Wednesday, 30 May 2012

John Redhead's Colonists Out is released to order online

Legendary climber and artist John Redhead's long awaited new book, Colonists Out, is out now and available to order direct from the publisher- priced a £12.00 for the paperback. The author who spends an equal amount of time in North Wales and the South of France, is still climbing and has been putting in the hours on Cloggy and The Orme recently.  Colonists Out is described by the author as  "The search for the meaning of home from Eryri, North Wales to Canigou, Pyrenees Orientales. Trickster rejoices!   '

The book touches on controversial issues such as Welsh language zealotry and racist attitudes towards those considered outsiders, and the damaging impact which agricultural subsidies have had on the natural environment in the uplands.  His experiences in The Pyrenees provide a fascinating insight into the distinct culture of this rural part of the world.A culture,the author discovers,is not that dissimilar to rural North Wales in it's dark, tangled complexity.

For those for whom the author is best known and appreciated as a climber, then take heart.Climbing does indeed feature with some fascinating insights into the often arcane and surreal world of Welsh climbing!

With a forward written by fellow North Wales activist, John Appleby and with a photographic contribution from Ray Wood, John Redhead promises the work will be an organic and interactive work with readers able to contribute their own thoughts and suggestions online. Colonists Out can be ordered direct from and a climbing extract- 'The Rock'- will be featured on Footless Crow in the next few days.

Tuesday: Chris Bonington is on top of Yr Wyddfa with the Olympic torch and John Redhead is in Pete's Eats with a chip butty...all is well with the world!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Under Adam Rib

There's something disturbingly sinister and at the same time gigglingly innocent about standing for the first time in a huge empty cwm. In front of us the black curtain of Cwm Du was bristling with buttresses which were each lit at the top by the early evening light. The left-most of these is Eden Buttress and flaming like a candle was the crux top pitch of Adam Rib, a 400ft two-star Severe first climbed in 1911. But here was a whole cwm of delights, for up every buttress there held a starred Severe, sunlit, naked, and like Adam Rib, as dry as a bone. The cwm seemed newly created, an untouched Eden.

We searched for a spot flat enough for a tent,not realizing then how it would get in the way later on.
Of course, it came as no surprise to come over the lip of this cwm on the north side of Mynydd Mawr and find it deserted, even after weeks of dry weather. The previous week we had been the only climbers in the cwm when we climbed the Pencoed Pillar of Cader Idris. In the Moelwyns this very morning there had been queues of climbers on Mean Feat, but no one on the brilliant Hard Severe called The White Streak. These are the secrets really worth knowing.Adam Rib escaped the books and The White Streak escaped the stars. Both are full of surprises and routes of remarkable character. I don't mind sharing these secrets with you because Adam Rib in particular needs regular attention.

One of its surprises is loose rock.`What about doing one of these other ribs tonight and Adam Rib in the morning? It'll probably get the sun early on', I suggested to Norman.`No. If we're going to do it, we'll do it now. You don't know what the weather will be like in the morning.' All I could see was a blue sky and a wonderland of rock waiting to be climbed. It had not rained for three weeks and it was unlikely to rain in the morning. But Norman was already heading towards the scree.`Well I'm not carrying a sac,' I called as I scurried after him,just trainers.'

At last I stood where I'd wanted to be ever since I discovered the quality of Angel Pavement on the other side of this hill – and that was under Adam Rib. The evening was young and the tents were below There was no need to rush up the long reclining rib to the sunlight. And this was just as well, really, because it quickly became clear that it was not the climbing that was going to give us innocent fun, but the situation beside an amazing emergence of minarets on the left, and the beautiful basalt-type columns of Fluted Buttress on the right. Similarly it was not the shadowed presence of the black crag that would be sinister, but the loose nature of the holds that would give an edge of seriousness to this climb. We would need the time.

The rock of the first pitch so disturbed Norman that he belayed at half height, reducing the potential rockfall by 50ft. Leading the second half of this easy pitch I found the holds to be flat-topped blocks which sometimes eased free of the face. Then, in his turn, moaning with unease and his rucksack, Norman faced the prospect of a groove to the left of the arete, a traverse further left on to a subsidiary- rib followed by- a traverse back right again. He insisted that I belayed him directly below the groove (and in the line of fire) the better to hold him should he fall. My survival was assumed. I shivered in shorts, helmet less again. The serpent was beginning to uncoil on Eden Buttress.

Fortunately, Norman threw down more curses than rock. When I followed, I found that at every touch of a suspect hold there was one that was sound within reach. It was a matter of listening to the rock. I remembered a recent rope advert: 'Just you and the rope against Nature'. Whoever wrote that has not been here, or on Cloggy, or in Chee Dale, or on Pillar, or in Scotland. In fact Where have they been? Obviously only on the bolted sport climbers' crags. Perhaps this is the difference between the sport climbers and the rock climbers: the former have to fight against nature to win a hollow conquest, whilst the rock climber has to listen for hollow holds in order to tune in with nature, attentive rather than assertive, receiving rather than taking, reading what is given rather than problem solving with technology. This is why the art of placing runners is so integral to the rock climber's way of reading the rock.

