Friday, 26 February 2010

The Users Guide to Edward Abbey

 
 I'm constantly amazed how in these 'green' times the language of every corporate mogul and government minister when dealing with matters of the natural environment appears to have been stolen from the vocabulary of the eco-warriors of yesteryear. As if these words actually carried any meaning coming from the mouths of spokesman who believe in economic growth over sustainability ; Who promote excessive consumption based on greed over consumption based on need. Who favour economic policies which use up the earth's finite resources and which are driven by artificially stimulated demand. Where The City is the master and the State its servant. It's all bogus Greenwash of course. As if a corporate friendly New Labour Apparatchik, The CO of Shell UK or the HSBC Bank could ever in a million years be described as 'green' in their relentless pursuit of profits. When I have restrained my urge to vomit at such hypocrisy, I turn to my guide and inspiration on all things environmental. The great US conservationist and writer Edward Abbey.

It always surprises how little known in the UK he is. I suspect that like George Orwell, Edward Abbey despite his position on the political left has always disturbed and grated against the sensibilities of  the 'right on'  liberal constituency. Something of a loose cannon to be sure. Here was a man like Orwell who ploughed his own furrow and wasn't afraid of offending political orthodoxy. For example, on immigration into the United States Abbey was unequivocal in his opposition on the grounds of ecological degradation through over population. He famously said that we should stop every illegal immigrant on the US/Mexico border give them each a rifle and send them back to their capital. Another area where he shocked the PC left was in his membership and support for the National Rifle Association. That gung-ho federation of conservatives and rednecks most of whom would quite frankly struggle with even the most basic Abbey essay!
However, these elements could be seen as minor aberrations when you consider his unrelenting opposition to big business and the over-arching state. Abbey was a registered Anarchist who in the words of The Levellers (the band, not the movement!) believed There’s only one way of  life and that's your own. Before we consider Abbey's political and environmental philosophy, the history bit.....

Edward Paul Abbey was born on January 29, 1927, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of a farmer and logger. After a 1944 hitchhiking trip west at 17, he served in the U.S. Army late in World War II and afterwards, then enrolled at the University of New Mexico in 1948 on the G.I. Bill, eventually earning a Master's Degree in philosophy. During this time Abbey started to write as he began concurrently to explore the back country of the Southwest in his spare time, specifically the Four Corners area (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet), otherwise known as the Colorado Plateau because it's drained by that great river.
It was among the last of Western regions to be surveyed and mapped. In 1869, John Wesley Powell was its primary explorer when he led a party in dories down the rapids-ravaged canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers from Green River, Wyoming, all the way through the Grand Canyon. It's an unforgiving region of deserts and mountains, much of it federal land, and home to a half dozen national parks. Here Abbey found the subject that was the focus of his four decades as a writer.

Abbey started as a novelist with a run into the 1960s with series of competently executed but forgettable books such as Jonathan Troy (1954), The Brave Cowboy (1956), and Fire on the Mountain (1962). The Brave Cowboy was made into Lonely Are the Brave (1962), a film starring Kirk Douglas, thus earning Abbey some much-needed Hollywood money. During this time he also churned out essays and journalism about his wanderings in "the back of beyond."
Money was tight, though, and Abbey also worked odd jobs through the 1950s and '60s. His most noteworthy employment was as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) near Moab, Utah, in 1959. This experience (along with others) culminated in the 1968 publication of Desert Solitaire, the book that made his reputation. After that, Cactus Ed became the Thoreau of the West.
Companions to Desert Solitaire are the essays found in such collections as The Journey Home (1977), Abbey's Road (1979), Down the River (1982), Beyond the Wall (1984), and One Life at a Time, Please (1988). The subjects of the essays (the form being possibly Abbey's greatest strength as a writer) vary from detailed accounts of his wanderings -- rafting the Colorado, exploring such landscape oddities as the San Rafael Swell or Big Bend National Park -- to passionate polemics against national park infrastructure development or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) policies on leasing grazing land to ranchers. The latter type showed that Abbey would have done well as an 18th-century pamphleteer. In an essay entitled "Eco-Defense," he writes: "Eco-defense is risky but sporting; unauthorized but fun; illegal but ethically imperative…Spike those trees; you won't hurt them; they'll be grateful for the protection; and you may save the forest. Loggers hate nails."


