Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Darkness at Noon:The life and death of Nanda Devi Unsoeld

Following their magnificent summit success [on Nanda Devi] on September 1, Lou Reichardt, John Roskelley and Jim States descended to Camp 3 the following day. The second summit party of Pete Lev, Andy Harvard and my daughter Devi Unsoeld had been slated to occupy Camp 4 that day, but an ominous black cloud which settled slowly around the summit block persuaded them to take another rest day. As it turned out, the cloud lifted in the afternoon and the day became fine, making it easy for the summiteers to descend to Camp 3.

This reunion of our entire expedition was the first we had had since early in the climb, and it was a happy time as we congratulated our successful team members on their outstanding summit effort and heard their account of the difficulties they had overcome above Camp 4. Morale was extremely high. The weather seemed to be improving steadily and two more summit parties were poised for immediate attempts. Rascal (John Roskelley) and Jim both expressed worry about Andy's persistent cough and Devi's current diarrhea and flare-up of an inguinal hernia which had shown up originally on the second day of the approach march. However, Andy had been coughing during the whole trip and Devi had never been slowed by either diarrhea or hernia while carrying between the lower camps. Our situation seemed so ideal that within the next three days both Rascal and Lou headed for . Base Camp — Rascal intending to await our return from the summit and Lou to head out to try to make it back home to join his wife, Kathy, in time for the birth of their first child.

On September 3 then, the second summit team headed for Camp 4 while our third unit, consisting of John Evans, Nirmal, Kiran and me, trailed along to carry another tent and extra food to cache. With seven climbers trying to use the fixed ropes at once, the waits were too long and so we four turned back from the top of the third pitch. As we rappelled down the buttress and watched our second team slowly working their way upward, we marvelled at the kind of climbing which Rascal had performed while leading this stretch, going from 5.8 or 5.9 to direct aid and back, and in crampons.

At 7 p.m. Pete radioed that he had just arrived at Camp 4 after leaving Devi and Andy behind in order to steam ahead to get the camp ready and water going. At eleven o'clock we got word that Andy had pulled in and that Devi was on the last pitch. It took her until midnight to haul up over the final lip to Camp 4. It had been a long, slow day for her. The next day was brilliantly clear, but the summit party was not in condition to take advantage of it.
Bill Wynn

On September 5 our back-up party of four moved early to join Pete's group for a joint summit try the next day. We set 3 p.m. as the deadline by which we would have to reach the Sugar Delight Snowfield or else turn back. Picking up the cached food and gear increased our packs to dangerous proportions. Kiran and I did not reach the snowfield until around four o'clock and Evans and Nirmal were still a pitch below. The snowfall was increasing and so we were forced to drop our loads where we were and retreat, despite Kiran's protests. As it was, we didn't reach Camp 3 until 9 p.m. and all four of us were dragging from the effort.

September 6 dawned clear and bright, and since I felt remarkably strong despite our previous day's exertion, I decided to go all-out and join the party at Camp 4 for a summit attempt. They had radioed that Pete had made a reconnaissance yesterday to halfway to the summit before turning back in the bad weather. Kiran and Nirmal were too tired to make another effort so soon, and Evans was wiped out by an illness which later turned out to be the onset of hepatitis.

The familiar ground flowed smoothly past under my jumars until I reached the snowfield. I was elated to see that to the mid-point it had taken only two-and-three-quarter hours actual jumar time.
There I added more food and a tent from the cache and put on my crampons for the traverse into the gully (called 'Spindrift Alley' by the first party). My pack was very heavy now, but I found the beauty and boldness of the route totally exhilarating. The 400ft. of the gully were a ghastly slog with no certain footing in the depth of sugar snow which had accumulated. The final pitch to the lip at Camp 4 was 200ft. of vertical going with occasional small traverses to attempt to keep the rope away from the nastier rock teeth which protruded from the wall. It was a definite relief to heave myself over the snow lip at the top.