Having said which, there now appears a peg in this story, at the start of the next pitch. It is ancient and unnecessary and I clipped it because it's there. On Eden Buttress this is not an original sin, merely an acknowledgement of the serpent's presence. I found the moves past the peg quite testing, but belaying above, on the narrow spine of the arete, I thought this next pitch was going to be the crux. Herbert Carr's 1926 guidebook description conveys something of the Alpine atmosphere of this final pitch: 'The rib narrows to a knife-edge which curls over on the left in a cornice of rock, leaving the straightest of paths set at an uncomfortably steep angle.' Belaying in the sun now, I watched Norman cunningly protect the moves above the cornice and teeter up, left toe on the edge of the overhang, right fingertips locked in the crack above his wires. Suddenly the rope was running out fast and he was shouting about what a brilliant pitch it was, how you really felt the exposure and how well Mallory did to climb it in December. I'll simply say that when my turn came it made me think a bit.

Dave Williams negotiates pitch three of Adam Rib

On the top we sat awhile, looking east to Snowdon's summit, then turning to the west to see blinding sunlight on the sea. To the south Y Garn's ridge stood stark and green. On the north side below us the land lay- open to the golden beaches of Anglesey. In Greek the word 'Adam' is made up of the four initial letters of the points of the compass, so Adam Rib can mean simply 'the rib leading to Adam – the viewpoint for everywhere'. But this is not the real significance of this route-name. That came to me only after a night under Adam Rib.

Camping is not allowed in Cwm Du. It is Crown Land to which the uncrowned may have access solely 'for air and exercise'. We'd fulfilled the exercise part of this requirement and, having unbuckled our harnesses, we lay where we fell, taking in air and alcohol. We got into our sleeping bags as the air chilled, and, one by one, we fell asleep beside our tents. We were therefore not actually camping, just taking maximum air after our exercise. I woke to find this tent pitched in the way of where my feet wanted to be.

To sleep out under Adam Rib after the experience of that climb is to rediscover an original state in which the world is whole.Adam Rib is an image that is both male and female. It is a climb om darkness into light that requires a certain fusion with nature to negotiate splintered rock. It is an experience of both the athletic and the aesthetic, just as it is an experience of both the sinister and the silly: This was the integrated art of rock climbing before the Fall.

And this is not a backward-looking nostalgic notion. Nor is it a flat-earth attitude to progress. It is simply to say to the sport climber, 'This is the way the rock is now. Before you bolt it, think about how you're going to take away the freedom of others to use and to see only what is given in this place. You don't have to be manipulated by the commercial interests into using equipment against nature.

The alternative, more demanding discipline, of listening and learning is still available.'In fact, the reintegrating art of rock climbing is available to anyone who stands under Adam Rib.

Terry Gifford:

The Joy of Climbing: Whittles Publishing

Top Photo: Terry Gifford Collection

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Gordon Stainforth's

A young Gordon Stainforth prepares for a Wild Mountain Time!

Having recently  reviewed Tony Howard's excellent 'Troll Wall,' I wasn't expecting to be back amongst the majestic Troll Peaks of western Norway quite so soon. However, I have recently been given the opportunity to return to the awesome Trolltindene massif and experience the high drama of sixties Norwegian mountaineering, but this time as experienced by acclaimed UK photographer Gordon Stainforth. Fiva 'an adventure that went wrong' is a finger nail whittling account of two gauche young adventurers-Gordon and twin brother John-who took on a Norwegian giant Troll and lived to tell the tale.

Most outdoor people in the UK will know Gordon as a genial, bespectacled photographer, yomping across mountainsides with his photographic gear slung across his back, searching for that fleeting moment when the elements meld to create an atmospheric image. ( See Griff Rhys Jones trailing in Gordon's wake in BBC's 'Mountain series!)

It was when I was looking for images to illustrate a Steve Dean article-A winter's day at Harrisons- which was to appear in Footless Crow that I came across photographs which suggested that the avuncular photographer was certainly no Southern Softy! Here was the young Stainforth soloing hard routes at Harrison Rocks. A sandstone outcrop in the home counties which given the lack of rock in the south east,is polished and as treacherous a rock as you can find anywhere. Obviously there was more to the young GS than simply being a rambler with a camera.

 John Stainforth strikes a pose

And so to Fiva. It's the ebbing of the swinging sixties and a 19 year old Gordon with brother John have arrived in Norway full of wide eyed enthusiasm and ambition. Having served their mountaineering apprenticeships in places like north Wales and Scotland,the time had come-or so it seemed-to test themselves on one of the mind blowingly huge Trollegan faces. What better introduction than a 1931 route put up by legendary Norwegian climber  Arne Randers Heen, Fiva (pronounced Fever). One of the more amenable routes on the mountain but still no pushover.

With just rudimentary equipment and carrying little more in the way of food and spare clothing than you would take on a day out on Lliwedd ( a 1000' cliff in N Wales) Gordon and John leave their tent as light was breaking to climb the route and hopefully return by evening.'s that word 'hopefully'. As in all the finest tales of mountaineering epics... 'the best laid schemes of mice and men' unravel as surely as a kitten with a ball of wool!