Abbey's most controversial role was only obliquely related to his work. In 1975 he published his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, a book that alongside Desert Solitaire enhanced his reputation as an environmentalist, but unlike the latter tome it has prose as purple as an Arizona sunset. The plot involves four anarchic eco-warriors who conspire to blow up Glen Canyon Dam. In a case of life imitates art, the book inspired the establishment of a notorious radical green group in 1980 known as Earth First! with Abbey as a charter member. Other noteworthy members were activist/writers Doug Peacock and Dave Foreman. Earth First! "membership" was and remains (to the extent that it even exists today) anonymous and shadowy, as it's known for acts of "monkey wrenching" of earthmoving and logging equipment, spiking trees, stealing survey stakes, cutting wire fences, and so on. "Earth First!" has spawned ancillary groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which was active before its downfall at the hands of the FBI in 2006.
 When he died of esophageal hemorrhaging on March 14th 1989 aged just 62. His closest friends packed him in his old sleeping bag, placed him on the back of a flat bed pick up truck and drove out into the desert, stopping off en-route to buy several crates of beer and whisky. He was buried illegally in a remote spot which remains secret to this day. Nearby lies a rudely carved stone which simply reads..' Edward Paul Abbey 1927-1989...No Comment' And there he lies to this day, pushing up the cactus and sage bush.
Thankfully Abbey was prolific in his literary output and has left us with a wide selection of fiction, poetry, conservation narratives ,essays letters, journals and photo essay tomes which preserve his unique voice with an enduring clarity and totally apposite perspective on these strange days we live in in the 21st century. 
Despite his spiritual and philosophical rootedness in the rolling expanses of the American South West, Abbey speaks for anyone who values the natural environment over its exploitation for crude financial gain and political expediency. As I write these words our corporate friendly government has given the energy corporations carte blanche to desecrate many of our most fragile iconic landscapes with industrial scale wind power plants. Such a policy would appall Abbey who I'm sure if writing The Monkey Wrench Gang in 2010 would have added these brutal structures which symbolise the great 'green' con to his gang's list of targets! In an age when the state and the global corporations in whose interests it governs, the so called 'Green' Movement and ALL political parties have coalesced into one faceless machine,at least I can only try and comfort my frustration by remembering what Abbey said on this vexing issue..........

Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion

Recommended Edward Abbey reading: Desert Solitaire: The Monkey Wrench Gang:  Down the River: The Journey Home: One life at a time please: Abbey's Road: Postcards from Ed:A voice crying in the wilderness.

John Appleby©2010

 




Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Coming Up: Eco warrior for our times-Edward Abbey

This Friday John Appleby offers an appreciation of the great US writer,environmentalist and counter-culture hero, Edward Abbey. Despite his prodigious written output which includes a work -The Monkey Wrench Gang-which became the catalyst behind the creation of the radical Earth First! movement, Abbey has never enjoyed popular critical acclaim or received the attention his genius deserves on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps this is not surprising given the fact that this outspoken eco-anarchist was as estranged from the conventional 'green' movements as he was from the giant corporations and the military-industrial state who threatened to degrade the wilderness regions of the desert states of the American south-west.
As a writer,educationalist,conservationist and political activist, Abbey was also at one time a fire-watcher and national park ranger.A passionate lover of the great outdoors he spent a as much time as he could away from his typewriter,rafting,climbing, hiking and exploring the great desert regions of Arizona,New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Bringing his thoughts and experiences to life in works like  Desert Solitaire, Down the River, The Journey Home and of course the rip roaring novel which apparently is about to be made into a Hollywood movie-(Shudders at the thought!)- The Monkey Wrench Gang.
This coming month marks the 21st anniversary of his premature death aged 62. Given the great schism which has taken place in the world wide Green movement between the technophiles and the conservationists; an appropriate time to appraise Edward Abbey's legacy and consider the philosophical and political foundations which underpins his brand of environmentalism.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Stacks to Do

The Old Man of Hoy: R Haszko©

The black dropped with a satisfying clunk into the top right hand pocket and I felt a warm glow of happiness as Joe glowered at me before slapping his pound down on the table. “You were lucky,” he said. “ I was watching that fight near the door and not concentrating.” It’s a good job Joe’s not competitive I thought as I gleefully pocketed the money before going to the bar. We were in the Broadfield pub for our twice – weekly game of snooker on the half-size table set up in a raised corner and looking down on the crowds below. It was a good atmosphere with a lot of young climbers talking about their latest routes or parties and a few of us rather older ones enjoying doing the same thing.
 It was April 1996 and my climbing year had been going surprisingly well. A few days earlier I’d been to Wales with Joe and we’d done a winter ascent of Western Gully on the Black Ladders, a hard route at the best of times and in fairly lean condition being so late in the year. Somewhat to my surprise I’d found myself leading the crux pitch – a very steep, snowy slab with no possibility of retreat once committed and no protection, a position which I’d studiously avoided for many years. With Joe encouraging me from his belay (“Ha, ha, you’ll have to do it now, there’s no way back from there!”) I wobbled my way up. By way of a total contrast the next day Joe led on Left Wall, one of the best rock routes in Britain.               
“Right, Richard, I bet you a pound we can do all three in a weekend.” John and I looked at Joe with incredulity. The three in question were the classic Scottish sea stacks: Old Man of Hoy, Old Man of Stoer and Am Buachille. Joe had been muttering about doing the Old Man of Hoy for some time and both John and I agreed that it would indeed be a fine thing do. But three in one weekend? Hoy alone was normally a three day trip: ferry from Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney, another ferry to the island of Hoy then a taxi ride across this to the stack. “It would have to be a long weekend I’ll grant you, but it’s definitely possible.” My doubts about Joe’s sanity were only increased by this so I happily took the bet on, completely confident that I would be able to relieve him of some more of the proceeds of his scribblings.
With that we got down to some serious planning. “I think we’d need to get Bruce as well, two ropes of two will be better than one of three and he’s got a company car” Joe offered. Bruce was a man we all knew and liked so we were happy with that. He’d been a wicketkeeper for Nottingham and England as well as a keen climber and now retired from cricket could devote a lot more time to climbing. We’d got to know him through Steve Bancroft who’d hero-worshipped Bruce as a cricketer while at the same time Bruce was hero-worshipping Steve as a climber. Neither of them knew each other until Bruce stopped playing professionally and got in touch with Steve.
The team paddle out to The Old Man of Hoy: R Haszko© 

