Friday, 30 March 2012

The Yearning

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had The Yearning…

Starting off as a passing thought, it seems innocuous enough. Usually triggered by a sunny morning or a glimpse of something on TV, caught out of the corner of the eye as I pass in a cafe or bar…

    “I fancy a climb”

It’s easily dismissed at this point, life’s distractions quickly intervene and it’s business as usual. Except that subconsciously it’s not. The seed has been planted; The Yearning begins.

The next day it pops up again, only this time it’s bigger – harder to dismiss. It’s not even prompted, it just shows up out of the blue:

    “I wish I was in the mountains.”

And it sticks around, I dwell on it for a minute or two – imagining fresh dew on grass, cool air cut by morning sun and the crag appearing through trees as day begins to break. Birds sing, all is quiet. Each footstep builds the silence; the proximity of the noise emphasising the vast calm that lies beyond… Suddenly the daydream is shattered – reality calls, all thoughts of tranquillity quickly stuffed down into the back of the mind. But before long it’s back, every few hours now – and the dwelling lasts longer.

Day three is when things really start to go South. Reality is no longer the rule; replaced by the feel of cool rock against chalked fingers, cold metal greeting a hand as gear is pulled from loops, the scratching signature of aluminium on sandstone and the nut finds it’s mark. The weight of the rope, the snap of a gate sliding closed. Fleeting moments of clarity punctuate the delirium but it’s already too late. All is lost… A growing emptiness wells up inside.

    “I’ve gotta get out. I need to get back to the mountains.”

Eventually I’m reduced to what I call “Half Jam”. Half Jam can’t function the way normal Jam does. He’s compromised. He forgets things – pin numbers, meetings, car keys, his name… He is consistently late. When engaged in conversation his mind wanders, eyes glaze over and mouth falls slightly ajar. Half Jam thrashes at the plastic holds on the indoor wall. Technique evades him as he climbs more forcefully, more angrily in a desperate attempt to sate The Yearning. But it doesn’t work… It never will. There’s only one cure for The Yearning:

White, fluffy clouds roll across the deep blue sky. The wind plays in the trees, snatching up leaves and carrying them away. Rope hums through an aluminium loop and somewhere below steady breathing is interrupted by grunts of effort. Hexes clang like cowbells as the second’s rack sways in time with each movement. The day is nearly done – just a short walk and a long drive separate this moment from food and sleep. But something has changed inside; gears shifted, a timer reset?

    “Nice one mate, you made that lead look easy”

And The Yearning is gone again.

James Carpenter

First published on Climbing Australia

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Itching to Climb

Barbara James leading the Welsh classic Centotaph Corner-E2.5b (US 5.10c).Dinas Cromlech:Photo Ron James

By now I'd led two classic climbs, graded hard very severe plus in the Llanberis Pass. They were on a dramatic lump of rock, Dinas Gromlech, usually abbreviated to The Cromlech that stood like a vertically open book, above a steep scree slope.

The well-protected Cenotaph Corner, in the 'spine' of the book was a mixture of bridge and balance moves but Cemetery Gates, a climb on the vertical right hand wall was harder. I needed strong arms because hanging from the fingers of one hand, I needed the other to reach upwards and place protecting runner. I used my powerful thigh muscles as much as possible to move upwards.Added to this, as I moved upwards the length and weight of the rope behind me increased, making it harder to pull it up and clip the waiting karabiner above my head. I rested at the holly tree ledge before awkward moves led to a tiny belay ledge in an airy, dramatic position120ft (37m) above Barbara, my climbing companion.

Before climbing the wind had strengthened, blowing upwards the rope I'd taken in as she climbed; we were relieved to be off the crag before the weather worsened.The testing of my skill, stamina and mental strength involved in climbs like this enhanced the ordinary things of life. The well-earned pint tasted better and relaxing, tired by physical effort, was a superb feeling. Famous climber Joe Brown had done the first ascent of both these magnificent routes in the early 1950s, getting the idea for their names when he saw a bus with a destination 'Cemetry Gates'. All this was good training for our annual summer Alps trip.

