Friday, 25 April 2014

The Gentle Art of Boulder Trundling

The following essay is the outcome of an argument between its author and the Club Treasurer on the ethics of boulder trundling, in the course of which the former averred that this practice had received the sanction of many reputable mountaineers, and had, in particular, been mentioned with approval by Leslie Stephen in The Playground of Europe. Wilding threw doubt on the former statement and categorically denied the latter. On further examination he withdrew this denial but maintained that Stephen's remarks were not meant seriously. It was finally decided that the two disputants should argue their respective cases before a gathering at the Club Hut, and that the decision should be left to a single arbitrator. The parties agreed on Pryor as the judge, and that the following three questions should be submitted for his decision: 

1. It is possible to justify Boulder Trundling? 
2. ls there reasonable evidence that any mountaineer of repute consistently practiced Boulder Trundling ? 
3. Was Leslie Stephen serious in this passage from The Playground of Europe regarding Boulder Trundling?'

The cases were duly pleaded by their respective advocates before alarge and enthusiastic audience (fortified by one of Burton's'brews of rum punch in which the flavour of spirit could be distinctly smelt). At the end Pryor gave judgment for Wilding on the first two counts and for Forrester on the third. It had been agreed that all bets were to be settled by the Judge's ruling; but afterwards Pryor himself asked the jury for their opinion as a matter of interest, and found that they disagreed with his judgement on the second count, while agreeing with the other two. What follows is substantially the plaintiff's case, cut down and also slightly modified to suit the new circumstances of presentation. This explanation has been deemed necessary in order to make clear the general form of the essay. It has not been found possible to persuade Wilding to publish his counter-arguments. — Ed. R.C.J.

Boulder Trundling may be defined as the propulsion of fragments of the Earth's crust down mountain slopes of suitable inclination sooner than would occur from the interaction of natural forces. Like other sports and pastimes it has different phases and degrees. No one could object to pushing a stone weighing (say) 2 ounces down a 2 yard slope to drop 2 feet into 2 fathoms of water; while even l should draw the line at sending some tons of rock down High Tor Gully into a train full of widows and orphans on their way to Buxton. The sport, then, as l understand it, lies somewhere between these two extremes, and is one calculated to afford pleasure and profit to many right-minded persons and offence to few; that is, if practiced reasonably,with due regard to time and place. I may mention one particular spot where I have spent many profitable hours in moving some tons of rock downhill a little before it was due to go in the course of nature. This is a gully on the right of the Alport, some little distance below the waterfall. Surely there could be no valid objection to this: no one should get hurt; and although it leaves some marks, they seem without desecration.

Another charming boulder shoot is a Bowfell gully above Angle Tarn; the remembrance of a crowded half-hour of life in this gully is very sweet, and the marks left here are less obvious than on the gritstone. In any case it is quite arguable that the marks made look more natural than the nail scratchers of rock climbers. The latter, of course, are inveterate Boulder Trundlers. How often in reading the account of a new climb, do we not come across something like this: "The leader carefully examined a large slab on the left which would have been of great help in this difficult pitch, but it looked unsafe and moved slightly when tested. The leader and second therefore gave it a wide berth, while the last man, after being anchored from above, managed to send this dangerous rock hurtling  down the gully." 

All this however is beside the point. Boulder Trundling as l understand it is done for the sheer joy of the sport: there is no thought of the future - the present suffices. Consider a long slope, up which you have painfully toiled in the wake of a hardened grough-hound. At the bottom maybe is a vertical drop or a mass of jumbled rocks, and at the top there is a stone of inviting appearance and precarious tenure. You sit down above it, and after a necessary rest the feet are pressed against the rock. It moves perceptibly, but you can do no more from that point. You shift your ground and try again; still no luck! You excavate a little on the underside and have some more. You are not strong enough: some help is wanted and you shout for your companion. The force is now sufficient, and with the expenditure of a few buttons or perhaps some part of your braces the rock is moved from its bed and makes a revolution. lt gathers momentum . . . soon it is going really fast, and no matter what its shape it elects to travel on the longest axis. Speed increases rapidly now; sometimes the boulder will take great bounds and at other times scuttle close to the ground like a rabbit.