Three weeks later our team assembled at Joe’s house on a warm, early May evening. Bruce hadn’t needed any persuading to join the adventure and had even volunteered to sort out the ferry timetables for us. “If we take two hour stints each we can drive through the night” John opined. “Excellent plan, John”, Bruce replied. “With just the one small flaw. The insurance only covers me.”  This was rather unfortunate as it was something like 500 miles to the ferry port at Scrabster but Bruce seemed unfazed so we loaded the car and set off. Stopping only for a pint in Lockerbie we got to to within 20 miles of Scrabster when we pulled into a layby at 3a.m., spread out our sleeping bags and had a couple of hours sleep before the midges roused us for breakfast  (theirs!)
    Our planning hadn’t gone as far as organising any food for the trip and we were relying on finding a shop somewhere. Our optimism paid off and, somewhat fortuitously, we came across an early-opening supermarket. Aware that time was short before the ferry departure we rushed around with a couple of trollies and loaded up with supplies: a throwaway barbecue set, two packets of sausages and four crates of extra strong lager!
It was a beautiful, clear morning and driving down into the tiny port we could make out the distant outline of Hoy on the horizon. Unfortunately our expansive panorama did not include a ship. “Bruce”, I enquired, “What time is our ferry supposed to be?” “Er, seven o’clock. But I think I must have misread the timetable” Bruce muttered. Checking with the port office we found this was indeed the case and there wouldn’t be a ferry for another five hours. Our ill-thought plans were now in tatters. This led to a frank and open exchange of views at some point in which John came up with the idea of hiring a fishing boat to get us across to Hoy. With this extraordinary moment of lateral thinking our hopes rose and we set about trying to realize this concept.
Over breakfast in the Seamans’ Mission (a very fine establishment should you ever find yourself at a loose end in Scrabster) we got a phone number for someone “who might be able to help youse boys.” We rang the number and spoke to a man named Clair who was, justifiably, concerned that we might be a bunch of idiots who hadn’t a clue what we were doing and would end up in serious trouble. Convincing him that he was only partially correct he agreed to meet us at the dock. “It’ll be a hundred pounds,is that alright?” he asked when we met 25 minutes later. “Absolutely” we answered, very pleased that this was half the price of the ferry. “Where can you take us to?” “Och, I’ll drop you at the bottom of it.” We were gobsmacked. It meant the plan might actually be do-able.
    It was a four hour journey to the Old Man and the sea was glassy smooth. Clair told us something of himself while a friend of his steered the boat. He was a fascinating man and it turned out he’d been a racing driver in his youth and had retired to live up here and take people out fishing. He’d had quite an adventurous life and that was what attracted him to our quest.
The journey passed very pleasantly, except for Bruce who turned out to be a poor sailor and spent the whole time standing in the bow with a face matching the colour of the water. As we neared the Old Man it began to look truly spectacular, towering nearly 400 feet above us. We came around the base in our and slowed to a stop about 75 yards offshore. “I’ll row you across from here” Clair said, throwing a rubber dinghy over the side. We looked at each other with a mixture of excitement and mild anxiety. He took us across two at a time and very soon we were assembled on the boulders at the base of the stack. It was two in the afternoon and we about to climb the Old Man of Hoy. “ I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock “Clair yelled as he rowed back to the Karen, our trusty vessel.   
    Joe was soon leading the first pitch, steep but easy up an obvious broken pillar to a large ledge. “There’s a dirty great Fulmar here” he shouted down, a note of concern in his voice knowing that Fulmars have an unfortunate habit of emptying the contents of their stomach over intruders. “Talk nicely to it “ John replied helpfully. Bruce followed quickly and John led off to join them on the ledge. When I arrived Bruce had disappeared round the corner onto the landward face. John, Joe and I tried to keep out of the fulmar’s way while Bruce worked his unseen way up the big pitch, occasional muttered comments about sand and overhangs floating down to us. He was soon shouting for Joe to climb and when he’d gone I peered round the corner for a look at what I would have to lead, nearly falling off our shared perch when I saw what awaited me. Joe was working his way across a vertical wall trying to brush sand off the holds. He grinned weakly at me: “You’re not going to like this Richard.”  I quickly suggested to John that a faint black line on the horizon might indicate a fierce storm about to break and we’d better retreat while we still could but he would have none of it. “You could always lead it John, I don’t mind” I volunteered bravely. “No, no. You’ve been climbing a lot more than me lately, just get on with it.”
    A few long steps down led to the start of a traverse line into the foot of a large, overhanging chimney. The moves across were balancy and very sandy but took me to protection in a crack from where I could step out onto an arete. Looking up I could see Joe grappling with the crux overhang of the pitch. He appeared to have his right foot inserted into his left ear and was describing the moves in a particularly colourful fashion. With increasing trepidation I climbed up to a niche where there were some old slings attached to wooden wedges left over from the first ascent. Aha, I thought, I can belay here and let John enjoy the roof. This suggestion elicited ripostes that I felt did not befit my status of team respected-elder so I had little choice but to continue.