Ron always spent many hours researching the next route that he wanted to climb. To lighten our weight he'd tear a page from a German climbing magazine or photocopy and translate a page from Walter Pause's book In Extremis Fels, 100 hard climbs in the Alps, that later was published in English. But no amount of fact-finding could give us success on the long north ridge of Monte Agner. Our goal was to get as high as possible, bivouac for the night and then finish the climb and descend next day. So in the heat of the rnidday sun we were walking up a dry river bed, full of boulders that reflected and increased the temperature.

The long, sweaty, uphill walk in the sticky valley heat was relentless, later, climbing up through downward pointing juniper branches was strenuous and we couldn't get as high as planned.After a sleepless night we'd drunk all our water; we turned back. Most climbers have a risk thermometer and with his priority for safety Ron's temperature reading was low; we never again tried to climb a route of this length.

Our favourite area was the Italian Dolomites with their rolling grass meadows leading up to impressive, huge rock faces; but the Sella Pass attracted me for another reason. The Treaty of Saint-German in 1919 consigned the South Tyrol to Italy and local Austrian traditions prevailed in the Val Gardena. I could assuage my chocoholic weaknesses with mouth-watering chocolate cake, Sachertorte.  It originated from Hotel Sacher,Vienna in the late eighteenth-century.

Usually we stayed in Refugio Passo Sella where the owner, Senora Capadozzi, spoke excellent English and always gave us a splendid welcome. From the nearby Demetz hut, where the LAC ladies had been feted, there was a steep slope in both directions. The precipitous, narrow descent challenged skiers because it was squeezed between rock walls. So when one winter the front of my skis touched one wall, turning the downhill ski 180" was easy. But moving the uphill ski wasn't. Somehow, eventually, I managed to complete the turn. Later these runs were closed due to the number of fatalities.

Another Dolomite speciality was the spectacular Via Ferrara, metal ladder-ways that were maintained by local guides. With minimal technical difficulty, thanks to wire hand rails to clip into, mountaineers could experience dramatic exposed positions that otherwise were the prerogative of Grade V I rock climbers. When Ron was guiding in the Brenta Dolomites, I soloed the Sentiero delle Bochette. I was enjoying the airy position when I reached a steep, snow filled gullet' whose slope not only disappeared from sight hundreds of feet below me but also the hand rail was buried. I crossed with great care!

Our evenings here were very special because at the Brenta Hut we had the pleasure and honour of meeting Bruno Detassis, a famous Italian Guide who spoke no English. Ron's good climbing vocabulary enabled them to converse while I chatted with Bruno's wife who's English was excellent. She impressed me when she said, "I have some trouble understanding old English."

Of all our wonderful experiences in mountains,five climbs were most memorable, because on each one I had different reasons to be worried.

Barbara James.

Extract from 'Itching to Climb'. Copies can be ordered direct from Barbara's website.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Pete Livesey: As the crow flies

Pete Livesey on the first ascent of Downhill Racer: (1976) Froggat Edge,Derbyshire PL

Pete Livesey drove British rock climbing to new standards during the Seventies. His speed, strength and stamina were developed young as a Yorkshire schoolboy running at national champion level. The seniors in his club included Derek Ibbotson, who had the current record for the mile, and the young Livesey developed the same kind of competitive dedication.

 He also had a natural talent for other outdoor sports, branching out into canoeing, rock climbing and caving. For a while he concentrated his efforts underground, becoming one of the best cavers in the world, joining expeditions to Jamaica, Greece and Ghar Paru, in Iran. It was only in his late twenties that he turned seriously to rock climbing.

His impact on the climbing world was almost immediate, starting in 1971 in the intimidating gorge of Gordale Scar with the first free ascent of Face Route, previously climbed only with the aid of steel pegs. That was the first of many bold, strenuous routes up fiercely overhanging limestone. As his close friend and climbing partner, John Sheard, put it, "For Pete to apply the definition `rock climber' to himself, it had to include the unspoken prefix `best'; anything else was playing around." A few might niggle over "best" but all would probably agree that Livesey brought a whole new attitude to the sport.

