Friday, 22 September 2017

Like Crag Rats up a Drainpipe!

“I suppose’ Dave remarked rather scathingly, ‘that this must rate as your best ever con?’ ‘Not bad at all’ I allowed  as we-that is the six who had been successfully conned and I-squelched and dripped our way down the steep slopes from the summit of Whin Rigg towards the road,parked cars and the happiness that is a dry bum and socks. This was by far the kindest of many remarks emanating from the large and jolly party regarding the preceding five and a half hours. But then, I had received my training from the grand master of the Con and I’m sure Jim would have endorsed my wholly underhand tactics when the result was such a magnificently traditional days climbing.

Perhaps at this point I should set the scene for readers who have not already turned over to read of greater things muttering, "Oh no, not another of Sainsbury's dismal failures." Picture then- if it doesn't distress too much- the Wasdale campsite at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning with sufficient low cloud and cold wind to suggest an intelligent retreat to a warm pit followed by a protracted breakfast and an even more intelligent stroll to the welcoming cash register in the bar at Wasdale Head. I stuck my head through the tent flap on just such a morning, dragged on some clothing and headed rapidly in the direction of that central haven for those who have slept on an overlarge ale intake. Already stoves were roaring and health and fresh air fanatics marched briskly about in neat regulation shorts, long woolly socks and Aran sweaters, contrasting with my own regulation Spanish fell boots (no laces), no socks, tattered breeches and aged Helly.

Returning to the tent to find that Jean was still asleep and consequently no brew, I searched for some other member of our group from whom I could scrounge a ready made pot of the life giving liquid. Failing, I resigned myself to separating the stove and some clean pans from the previous night's greasy plates and pots. The next hour- passed in an orgy of tea, biscuits and greasy bacon buttys during which time others of our party emerged and the health and beauty fans strode off into the drizzle. It was during my third brew that I was idly flicking through the guidebook when my eyes lit upon the perfect route and the plot was hatched. It had not escaped my notice that as usual when inclement conditions prevail nobody seemed to have a clear idea of where to go. "I've got just the route for today," I enthused as Bill appeared.

 "Traditional stuff, a real mountain day." "Sorry mate, I promised to walk with Heather. today." A pause then, "What is it?" Did I detect a weakening of resolve? "Think about it mate while I see if anyone else is interested. 600 feet and perfect for this weather." Using the same approach elsewhere worked well and in less time than I expected I had gathered five more suckers and when Bill finally cracked the seven of us made a remarkably swift departure in the direction of the lower end of Wasdale and The Screes. Reaching the river bank opposite the water intake building, we rejected the idea of swimming in favour of a rickety traverse across the front of the boathouse. Each hoping that someone would slip into three feet of icy water. Encouraged by shouts of ‘Fall off you Bum!'

We eventually arrived at the foot of Great Gully to find the initial pitch consisted of a waterfall or greasy moss covered rock as alternatives. "Whose bloody daft idea was this?" someone demanded. "Looks damned unpleasant," said another voice. "Hope you're leading since you suggested it," Dave stated flatly, looking in my direction. Now this had not been part of the plot. I had rather hoped that the rush of enthusiasm would result in someone being so eager to get on with it that I could use the "Yes, I would have liked the honour but don't mind stepping aside," ploy. Such a noble gesture should make it possible to remain in the middle throughout the route. Urged on by the hostile atmosphere I hastily got to grips with the pitch and was at once forced to use a foothold in the main flow of water which instantly filled my boot and came through my "waterproof' trousers. Ten feet or so and I thankfully placed a runner before making an upward lunge for easy ground.

The next vertical section, down which coursed the inevitable water, proved even trickier and since the best finishing hold was in the centre of the stream, naturally it took the shortest route via the inside of my sleeve and breeches to join that already in my boot. Reaching easy ground I walked up the Gully and found a belay, satisfied in the knowledge that removal of my runners would cause similar discomfort to whoever was to follow. The guidebook describes this first 100 feet of Great Gully as a scramble so one could be excused for wondering what to expect on the next 60 feet where climbing was actually mentioned. A considerable amount of time and unprintable remarks, some reflecting upon my ancestry, passed before we were all assembled and ready to continue. Bill gave in with surprising speed to my suggestion that he should take over and made short work of a nasty wet corner before disappearing from my view when the Singer, from his position kept me informed of his progress up a short steep section and along a traverse to rejoin the Gully above a waterfall.

