Monday, 20 October 2014

Falling about and not laughing......reprise

To mark the fifth anniversary of Footless Crow, a welcome republication of the very first article to appear; David Craig's previously unpublished 'Falling about and not laughing'. An article that was languishing as a forgotten typewritten essay at the bottom of a drawer in the Craig household, with another early Footless David Craig piece- 'Diamonds and Rust'-which appeared a few weeks later. David has always been one of my favourite outdoor writers and it's been an honour and a pleasure to host many of his past works-both published and previously unpublished. As with most early articles on the site, the quality of the work was not reflected in the viewing figures. Hopefully its reprise will attract a host of new readers who missed it the first time around. 

David Craig was born in Aberdeen in 1932 and is married to Anne Spillard. He first climbed rock on Lochnagar in 1952, then didn't climb again (for several compelling reasons) until 1973 when his children began climbing in the Lake District. Best known in the UK for his classic 1987 climbing book Native Stones which was quickly followed by the equally impressive Landmarks. David has written several non climbing books on Scottish history and culture as well as works of poetry and novels. David appeared in the BBC series Wilderness Walks and will appear in a BBC Scotland outdoor programme to be screened in the future. A long term resident of South Cumbria. David has contributed as a guide book area author and has many first ascents in the UK to his credit,including routes made with Cumbrian legend Bill Peascod. 
He has climbed in England,Scotland,Wales,France,Germany,
Gibraltar,South Africa and America.

It may have been euphoria. I don't think it was hubris. We'd been staying at Sennen Cove again, our mid-winter journey into that place of mild storms and epic winds. The usual gale greeted us and it blew until Pete was about to leave. He is an ideal partner, who climbs regularly in the Avon and Verdon Gorges at E3/4 6a/b, and is therefore so solid on my grade of route-VS/HVS-with occasional forays upwards) that when he's leading it makes me feel I'm wearing a parachute, or wings. But the nearest we got to a climb before he had to leave was to stand on the precipitous tussocks above Great Zawn at Bosigran so that he could eye up the line of Dream/ Liberator, which he fancies for some perfect day this summer.

After he'd left, I was humming with unexpended energy. I soloed around at Pedn-Maen Du, put up a 20-metre Severe at the southernmost end of the possibilities, on a grooved and stepped wall right of Teleology, and called it Roisin Dubh because it's in Irish Lady Cove and the rock is stained deep black.

Coming back along the base of the crags to the home terrain between Sunday Face and Demo, I spied a ladder of knobbly quartz mini-jugs edging out of the granite, which looked familiar but vertical enough to be provoking. I pulled up, it went, it was irresistible. At the finish, when I thought I'd cracked it, I frightened myself trying to swing left through mid-air on an extraordinary beak - petrified remnant of an extinct bird -integral with the crag but so slender - I retreated, sweating, tried a cleft on the right between two crystalline haunches, and got up it by means of jams so secure that they lacerated. Double Overhang, of course - 20 metres, 4b, 4b. By my standards I was going well, and when we went to Carn Kenidjack on our last day, to write and read and scramble, I felt just about ready to nip up Gneiss Gnome, which had been grinning at me for a year or two. But I took the precaution of peering down the final twenty feet of its ninety, and the cleaned slant joint was lined with a paste of winter-moist soil, and the little toe-steps to its right -facing in- were dripping, so I went on down the path with my headier impulses tightly reined in.

Down there, at the foot of the great shield of Saxon and Thane, in that lovely zone of waves swinging in blue and bursting white, I laddered up the first sixty feet of the Gnome, to confirm the no-go assessment. No, I could not make myself slink up that oozing gutter, the fear would be ghastly, the situation beyond control by strength and skill alone, and where's the good in that? So down I went again and along the shingle, looking longingly up at the subtly engraved surfaces of the Carn itself. I'd always wondered how to start Saxon. The first holds are clearly out of reach, so, experimentally, I did a few gymnastics between the giant boulder and the face and it seemed as though back-and-footing might do the trick.