September 7 was a pure blizzard at Camp 4 and none of us moved from the tent. It was a day full of liquids and the easy talk which fills rest days at high altitudes. Devi was feeling better, but was still quite weak when measured against the energy output required for the summit try. It was decided that she should wait at Camp 4 while the rest of us made our try and then descend with us the same day to Camp three.However, that night was a bad one for Devi. Her stomach gener­ated gas in such quantities that she simply could not sleep and spent most of the night sitting up to belch it forth. By morning she was extremely tired. Because of the high winds and continuing snow, we decided to head down at noon and wait for better weather in the relative comfort of Camp 3. Pete, Andy and Devi had now been at 24,000ft. for nearly five days.

We were packed for departure when at 11.45 a.m. Devi was suddenly stricken. She had time only to say with great calm, "I am going to die," before she lapsed into unconsciousness. We tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but with no sign of success. Within fifteen minutes I felt her lips growing cold against mine and I knew that we had lost her. We continued our efforts to revive her for another half hour without result. As the enormity of our loss slowly sank in, the three of us could only cling to one another for comfort while tears coursed down our beards.

Willie Unsoeld

Friday, 12 April 2013

Heroin Heroine......Cheryl Strayed's Wild-reviewed

In the world of outdoor writing,every so often a book comes along which transcends the genre and become a successful crossover work. Joe Simpson's Touching the Void was one such work. A book which might have been expected to remain within the climbing constituency,was suddenly being read by a mainstream audience with the film rights being sought after by such luminaries as Tom Cruise. Now US writer, Cheryl Strayed's Wild has repeated the formula. If Touching the Void's success reached the skies then Wild has touched the stratosphere.

Hugely successful in the States, the tale of a young emotionally broken woman hiking 1100 miles along the Western Pacific Crest Trail has been championed by such media giants as Ophra Winfrey who made the work her book of the week on her  nationally aired TV show. It has seen the film  rights bought by Hollywood superstar Reese Witherspoon and even has our own Nick Hornby-no stranger to film versions of books himself- praising it to the heavens in the blurb. If we were to apply the Guardianista Pseuds Corner cultural criteria to Wild- which suggests that any artist or work which achieves popular commercial appeal must by definition be rubbish-then this book would have them heaving up their organic muesli. However, for those who have an objective approach to culture, 'Wild-A Journey from lost to found' has to be considered a genuine classic work by a brilliantly gifted writer.

This is not some plodding diary of a backpacker, but  a searingly honest account of a human being who found her salvation on what became a brutal physical and emotional odyssey.
Cheryl Strayed was born into what might be described as a White Trash social background. A violent and abusive father who terrorized her beloved mother. His leaving led to an impoverished life on the fringes of society, where the author's family-an airy-fairy but devoted mother and her three children-moved from one cheap apartment to the next before Eddie arrived. Eddie,The stepfather who became the father her real Dad had never been and who with the proceeds of an  accident compensation settlement, buys the family a ruined homestead within 40 acres of scrubby bush in Minnesota. A rural setting where Cheryl and her family lived a life of hippy self sufficiency and subsistence work.

The catalyst for Cheryl's life changing trip in her twenties sprang from the sudden death of the mother she worshiped. Like a prairie fire, an aggressive cancer tore through her mother's body in weeks and she was dead at just 45. The huge sense of loss made even more painful by the almost immediate disintegration of her family. Within weeks of her mother's death, Cheryl's marriage began to collapse, triggered not least by her predilection for casual sexual encounters. Eventually she found herself washed up with a junkie boyfriend, spending her days shooting up and lost in a heroin haze.  During this period,while casually standing in a till queue,her hand alighted on a guidebook to the PCT. The rest as they say....

What marks out Wild as an exceptional book is not least the quality of the writing.  The author forgoes any temptation to indulge in turgid prose and just tells it how it is. Clearly and succinctly but absolutely vivid and powerful in its intensity and descriptive power. It's a magic formula which brings the book alive to the reader. There are moments when you are emotionally taken by the scruff of the neck and shaken like a rag doll. Animal lovers-particularly horse lovers- should perhaps skip pages 159 to 163. I was left pretty broken up after reading this passage.It was like being punched in the solar plexus.

Similarly, the encounter with redneck hunters who had stepped straight out of Deliverance in a wilderness glade was pretty intense. That's not to say Wild is just an emotional roller coaster which is purely focused on hardship and suffering. Cheryl's journey 'from lost to found' is brim full of positivity..the many warm and kind people she meets en-route, the acts of kindness and the moments of magic she experiences in the wild.