The zenith of Boulder Trundling is attained if it now meets solid rock in full face: the crash does one good to hear; the rock breaks into shivers, while part of it is ground absolutely into smoke. Favourable winds bring the scent of this smoke to you . . . and what an indescribably beautiful scent it is. Chesterton must have known of this delectable odour when he wrote of: "The brilliant smell of water, the brave smell of a stone." Or there is Boulder Trundling in a rock gully with great slabs - lots of them together walloping down in a confined space. A tarn on the Rhinogs has a steep face of bare rock on one side where you may trundle straight into deep water. Time was short on the only occasion l was there, so that I hope to go again to work out the course properly. I cannot analyze the delight of Boulder Trundling, nor say why it pleases — better men than myself have tried and failed. I can only say that it affords perhaps the purest joy we can expect in this terrestrial life. The first Boulder Trundler of whom we have any record is Sisyphus, who was so addicted to the sport — in fact he seems to have spent his whole life at it — that we really know nothing else about him; so that for our first instance of a well-known mountaineer who practiced the art we must turn to Moses.

Moses was the most celebrated climber of his time and has at least three first ascents to his credit, namely Mounts Horeb, Sinai, and Pisgah. In addition, he led a very difficult traverse of the Red Sea, which was effected without mishap despite the unusual size of his party. The magnitude of this achievement can be gaged from the fact that another party which attempted to repeat the traverse suffered total disaster. ‘The Red Sea by Moses's Route is now considered unjustifiable and has not since been attempted.

As regards Boulder Trundling by this great pioneer, it is recorded that on his way down after the first ascent of Mt. Sinai he came upon a slope of surpassing excellence,on viewing which he had but one idea in mind - to push the handiest rock down it. This rock unfortunately bore most important inscriptions, and Moses got into serious trouble for giving rein to his inclinations. I have always felt the greatest sympathy for him on this account. Before passing on to recent times let us take one glimpse at a medieval devotee of our sport. I quote from Arnold Lunn's book The Alps (pp. 30-31). "The Stockhorn is a modest peak some 7,000 feet in height. Simler tells us that its ascent was a common-place achievement. . . . Its ascent by Muller, a Berne professor, in 1536, is only remarkable for the joyous poem in hexameters which records his delight in all the accompaniments of a mountain expedition. Muller has the true feelings for the simpler pleasures of picnicking on the heights. Everything delights him, from the humble fare washed down with a draught from a mountain stream, to the primitive joy of hurling big rocks down a mountain side. The last confession endears him to all who have practiced this simple. if dangerous amusement."

I now come to modem mountaineering, and the first case I will cite is the behavior of Whymper on the occasion of the first ascent of the Matterhom. It will be remembered that there was a race between the Italian and English parties. On getting to the top and finding that the Italians had not yet arrived Whymper looked down the mountain side to see where they were, and on finding them wished to attract their attention. He writes in Scrambles amongst the Alps:“‘Croz! Crozl come here I’ ‘Where are they, Monsieur ?' ‘There - don't you see them - down there!’ ‘Ah ! the coquins, they are low down.’ ’Croz, we must make those fellows hear us.’ We yelled until we were hoarse. The Italians seemed to regard us - we could not be certain. ' ’Croz, we must make them hear us: they shall hear us l’ : I seized a block of rock and hurled it down, and called upon my companion, in the name of friendship, to do the same. We drove our sticks in, and prized away the crags, and soon a torrent of stones poured down the ' cliffs. There was no mistake about it this time. The Italians turned and fled."

Boulder Trundling in the dark sounds attractive, to judge by an incident during the ascent of Mont Pelvoux, as described in the same book. “This night we fixed our camp high above the tree-line, and indulged ourselves in the healthy employment of carrying our fuel up to it. The present rock was not so comfortable as the first, and, before we could settle down, we were obliged to tum out a large mass which was in the way. It was very obstinate, but moved at length; slowly and gently at first, then faster and faster, at last taking great jumps in the air, striking a stream of fire at every touch, which shone out brightly as it entered the gloomy valley below, and long after it was out of sight we heard it bounding downwards, and then settle with a subdued crash on the glacier beneath."Another mountaineer of repute who practiced  the noble sport was Sir Martin Conway, who says quite casually during his account in The Alps from End to End of an ascent of the Wilde Kreuz Spitze: "We amused ourselves by throwing stones down the slope we had come up and watching them vanish in the fog." It might be thought that although the sport was practiced by amateurs, no reputable guide would ever have anything to do with it; but this is not the case.