Meantime, Dave went past with another rope and a fair degree of knitting began to develop. By the time I had completed this pitch, helped by a useful sideways pull on the rope as I jumped the last few feet of the traverse, the party was strung out over some 200 feet, what with Bill having continued and Niel and Gerry lagging a pitch behind. The following waterslide proved to be just that and although rated as a single 135 foot pitch, we split it into convenient sections as dictated by fear, exhaustion or degree of discomfort that its ascent brought about. All sense of order had vanished by now and I found myself sometimes leading, sometimes following and occasionally not apparently tied to anyone as we swapped rope ends around.  In this way we all assembled in the grassy  amphitheatre about halfway up the Gully, all except Bill, not a little wet.

In view of his condition he was unanimously elected to lead on. Up to the left for twenty feet, traverse back right twenty feet and he hit difficulties. Vertical grass, no runners and earthy holds - where they existed at all. We began chuckling. "Its not bloody funny," he yelled angrily.  "In fact its bloody serious." This was followed by a stream of Yankee invective from our American cousin. Nevertheless he a struggled on and disappeared from view, soon to be followed by the rest. I did see his point though — it was bloody serious if you happened to be leading, since the key move  involved swinging down into the gully bed  from two holes in the grass on to a foothold  near the lip of a twenty foot drop to a very nasty landing.

After this things eased off and a lot of scrambling, a widening of the sky suggested that the end may be in sight. Oh, and how we were mistaken! Once again a narrowing of the sky as the walls closed in to 3  foot wide verticality blocked by a huge d chock stone twenty watery feet up, with a great volume of fluid coursing over it. By the time I arrived Bill and the Bat had already vanished over this, a fact made evident by their rope passing through a heavy tape just level with the lip of the fall. "The Bat led it," Niel remarked as I viewed the greasy verticality with mounting alarm, "and Bill still appears to be dry."

We swapped ropes round yet again and I struggled up a series of nasty bridging moves with all the grace of a dancing Dervish, until I could grab the tape and pull myself through the main flow and stand above the chock. How Gerry, who stands four foot nothing in platform heels would manage I couldn't imagine. In fact she put us all to shame with a swift and polished performance that did not involve the use of the tape. There must be a lesson to learn there somewhere! Just as I began to think it was all finished we arrived by yet more scrambling, at the foot of what turned out to be the final pitch. A series of loose wet steps led up for 30 feet or so to a vertical ten feet sporting the now familiar waterfall. A nearly new peg adorned the right wall about halfway up the steepest section. Bill and the Bat had already ascended and the Singer was on his way. 

I watched, wet, cold and wondering why I was there when I could have been warm dry and drinking. My turn. Up the steps, the rock pushing me to the left when I wanted to go right, an awkward side hold, foot out to the right wall and lunge for the peg. Useless, it was in the wrong position. A couple of dicey bridging moves and a grab for a hold on the right wall, left hand scrambling over the top, a desperate pull, knees on the edge and I crawled to safety to the clicking of Gerry' s camera. Why do these photographic enthusiasts always record the worst performances? Ten minutes later we stripped off our wet gear in the sunshine that had broken through unnoticed in the dank depths of the Gully. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly I would say, though from the dark mutterings around me dissent upon this point could be sensed. As Pete, the Singer, remarked over a pint much later....... "interesting!" 

Tony Sainsbury : First Published in Climber and Rambler-June 1981 as 'In the Finest Tradition'.

Images..Gerry Goldsmith

Friday, 15 September 2017

Mountain Manoeuvres

Opening Scene: Cima Tosi 10,410ft - highest point in the Brenta Group in Northern Italy.

The Players: Six RAF training instructors [1 officer-newest member, this being his first time as an instructor; 4 NCO’s-all established instructors as well as experienced climbers and all-round mountaineers.

Disposition: Knackered, tired, cold and weary after gruelling three-week training course with 16 NATO pilots.

Salvation: Improved weather, ten-day break before the start of next training course, and we all wanted to go climbing, so drove south and camped at Pietramurta.

Following morning, Group leader - Flt. Sergeant ‘Dicky’ Davidson, paired us up, adopting service protocol, of naming the lead climber second. So, when he said: “Robin [the Flying Officer], you climb with Frank”, I knew my place, but as it turned out a few minutes later, my climbing partner did not.