Gordon writes in a contemporaneous first person style and gives the account the authentic feel of story written by a young man recounting events which had happened but a few weeks before. That is not to suggest that the writing is in any way unrefined. Far from it. The author crafts the tale in a manner befitting the subject matter. Tightly drawn,to the point but not without humour.

It would be unfair to prise out elements of the story and comment on them here.However, the reader can rest assured. If they are looking for a book which is well written,perfectly paced and which ratchets up the tension by degrees in the manner of the very best works of Mountaineering non-fiction then Fiva delivers.

The final 'afterword' chapter written by brother John is remarkable in the manner in which it adds so much to Gordon's story.That distinct perspective giving the work an extra dimension and greater depth in the manner of a painting, the subject matter of which which is finally revealed through a few skillfully applied brush strokes.

It's incredible that Gordon has kept the story out of print for over 40 years before finally getting it out of his head and onto the page. Certainly Fiva is one of the better books to emerge from what is generally, a crowded and often overworked genre....... Recommended.

John Appleby 2012:

Photographs: Gordon Stainforth Collection

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A glimpse or two into the Sumner Mid Wales guides

The king and queen of mid Wales climbing.John and Jill Sumner.

So here I am holding John’s author’s copy guides in my hands, battered covers falling apart and stuck together with whatever came to hand by the look of it.  The binding has sustained the punishment of being owned by a guidebook writer.  The guides are waterworn with dried out paper that has survived with ink runs through several pages, making mono print images.  There are endless notes on what needs checking and detailed corrections- God knows what John would have done if he had lost them whilst working on a new guide- and all I can see are John’s big strong, straight fingered hands holding them.  I am going to shed a few tears writing this but hopefully there will be some laughter too.

These climbing guides have taken me on an unknown foray.  To see the five guidebooks John wrote in my hands there are so many stories underneath the text.  There is a naivety about the first guide, then the development of new areas and to finish with the Meirionnydd Guide covering a huge area of Wales. John has given a vast part of his life to these guidebooks but most of all he loved finding great routes and sharing them with other climbers.

John had a reputation for being dictatorial, but only because he wanted to get the best results for the climbers who would use the guides.  He was always bothered about his integrity and reputation as a climber.  I think (although he probably would not agree) that he attacked the guidebook writing like his he did his day job-as an electrical transformer design engineer.  He wanted a good clean design, accurate descriptions and for his own routes to be his gift to other climbers. I am now going to tell you a few tales you may or may not have heard before.  These are  random memories of how these guide books were part of my life.

Starting the guides
Larry Lamb persuaded John to write his first climbing guide.  John was reluctant at first but once he had started it was as if he was born to write.  He would chronicle his big Alpine routes for magazines or write articles on the development of new crags.  John had never looked back or wanted to recall historical climbs on the Yorkshire overhangs.

Research for ‘Central Wales’ guide started with a visit to Joe Brown.  This was treated like a royal visit.  We entered Joe's kitchen in Llanberis.  It felt a bit like a meeting the Godfather, I was definitely on my guard.  John nodded with reverence and said, ‘Joe’. Joe said, ‘Ow do Fritz’ and we sat down.  Things were going well.  John asked what Joe knew about new routes in mid Wales.  Joe knew that there were routes done on Gist Ddu and Bodlyn by Martin Boyson.  John must have considered this information because there was a pause, then, Joe said with a frown and absolute authority, ‘There’s no slouch in Boyson’.  The phase stuck as a sort of saying between us every time Boyson’s name was mentioned after that, I think you have to be born and bred in Lancashire to completely understand it.

Dolgellau area was difficult to research as there was a long history of climbing on Cadair Idris.  Books were reserved from the British Library written by the climbing pioneers of the late 19th to early 20th century, they documented the popularity of the mountain in these times.  John would hear a rumour that someone, such as Bowden Black, had put up routes then made enquires and chased any lead he got.  There has been a long history of co-operation between the local farmers, Snowdonia Nation Park (SNP) and climbers.  This helped when writing the Dolgellau guidebook as there was never any strong objections to climbing on the mountain.

Bones found on Cadair
A group of Mountain club members were sitting by the fire at Bryn Hafod (The Stafford MC hut in Cwm Cowarch) one cold frosty Saturday night.  It had been dark for ages and there was no sign of John and Bob.  They had gone over to Cadair to hopefully do the first winter ascent of 'Central Gully' on the north face of Pen-y-Gadair.  Everyone kept looking for lights coming up to the hut.  Eventually they arrived bursting to tell us what had happened but refusing to do so; as they had been sworn to secrecy.  We all sat by the fire and persuaded them to tell us their tale and promised not to tell anyone either.