One of the most celebrated, perhaps the most justly renowned of all Alpine guides, is not found wanting. I refer to Jean Antoine Carrel. l quote once again from Amold Lunn's The Alps, where, describing an early attempt on the Matterhom by Carrel, his brother, and Gorret. he says:"They mistook the way; and, reaching a spot that pleased them, they wasted hours in hurling rocks down a cliff - a fascinating pursuit." I think it is not straining matters too far to suggest that ‘wasted’ is here used in the Shakespearian sense. as when  Portia speaks of. . companions ..'That do converse and waste the time together", no sense of reprobation being implied.The following passage is of supreme interest: "We waited patiently a long cold hour for the views that did not appear, and our geologist had ample opportunity  to indulge in the innocent pastime of stonebreaking. We had plenty of fun too in heaving great rocks over the giant precipice. This is a sport the fascination of which few members of the Alpine Club can resist, and I for one must in my time have rolled hundreds of tons from the tops of mountains." It might have been thought that l had invented this quotation especially for use on this occasion. Not at all ! it is the work of a very eminent mountaineer, of whom I  may safely say that there are few men whose words would carry more weight in the mountaineering world. The author is the late Mr. Slingsby, and the words occur on page 106 of his book on Norway.

Later on page 379 in the same work we come across the following: "A small cairn was hastily raised, and we hurried along a saddle to the south-western or highest peak. Loud were our hurrahs and many were the rocks which we threw over the gaunt precipices. Most new ascents are commemorated in this manner." I strongly recommend this book of Slingsby's to the youthful Boulder Trundler, as it contains several references to the sport. One more quotation before we pass to our last point. This time it is from an article on Skye in an early number of this Journal. ...

"We started at 10 o'clock and walked up the north branch of the corrie, stopping to inspect a very deeply cut gorge, into which we hurled boulders, which struck the pool at the bottom with a resounding ‘pomph'." And now for Leslie Stephen.The passage in The Playground of Europe occurs during Stephen's discussion of Rousseau, and I must give it at some length as the context is important to my argument. It seems clear to me that the author is here engaged in a perfectly serious attempt to show that Rousseau was a mountaineer at heart; and the reference to Boulder Trundling is a definite link in his reasoning. To suppose that his intention is merely flippant here is to suppose that his whole attempt to make out Rousseau a mountaineer is just a joke. and that would be too pointless a joke for a man of Leslie Stephen's wit. “Rousseau's sentiments must be gathered rather from the general tone of his writings than from any definite passages.

In the Confessions indeed there is an explicit avowal of his hatred for the plains and his love of torrents, rocks, pines, black woods. rough paths to climb and descend, and precipices to cause a delicious terror; and he describes two amusements so characteristic of the genuine mountaineer that we feel at once that he is on the right track. One is gazing for hours over a parapet at the foam- spotted waters of a torrent and listening to the cry of ravens and birds of prey that wheel from rock to rock a hundred fathoms beneath him. The other is a sport whose charms are as unspeakable as they are difficult of analysis. It is described somewhere (if I remember rightly) by Sir Walter Scott, and consists in rolling big stones down a cliff to dash themselves to pieces at its foot. No one who cannot contentedly spend hours in fascinating though simple sport really loves a mountain.’ No words of mine can emphasize this eloquent simplicity. When I go to Heaven, may my spirit join the spirits of Leslie Stephen, Slingsby. and the illustrious Boulder Trundlers of the past, present, and future, to spend eternity rolling asteroids and comets down the infinite abyss of interstellar space to meet in cosmic collision the multitudinous celestial bodies of the Milky Way; that in gorgeous impact all may be resolved into the imponderable protons and electrons of ultimate matter.

SJ Forrester. The Rucksack Club Journal-1931