Friday, 8 November 2013

XS – The essence of trad : A plea and an introduction to The Range.

I wrote a short piece recently for ‘Footless Crow’ about my new multimedia project in Catalunya Nord, named ‘Perillos, here be dragons’ It is said that the village of Perillos, near Perpinya, became deserted when its folk started having the same dreams. The villagers were afraid to sleep for the dreams were terrifying. What went on here surely went on with the land and then into the soul of man. Using the tools of my trade, words, images and sounds, I explore this breathing expanse, and a possible revealing of itself through myths, legends and folklore. The ancient naming of the region is imbued with strong religio-divine-cosmic influence…packed full of doubt, mysteries, enchantment and an odd sense of danger. Nearby are the slabby, sport cliffs of Vingrau and beyond the dramatic escarpments of Tautavel, where Europe’s oldest human remains were discovered.

Whatever happened, I’d like to think, is recorded in the rocks, like compressed data on a silica chip? The area of Perillos is said to be an energy point signifying the void…where one works through personal baggage and abandonment, letting go of the past and transcending victim-hood.
Man’s interaction with this remote ‘garrigue’ type, rocky landscape seems purgatory in nature and of apocalyptic processes; it also seems a journey for souls in a land prepared for salvation and follows an undeniable feminine principal in man’s quest for an absolute, a truth, a reason – a grail, you could say. Mary Magdalene’s ancient graffiti, ‘I woz ere’ is tattooed on the sacred caves of initiation and re-birth, as the vulva or portal of Mother Earth…with lover and child, through thickets of dense juniper, amongst heady aromas of sage, rosemary and thyme, the story travelled…left messages…and was forgotten.

The article ends with a Twitter interaction when I comment on a Tweet from a women’s climbing group that states ‘muscled women, strength, competitiveness and athleticism are very feminine’. I challenge it by saying ‘muscled women athletes are not at all feminine and are just ‘women competing for death, illness, decline and warring factions - all the fine attributes of the male preserve’. These are the attributes of sport, and sport represses that which is of nature. Should women know better?’  Another women climbers club eventually stated that women climbers are sexy and feminine and men must get confident enough to deal with it. Full stop. Of course, it is impossible to have a debate in 140 characters, and it is left floating in the ether as a flippant and superficial piece of forgotten dialogue.

We move on to the next glib comment for a few minutes until bored or not having the time or inclination to engage. It wasn’t a throw-away to me; how an informed opinion can be challenged by an aggressive demand, but social media soon diminishes it as Twitterspeak and moves on to another topic like ‘…having cornflakes for breakfast…’ – Facebook style, ‘smiley face’, climbing wall mentality. I found this exchange interesting in the light of my ‘Perillos’ research into ancient esoteric wisdom, the divine feminine, latent powers within humanity, Gnostic texts and cosmic influences. Between my Twitter feud and the passage of the sacred ‘whore’ exiting from Palestine through what is now the Corbieres region of Languedoc in southern France, I cannot decide which is the most surreal. 

 Do not humans thrive with cooperation and decline with competition?

We sit on the shoulders of giants, remembering nothing. From the ancient texts hidden on the Perillos map to the sacred passage of the Magdalene troop, I am brought ‘sexy’, ‘competition’ and ‘athleticism’ into my climbing psyche. Aghhh. My Trickster tells me to be ‘confident’ and not rant about libidinous strumming of clitori on the Vector stance. Enough! I live at one with the strong ‘feminine principal’ and the sacred feminine informs my work, so I find such a defensive war cry from the hurting-trenches a destructive anathema to the natural world. Perillos!

Anyway, for me, the idea of climbing as a sport seems bizarre. I always thought the language of climbing would be safe from its organised, clinical clutches – I always thought the very opposite as a rationale to climb. The process was always a mystical venture. But no, this is climbing brought up to date as society’s competitive, athletic, achievable, media controlled and clean requirements dictate. Okay, it is interesting for me to comprehend the wider influx attracted to today's growing climbing community, and the force-feeding from climbing wall nurseries. Why is no one laughing...or rather crying?

What wakes the few then
And draws them
To that brave stepping out,
To walk with lonely purpose?
And having passed through the chimera,
Having tasted emptiness,
Become addicted to its freedom,
Where then?

