the job that they’re trained to do.

Grant Farquhar on Colder than a Hooker's Heart-E5-5c on Creag Dubh. Photo-Graham Ettle

I get shuttled endlessly between the A&E bed and an X-ray machine as they put in chest drains, IV fluids, shots and whatever else they need to do. I remain conscious throughout, presumably through chemical support. I’m hooked up to an increasing number of machines and when I asked, ‘Am I going to make it?’ I didn’t get a straight reply which was a little depressing.The staff crowding around began to thin out, which was difficult to interpret but soon I was wheeled out; the immediate crisis apparently over. I didn’t know the details at that moment, but the fall had been slightly buffered by a chunky krab on my chalk bag, now badly bent but saving direct impact on my spine which got away with a chipped vertebrae. 

My ribs were not so lucky and took the rest of the force of the impact, each breaking in a diagonal line from the base of my spine up and leftwards, the broken ends getting forced into my left lung, which was handsomely punctured and collapsed, the void filling with blood. My stomach also ruptured. This was basically remedied by draining everything out into glass demijohns while blood was poured into me from bags above. Other thanthis I was actually unscathed apart from a broken thumb, a result of the impact being concentrated on my back.

Since this isn’t being ghostwritten, I obviously recovered in the end. The following days and weeks could support a whole separate story of in-hospital adventures but a highlight that sticks with me is that the sole visitor from the climbing community outside my immediate family and friends was the late, great Andy Nisbet, who I’d walked and climbed with a couple of years before. I was blown away that a hero like him would make the time to visit. In fact Andy got two for the price of one from that visit because a couple of days after my incident, another climber that he and I knew, George Reid, fell off exactly the same moves on Acapulco pitch 1 and also ended up in Raigmore. He was in a different ward, though, and we had to communicate by notes that we’d persuade the nurses to pass. In the long run the whole episode proved a redemption of sorts for me sinceI was on the verge of flunking out of my degree due to the amount of climbing I was doing. 

Bed-bound over the following weeks I resolved to fully review my entire coursework in preparation for the mid-degree ‘sorting’ exams that the departmentkindly deferred in my case. After spending every waking hour for two or three weeks reviewing the course material, I aced the exam to the bewilderment of my course mates who barely knew me, such was my absenteeism. So it turned out to my surprise that an aptitude, or maybe curse, of being able to single-mindedly pursue a vision, could be applied to any challenge. Climbing focuses this ability and any climber is well placed to harness it. I’ve sprayed it around liberally ever since, to the dismay of countless colleagues who no doubt wished the crazy bastard would just go away.

Bruce Strachan, Simon Stewart, Grant Farquhar,Stewart Tawse and Lee Delaney, setting off from Dundee, heading for the crags.Photo Simon Stewart
But it must always be seasoned with acute awareness of the moment – since it could be your last – and the value of the people around you. They may be all that stands between you and an untimely end. And you may be required to perform that role for them. It’s amazing how many non-climbers seem to have no vision or sense of their mortality and the consequences of their actions.

Simon Stewart 

Photos supplied by Grant Farquhar


This essay is taken from A’ Chreag Dhearg which was recently published by the Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Compiled and co-authored by veteran climber Grant Farquhar with contributions from a range of voices within Scotland’s close-knit climbing community, A’ Chreag Dhearg traces the rich climbing history of the Angus Glens.

Although less frequented than the forbidding ramparts of Glencoe or Skye, the crags and gullies in this unique area of the Cairngorms harbour classic summer and winter lines that have attracted some of Scotland’s most respected climbers over the course of a century. In this engaging collection of vignettes and photographs, the origins of many of the glens’ best-loved routes are described in intimate detail in an entertaining style that will appeal to both local climbers and those seeking new venues to explore. The authors have woven the distinctive dialect and humour of this corner of Scotland into the narrative, imbuing it with a quality that is, by turns, both edgy and wistful.

Despite the deceptively narrow scope of this story, the breadth with which it is considered here captures the way that climbing has developed in Scotland over time, and how this history is often exceptionally localised. A’ Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a poignant reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.

The book can be purchased from the SMP website.


Wednesday 19 January 2022

People Watching


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Malcolm Creasy  ©


All images supplied by the author.

Saturday 8 January 2022

Give us this day


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

We are such random fucks.

John Redhead. Lous Maners, Costoja. February 2020.


Wednesday 29 December 2021

The Waiting Game


 Idle thoughts from a tent in the Khumbu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malcolm Creasey ©

All images supplied by the author.