First there was his athletic background. The stamina, strength and speed developed as a schoolboy gave him a natural edge, which he honed by systematic training on the then new indoor climbing walls, particularly during his exile for a year's teacher training practice in the lowlands of Scunthorpe. That dedicated approach to training was new, but mere athletic skills were not enough to succeed hundreds of feet off the ground on steep, potentially dangerous, rock, following incipient lines of tiny holds which others had never tried to link before. Here mental control was everything.

John Sheard, who followed him up countless routes, observes: "Pete was totally competent and safe on things which would have killed the rest of us. He had an amazing ability to hang around and rest - and place fiddly protective equipment - on overhanging rock. When you got there you just couldn't see how he had done it."

Pete new routing in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1977:PL

Livesey left his mark far beyond the microcosmic world of Yorkshire climbing, particularly in 1974, when he discovered the tenuous, improbable line of Footless Crow, on Goat Crag, in Borrowdale. Later that year he travelled to Snowdonia to leave his signature on a cliff redolent with history - Dinas Cromlech. This was the scene of Joe Brown's great Fifties climb, Cenotaph Corner. Twenty-two years on, Livesey tackled the seemingly blank right wall of the great square-cut corner, linking a complex series of moves up tiny flakes of diorite. Right Wall is now an exhilarating classic enjoyed by hundreds of competent climbers, reared on a hundred gyms and armed with sophisticated modern protection devices. Twenty-four years ago it was an imaginative step into the unknown.

Beyond the parochial confines of British climbing, Livesey sought the scale of grander cliffs. In Norway he made the second ascent of the 5,000ft- high Troll Wall. In the Dolomites he free-climbed some of the great walls climbed originally with artificial aid. In Austria's Kaisergebirge he amazed the locals with his speed and stamina. In Provence, he showed what could be done in the stupendous Gorge du Verdon; where local experts rested on in situ steel pegs - and pulled up on them when things got a bit tough - Livesey climbed free, relying on ingenuity and the strength in his fingers.

His most elegant and celebrated new route here was Piche Nibou, although his own knobbly-kneed climbing style was more effective than elegant. He also dressed in the kind of stylish hand-me-down rags which would appal today's lycra-coordinated Gallic athletes.

Livesey also left his mark in California's famed Yosemite Valley. A partner on the first ascent of "Carbon Wall" recalls that, unknown to the rest of the team, Livesey made a recce the day before the climb, abseiling down the 500 feet of the route to inspect the difficulties. "It was typical of Livesey: he was always one step ahead of everyone else, particularly Ron Fawcett - he had to find ways to outwit Ron, because Ron really was the best climber in the world."

The young protege, Fawcett, eventually surpassed the master and, after climbing his Cheedale swansong Golden Mile in 1981, Livesey more or less quit rock climbing. He turned to orienteering, excelling at that pursuit just as he had done at all the others.

Pete Livesey directed the well-respected outdoor pursuits course at Ilkley and Bradford Community College and served on several committees of the British Mountaineering Council, but his greatest legacy is the actual climbs he created and the impact he made on rock climbing. He took his own climbing very seriously but the inner intensity was masked by a mischievous sense of humour and by moments of inspired theatricality, such as the time he made one of the first free ascents of the famous Welsh climb Tensor, solo, in Hush Puppies.

Pete Livesey during the Footless Crow-Lakeland Rock filming session. Photo-Adrian Bailey

Peter Michael Livesey, mountaineer: born Huddersfield 12 September 1943; married Soma (one daughter); died Malham, North Yorkshire 26 February 1998.

Stephen Venables: Originally published in The Independent:17th March 1998. My thanks to Stephen for permission to republish.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Three artists paint Pembrokeshire

Graham Suthland: Western Hills 1938

A short break in Pembrokeshire set me off in search of painters whose work reflects the shapes and forms, the light and shade of the land.  Like Cornwall, this corner of the British Isles has attracted many artists whose paintings have been inspired by the landscape of this county of craggy cliffs, golden sands and hidden valleys. Foremost among them are Graham Sutherland, John Piper and John Knapp-Fisher.

Although largely overlooked now, Graham Sutherland became one of the most famous artists in the world in the 1930s and 1940s, largely due to his passion for painting the Pembrokeshire landscape. Sutherland was born  in London in 1903, but did not begin to paint in earnest until he was in his mid-30s, when, after visiting Pembrokeshire for the first time in 1935, he began painting landscapes that were inspired by the inherent strangeness of natural forms, with echoes of the visionary paintings of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, as well as his contemporary, Paul Nash.