The author on the crux of The Old Man of Hoy: R Haszko©
The roof was as bad as Joe had made it look but it succumbed to a move involving a one-handed mantle on a small hold at the same time as turning through 180 degrees. Bizarre, but effective. Excellent bridging then led to a good stance at the end of a fine but harder than expected pitch. The next two were a bit scrappy but the last was a gem. John cruised up it, a vertical open book on immaculate rock in a superb position. I followed, slightly worried with the insubstantial nature of the stack as I could see right the way through the corner crack to the sea on the other side. Joe and Bruce passed us on their way down, resisting blandishments to wait so we could have a team summit photo. I thought that was a little churlish until I got there and found it to be windy, sloping and rubble-strewn. I grabbed a quick picture and we set off down.
    The abseils caused no real problems, Joe and Bruce having left a fixed rope so we could make the diagonal one back to the top of the first pitch. We’d spotted the Karen coming to pick us up right on schedule, which was a relief, but couldn’t help noticing that it was bobbing up and down rather alarmingly on a sea that was no longer smooth but white-capped.
    By seven o’clock we were all back at the base, exactly 24 hours after leaving Sheffield! Huddling together on a boulder Clair approached in the dinghy. He was struggling to maintain position and shouted out to us “I’ll come in on a wave and you’ll have to jump in.” This terrifying prospect was slightly less bad than the thought of being left behind so with a strangled cry of “I’ll go first” I leapt, with all the grace of a thousand startled wildebeest, and landed in a jumbled pile of nuts and ropes. John followed on the next wave and Clair began rowing towards the Karen which was by now rolling so far over most of it’s hull was exposed. My earlier terror rose to new heights.
 The dinghy and Karen performed an intricate dance for 10 minutes as the two boats were manoeuvred into a position from which it was possible to approach. “When she rolls towards us grab the rail and pull yourself out” Clair instructed .I stood up and prepared to meet Neptune, now beyond fear and into a weary acceptance that a watery end was inevitable. The Karen rolled toward me. I grabbed the rail and, as she rolled away, I was hauled violently out of the dinghy. Throwing a leg over the rail I landed on the deck, giggling hysterically with relief. Moments later John arrived in much the same state. This seriously character enlarging exercise was repeated until we were all safely aboard and the Karen pointed towards the mainland.
    It was a totally different voyage to that of the morning, the small boat pitching and rolling so much I thought we would inevitably be thrown overboard. “ Och no” Clair said as I begged him to make it stop “ It's just a moderate swell. Here, this will help.” He poured us a very large measure of Scotland’s finest export, which certainly did help for a while as I synchronised my rolling with that of the boat. It wasn’t too long, however before I had to go and lie down in the wheelhouse while John and Joe, completely unaffected, played chess. Bruce knelt in the bow, communing with the creatures of the deep until we were back in Scrabster where we immediately sought out the nearest hostelry to celebrate being alive. Sadly our attempt at a celebration was cut short by falling asleep in our beer and suffering the ignominy of asking to be let out of a lock-in. Somehow we managed to put tents up and fell into exhausted sleep.
    The next day dawned fine and we realized the master plan might actually now be attainable. This could cost me a pound I thought as we drove across to the Old Man of Stoer, Bruce entertaining us with tales from his days as wicket keeper for England. We soon found the stack and swung across the Tyrolean Traverse rope already in place. John and I elected to climb the ordinary route, a three pitch VS in the sun while Joe and Bruce went up a shadowed E2. It was a glorious climb on perfect gritstone-like rock above a twinkling sea, the presence of several other climbers giving it a party atmosphere. It was to be all very different in the morning.