The upper part of 'Central Gully' was just in condition with a small amount of snow, frozen turf and ice.  John spotted a huge bone stuck in the gully near the belay and hacked it out.  Bob arrived at the belay and John said, ‘Put that in your rucksack chap’ giving him the bone.  Bob reluctantly placed the bone in his sack with the unknown bits and pieces frozen on the bone.  As they climbed on up to the summit of Cadair Idris they passed more and more bones and frozen material stuck in the gully.  The bone was taken to Dolgellau Police Station.  John duly slapped the bone on the counter and said to the Policeman behind the desk ‘What do you think to that?’. The Policeman measured the bone next to his femur and established that it must be human.  According to Bob, there was a right rumpus after that, with police statements having to be written and pledges of secrecy until the body had been recovered, identified and the next of kin informed.

JS (left)and 'Tappers'.

The Mountain Rescue and John went back up the gully to bring down all remains the next day.  The body had been in the gully for about six months and was of a young man last seen in a cafĂ© in Barmouth the summer before.  It was assumed that a strong wind had blown him down the gully or he had missed the path in the mist, I remember a letter from his family.  It was all very sad in the end, with John being summoned to give evidence at the Inquest, which gave an open verdict.

The tale of the falling dentures
Relations between the climbers and Aran farmers were strained, for a number of reasons.  When work for The Climbers' Club (CC) Mid-Wales guidebook was well underway, a number of meetings were held to discus access.  The farmers also wanted to air their objections about the climbing guides.  The meeting in this tale was on neutral territory along the lane in the Cywarch Valley between Bryn Hafod and the Common.
I remember the day was warm with mottled sunshine.  The important people arrived for the meeting, not quite in their Sunday best but looked spruced up; the farmers had set faces with bottled umbrage in their shoulders.  The meeting started with criticising the previous three climbing guides.  One objection was that some of the crags had English names.  Everyone seemed to think this was a valid point and John agreed to find the missing Welsh crag names.  Then there was objection to the English route names and John said he would try to use more Welsh when naming routes.

I still smile about what happened next and remember the farmers where from staunch Methodist stock.  The farmers had a zealous objection to the route 'Crucifix', aptly named because the climber was strung out with arms extended like Jesus on the cross whilst doing the crux move.  The climbers looked bewildered by the objection.  I do not know why, maybe the devil got into me but I said, ‘Well we are thinking of calling a new route The Holy Grail’.  That is when it happened, a farmer’s mouth dropped open and his false teeth nearly fell to the ground, only just saved by his hand and it quickly replaced back into his mouth.  Silence.... John caught my eye with a look that said, for goodness sake don’t laugh.  I remember I had to walk over to the stream to smother a smile pretending to be looking at a trout! Hence, 'Crucifix' was changed to 'The Technician’; 'The Holy Grail' was never used and just for the record 'Nigger in the Wood Pile' was changed to 'Troublemaker' for more obvious reasons.

A tale of rivalry for Darker Angel
Bentham and Shaw entered the new-route scene on Cadair Idris in the early guidebooks adding many first ascents mainly on Craig Cau.  Geoff Milburn wrote in the CC Mid-Wales Guide; ‘Undoubtedly their finest route was the magnificent Darker Angel, on the Great Gully Wall of Pencoed Piller, one of the best routes in Wales….’The Bentham and Shaw team had started their new routing on Cadair as though they had an invisibility cloak.  No body seemed to know where they came from or where they went to?  They built a base camp under a huge bolder beneath the Crag Cau and would stay up there for days; climbing an incredible amount of lines in a very short time and giving them names from Omar Khayyam. 

This peeved John because during the week whilst he was working at the drawing board they were clicking off the routes but he had respected them as committed climbers.  At first he was not too bothered, but more and more they encroached on his ‘ear-marked’ lines, until suddenly, 'Darker Angel' was under threat.  John defiantly wanted the line and would have done it his way which was to abseil down, clean the route and find the best line.  But 'Darker Angel' fell to Bentham and Shaw, they explored routes from the base and often used pegs.

I only remember meeting Ben twice.  The first time was at Cywarch after coming back from the Alps when John climbed 'Pamplemousse' and a month later 'Crack of Cau' with Ben.  The second time was nine months later one Friday night in the Red Lion pub.  We were greeted by the grinning faces of Bentham and Shaw.  I could see John’s heart sink; he’d  been weather-watching all week because he had an inkling they were going for 'Darker Angel', and while he was working, Bentham and Shaw deftly polished off the one route he really wanted on Craig Cau.

The 1988 CC guidebook to Mid Wales written by John Sumner. Photo shows John on the classic E2-Darker Angel:Photo Geoff Cope

My recall is second-hand, most likely from sitting snug in bed drinking tea and listening to John telling me about the latest comings and goings in Mid-Wales.  It was when I was out of action, due to child rearing.  But I do know it was one of the turning points in the mid-Wales new routing history and John had serious competition for the first time, a classic line had been snatched by ‘outsiders’; a route that he had been weighing up and been left far too long.
Ben latched onto Cau, after seeing the sensational backdrop of practically unclimbed rock above the breathtaking beauty of Cwm Cau.  My impressions of Ben are that he was like a roguish, eccentric, tramp.  John told me, shaking his head with a ‘can you believe this’ look on his face, how Ben would walk into shops and asked for free bacon ends or stand at a pub bar opening a battered tobacco tin which contained his money, poking about the coins looking for enough money to pay for his pint, until someone found some money or a benevolent landlord let him off.