As we walked to the next cliff, he quickly informed me that as he was the Officer and I was not, it was inappropriate for him to be led by me. 

Things did not improve when we got to the foot of the cliff and I started to unpack my climbing gear: one old rigid hawser lay rope sling I had acquired earlier, along with my plain white nylon rope which had coloured tape at both ends, and a couple of homemade nylon slings sporting large aircraft nuts with the inside screws ground down, which I (we), used for protection and belays when climbing. They may not have been good looking, but they were effective and they were cheap!

Clearly, he was far from happy with my equipment, and insisted we use his brand-new gear he had recently purchased. But I am a traditionalist and like to stick to my own gear that I know has been tried and tested, so declined his offer which did not go down well at all.
As I was still getting myself kitted up, he tied on to one end of the rope, threw me the other end and told me to tie in when I was ready. Before I could take the cigarette out of my mouth to speak, he moved over to the rock face and started to climb. I stood there in amazement.

Suggestions that he wait until I was tied in and could belay him safely, earned a mumbled reply about not waiting for idiots and ‘time and tide wait for no man’ as he climbed.

My initial thought – yank the rope before he gets too high; untie and walk away; or tie off the rope so he could not move upwards. I chose the last option in addition to lighting up a smoke.

He stopped climbing – started to yell orders – I ignored him – he threatened to charge me – I ignored him – he climbed back down.

Once he was back down on the ground, he started to berate me for my “disgraceful climbing ethics”, and my total lack of respect for his rank.

I took a final puff on my smoke and said with quiet confidence: “When we climb, we are climbers and nothing more and rank does not have a part to play in this activity or any other activity connected with my role as a survival instructor”, which went down like the proverbial lead balloon. 

Anyway, an hour later, I had led the first two pitches, (because he said his arms were tired after having to down-climb). We were standing at the belay below the third pitch, when I pointed out to Robin, that I believed this to be the crux pitch: it was long, looked devoid of good hand holds and appeared to offer few places to put in any protection.

As I munched on my first Mars bar of the day, he muttered continuously about me being disrespectful towards him, and that he would be putting me on a charge when we got back to RAF Brüggen. I of course, was busy working out what to do with him for the next few days as unbeknown to him, I was given the task of planning the next few days’ programme!

I asked him if he felt confident doing this third pitch, which may well be the crux, and all I heard was mumbling about him being a good climber and an ex-member of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club.

I made sure he had all the gear he needed: all six ground-out aircraft bolts, some on slings and others on pieces of nylon cord, and my one and only chock on a piece of nylon, and three metal pegs (one flat one being home-made), then I settled back to belay him, ignoring the fact that he started off in a hurry, leaving my peg-hammer behind, because he said it was too heavy and cumbersome.

Up he went into a thin crack – not a bad job I thought, a little unconventional with his techniques but he did it. When the crack ran out, he was faced with a hundred or so feet of good clean rock, which he again appeared to master, so I thought that perhaps he may not be a bad climber after all.

Eventually, he made it to the base of a scoop where he had no choice but to belay as he was running out of rope.

Once in the scoop, he secured himself to the rock face and shouted: “ok Grant, climb when you're’ ready”. Now it wasn’t his condescending voice that irked me, but the fact that he called me by my surname, something I had never witnessed before on any of the climbing I had done with other RAF personnel, no matter their rank.

I made easy work of the slab and was into the scoop before he could take in all the climbing rope. I stuck a nut into a small crack and belayed myself to it. He demanded to know why I did not clip myself into his belay point, and was unhappy when I said, that I preferred to place my own protection when climbing with someone who I had never climbed with before, and that it was no slight to his own belay technique.

I, of course, ignored his mutterings but reacted immediately when he started to unclip himself. “Hey”, I shouted, “what do you think your’ doing”. His reply notched up my desire for wanting to put him in his place quickly, when he immediately replied, “you mean, what do you think you are doing, Sir”.

I informed him that it was practice for climbers to climb through, so before I gave him the chance of replying, I clipped him back into the belay loop, stood up and gave him the rope leading into my harness for him to belay me. He complied reluctantly.

I set off up and out of the scoop, thrutching my way until I could get hold of a good jug at the top end of the scoop. It was clear that the rock face above, overhung by about ten to fifteen feet some thirty feet above. What was unclear, was what was above this and where, if any, my next belay point would be.