    The sun had gone, to be replaced by cloud and wind and we were in a rather more sombre mood as we drove from our campsite at Sheigra to seek out Am Buachille. It didn’t take long to locate the descent gully and we were soon on the rock platforms at the bottom. Am Buachille looked formidable - much bigger than it’s 130 feet, covered in guano and blasted by the wind. It stood on a plinth of rock separated from us by a 40 foot wide channel of black, foamy water. We had four hours to get across, climb it, get down and get back across to the mainland before being cut off by the next high tide. This was the time to unleash our secret weapon-a childrens’ rubber boat!
    We inflated the boat and tied a rope to it. There was just room for Joe and Bruce to kneel down in it and they began to paddle across. On reaching the plinth Bruce leapt out. Unfortunately he hadn’t timed his leap very well and, instead of landing on a ledge, he finished up clinging on to a barnacle-encrusred boulder, his feet dangling in the water. The reduced weight in the boat now enabled the wind to push it along the channel and towards the open sea, despite Joe’s frantic efforts. John and I were, by now, convulsed with helpless laughter and it was some minutes before we could get a grip on the situation.  With Joe  landed, Bruce retrieved  John and I could make the crossing, but only after wrestling the boat back on to the ground after it became an airborne flailing demon when relieved of it’s passengers.
    Joe led off up vertical but juggy rock, quickly at first but soon slowing to a crawl. He seemed to take an age to make some moves to reach a ledge in a corner at the top of the pitch. All attempts at communication were lost in the gale but he eventually made it, still trying to tell us something but what it was we had no idea.Bruce followed and then I set off, soon reaching the point where Joe had had so much trouble. It was immediately obvious why: there was no protection worth the name, it was hard to stay on the holds in the wind and a fall and undoubted injury would have been extremely serious in this very remote location.  There was nothing for it: Throw me a rope” I screamed. “That’s what I was trying to tell you” Joe informed me as I made the very balancy moves onto the ledge and clipped into the several pieces of tat that comprised the apology for a belay.
    Bruce set off on the next pitch.   We tried to squeeze ourselves into the back of the corner  to get some relief from the blasting wind. “This has all the makings of a major epic”  John  shouted into my ear when he arrived to join the huddle. It certainly began to feel that way as to the rope slowed then stopped altogether for a long time. Bruce could not tell us what was happening and we began to get very worried as the climbing was only supposed to be VS and Bruce is a bold leader but after 15 minutes of  occasional jerky movements the rope ran out  more quickly and shortly three tugs indicated he was safe and ready.
    It had been a good lead. There had been no worthwhile  protection and once again a leader fall was out of the question. Even following the pitch was a nightmare. The holds went straight up but the rope from Bruce pulled me up and right while the rope to John, blown into a tight arc pulled me down and right.  All the while the gale shrieked and I have rarely been so glad to reach the top of a climb. “VS?’” Bruce yelled. “Not in these bloody conditions it isn’t.”
    We’d got to the top. All that remained now was to get off the wretched thing and back across to the mainland. The tide was very obviously coming in fast and we had visions of the abseil rope wrapping itself around the stack, trapping us here. But it was almost as if the gods had tired of playing with us. The ropes didn’t get snagged anywhere, the abseils went smoothly after we’d nearly come to blows arguing over who was going to escape first, and we got back across the channel just as the waves started to crash over the  plinth.
    Our celebrations that night were long and liquid and I was very happy indeed to hand Joe his winnings.