But the footholds gleamed and dripped, so I dried them thoroughly on my selection of bar towels (Teacher's, Marston's, and Stone's), chimneyed up with Fires squirming as the ooze reappeared, lunged for a rim, swung up, edged left, and in no time I was strolling my hands along the flake which crescents across the face like the lower lip of a sabre-cut, feet on the positive wrinkles; eighty feet of comfortable climbing which gave me at least a taste and feel of that rearing expanse, until things became so thin and steep that further progress without a rope would have been, ridiculous and I traversed off and down the Gnome again.

I was so in tune with this pure, cold-forged, wind-scoured world by now that I leaned against the foot of the shield with my arms spread out, my cheek against the gneiss, and a poem came to me, whole lines and the clinching idea, as the gulls' shadows criss-crossed on the sunlit rock and the waves hissed and seethed behind me. Perfect contentment. I kept my Fires on, put on my ruck­sack, and walked along the shore to the little zawn on the left for a last scramble. A short wall beckoned, twenty feet on protruding biscuits but holds galore and easier-angled terrain waiting above. I pulled up, fingered and toe the biscuits; they were sound enough though thin as ginger snaps. I reached up and pinched a sloping arete on the right, bridged off its twin on the left and eased up into the valley above.

A grating and tearing, like a tooth coming out - the wall blazes up past me in a blur - utter, sudden stoppage  ‑unnatural silence, like after a car crash - a boulder to my left rears like a trapdoor falling and slams the side of my head. I've landed feet first on tilted boulders and bounced leftwards against a slab. I lie there, tingling. Black-faced rocks outstare me calmly, keeping their counsel, disclaiming all responsibility for this folly. I haven't blacked out, so no concussion. I work my ankles round and round, and they do work, although my right heel is numb.My hair is wet where my head hit but not streaming. My left haunch and right knee are on fire with grazes and my right elbow has been hammered. But I can make it up the path -with its unavoidable ten-foot Diff rock step- and back to the car where Anne is, quite rightly, as much exasperated as consoling.

So you shouldn't solo, alone, without a helmet, on unclimbed, brittle rock in winter. Of these six factors, perhaps only the 'unclimbed' one is crucial. As I looked up the twenty feet of my fall, I saw that the rock which gave way on me had been weakened by moisture collected and given out again by a tump of sea-thrift. On a frequented route the weak rock -and probably the flowers- would have long since gone. As for the risky aspects of soloing in itself, would they not,in this case, apply as well to climbing an awkward first pitch with the possibility of falling before the first protection halt been slotted home? That is when I've had my last few leader falls, for example one February day at Oxenber, near Austwick, when I skidded back down the freezing, polished chimney-crack that opens Bullroar and knackered my left ankle (I never seem actually to break). The bad thing about a February accident is that it can jeopardize the start of the real rock season. When I went. to Skye that Easter, and we walked up via Keall-Odhar to Sgurr a Bhasteir, and down into Glen Sligachan via the Lota and Harta Corries, the three miles round the shoulder opposite the Bloody Stone were hell because we had to walk continuously on the steep heather slope and it forced my ankle inwards at just the most painful angle.

When I went to Wallowbarrow in Dunnerdale that same month to climb Perseverance and The Plumb the walking up was still much more trying and crippled than the climbing. There's the beauty of rock; it is so much a matter of finesse, so little of brute shove.So healing continued, and the ankle never troubled me again till suddenly, five years later, I fulfilled an old ambition by going to lead Valkyrie on Froggatt Pinnacle. I tackled that leaning and slanting crack by forcing in cruel toe-jams, and by the time I failed to make horizontal hand-jams lodge on the traverse and went whanging down onto my well-planted Moac, I must have stressed the ankle joint too much. By the end of the day I could hardly depress the clutch. And now I have abused that ankle yet again. Will it stand up to this year's siege of Froggatt Pinnacle? You never quite recover from these traumas; they come creaking and wincing back on you years later and make you realise your vulnerability as a thing of flesh and bone. But I can't wholly regret the adventure at Carn Kenidjack: I can learn from it, and it did throw up a poem.