The overhang looked worse than it was. When I got to the start of the first bulge, it required a leap of faith to go for one hand hold, in the hope that there would be another above that for the other hand, which thankfully, there was.

After setting up a good ‘Y’ belay, I shouted for Robin to come on up.

Silence permeated the air. I shouted again. The silence had not gone away. What was wrong with this idiot! His banality was trying my patience when it occurred to me that he was waiting for me to say: “climb when you are ready Robin, Sir”.

He struggled over the bulge shouting repeatedly for a tight rope which I obliged, making sure that when he wanted me to give him some slack to gain his balance once over the lip, his words fell on deaf ears. When he came up to me, I tied him securely into the anchor point in silence and started to get the rope ready to belay him up the next pitch which was a hundred-foot run out across some slabs, entailing a traverse along a horizontal crack, some ten to fifteen feet above our stance.

Clearly, the traverse would provide ample protection but the initial climb above to gain the traverse did not look as obliging. Robin set off up the wall above our stance to gain access to the start of the traverse. As he did so, he shouted back down: “I want a tight rope here Grant but when I get to the traverse, I want you to give me plenty of slack as I will get across it quickly as this is my climbing forte, so pay attention”.

As he set off, I said nothing about the fact that he did not have enough gear to complete the whole route especially the traverse.

I waited until he had climbed with difficulty, some ten to fifteen feet above me to gain access to the traverse, when this fact became very clear to himself. He shouted back down as to what he should do. I suggested either he climb on with little protection and as he felt this was ‘his forte’ he shouldn’t have much difficulty in doing this, or he climb back down to get some of my gear.

He climbed back down grudgingly. He then said his arms were aching and so he ordered me to do it! I was not amused in the slightest.

After a while, he was standing beside me and very unhappy with the next pitch and informed me that he decided I would climb this also. I was happy to do so. Before I had made my mind up whether to go up the face on what appeared to be small infrequent holds, or to reverse a few feet along the traverse and try to go through the small roofs above, Robin threw another remark in my direction: “the route goes up there Grant, but if your’ not up to it, I will have to lead it”. That was it, I had had enough. This was a good a time as any to teach him the meaning of humility.

“Right, up you go then”, was my reply as I tied myself back into the anchor point. After some ten-minutes, he was still struggling to get off the belay position, muttering about the rock being too wet!

Eventually, he got started and was eager to get in his first piece of protection, then a few feet more and another piece of protection. Sweating and panting some ten feet above the belay stance, he put in his third runner and then asked for a tight rope as he needed to take a rest, as his arms were pumped.

I obliged, but offered him no encouragement at all. “Can you see where to go next” he enquired with a quiver in his voice. I remained silent. Some expletives were made from above as he tried to make upwards movement but as he hadn’t asked me to take him off a tight rope, he just fell off. He would, of course, have landed not far above where I was standing at the belay stance, if his protection was in properly, which it wasn’t. Out came the last one he had placed and down he dropped. Out came his second-last and down he dropped even further, and then out popped his first runner just above my head and down he fell again. Fortunately, it was where the cliff face was leaning out so he hung there oscillating unceremoniously some fifteen feet below me.

My tight belay held as I knew it would. He dangled there on the end of the rope over a drop which looked and probably was, just as frightening, especially to him. I tied off the rope so that it would not slip any further and got out a Mars bar and started to eat it slowly.

His demands to be pulled up, fell on deaf ears just as his orders to lower him down to a ledge, twenty-feet below him which would have eased his discomfort. But deaf ears and a Mars bar won the day.

When I had placed the last piece into my mouth, I looked down and suggested he start to climb back up to the belay stance. “But I can’t” came his desperately shaking voice. “Pull me up to the belay”, came his next command, his voice softening a little. Now was the time to be vindictive. What, you thought I had already been so, you must be joking!

Swallowing the last piece, I looked over the edge and said in a condescending voice, “Robin, don’t you mean, please Frank, pull me up to the belay”

“Yes please, Frank” came his quaking voice. Setting up a small pulley system with a back-up system in place, I started to pull on the rope which instantly drew a thousand thanks from a shaking young man, but just when he thought he was going to make the belay stance, I slid off the half hitch I had put in to the pulley system and he fell right back down to where he was a minute before.

The yell could be heard echoing across the Alps and the sight of him clutching frantically at the rock face was food enough to feed my vindictive soul. “Sorry pal” I shouted down, “the rope slipped, I’ll try again”.