Done it! A happy team after bagging Am Buachille:R Haszko©

First published in High. Many thanks to Richard for permission to re-publish the article and for supplying the images.Richard Haszko©

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Coming up: Richard Haszko goes sea stack climbing in Scotland

Joe Simpson and Bruce French paddle towards 'The Old Man of Stoer' : R Haszko©

“Right, Richard, I bet you a pound we can do all three in a weekend.” John and I looked at Joe with incredulity. The three in question were the classic Scottish sea stacks: Old Man of Hoy, Old Man of Stoer and Am Buachille. Joe had been muttering about doing the Old Man of Hoy for some time and both John and I agreed that it would indeed be a fine thing do. But three in one weekend? Hoy alone was normally a three day trip: ferry from Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney, another ferry to the island of Hoy then a taxi ride across this to the stack. “It would have to be a long weekend I’ll grant you, but it’s definitely possible.” My doubts about Joe’s sanity were only increased by this so I happily took the bet on, completely confident that I would be able to relieve him of some more of the proceeds of his scribblings.

This Friday,Richard Haszko describes what happened when his small team which included Joe Simpson attempted to climb three classic Scottish sea stacks in a single weekend. 



Friday, 12 February 2010

Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia: Part Two

"Joe Brown during the second ascent of his own route Spiders Web, high in the natural arch above the sea' John Cleare Mountain Camera Library©

Here is Tony writing about The Master, forty years ago:
"The interesting thing is that Brown himself is not the least bit aggressive. He never raises his voice, and seems to do more listening than talking, except when he occasionally starts reminiscing or theorising, which causes an attentive silence to fall. I have always had the feeling that Brown has no need to be dynamic, conspicuous, and so on when he climbs, as most other 'hard' men are, because he has such an affinity with rock. I once watched a man breaking flint with a hammer into little pieces were to be used in old-fashioned matchlock guns. Every piece, after a few taps, finished up exactly the right size and shape, and it turned out that the man had been doing this work all his life. He was a craftsman, a man who not only produced good work, but understood the material with which he worked, all its foibles, its occasional refusal to behave as expected, its bouts of stubbornness. There was hardly any possibility of his getting upset, and there was certainly no need for an elaborate workshop and expensive tools. In some ways he reminded me of Joe Brown, who understands his own medium with the same timeless instinct and lack of pretence. It seems fitting, perhaps inevitable, that Brown, too, should have a very ordinary background and have been at one time a manual worker, a plumber. I can't imagine someone from higher up in the social order or from the professional classes having the same ingrained skill and almost earthy understanding."
Tony's text captures climbing in Wales, just before the exploration and wide interest in the sea cliffs of Anglesey. The main theatres of activity were still the Llanberis Pass, Clogwyn du'r Arddu and the cliffs of Tremadoc, and with the wonderful gift of hindsight it is clear just how traditional the scene still was. Great changes were soon to come, the likes of Positron and Right Wall were not far away, and the forthcoming advances in vision, nerve and athleticism were to be quite revolutionary within a British context. What the book demonstrates is how Welsh climbing felt before the boom in interest and the increases in general ability that arrived in the late sixties.

These days Tony, who is the son of the great Alpine and Himalayan explorer Frank Smythe, lives in Staveley, just north of Kendal. He is still frequently out in the hills walking and mountain biking, and remains a very fit man. Talking to Tony about the book, I was struck by his modest diffidence, amounting to almost slight embarrassment about it all. When I indicated just what an influence the book has had on so many climbers of a certain age, Tony seemed genuinely surprised and pleased that the work he and John put in was so well regarded to this day. In truth I have always felt that the book captured the spirit and rhythm of the time perfectly and remains a hugely enjoyable read. Tony is particularly good when writing about Cloggy (he later contributed a fine essay about Vember for 'Hard Rock') and because he had genuinely struggled with some of the top routes of the day, is able to give good, honest insights into just what the experience of hard climbing felt like at that time. One has to remember just how new and revealing this type of writing was, and it came across as dynamic and refreshing to many readers. Like Tony, John is still very active in the hills "as photographers don't really retire!" He still climbs as frequently as possible, is a keen ski mountaineer, and has recently taken up long distance mountain biking.

Al Alvarez, writer,critic,poet and rock climber fights his way up MPP a very hard climb in Dinas Mot high above Llanberis Pass at the heart of North Wales Climbing.( Shot for the Observer June 27th/1965)
John Cleare Mountain Camera Library©
The legacy of 'Rock Climbers in Action has proved to be strong one. The superb photographic work of the likes of Ray Wood, Dave Simmonite and Cubby Cuthbertson lean strongly on the work of John Cleare all those years ago. Gradually more written work appeared about Welsh climbing; biographies of Brown and Whillans, The Black Cliff, Welsh Rock, biographies of Menlove Edwards, Kirkus and Herford to name but a few. Despite the passing years, the book is held in great affection by many climbers not least for capturing a particular period so clearly and with such charm. I have met people who can recite pieces of text (honestly!) and its cult status has endured because the book was not produced in great numbers (for many years it was rumoured that there were only 1,000 copies but that is not true.) The book originally retailed at £1,75 (about the price in 1966 of eighteen pints of bitter!) these days copies very rarely crop up on used book lists, it seems that most people who bought the book want to keep it, such is its quality. Very occasionally a second hand copy comes on the market and there are rumours of up to £250 being paid. Like 'The Black Cliff' and 'High Peak', it remains one of the most sought after, and scarce, British mountain books of the modern era. In the USA, copies in good condition have fetched $500.
As I indicated earlier, to climbers of a certain age the book is held in huge affection. I once sat around a campfire in the Alps, listening to people who not only knew the order of the photographs but could also recite the captions almost word for word! (This event was very funny and clearly demonstrated under the influence of cheap wine that male obsession can veer seriously near to mild forms of mental illness!) I have also met Rock Climbers in Action tickers, trying to knock off all the routes in the photographs. The inclusion of The Thing, Erosion Direct, Pellagra and Cloggy's Great Wall have always ensured that that would be no easy task while much of Carpet Slab is simply no longer available, having fallen down in 1986.
While still at school in South London in 1967, I took a copy of the book down from a shelf in Brixton Library. I turned the pages, saw John's photographs and can genuinely say that I was hooked---like many others I wanted to be out there on those routes and be a part of that world. Just revisiting the book both in terms of photographs and text brings back wonderful memories of great days on the crags of mysterious Snowdonia. Forty years down the road, it is full marks to John and Tony, for creating a gem of a book that has brought huge pleasure to so many of us and inspired many a pushy and unforgettable lead! Wales was never to be like this again----the rush across Anglesey to the vertical adventures of Gogarth was soon to sweep over the mainstream and more people then began to look further afield to Europe, the USA and elsewhere but all that is another story.
Pellagra Shadows. Pete Crew in action, February 1965.John Cleare Mountain Camera Library©