Gretel Leeb

I detest the psychic-tyranny in all groups and associations, especially regarding climbing, which in my mind is ‘free’. Free in the sense of innate expression, free beyond the restraints of everyday living, free to explore what it is to be a human animal, free to commune with the natural world, free to push beyond into other worlds, dimensions, whatever enters, free to blow it all away…free to face your own soul. This is tied into wilderness and feeling the Earth and our bond with the rock telling its story, not yours; not about grades or numbers or style or gender, but about entering a dialogue, connecting with the substance you move through, and the re-wilding of the soul. Yes, re-wilding of the soul! Sport can never be free in this way, can never be ‘wild’ for it is sanitized, ruled and quantified. Sport climbing is farmed climbing; without the ‘fertilizer’ of establishment support, alienated from the human biomass and more to do with yield than experience, it is weak and friable. And yet it is popular. Indoor walls are like drug factories with a blaze of colours and unnatural straight lines, breeding a climber’s habits in a world of resin holds and neon lamps. The crucial element of doubt has been eliminated by force here. All lines are climbable eventually. Success is spoon-fed. Is this robotic? My plea is for a perspective, because I feel something has been forgotten.

‘Were I possessed of the least knowledge, I would, when walking on the great way, fear only paths that lead astray.
The great way is easy, yet people prefer by-paths.
The court is corrupt;
The fields are overgrown with weeds;
The granaries are empty;
And yet there are those dressed in fineries;
With swords at their sides;

Lao Tzu.

Redhead,Loxton and Crook:Mad bad and dangerous to know

So, what part does ‘sexy’ play in all this? I have various choices to account for myself and the first would be, “Fall off and die in your most sexy way possible!” But that would be unkind, a joke and emotive! Another choice would be, so what, where’s the harm? I could just chill the fuck out and rejoice in the multi-faceted world of climbing. And I do, believe me. Or I could question what part does ‘sexy’ play in sound social change regarding gender awareness? Or, is it important for a female climber to be seen as sexy? Sex as ever, sells and the more marketable you become the more you are owned and controlled. You can never be free when used as a corporate tool. Using climbing as a competitive sport, a sexy sport, a uni-sex sport, regardless of gender is just so career, corporate, media-business-banal. All sport and athletics are corporate. They are also so fucking politic, so urban, so of ‘polis’ – of the city. Sport supports industry and psychologists - they feed off you. You buy membership!

Derek Jarman coined the phrase ‘techno-cruelty’ relating to the sterility of being a ‘technical’ expert gardener. Training ‘this’ and forcing ‘that’ ironically reinforces the seed of the ‘nature deficit disorder’ that I associate with sport. Sport is anti nature. Of course, I am referring more to an approach here, and the essence of fitness and health.

Divisions of ‘us and them’ belong in the city. Fair play. I don’t believe agendas belong in the mountains. Do you think Cloggy gives a ‘falling fuck’ if you are sexy or not? Isn’t a second-off here or an extra-metre there a futile attempt to evade the flow of time and death? Such feats do not push the boundaries of humanity but still its growth. I suggest getting on a proper ‘messy’ route out of control, scratch and scrape, engage with vital social-change, feel, die a bit, and most importantly engage with something real! There is energy and spirit in the substance you move through. Being in a group, being sexy, athletic or sporty are illusions and distractions away from the bigger picture. They have no part to play in this endeavor. My plea is to ‘dirty up’ and rejoice with the Earth.

‘Climbing is nothing more than a poise from which to explore other worlds, to be tapped into when questions arise. It is not a world in itself and must never be a language to rejoice in or identify with for its own sake. The rock is a sanctuary. Climbing should not be seen as dancing. For those who think they dance bring nothing to the rock but the insult of melody to flatter their personalities…’

…and one for the crow

I arrive back after a two day drive across France to a windy-wet ‘Beris and ‘lo and behold’, no escape, a magazine on the table – Climb Magazine. I initially think it’s a lad’s mag that my mate Jimbo has left out. Of course, there is nothing pornographic on the front cover; it just had that glossy current ‘look’. It featured the ‘leading light of British women’s climbing and rising star of the international competition scene…’. Okay, it goes on, and that’s as far as I go and enough for me because this kind of talk has no place in my life. Competition and climbing for Britain…what the fuck is all that? What the fuck have we done in the name of climbing!? She stares sugary-sweet and starry-eyed ‘Stepford wife-ish’ at some invisible climb. Yes, this is certainly sport! Sexy? I am ‘confident’ in having no time for it. She may be a good climber and a great character, but it’s a popular media ‘genre’ shot that sells…what…condoms? Or, with a little more imagination, it sells national identity and the chalk bag could be an assault rifle aimed at the ‘enemy’. In reality, humanity and spirit are suffering here and it is ‘state-run’ in essence. This is climbing performance as a paid job. It sells stuff and controls stuff and the human biomass is in the bin. It keeps you in your place and stops you challenging the system. Thinking is zeroed by pomp and ceremony. It has absolutely no connection with climbing, as a process, as I know it. In that light she is definitely a potentially sexy corporate climbing model, set up to play the high-heel card. Equality? Can there ever be such a thing? This is not ancient graffiti of the sacred feminine, something that we need to struggle with for meaning. It is just physical, chic-literal and sad. But perhaps I am over-critical and for some, this tinny, ‘cool’ veneer and spectator sport is perhaps the desert that is needed to walk through…? I may seem to be snarling here, but I call it passionate and serious clowning.