John took the defeat well and it probably made him more careful about showing ‘new comers’ where the unclimbed rock was.  Nevertheless, John was enthusiastic to show Martin Crocker and John Harwood some good lines he thought were out of his league.

Martin Crocker enters the valley
There had been reports about a climber excavating routes somewhere near the 'Shark’s Fin' and the next weekend John met Martin Crocker under Tap-y-Gigfran on 19th May 1990.  Crocker remembers John looking up at him on the crag with his broad grin and a quizzical look, as if to say, ‘What are you doing there, have I given you my permission to climb’?  John told me how Crocker abbed down and introduced himself and said, he thought he would meet him sooner or later on the crag.

I remember the first time I met Crocker, he was cleaning some dire looking route under the huge overhang next to ‘Purge’, Beverley was belaying looking like she had just walked out of a beauty salon immaculately dressed in a pink jumper.  Crocker spotted John on the track and hailed down like a headmaster, ‘John; stay there, I’ll come down, I want to talk to you’!  No one spoke to John like that.  Beverley said, ‘You go if you want to’, as if to say he’s gone too far this time.  But we stayed.  As Crocker told me there was always a sort of power struggle between them, as well as, mutual respect.

John was pleased some harder routes were going up, as often he had the comment that Mid Wales lacked harder grades and was not worth going to.  Crocker started the important development of higher graded routes in the area.  Crocker's way of climbing was to push the boat out all the time, falling off was normal.  John's style of climbing was different, so much so, it was practically unheard of for him to fall off.  Crocker remembers telling John off for letting him drop several metres on a fall.  Both were disgruntled, but John grudgingly said he would do better next time or words to that effect.

Climbing arrangements started with a phone call to our cottage.  One of the kids would answer and then yell for John, wherever he happened to be, ‘Daaad, Crocker on the phone’. I remember John coming off the phone once laughing because Crocker had said, ‘Will you tell your children to call me Martin’.  I don’t think they ever did, they were always inventing names for John’s climbing mates, like ‘take in Bob’ or ‘the Vegan’.
Fear of being ‘gripped out of your skull’ was something lots of John’s seconds felt when going off climbing with him, checking that they had their prussic loops.  John seemed oblivious to this sense of trepidation people had, until he climbed with Crocker.  The tables had turned and you could see the worry creeping in.  John would come back from climbing with tales of scary ascents and falling off; he had never been to the physiotherapist with so many injuries.  The routes ‘Blood of an Englishman’ and ‘Learning to Fly’ pay tribute to this.

I thought that it was good for him sometimes to have some insight into what life was like on the blunt end. Crocker did not squander any climbing time and after it had gone dark would often be eating by his car on the common before going to sleep in some obscure place, like a up a pass or under a tarpaulin in the Idris Gates car-park under Cadair.  For some reason, so as not to ‘lose face’ I suppose, John went to this car-park, once, and prepared to bivvy by the car.  To John’s astonishment, Crocker just pulled a weathered, old tarpaulin over him and went to sleep.  After several hours with no sleep and rain dripping through the trees John gave up and slept in the car.  When he woke in the morning there was a note on the car saying, ‘see you on the crag’.  It was around this time that John began to ‘collar’ keen young climbers to second Crocker, while he returned to easier climbs.

I remember one Sunday John, the kids and I were on a walk under the crags (for a change, as John was usually on the crag, getting back far too late for the drive back to Stafford, when there was school in the morning) and by chance we met Crocker, who was surprised to see that John was not climbing and suggested they did a route.  John said, ‘Oh, no, can’t, have to get back for the kids to watch The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.  This still makes me smile and shake my head, as it never normally bothered him.  The kids and I exchanged raised eyebrows and half smiles all round and I do not think Crocker swallowed it either. John was always proud of the guarded friendship he had with Crocker.  He frequently reminded me when he wanted to put me in my place, ‘Now, don’t forget, I am Crocker’s hero’ with a cock of his head and a mock stern look.

John Sumner new routing in mid Wales

Route names
I can safely say that I had some influence on John’s route names, although I can not remember how they all came about.  Seldom names where to do with John’s day job like 'Vapour Phase', 'Georg Machine' and 'Phase Shift'.
It was important to John to find the right name for a route.  The first new route I climbed with John was ‘Click’.  We struggled over ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’, which eventually become a classic.  'Will-o-the-Wisp' left a huge white scar on South Buttress on Crag Cywarch.  Sometimes looking up at the crag from Bryn Hafod through sheets of rain advancing up the valley, the scar looked like a wisp of suspended mist.  Cywarch can be a mystical place with abandoned mines and dwellings and there are stories of silver being found in the lead mines.  So, eventually from all this enchantment came the perfect name, 'Will-o-the-Wisp'.