Steve Dean© John Cleare©

First published in the Climbers Club Journal. Photographs first published in 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' Smythe/Cleare. Published Secker and Warburg 1966.
Special thanks to Steve Dean, John Cleare and The Climbers Club

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Coming Up: Rock Climbers in Action...Part Two

Baz Ingle spreadeagled on Hangover in the Llanberis Pass, North Wales. Pete Crew on Belay.
John Cleare Mountain Camera©
"The legacy of 'Rock Climbers in Action has proved to be strong one. The superb photographic work of the likes of Ray Wood, Dave Simmonite and Cubby Cuthbertson lean strongly on the work of John Cleare all those years ago. Gradually more written work appeared about Welsh climbing; biographies of Brown and Whillans, The Black Cliff, Welsh Rock, biographies of Menlove Edwards, Kirkus and Herford to name but a few. Despite the passing years, the book is held in great affection by many climbers not least for capturing a particular period so clearly and with such charm. '
Steve Dean concludes his appreciation of a classic work with more exclusive images from the original book from John Cleare.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia: Forty Years on.

Pete Crew on Great Wall, Clogwyn Du Arddu: North Wales.Crew made the first ascent of this formidable route,originally dubbed 'Master's Wall' because Joe Brown had failed to climb it John Cleare:
John Cleare/Mountain Camera Library©

"Our bible was 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' which we used to borrow alternately from Birkenhead Library so that no-one else could get it, and Alan used to speculate about how hard these climbs really were.. Nick Parry recalling early schoolboy climbing days with the late Al Rouse.)
Forty years on, it is clear that 1966 was quite a year for British climbing. The growth in the sport's popularity was well under way and that year saw the publication of Chris Bonington's instant modern classic "I Chose to Climb", the Eiger Direct was climbed in a blaze of publicity that quickly pushed a young Dougal Haston onto the world stage. Chris Bonington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey climbed the excellent East Face of the Old Man of Hoy (a year before the legendary television broadcast) and the rapid exploration of the sea cliffs on Anglesey put the name of Gogarth on the lips of all serious climbers. An exciting time of cultural and social change, 1966 also saw the Beatles release their finest album Revolver, Bob Dylan released the wonderful Blonde on Blonde and a young American guitarist settled in London and recorded his first single "Hey Joe". Truly Jimi Hendrix seemed like something from outer space and typified an exciting era. That year also saw the publication of the first really modern book about climbing in Britain, "Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia" by John Cleare and Tony Smythe. At last something had appeared in print that in words and pictures really managed to convey just how rock climbing felt. The book changed the whole way we looked at the sport and in its brisk and businesslike format was a wonderfully cool piece of work capturing the era beautifully.
It is now the fortieth anniversary of what turned out to be a hugely influential and much loved book and the time seems right for an affectionate reappraisal both of the photographic aspect and the text. Perhaps a little unfairly, given the quality of Tony Smythe's well thought out prose, the book is perhaps best known for the superb quality of John Cleare's near-iconic black and white photographs. The book contains thirty nine plates all of which serve to capture something both of the nature of hard climbing and the mysterious nature of Snowdonia itself. At the time that the book was produced, John was working in London as a fashion and advertising photographer and climbing regularly in Wales at weekends. A contract was agreed with the publishers Secker & Warburg in late 1964 for an advance of £60 and work on the book commenced. The publishing director at Secker & Warburg was Robin Collomb, and to quote John Cleare "...that book was Robin's initial inspiration. Having seen some of my pictures around, he invited me out to lunch and suggested I did the book. His idea was that it be the first of a series, to later cover The Lakes, Scotland and the Alps, but just before "Snowdonia" was published he moved on from Secker & Warburg, and that was the end of an intriguing project." John was already a very experienced climber, but the production of many of the photographs required considerable persistence and effort.
The scope of the photographs is of great interest, ranging from the famous images of Cenotaph Corner, Cemetery Gates, Hangover and The Thing in the Llanberis Pass, to dark atmospheric shots of the then modern routes on Clogwyn du'r Arddu and bright sunny shots of Tremadoc. In addition there were various illustrations of climbs situated elsewhere in Snowdonia, my own favourite being a superb image of the wall of Mur y Niwl in bright sunshine. Perhaps the finest of the photographs is that of Pete Crew on the Great Wall of Cloggy, Welsh Gothic at its finest and an image to wet any appetite. Many of John's illustrations in the book have become famous, and rightly so, they were the finest examples of the art at that time and were hugely dramatic.