Under the Slab 
Death is over against us.
Stand with your cheek to the rock-face, 
Wheel through 90 degrees and let 
the perfectly hard minerals oppose
their close-packed atoms to the running
And feeling of your blood.

Rise again, look to the zawn-mouth. 
Its stone lids part,
Its blue eye opens,
Like surf the white birds seethe
And the transparent dove-grey shadows
Print their ecstatic glyphs across the slate.

David Craig © 2009

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Five Years on...Footless Crow's Greatest Hits!

Just over five years ago, the very first article appeared on Footless Crow. David Craig’s previously unpublished piece ‘Falling About-Not Laughing’. Frankly, back then the hit counter was not exactly off the Richter scale, and for that reason  I intend to re-edit and republish the best of these articles which are well worth revisiting or catching for the first time if you are new to these pastures.

In the last five years I am eternally grateful to have received the support of many of the UK’s finest outdoor writers who have either given permission for their articles to be republished or offered unpublished works. This includes writers of the stature of the aforementioned David Craig, Harold Drasdo, Terry Gifford, Robin Campbell, Bill Birkett, Steve Dean, Steve Ashton, Harry Griffin and Tom Price amongst many others.

The top ten most popular articles list however, is somewhat  surprising in the fact that none of these esteemed writers feature. It is with some mild embarrassment that my own name features quite prominently in the list which is also dominated by John Redhead. Another interesting element is the fact that in a media dominated by mountain writing, it is the occasional art features that are proving  very popular. A fact that makes me consider increasing these features in the future. Book and film reviews always ratchet up the hit count as well so hopefully I’ll be able to offer even more reviews in the future. I was also hoping to offer the odd gear review but as yet I haven’t pursued this idea so watch this space. If anyone out there has something they would like to see published online then just let me know via the email address further down the page.

So....(drum roll)...Footless Crow’s Top Ten Greatest Hits.

An article rejected by Climb magazine which resulted in some heated emails between the author and the magazine’s joint editor Dave Pickford. Something which was shamelessly exploited by myself in a blog piece and picked up by the UKC forum fraternity. The resultant brouhaha sent the stats counter soaring! (Previously unpublished)

An article which was originally to be published in Climber magazine when I think Cameron MacNeish was editor. A change in editor saw the article kicked into the long grass. Essentially the feature surrounds Crowley’s ill fated Kangenjunga expedition and its popularity is obviously down to the world wide interest in all things Crowley.( Previously Unpublished)

 Liverpool based retired academic’s art piece on the visionary artist’s Cornish period. (First published on the author’s superb ‘That’s How the Light Gets In’ blog)

Written to coincide with the BBC4 documentary ‘The Mountain that had to be painted’. The short life and times of the brilliant but relatively unknown Welsh artist, James Dickson Innes who will forever be associated with the ‘sacred mountain’ of Arenig Fawr in NE Wales.(Previously unpublished)

5..Fay Godwin..poetry through a lens (Margaret Drabble)
The acclaimed writers appraisal of the sublime photography of the late Fay Godwin. (Previously published in The Guardian)

James McHaffie and Craig Smith respond to John Redhead’s ‘XS’ piece Fantasy stylee! (Previously unpublished)

 A warts and all account of the life and times of the curmudgeonly fell-walker. Beatified and vilified in equal measure  in the outdoor community.(Previously unpublished)

8..Jim Perrin’s West: The loping hare kicking rainbows fromthe dew (John Appleby)

An almost hagiographic review of West which ironically acted as a catalyst for an incendiary blog-Jaccsisters blog- in which the sisters of one of the main characters take issue with the veracity of Perrin’s interpretation of his relationship with their sister. The intervening years since the review was written, has certainly seen this former climbing literary hero of mine fall from grace as more and more people have come forward to describe their own personal ‘Perringrinations’ around the eccentric author.( Previously unpublished)

Both being extracts from the author’s latest book ‘Colonists Out’ 


So there you have it. A strange list given the stature of writers and the quality of articles which have fallen outside of the top ten. Perhaps as some of these old articles are revamped with new illustrations, they will finally pull in the readership they deserve? In the mean time....thanks for tuning in.