Favourite songs often influenced route names; ‘Shade of Pale’ or John would hook into a band and just play it, forever, very loud driving to and from Cywarch.  Genesis produced ‘Paper Lace’, I found out that the lyrics are actually ‘paper late’ but I misheard them.  The route had masses of dried up Pennywort plants which had to be cleaned off; I linked the song because they looked like paper lace doilies for fairy folk.
‘Curley Fringe Frown’ is named after a goat and a serious moment on a narrow ledge whilst I was belaying John.  This ledge is half way up Bird Rock.  I was sitting taking up the whole width of the ledge, when this huge Billy goat trotted along and wanted to get past.  It lowered its’ horns and frowned at me through a curly fringe hanging over its eyes.  I froze and tried to call John but to no avail.  The goat looked at me for sometime, then backed off, thank goodness and I live to tell the tale.

‘Pear Tree Blues’ was from when we were doing up our cottage and all our spare time was taken up gutting and rebuilding, climbing had to take second place and it was getting John down.  ‘Bionic woman’ comes from the same time.  The front door was not on hinges and was just propped up with a bit of wood (as we had lowered the floor).  A door-to-door salesman knocked on the door, I moved the wooden prop and picked up the door put it against the wall.  The salesman looked surprised and said, ‘A bionic woman’, and quickly disappeared.  This amused John when I told him and of course later 'Bionic Woman' ended up being a route name.

Jill Sumner 2012: A version of this article first appeared in The Climbers Club centenary journal

Many thanks to Matt Munro, Pete Cockshott, Barbara Conn, Martin Crocker, Robin Thorndyke, Bob Short and most of all to Bob Allen for asking me to write these memories.

John 'Fritz' Sumner died in 2004. An in depth obituary appeared in the Climbers Club 2004/5 journal and can be accessed online via the journal archives.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Freedom Climbers....Review

 Wanda Rutkiewicz

And what rough beast,its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

WB Yeats: The Second Coming

When Bernadette McDonald's  Freedom Climbers first came to my attention, I confess I had no idea what the book was about? At the back of my mind I had it in my head that perhaps it was about some Bill Murray-esque character...the Liverpool born/Scottish climber not the Ghostbuster.... escaping from a war time concentration camp and making good  his escape across a remote mountain range; guided by the stars and wearing boots fashioned out of reindeer pelt. Rather like that Peter Weir movie, 'The way home' . I soon discovered of course that Bernadette's book was an in depth history of post war Polish mountaineering concentrating on some of the sports central figures.

Hmmmm...a book about climbers living in a communist state called Freedom Climbers. I can imagine the Canadian writer might have lifted that title from the back of an ideas envelope upon which..'scaling the iron curtain' and 'escape from the axis of evil' was also scribbled! Not that I'm an unreconstructed Stalinist you understand, but I find the title a wee bit..well...clunky! However, I'm delighted to say that clunky title notwithstanding, what lies within is pure gold ! The author has produced a diligently researched and authoritative account of a nation's mountaineering history which is engrossing and inspiring.

The opening chapters offer an historical perspective of a nation which in the last century has been continually dealt a bad hand by the Gods. No more so than when Poland found itself squeezed between the Nazis and Stalin's Soviet Union in that catastrophic decade....1940's. A period when 'a blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned'.
From those blood soaked and tangled roots a remarkable story of mountaineering achievement emerges but ultimately, it is achievement born at a remarkably heavy cost. By the time Polish mountaineering's golden age between the early 1970's through until the 1990's has ended, eighty per cent of its leading climbers are dead. Has any climbing nation ever paid such a heavy price for mountaineering success ? I rather doubt it.

Freedom Climbers brings into focus dozens of Polish mountaineers,many of whom will be unfamiliar to parochial English and American readers. However, three central figures emerge from the impressive cast list from which author not surprisingly, has concentrated her main focus on. Wanda Rutkiewicz, Jerzy 'Jurek' Kukuczka and Voytek 'Wojciech' Kurtyka, all born in the maelstrom of the 1940's and who blazed their own outrageously ambitious trails across the greater ranges until the former two climbers predictably paid the ultimate price.

Certainly there is so much to admire in characters like Rutkiewicz and Kukuczka but little to like. Driven as they were by pure selfish,naked ambition and willing to use partners as a means to an end even if it meant putting the lives of these friends and acquaintances on the line. Indeed,it's not mere speculation to suggest that several partners of Wanda and Jerzy  DID pay with their lives when their obsessively driven leaders pushed the envelope too far when circumstances suggested caution would be the better part of valor.
Wanda Rutkiewicz in particular comes over as a particularly sad, tormented soul. Brave, gifted and quixotic but when her life ended on Kanchenjunga, she appeared to have moved beyond the realms of reason and entered a twilight zone which existed between dreams and responsibility.

A curious UK/Polish socio/cultural parallel which emerges in the book is the similarity between the 1980's British 'UB-40' climber-a climber who lived on welfare benefits and/or who worked in short bursts and then went off on extended climbing trips-and the Polish 'stack climbers'. Leading Polish climbers who worked painting industrial towers in places like Katowice to earn enough to fund trips to the greater ranges. Certainly it would be hard in places like Kathmandu in the 70's and 80's to pick out the hairy bearded Brit from the hairy bearded Pole...Wanda Rutkiewicz excepted!