Rusty Bailee leads Cemetery Gates, Dinas Cromlech,Llanberis Pass, N Wales: John Cleare/Mountain camera library© 

John's own account of the project*  Mountain 1987 tells us of how he drove up from London to Snowdonia over thirty times in the period through the (often wet) summer of 1965 to try and get all the necessary photographic work done. Despite the often poor weather, he was fortunate in being able to enlist the help of a number of the top performers of the day including Pete Crew, Baz Ingle, Rusty Baillie, Martin Boysen, Dave Alcock and Dave Potts. John recalled how he often used an abseil rope to get in close to the action and wide angle lenses to enhance the perspective. Although not unusual today, no one had really tried to photograph climbing in this way before and the results were often wonderfully dramatic. John's work vividly captured the feel of hard climbing; the sweat on the fingers and the dry mouth as a hard or bold move was executed. Nothing like this had been seen before and the quality of the photographs were the foundation of John's reputation as a master of mountaineering photography.
When John got the project under way he initially approached Al Alvarez (many years later the author of 'Feeding the Rat') to produce the text. Such was the demand on Al for his writing skills, that he was unable to take on the work. As a result John approached an old school friend and regular climbing partner Tony Smythe to put pen to paper. At the time Tony had recently returned from Alaska and had worked for some time at Plas y Brenin. John's choice turned out to be an astute one, Tony Smythe knew the nature and character of Snowdonia very well and whilst not one of the elite climbers of the period was a very able extreme leader who knew his way around. The text Tony produced is to my mind something of an understated gem that perfectly balances John's excellent photographs. In less than 40,000 words Tony manages to combine the traditional and contemporary aspects of Welsh climbing and his text retains a strong sense of awe and mystery about Snowdonia itself. It includes interesting accounts of early days in Ogwen, personal experiences on the hard climbs of the day (the high prestige still attached to the likes of Cenotaph Corner, The Grooves and Vector for instance is made quite clear) and something of the legend and awe attached to the heroes of the day. It is for instance fascinating to read the sections about Joe Brown and Don Whillans written in 1965, and to realise just what a vast influence they and their exploits had on British climbing at that time. Tony's text also conveys the sense of increasing pace and modernity creeping into the sport as traditions, even those of the fifties, were being rapidly eroded. Along with the traditional flavour of some of the text, there is a sense also of urgency and rapid travel in cool new cars like Mini Coopers, to a background of music by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. A new modern age had arrived and this was a period largely dominated in Wales by the climbers of the Manchester/Sheffield based Alpha Club. Some of the Club's members featured in John Cleare's photographs but despite the pre-eminence of this youthful group, there was still huge respect for Joe Brown at that time. (Joe was all of thirty five when the book was being written and had barely begun his extensive exploration on Anglesey.)....To be continued
Part Two: Friday 12th February 2010.


Pete Crew fighting Erosion Groove.
This strenuous and very fierce climb was pioneered by Don Whillans: John Cleare
John Cleare/Mountain Camera Library©
First published in the Climbers Club Journal. Special thanks to Steve Dean for permission to republish this article and great thanks to John Cleare for submitting these iconic images and granting permission for their re-publication. Not forgetting my thanks to The Climbers Club for their cooperation.


Steve Dean©/John Cleare©

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Coming Up: Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia

Pete Crew on the first pitch of Pellagra: Craig y Castell, Tremadog,South Snowdonia, N Wales.
John Cleare/Mountain Camera Picture Library©

This Friday,a real Footless exclusive! Steve Dean writes an appreciation of one of UK climbing's most important and seminal works. Tony Smyth and John Cleare's 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia'.
First published in 1966,this long out of print book is recognized as a landmark in climbing literature and is appreciated as something of a work of art. Not least for John Cleare's beautiful striking black and white action images capturing many of North Wales's foremost contemporary activists; including Joe Brown, Pete Crew and Baz Ingle.
John Cleare has kindly provided several of his most iconic images from the book to be used to illustrate the article.
Published in two parts with part one this Friday and concluding the following week.This is one article you can't miss!