When he finally sat, puffing and panting on the belay stance shaking with fear with the odd bit of moisture in his eyes, I gave him my party piece. “Robin, do you want to climb with me or climb with a non-commissioned officer?”

His remark was sweet music to my ears. “I’d like to climb with you Frank and I would appreciate it very much if you could lead the rest of the climb”.

Robin left the survival training group a few weeks later, and whenever we met around the camp, whilst I would accord him the respect his commission deserved by a salute and addressing him as Sir, he always addressed me as Frank. Who says that having just a little vengeful streak does not have its rewards!
Frank Grant © 2017

Friday, 8 September 2017

Roads stretch from here to everywhere

So Cenn has gone. Cruelly cut down in his mid 60‘s by a bastard degenerative neurological condition. Was it Motor-Neurone Disease....I don’t know? Whatever it was, it left him a prisoner. Trapped inside a fragile,creaking cage. Immobile and eventually wasted to the point of mumbling muteness. But what do I know? I hadn’t seen Cenn for years and can only relate what my children have told me. Despite knowing Cenn since my late teens, life events had shaped our relationship over the passed twenty years. The withdrawal from my life of Cenn’s best friend ‘Angiebell’, had meant our meetings were all too infrequent and limited to family events...Births, weddings and deaths, but time was, when he was an ever present fixture in my life.

I first met Ken- as he was then- in Liverpool in the early 70‘s. He was a wild haired, bearded freak- think Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull circa 1972. Fiercely intelligent, opinionated and principled, and like myself, he was tired of city life and together we planned our escape to the promised land of North Wales. By the mid 70‘s Ken had become Cenn and had left the city behind. I would follow two years later after a brief stop-over in Chester. During this period he was travelling extensively in north Africa. Living with aid and charity workers in Niger, Bukina Faso and Mali, and amongst the indigenous people of those desperately poor states. After his brother had tragically died of an epiletic seizure while Cenn was staying in our flat, he gave his entire share of his brother’s estate to Oxfam and Plaid Cymru. Hence his life long commitment to the charity and his voluntary work with them in Africa in the mid 70‘s .

In the early 80‘s. Cenn joined me as a leader/instructor with a North Wales charity group- The Clwyd Outward Group- which took socially disadvantaged youngsters, mainly from urban conurbations like Wrexham, on outdoor activity weekends. For many of these youngsters it would be their first visit to a mountain environment and certainly, their first opportunity to participate in a range of outdoor activities....climbing/abseiling, kayaking, sailing and hillwalking As to be expected, Cenn was a good natured and tolerant figure who related well to our charges.Surprisingly so considering some of the more ‘challenging’ youngsters we had under our wing!

Cenn never married, had a long term relationship or much of a relationship of any description come to that. He remained the eternal bachelor and gave his affection to close friends, my children, cats and dogs! He never learnt to drive but that didn’t stop him travelling. An oddball, eccentric, square peg in a round hole. Someone who would argue black was white and was usually was! A bookish,vegetarian,leftist,nationalist who loved mountains,animals and cheese!......Cenn's gone but as his fellow Scouse poet Brian Patten writes...'

'A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us, for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams, for as long as we ourselves live, holding memories in common, a man lives.'

Cenn on the left with a COG party on the summit of Pen Llithrig y Wrach.

Now here’s the weird bit. The idea for this article literally came to me in a dream last night. In my dream I was in the attic looking to see if I could find those wonderful evocative letters that Cenn would send back from Niger and Mali. Colourful, poetic and charming. At first light, I hauled out a step-ladder and pulled myself up through the hatch and began rooting around in boxes amongst the cobwebs and mouse droppings. Just one letter came to hand and it is this letter which I reproduce here, Just as it was written nearly 40 years ago. In another strange twist. As I sifted through old theatre programmes, notebooks and assorted bits of paper deemed of sufficient sentimental value to keep, a poem that Cenn had written for my late son Jamie when he was born in 1978, fell out of a note. Cenn has specified that he wants to be buried in the same cemetery as Jamie...and so I understand, it shall be.