Curiously for a people living under the dead hand of an authoritarian regime ,the Polish mountaineers emerge as a remarkable resourceful and enterprising constituency. Operating a thriving import/export trade between their economically ravaged European home and the Eastern destinations to which they travelled.  Indeed,in a country were wages were poor and opportunities restricted,many of the leading climbers ended up relatively well off through their unique adoption of Western market economic dynamics!

In the early 1980's legendary radical Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made what would become a hugely influential film 'Man of Iron' based upon the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland. Freedom Climbers suggests that anyone writing the definitive biography of a figure like Jerzy Kurtyka could do worse than borrow Wajda's film title. These Men-and women- of iron were forged in the fiery foundries of Warsaw, Gdansk and Katowice and tempered in the far eastern greater ranges. It is to Bernadette McDonald's enormous credit that she has brought alive this remarkable chapter in world mountaineering history and captured the unique burning qualities of a quite extraordinary collection of gifted individuals.

Given the aforementioned grim statistic which highlighted the astonishing price leading Polish mountaineers were willing to pay to achieve their goals, Freedom Climbers unequivocally suggests that mountaineers like  Wanda Rutkiewicz lived their lives in the firm belief that is was 'better to burn out than fade away'. For three decades, the achievements of Polish mountaineers blazed like a dark star over the international mountaineering firmament . 'Triumph and tragedy'...that hoary old mountaineering cliche, never more appropriate.Bernadette McDonald succeeds in bringing together all the elements of what is an epic tale and presenting them in a manner which is fascinating, illuminating and coherent. A fine achievement.

 Freedom climbers is available from Vertebrate Publishing

John Appleby

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Maggie Reenan interview

Maggie Reenan came to the attention of millions of TV viewers in the UK through her appearance on a new reality programme aimed at uncovering 'ordinary' people's hidden talents. The prime time programme had auditioned hundreds of people at centres in London, Birmingham and Manchester and put them through their paces, testing them for skills and qualities which had remained unrealized. From the mass ranks of applicants who went through the rock climbing aptitude tests,Maggie was shortlisted for the final ten who were packed off to North Wales to go through a rigorous appraisal to select one candidate who was considered 'a natural'.

Under the intense scrutiny of Play y Brenin instructors and sports scientists, Maggie came through the selection process with flying colours. Described by her assessors as 'quietly determined', Maggie's success led to her being put through an intensive three week period of coaching-largely under the tutelage of chief Plas y Brenin instructor, Martin Chester-which culminated with an ascent of The Old Man of Stoer. A 200' sea stack of Torridonian sandstone which is usually climbed via an exposed three pitch VS-4c (US 5.8) line.

 Maggie's success might be considered all the more remarkable given her background. A mother at seventeen, Maggie had gone on to have two more children whilst pursuing a career in the National Health service where she is a nurse in a rapid response team. Now in her mid 40's and living in her home town of Birmingham with partner John, she now finds herself as a grandmother to four grandchildren!

The programme's sport psychologist considered her working background in a stressful environment as an important factor in her ability to cope with challenging situations. Furthermore, Maggie admits to 'working out' which gave her a powerful strength to weight ratio compared to many other candidates.Nevertheless,by any criteria,her achievement and progress as a 'natural born rock climber should act as an inspiration to anyone who might wonder if rock climbing might be their hidden talent too.

What follows is an interview Maggie kindly gave shortly after the programme was aired.

Hi Maggie. Like most climbers I found your efforts on C4's Hidden Talents amazing! That was a really rapid learning curve you went through. Tell me; when you went for the audition did you have an inkling that you might have a hidden talent for rock climbing?

Hi John….Thanks for that.The testing day was really fascinating for me and one of the reasons I was so excited about getting the chance to go. We had no idea what we were going to be tested for. It was all very secretive. We were shown around a large building in Birmingham in groups of 20 and weren’t allowed to discuss any of the activities with the other groups. So whatever we went into, we were unable to prepare for and had no idea in some instances what we were doing! Such as, the free-diving test…we all stood around the edge of a large room and were told to hold our noses and blow out of our ear’s, they then asked us which ear “popped” first. They kept behind the people who’s ear’s popped equally. Then they told us that it was for freediving. There was a singing test… which we entered a room with a camera and a fella on the piano and told to sing happy birthday! That was so funny, needless to say I didn’t get chosen.

 The climbing I guess was a little simpler, as in there was an assault course as you saw on t.v, then an indoor climbing section where you were given a start point and an end point where they watched us individually make our way across as “efficiently” as possible. It was at that point after the climb when Martin and Jamie,  ( my mentor and Dr Jamie the extreme sports scientist) approached me and asked if I had climbed before. Whilst I was answering them, (which was a no) I looked back at the climb and noticed an overhanging section and had no recollection as to how I had gotten past it! They said I was very good at climbing  (I thought they were being polite) and off I went.