The first one-man exhibition of his oil paintings, mainly Welsh landscapes, took place in 1938. During the Second World war, Sutherland was an Official War Artist, painting scenes of bomb devastation and of war work in mines and foundries. He was at the height of his international renown in the 1950s when he was commissioned to design the huge tapestry of Christ resurrected for Basil Spence’s new Coventry Cathedral.

Graham Sutherland was so moved by the Pembrokeshire landscape that he  bequeathed a substantial collection of his work to the county in 1976, which for many years was exhibited in a dedicated gallery at Picton Castle. Then the gallery closed and for many years the collection languished unseen. Now, however, his works form a permanent part of the changing exhibitions at Oriel y Parc, the new gallery on the outskirts of St Davids.

When we visited the gallery, we found several works by Sutherland displayed as part of the current Stories from the Sea exhibition, including ‘Bird over Sand’ (1975) and ‘The Wave’. Sutherland once wrote about what brought him back, again and again, to this part of the country:

    " The quality of light here is magical and transforming. … Watching from the gloom as the sun’s rays strike the further bank, one has the sensation of the after-tranquility of an explosion of light.  Or as if one has looked into the sun and had turned suddenly away.  Herons gather.  They fly majestically towards the sea."

Another of Sutherland’s paintings on display currently is ‘Welsh Landscape With Roads’, painted at Porthclais in 1935, and on loan from the Tate.

Graham Sutherland: Pembrokeshire landscape-Valley above Porthclais 1935

The Tate’s note on this work states:

  Sutherland wrote that such paintings expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional’ essence of a place. He conjures up a sense of the landscape’s ancient past through the inclusion of the animal skull and what may be standing stones in the distance. The unnaturalistic colouring, dramatic shaft of sunlight and minuscule fleeing figure create a threatening atmosphere. While the theme of a tiny man dwarfed by nature was common in eighteenth century painting, Sutherland’s transformation of the landscape into a eerie, primordial scene is distinctly modern."

Sutherland would wander around the coves on St Davids head with a little sketchbook in his hand, searching the seaweed and driftwood, looking for objects with interesting shapes: eroded rocks, tree-roots, a bleached skull, strange branches, rusty chains.  All these details were isolated from their natural surroundings, and in his paintings and drawings were re-configured to express the emotions he experienced in the variety of forms seen in the landscape.

Sutherland was especially inspired by the topography around Porthclais, just south of St Davids.  When he painted ‘Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun’ he gave the motif of paths and sunken lanes wending through the fields a Palmer-like hallucinatory intensity: golden sun against black sky, darkness and brilliant light.

There’s a similar intensity in ‘Entrance to a Lane’ (1939),  Though apparently abstract, this painting represents a lane at Sandy Haven, in the south of the county. This painting is in the Tate collection, and their text for it reads:

  " By ‘paraphrasing’ what he observed, Sutherland felt he captured the essence of the landscape. This innovative technique fused the observational powers of John Constable with the daring of Pablo Picasso. The prominent black forms also reflect Sutherland’s debt to the landscape drawings of Samuel Palmer, whose work enjoyed a revival in the 1930s. This painting belongs to a tradition of images of wooded landscapes which seem to enfold the viewer. In 1939, with war looming, such a natural refuge may have had special significance."

The neo-romantic  English painter John Piper also came to Pembrokeshire for the first time in the 1930s.  He first became acquainted with the landscapes of south Wales in 1937 when he married Myfanwy Evans.  He made on the spot collages of Pembrokeshire beach scenes, and also became fascinated by Welsh architecture: the chapels, castles and ruins, which were to influence much of his later works. In 1963 he bought two abandoned cottages, with no electricity or phone, at the foot of Garn Fawr, the distinctive rock outcrop topped by an Iron Age fort that dominates Strumble Head.  From here, he set out to explore the surrounding countryside, ‘trying to see what hasn’t been seen before’, as Welsh painter Kyffin Williams expressed it.