John Appleby:2014 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Martin Boysen's Hanging On....Review

A few weeks ago I caught an episode of The Edge; the Triple Echo BBC series presented by Cameron McNeish which charted the history of Scottish climbing. In ‘Doctor Tom’- a potted biography of the legendary Tom Patey- Chris Bonington and Martin Boysen strode purposely through a fine Scotch mist en-route to climb the Cioch Nose. A route established by Bonington and Patey in 1960.

In a way the two veterans could be seen as the Yin and Yang of UK Climbing. Chris Bonington, the ebullient showman and PR master who had established  himself as the country’s most famous mountaineer by a mile, and Martin Boysen; a climber has always preferred to let his achievements speak for themselves and who, like his friend Joe Brown, is someone who has most definitely ticked the ‘No Publicity’ box on the coupon.

Now....finally, the enigmatic Mr Boysen has stepped out of the shadows with his long awaited biography-thirty years in the making- and the big question is...has it been worth the wait? As far as I am concerned the answer has to be a resounding YES!

As someone who started climbing in the late 80’s, Martin Boysen was one of those names which kept cropping up when I flicked through the back of a North Wales guidebook or caught an old climbing film like the 1970 Annapurna documentary which was shown on TV. Here was someone who wasn’t ‘box office’ when it came to gracing the front cover of magazines or-apart from a rare appearance in the aforementioned episode of The Edge-an instantly recognizable mountaineering media personality. Although he was not averse the doing the odd lecture circuit, his life and times were more the stuff of legend and mystery for people like myself and it’s this air of mystery which makes Hanging On such a great read.

My earliest memories are the wailing of air raid sirens followed by the droning of Lancaster bombers and the distant thump of high explosives: And with those opening words, Hanging On sets the scene.You'll note it is British Lancaster bombers who are dropping  bombs on the surrounding towns, not German Heinkels. You see, Martin Boysen –son of a German father and English mother-found himself in his early years, stranded in the German mining town of Alsdorf. With his father reluctantly fighting for Hitler on the Eastern Front, Martin found himself hunkered down with his mother and sister Lorna, amidst the devastation and carnage in a battered corner of the country. As the war ended and with the advancing Allied forces liberating the town, tragedy struck when eight year old Lorna was accidentally shot through the head and killed by an English Tommy.

Not surprisingly, with Boysen senior presumed dead (He wasn't), the family returned to Kent where Martin's mother's family hailed from. Driving back after the war,, Martin recounts in an interview, passing through Ardennes; a landscape of burnt out tanks and military vehicles which littered the road amid the rubble and pulverized shells of towns and villages battered beyond recognition.

Back in the leafy bounds of rural Kent, the first stirrings of outdoor interest manifested itself in a love of bird watching.  An interest which began to take him to other parts of the country. Not least the majestic heights of the Cairngorms where while staying in a youth hostel he first came across rock climbing as an activity as he was idly leafing through a magazine. Discovering that the sandstone outcrops close to home at Harrisons and Bowles rocks were rock climbing venues, the teenage Boysen took to lurking with intent. Hoping that an experienced crag rat would take pity on the wide eyed youngster and let him follow them up one of the trade routes. Not surprisingly, he had soon blazed his way through all the hardest routes hereabouts and begun to establish regular partnerships and contacts in the local climbing scene.