So many of these backpacking stories set in the wilderness tend to be as much a grinding plod for the reader as it was for the writer. Usually involving the same old predictable props.The excruciatingly heavy rucsac, food shortages, storms, intense heat, intense cold, blinding rain,disintegrating boots and of course... blisters. Then there is the usual cast of characters met en route. Weirdos,hermits,angels,regular guys and gals, and psychos. Not that the author doesn't use most if not all of the above elements. What makes Wild transcend the usual fare though, is the way the author interlaces her past life into the story. Referencing events and people who trespass into the here and now. Wild is not just a linear journey of 1100 rain lashed,sun baked miles, it is a tapestry of experience, laid out on the ground for all too see. One minute approaching a snowy canyon,the next in a back yard in Minnesota with a feral father glaring through the storm blind at his terrified children. It's this structure and the quality of the writing which could so easily have been mangled and misdirected in less gifted hands .

For those readers who prefer their outdoor writing more wholesome and traditional, then perhaps Wild is not for you. The author feffs and jeffs, has casual sex, smokes joints and has impure thoughts aplenty in the course of her journey. In fact, nothing out of the norm for any normal healthy woman in her mid twenties. But be warned, Alfred Wainwright or Hamish Brown it aint!

Overall, a wonderful life affirming book which should be considered a future classic. Let's hope Reese Witherspoon doesn't make a dog's dinner of the movie.

John Appleby:2013

Saturday, 6 April 2013

John Piper: The Mountains of Wales....Review

Jagged rocks under Tryfan:1949-50

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

Our main purpose in popping over to Manchester last week was to see the John Piper exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery.  Piper is an artist whose work I admire, but I have to admit that this exhibition – The Mountains of Wales – left me a little  underwhelmed.  Or maybe that should be overwhelmed? The Whitworth has brought together a large selection of paintings and drawings, all from a private collection, depicting mountains and rocks.  The trouble is that, taken together, the note sung by these works is a dark monotone: predominantly greys, browns and blacks with occasional splashes of colour.  As David Fraser Jenkins says in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Not one of the drawings looks as if it has been made on a sunny day.’

Piper began to draw and paint the landscape of North Wales during the Second World War. He was sent to Snowdonia in 1943 by the War Artists Advisory Committee, and rented a succession of cottages there between 1945 and 1956; two of them, at Maes Caradog and Pentre, were situated in Nant Ffrancon, the wild and beautiful glaciated valley followed by the A5 up from Betws-y-Coed through Capel Curig and on to Holyhead.

Piper’s commission from the War Artists Advisory Committee was to draw the interior of Manod Mawr quarry where artworks from the National Gallery and the Royal Collection were housed to protect them from the Blitz. He developed a love for Snowdonia’s dramatic scenery that would bring him back to the area a number of times during the following years.  ‘I felt then that I was seeing the mountains for the first time and seeing them as nobody had seen them before’, Piper said.

Bodesi-John Piper's farmhouse home under Tryfan

Don’t get me wrong: these large drawings and paintings made in Snowdonia are powerful works and reveal Piper’s close understanding of the landscape of the place, and the interest in geology that he developed during the time he spent there. Piper was inspired by the cwms, tuffs, peaks, lakes and cliff faces of the mountains, and he also studied  the geology of the mountains. While travelling around Snowdonla he would refer to A.C. Ramsay’s Old Glaciers of Switzerland and North Wales (1860), an outdated text by the 1940s, but one that provided Piper with enough detail to understand the basic geological features of Snowdonia. In many of the paintings and drawings, Piper has taken immense care to capture the rock striations, the exact placement of boulders and the jointing of the rock faces.

The Whitworth Gallery has done a great job, placing Piper’s Welsh mountain paintings and drawings in context, with supporting displays across three rooms. In one room there is a superb display of Welsh rock specimens and geologic guides; many of these are the rocks which Piper has depicted in his expressionistic manner in the neighbouring room.
Another room presents The ‘Sublime: Watercolours of the Welsh Landscape, a complementary exhibition of  18th and 19th century works from the Whitwoth collection by artists such as David Cox, John Varley and JMW Turner – the latter greatly admired by Piper.   Finally, Piper’s documentation of rocks and mountains are juxtaposed with contemporary land art. The final room contains two Richard Long stone sculptures: White Onyx, composed from quarried rocks of the mineral arranged in a line for the viewer to walk beside, and Tideless Stones, semi-circles of French paving stones made of dolomitic limestone.
 The rocks at Capel Curig-1950

Many of Piper’s paintings and drawings were the result of hours the artist out on the mountains, often in difficult weather.  Piper would produce sketches in ink while on the hills, which he would then turn into large-scale paintings when back in the studio.  Piper would study the rocks and mountain faces intently.
According to the exhibition catalogue......