I felt I did OK at the assault course, balance and coordination. We were also told to jump onto a mushroom kind of thing and choose a square to jump into. They were numbered 1 to 13 and were further away the higher the number. Later on during the afternoon one of the producer’s came and interviewed me asking why I had applied, what I had enjoyed and did I feel I was good at anything. I said I had thoroughly enjoyed the day and no, I didn’t think I was especially good at anything, although the climbing guy’s had said I was good. He asked if it was discovered that I had an ability to climb would I be interested, i replied I would be interested in any of the tasks. If I’m honest I thought then I may be in with a chance, but knew Birmingham was the first audition and they had a long way to go before deciding.

When you were picked for the shortlist and went off to N Wales for the final assessment, was there a moment when you said to yourself..'Hey...I can do this..I can really take that final place'?

Right from the beginning of the weekend I felt really at home climbing. We did a stint at the indoor ministry of defence wall (can’t remember the name) in which they made us do a route, one barley off the ground, then the same one but much higher. I remember feeling totally absorbed in the climb much higher up, and did really well. When we scrambled up Tryfan on the last day, I fell in love with the atmosphere, the scenery the peace and tranquility of what we were doing. I guess it showed! So, the answer is, I hoped, really hoped that they would choose me, and knew I could do it, but felt there was too many obvious people to choose from. Why would they want a middle  aged (I struggle with that horrible phrase ) woman?

Was all your intensive training in N Wales? The anoraks amongst us would be interested to know what climbs you did. Can you remember any or was it all just a blur!

Yes, most of my training was based at Plas y Brenin. I climbed all over…I will get the names later. I have them written down. I did a few in Anglesey too. I did some messing about with Leo Holding and Libby Peter’s in The Peak District too. I spent an amazing weekend just climbing with Libby, who is absolutely wonderful. I felt alive. I was just messing about on the rock with a mate! 

What were the highlights for you ?

So so many, but sleeping on a ledge overlooking the Irish sea at South Stack feeling totally safe and at peace. Waking up to a perfectly calm sea, the sunrise and the sound of seagulls waking up….wow!  Then seconding an E1 on the way up, an E bloody 1!!….bliss.  Then a feast at the top with lots of tea to warm us up. Martin is my hero!

How did you fit your intensive training session in with your work and family life?

Well it was over a 2 month period, so I had a few weekends in Wales, a 5 day course and a 3 day course. I was so lucky to get the time off work. My manager Emma was so delighted for me and did everything she could to give me the time I needed. I’m so grateful for that. It was really hard though, but such a privilege. The moment I pulled off my drive I was in climber mode and the moment I hit the M6 on the way home I was mum, nan, daughter…etc etc. I couldn’t blend the two.

Your friends and family must be really proud of you. What's been the reaction back home. Have you become a bit of a local celebrity!

I think because I underplayed the extent of what I was doing, -partly because I felt no one would understand and partly because they just needed me to be mum and had no exposure to the ‘climbing thing’ - they really were blown away by seeing me on screen climbing. The boy’s were really emotional about it and I think they look at me in a different light now. Not sure for how long! My brother, sister and mum were really really proud and amazed. One or two of the neighbours have grabbed me for a congratulatory hug on my way out.

When you got up to Scotland to climb The Old Man of Stoer, did you ever think when you stood on the cliffs looking over at what is after all, an awesome piece of rock architecture..'God...I can't do that!' ?
No, never during the whole thing did I ever think for a second I wouldn’t give anything a go. For me it was about the journey, the experience of trying something totally new and I loved every single second….even when my toes were screaming at me to let them out of my tiny rock shoes! When I saw The Old Man It looked really intimidating from a distance, but closer I just wanted to get down there to touch it and smell the warm rock.

On the climb itself, you were tackling an extremely exposed and intimidating route in less than perfect conditions it seemed. Was there any time when you thought it wouldn't go or did the demands of the filming schedule make completion of the route necessary whatever the conditions?

Obviously I was aware of the effort and cost of putting this whole thing together and did feel that pressure on the day of the climb They had hoped for a dry day and mentioned if it was too wet we might have to try again the next day. But everything went to plan really. I was totally unaware of the rain but did feel the cold as the day wore on and it became more cloudy and really windy. I hate being cold, but as usual at the end of every day climbing, the sun came out and shone down on us as if to order…spectacular!

You said after completing the Old Man that you definitely want to continue rock climbing. Have you had the opportunity to keep your hand in ?

I am a member of my local indoor wall in Birmingham so have climbed there when I can. I was also really lucky to be invited to Cyprus in November by a lovely couple I met at PyB and did a week of sport’s climbing which I had never done before and loved. Really different to trad but I was really able to push myself and do lot’s more lead climbing.

How about the reaction from your partner John and the rest of the family. How do they feel about you continuing to participate in an activity which is considered 'an extreme sport'?

My partner John finally get’s it! I think having heard everyone say how amazing it was he is encouraging me to get outdoors again. They all say I must continue to do it as I clearly love it.

Thanks a bunch Maggie. Good luck with the climbing and let's hope you find some time in your hectic life to get back up to north Wales and perhaps share a rope some time!

Interviewer-John Appleby
Photographs: Maggie Reenan Collection/C4