Like so many of his provincial climbing contemporaries, he soon began to hanker after bigger and better things than these wee sandstone climbs and quickly gravitated towards Wales, the Peaks and The Lake District where-in Wales in particular- he began to repeat the hardest routes of the day and was soon putting up state of the art routes of his own. Throughout the sixties and with minimal gear-this was still an era of placing pebbles in cracks and using dubious and heavy ex MOD gear-Martin practiced the ‘Ground Up’ approach to new routing which perhaps reached its sixties zenith with the discovery and first ascents at Gogarth. The huge sea cliffs at Holyhead Island off the North Wales coast.

As with most leading climbers of the era, the challenges of The Alps and Greater Ranges beckoned and throughout the seventies and eighties, Martin established himself as a consistent  and reliable performer at altitude. His reputation established him as an in demand team member when people like Bonington were putting together teams to tackle new routes in the Himalayas and Patagonia. Challenges which were more often than not thwarted by adverse conditions and occasionally tinged with tragedy. Such as the successful previously mentioned Bonington led Annapurna campaign which saw Ian Clough killed on the descent.

The backdrop to Martin’s meteoric ascent across the climbing firmament is counterpointed by his day to day bread and butter life as a science teacher in Cheshire. This was an era of course when nearly all climbers had careers or were on the dole. The Professional climbers like Chris Bonington were still rare creatures and even legends like Joe Brown and Don Whillans were only now finding opportunities outside of their building and plumbing backgrounds to eke out an existence though lecturing or in Joe Brown’s case, by opening a climbing shop. For Martin Boysen, the mountaineering life had to be balanced with his teaching career. A career which he acknowledges was not always a happy and contented vocation. It was during this period that he and his new wife Maggie were involved in a serious accident which almost took their lives. While driving home from seeing Don Whillans and sitting in the back of Mike Yates’s VW Beetle, they were hit side on by a police car. A accident which left both Martin and Maggie with serious injuries. Thankfully, after months of operations and physio, both eventually returned to fitness although their physical recovery was somewhat marred by bad feeling resulting from their insurance compensation claim against the driver.

After making a full recovery from the accident, Martin returned with new enthusiasm to the greater ranges. Tackling routes on Changabang and The Trango Tower amongst others and joining Hamish MacInnes on a Treasure Hunt to Ecuador with Joe Brown and Mo Anthoine in tow. It was with these aforementioned climbers-later to be known as ‘The Mafia’ –that he found himself doubling for French actor Lambert Wilson in the Fred Zimmerman film Five Days one Summer. A nice little earner which as it turned out,partly funded Martin’s swansong Greater Ranges jaunt; a trip to climb Latok. In the event, the expedition was a failure and it convinced the author-now with a young daughter Kate- to rein in his activities. He had seen and experienced enough tragedy by now and had been blessed with good fortune considering he had been operating at a high standard in an environment which had taken so many of his friends.

Haston, Boardman,Tasker, Escourt, Clough,Burke et al, all close comrades who had 'bought the farm' and exited the scene prematurely. Now was the time to return to his roots and tailor his climbing activities to the more mundane hills of home and the pure climbing crags around the world where he could enjoy climbing for pure pleasure with friends and family.

With close friend Rab Carrington packing in at the same time to concentrate on building his eponymous mountainwear brand- he returned from whence he came and with Rab, began to rediscover the delights of Wales and all points North while regularly flying out to explore the great faces of California, Australia and Europe. Now in his early seventies and after once again cheating death- this time after being stricken by a serious autoimmune illness- Martin Boysen still displays the same enthusiasm for moving over rock that he first experienced nearly sixty years ago as he took his first tentative steps on Kentish sandstone.

Hanging On has been short listed for the 2014 Boardman-Tasker prize. If I was a gambling man I’d put my house on it taking the ultimate prize. An excellent and considered work by a thoughtful and modest man. 

 Annapurna The Hard Way: featuring Martin Boysen