John Piper: Caerhedwyn Uchaf 1981

Piper painted Garn Fawr many times, like Cezanne with Mont St Victoire, always finding a new way of revealing what he perceived.  The cottage is still there.

Like Sutherland, Piper paid homage to William Blake and Samuel Palmer; like him too, he was a war artist and contributed to the new Coventry cathedral (stained glass windows).

    " The titles (of my work) are the names of places, meaning that there was an involvement there, at a special time: an experience affected by the weather, the season and the country, but above all concerned with the exact location and it’s spirit for me. The spread of moss on a wall, A pattern of vineyards or a perspective of hop-poles may be the peg, but it is not hop-poles or vineyards or church towers that these pictures are meant to be about, but the emotion generated by them at one moment in one special place"
    - extract from European Topography by John Piper, 1969

    Louring clouds that belong to romantic painting hanging over a bare beach that might have been made for Courbet. At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continous line that girdles England, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach. Behind this rich and constricting belt against the sand dunes there is drier sand, sparser shingle, unwashed even at high tides, with dirty banana skins now and sides of boxes with the THIS SIDE UP almost unreadable. That, in whatever direction you look, is a subject worthy of contemporary painting. Pure abstraction is undernourished. It should at least be allowed to feed bare on a beach with tins and broken bottles.

John Piper: Pembrokeshire-A distant prospect 1964

  Our first encounter with the work of John Knapp-Fisher was when we came down to Pembrokeshire in the 1980s.  We came back with postcard reproductions of his distinctive watercolour and ink paintings with their limited palette of earth colours and striking chiaroscuro, often depicting brightly-lit whitewashed buildings emerging from a dark background (below).

John Knapp-Fisher was born in 1931, studied Graphic Design at Maidstone College of Art from 1949, and later worked  for the theatre as a designer and scenic artist. He moved to Pembrokeshire in 1965 and two years later opened his studio gallery in Croesgoch, a small village strung out along on the Fishguard to St Davids road.

Among the artists that Knapp-Fisher identifies as influences have been painters of the Cornishschool like Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, as well as John Piper. In Cresswell Street, Tenby, the boat on the skyline seems to be a humourous nod to Wallis, as well as being a reflection of Knapp-Fisher’s lifelong love of boats and the sea  (he has built them, sailed them and lived aboard one for several years).

Knapp-Fisher’s name has become synonymous with Pembrokeshire landscape painting and his work is highly sought after by collectors in Britain and abroad.  He has exhibited widely and is now, one of Wales’ most popular and well-known artists.

John Knapp-Fisher: Cresswell Street, Tenby 1998

Knapp-Fisher has written an excellent introduction to his work in his book, John Knapp-Fisher’s Pembrokeshire, republished in a revised edition in 2003.  He writes straightforwardly, without pretension or pomposity, about his working methods and the things that inspire him:

   " With my work I tend to concentrate on small areas, often within walking distance of where I live.  I will go out in all lights and weather making notes and sketches – sometimes finishing the picture (if in small format) on the spot. "

   "  I am probably best known for ‘dark’ dramatic paintings with buildings catching the last rays of the sun against a stormy sky " … Most of the paintings in this oeuvre are inspired by day subjects of a light often seen on the north west Pembrokeshire peninsula.

Most of John Knapp-Fisher’s early Pembrokeshire paintings were done with inks and watercolours, but recently he has turned more to oil, and utilised  a wider colour palette.

     " Anecdotal views – pretty ‘photographic’ subjects are of no interest to me.  Pembrokeshire, like many other beautiful holiday areas, attracts artists who cater solely for the tourist industry.  I believe in decentralisation.  Why should London attract serious painters … while Pembrokeshire is relegated to a state of mediocrity?  Distinguished painters have worked here in the past – Turner, Sutherrland, Piper, Richard Wilson, Augustus and Gwen John, and David Jones – as well as a significant number in the present, both young and old. "

John Knapp Fisher

 " I have worked at my art when my spirits have soared and when I have felt low and alone.  I hope to continue to wander the paths and lanes, the seashores, farmyards and hills – sketchbook in hand"

Gerry Cordon

First published on 'that's how the light gets in'