Master's Wall
But is this any different, after all, to the muscled action poses of the macho-male heroes that we are used to seeing on front covers? No, there is no difference (apart from the fact that they are climbing). What’s new is that she is climbing for Old Blighty against the clock, has breasts and not a knob packet, that’s all. Is this the way women compete with the men? They don’t need to, they climb differently and often better than the blokes – and they should know better! It all sucks! They are dreaming the corporate dream and totally set up for a double page spread. The FHM ‘top 100 sexiest women’ hall of fame awaits and for some women and the climbing industry, it will be seen as an achievement!

‘She should know better because she is equipped to be constantly reminded of a ‘loop of remembrance’… this loop herds together the affairs of the male tribe, where ‘truth’ is lubricated and pulls in his quest for control and exploitation – into nature’s Belly Ocean of life. There is no equality! Man is surely a spectator, the mere squirter of snot in this ineffable Belly Ocean. His erect penis, like the ropes and quick draws, twitches and twangs to HER natural laws as she articulates the needs of the Ocean. She IS the rock, or something far beyond it.

Margins of the Mind – ‘…and one for the crow’

I read on…I am mentioned as one of the hundred most influential climbers. And my book too! I am amazed, but then notice the erect phallus on the front cover of my book. In the light of all of the above I understand my placement here. I am bound to appear like a circus act because I operated beyond the mainstream. And so I find the comments relating to my entry both comical and misrepresented. Is this a climbing magazine or a sarcastic review of status quo morals? It is not my route names that are significant, or the ‘mind-blowing’ bonkers stuff, as it is said, but the routes themselves and my approach, style and ethics involved – climbing the first E7 and E8 climbs in Britain, surely that is noteworthy. Likewise, the totally shoddy repeats of the Indian Face should also be seen as both comical and misrepresented. These climbers, all great lads, are sponsored in top-trumps style, aided by BluTac, top-roping and pre-placing and offer no improvement since Johnny Dawes’ ascent in 1986. On the contrary, even more spurious sports tactics emerge leaving little for the future brave, if there is anything left after the damage that top-roping inflicts on the rock.

For a perspective, Johnny was never happy with his ascent (in the light of what I was attempting) and said to me, ‘somebody who climbs it from the ground up can re-name it’. This is not trad climbing, this is not re-wilding, it is sport-bollocks! Male or female, totally stillborn, sponsored garbage. It seems to me that this arrangement is now mainstream and we have been media railroaded. Now, to me, this IS bonkers! This IS the circus act that is now accepted and taken root. The joke’s on us. When Plas Y Brenin sports centre encourage top-roping on their courses for ‘egalitarian’ reasons where everyone can succeed and the best ‘adventure’ climbers do the same…what hope ethics for the middle-man in search of ‘trad’? Will we soon hear someone say, “I on-sighted a V Diff today?”

‘…if the trees were trees only, wood only, were simple roots and boles and boughs and leaves, and that only, as the stones should be stones. If the stones were simple stones. This would be safe. All this would be safety.

Ted Hughes

So, as regards true-trad climbing before I forget, I was re-introduced to its vagaries at The Range, Anglesey, recently. Martin Crook had attempted an on-sight new line a few days ago and had been repulsed due to unfavourable conditions. He had stashed his rope under the cliff during the escape.

The day starts in Tony’s studio, as I take in the wonders of his garden collection, ‘the world of tat’. It is full of waste items collected on walks in the area. The counterpoint between flower and waste is a critical aesthetic, challengingly bucolic, a sight to ponder the fragility of life, erosion and displacement of materials we take for granted, the disposable age…a still-life of rot, rust and rag and more. We meet here for a brew and plan a return to ‘The Range’.

Our first stop is the café at Trearddur Bay. Cafés are like islands, where one is blown in by a favourable wind, offering temporary protection like ‘parlay’. The ‘parlay’ is a free state where the everyday human condition can be accessed and engaged with. It seems to dictate its own agenda, and one can indeed forget the reason for the journey. The climbing becomes a by-product of extreme brewing and engagement with something far stronger and sticky; sometimes a whole days ‘cragging’ can be spent working out in its confines! It is sticky for me because it confirms I understand nothing but the absurdity of life. The RSPB café at South Stack is another, but different. Like trainspotters in their dirty macs and take-aways, there is something similar in the more ‘middle-class, cleaner-mac’ types that view flashes of the feathered world from behind the safety glass. Racks of postcards, jam scones with cream, a range of souvenirs and ‘birds of the day’ blackboards offer nothing to my love of birds. I can only go silly with thoughts of the mutant, heavily genitalised, bald cocktail sparrow let loose in the toilet block.