 "Like artists before and since, he was drawn to the visual drama of the Welsh mountains, but he was also fascinated by their geology, as his artist’s eye explored ‘the bones and structure.'

Piper drove, cycled and climbed miles to reach his chosen locations where, however isolated, wet or windy the environment, he immersed himself in ‘the “lie” of the mountains’. He drew on the spot, using various materials including his fingers, later developing drawings into prints or paintings. His spontaneous, fluid techniques seem at one with the rough textures and colours of the mountains and rocky outcrops.

Piper wrote that:

" Each rock lying in the grass had a positive personality: for the first time I saw the bones and the structure and the lie of the mountains, living with them and climbing them as I was, lying on them in the sun and getting soaked with rain in their cloud cover and enclosed in their improbable, private rock-world in fog.'

Some of the paintings here – such as Cader Idris (1943), Welsh Landscape (1946) and Cwm Idwal (1949) – were, as the exhibition guide explains, accurate representations that could have featured in a guide book to the mountains, while many others – such as Jagged Rocks under Tryfan – were more abstract, bringing out the nature of the landscape and the brooding atmosphere of these wild places.

An exhibition panel observes that....

"  Colour is the language of the artist. This is particularly the case for John Piper who could make a mountain dazzle with hues of pink, blue or gold as in The Rise of the Dovey, 1943.(Below)  Piper knew that the colour of the landscape could be affected in a thousand ways by such factors as the light, time of day and year and environmental conditions including the weather. Piper wrote about the colour of rocks in his notes on Snowdonia, now in the Tate Archive. He intended to publish this as a book, but it never extended beyond note form. The following is a quote from these notes: ‘Against mountain grass or scree, against peaty patches near tarns, on convex slopes, in dark cwms, the same kind of rock can look utterly different, and changes equally violently in colour according to the light and time of year’.

'The rise of the Dovey' 1943 showing The Arans

The Rise of the Dovey, mentioned in that panel, was for me one of the most arresting paintings here. The handling of light and dark, with that burst of yellow sunlight on the rock face behind the tarn give the picture its dramatic atmosphere.  Piper has combined the dark hues of blue, purple and black with radiant golds, yellows and reds to bring to life the steep rock face of Aran Fawddwy. The title refers to Creiglyn Dyfi, the lake in the foreground, which is the source of the Afon Dyfi,  the river Dovey.

Best of all for me  was Piper’s stunning painting of Llanthony Abbey (in the Black Mountains in south Wales rather than Snowdonia).  The ruin, beautifully lit by a shaft of sunlight, is captured under a brooding sky.  JMW Turner made several paintings of the Abbey, including this watercolour, done in 1834.

It’s appropriate that you should leave the exhibition via the room containing the works by Richard Long, since it was Long who  changed the artist’s perspective from that of observing the landscape to journeying through it in his 1967 work A Line Made by Walking. Since then, Long has made sculptures during his many walks, the art being inseparable from his movement through the landscape. In this room there are two stone sculptures, White Onyx Line (1990) and Tideless Stones (2008), both made from quarried stone, shown alongside text works which distill the action and experience of a solitary walk into words.

The exhibition guide adds these words:

"There are no streams, no clouds, no mountains here. What we have are two groups of stones, a line and an arc, and thirty three words fixed to the walls. Richard Long has been somewhere and brought back for us these remnants of his experiences there. But these works of art aren’t poor substitutes for the walks that Long has made. They are meticulously selected and carefully arranged assemblages of stone and word which ask our imaginations to enter into a place like the one Long ventured within. We walk around, stand still, we look and think, and remember how it feels to be in the landscape. In creating works to show in galleries, Long asks us to participate in making the meaning of the work of art.'

Gerry Cordon:2013

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