 This is my first time at The Range area of Anglesey and immediately engage with the XS vibe. I have no idea where we are going but it is an area south of South Stack, known as the esoteric playground of body-gurning, Big George Smith, but has been dismissed by some as invisible, unfindable or worthless. For others, such opinion is the seed of an interest - like Tony’s garbage garden containing true gems. We talk of bringing groups here, starting esoteric courses in the art of ‘finding cliffs’, ‘trad’ climbing, love, life and a gest that may mean we spend most of the day working out in the café!

Tony stalks off to the top of the cliff with stake and lump hammer. Martin and I amble down the track to the shore. I stop on the track approaching the beach and say to Martin, “I am not quite sure of my role here.” Martin stops and laughs, querying the intent of my comment. There was no intent, of course, just the nature of the game and the possibilities of engagement. Climbing days with Martin have never been clear on the possibilities that may present themselves, and it just dawned on me, what are we doing down here? However, as we approached the beach, it was obvious that possibilities had indeed shuffled into a new position, and what the hell were we actually doing down there? The tide was well in and a swell brewing! A Plas Y Brenin group, or more professional climbers would never make that mistake. They would know the tides and itinerary before venturing out. In fact they would have done their activity by now and be back at the centre’s canteen. Job done. Day in. Clock out. And anyway, as if just feeling it suddenly with the passage of time, it’s totally pissing down. We reconvene at the cars as Tony arrives clutching two bags of coloured glass and melted bottles, fused and twisted into humanoid shapes. He is happy with the find. We already know that our activity involves heading back to the café, for Parlay, another brew and more nonsense and social interaction.

We return an hour or so later. Slip-sliding-squishy over carpets of greasy seaweed, pebbles and the usual assorted tat, scraping legs on mollusced boulders, pondering this and that of colours and shapes as if from another planet, which it is, and arrive under the route; interesting character, overhanging, alarmingly-jagged, streaked-biscuit-snappy, all wet and dripping. I notice the coiled rope stuffed in a crack at its base well above the tide line. We empty the sacs and two, new, dry ropes hit the soggy slab. Martin is soon geared up. Psyched as a warrior. I try to remember my role. I can’t work out my harness, borrowed from Jimbo and curse its complicated, tangled, wrong way round, upside down twisted-dyslectic dysfunctional shapes. Tony, the IRATA assessor is unfortunately somewhere at the top of the cliff and can offer no dry-humour or advice. He may be sorting a belay, lump-hammering a stake amongst the loose exit horror of sea-thrift and lichen or equally he could be rummaging through ‘brock’ driftwood and assorted plastic for his ‘world of tat’. The harness is some sort of bondage design nightmare (I was only used to swami-belts in my day), but it nevertheless goes on in haste, Dyson-clumsy, grossly colourful, heavy, definitely all-wrong and weird feeling.

Martin Crook takes off on the FA of The Golden Fan

There is a faint drizzle as Martin leans into the first moves. I ponder the substance of the unfavourable conditions on his previous attempt! His arched body braces the crumbling steepness. It looks awkward. The drizzle turns to lashing rain at which a lesser man would retreat. “What do you reckon youth?” I shout up, thinking of myself shivering. “Started now, so we’ll see,” is the commitment to a cause above and beyond mere climbing. The day has started and the route begun! Resort to memory, I am happy with this man…and feel my role as a warm return. Protection gets lobbed in at a rate that says it is utterly crap. Martin is in-situ climbing a new route of loose, friable rock, on-sight in the rain. We are all happy here, wet and dirty like an old day. 

Thirty feet up his chalk ball makes a leap for freedom, like a statement, bounces twice on the slab below, and sinks into a rock-pool. Two sludgy chalk marks on the slab illustrate its projection into permanent uselessness. “Watch me youth, I need a piss”, follows soon afterwards. Martin is discreet, and empties his bladder into a fissure to one side of him. No sight of a cock! But ten seconds later, this warm river of piss finds its Nile-like way through a lower crack, fans out with the sea breeze and lashing rain, and joins me on the stance below. I reach for the Lucozade to sweeten my mouth and ponder that it has been over twenty years since we have climbed together. It may as well have been two minutes. I remember these scenes. I am back climbing. I am playing - back into what I consider climbing to be all about. My Dyson-harness suddenly falls to my ankles at the top of the cliff.

The Golden Fan XS. 

John Redhead: 2013 
Photos: Tony Loxton/John Redhead

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