Cenn was a Welsh language learner so if the first paragraph- which is written in Welsh- does not quite read correctly to the native speaker, please accept it in the spirit it was written, from someone who loved Wales to his very core. JA

"Niamey,24 Mei

Annwyl Sion,
Annwyl Theatr Clwyd ac ur annwyl Wyddgrug! Annwyl Iaith ac annwyl Gymdeithas yr Iaith! Annwyl Halcun! Annwyl Jack Nicholson!
Yr eiddoch yn gywir,
PS. Dioloch yn fawr i awn am y cerdyn

Annwyl Angiebell,
Sala’am aleik. El kheir ras. As you doubtless know by now, I received your letter, a breath of quasi-Celtic Cestrian air in the heavy Sahelian heat. And today at post restante, a patriotic post card from Sion ap Pleby!
Oh to hear Blood on the Tracks or Desire or Hissing of the Summer Lawns or New Skin for the Old Ceremony or......but things are not so bad. Mark Nieuwark has cassettes of Dylan, Fairport, Beatles, Floyd, Neil Young, James Taylor and a good selection of classical music; and at his house a couple of days ago I found a dog eared ( sorry Fred) copy of Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance which I hope to beg, steal or borrow before long!

Last weekend, with two companions, one Antipodean and one American, I discovered a cafe which serves big bowls of iced yogurt with crisp buttered bread, for 75 francs CFA, about 15p. That Sunday, my first day’s eating after a two day fast against dysentery, I scoffed a double helping, and ever since have been eating yogurt twice daily, amongst other things. One of the latter is delicious black eye beans and rice,which we buy on the street, all you can eat at 25 francs a time.

Hugh and Cenn on Aran Benllyn

We? Don Ada, Australian, arrived 13th from Agadez and Algeria,left 18th for Ouagadougou en route for Tanzania; Dave Walters, American, arrived 14th from Ouagadougou and Ghana, left 17th for Zinder, en route to Cameroon; Roland Witschi, Swiss, arrived 17th from Agadez and Algeria,left 19th for Ouagadouga, en route to Bamako; Pete Remington, English,arrived 22nd from Zinder and North East Nigeria,still around as I write but en route for Agadez, Algeria and home.

I’m doing more reading than anything else except perhaps sweating. I brought Day of the Jackal with me from Gao, where an English fellow-traveller gave it to me. In Hamani’s box of books I’ve found and read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; Midpoint, a book of poems by John Updike; and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.The Orwell and Updike were interesting, the Greene and Baldwin were both very good indeed. Any other lists I could bore you with?

My last trip to Oullam with the man from Caritas, originally scheduled for last Sunday or Monday, was postponed, perhaps indefinitely; I’ve been hanging around all week waiting to hear from them. Mark, who as Oxfam’s representative here has formal and informal contacts in Mali for the last few days,so communication has been a little difficult,but he came back today,so I should know quite soon whether I’m staying or going and whichever, where.

Doggerel jotted in in-flight movie machine between Paris and Dakar on the 10th April:

Oh Africa, I’m coming home from home
To spend a half year homeless, and to roam
In one vast corner of you, there to seek
What makes my vision body weak

This evening I went round to Mark’s house and found him preparing to show home movies to a small audience: two Americans and two English people I’d met already, Tessa and Chris. The movies or rather slides, were of Bororo nomads ( a people I love) at Gao in Mali, where I spent a couple of days at the beginning of this month sweltering amongst familiar ghosts (a place I love), and these particular Bororo were from Abala, where I spent a couple of days quite recently communing with unfamiliar ghosts (love). Tell me these loves were not my coffin nails.

We ate peanuts, and drank rum and lemon, and talked, and watched slides, then went our separate ways,though not before I had put myself in the queue for a certain book on motorcycle maintenance, which turns out to belong to Gary, who works for an American relief agency. Mark and I and an American girl whose name I’ve forgotten, went to a Vietnamese restaurant, delicious but expensive,then Mark took me, brought me, back to Hamani’s.

Soon, before the rains, I’ll go to Agadez. then perhaps back to Abala. Sometime to Ouallam. Work, or wander. To Ouagadougou, or Cameroon, and back to Niger again. I’m leading a slow, soft life. Past pounces, present purrs, future fawns. Roads stretch from here to everywhere. Happier still hearing you’re all happy.

Love Cenn
Niamey, 25 Journada I.'

Cennydd Williams: 1978

Friday, 1 September 2017

They Took Me Climbing!

Here is another of those excellent short stories by Kevin FitzGerald, which while continuing his theme that ours is a ludicrous sport, hints that it might perhaps be something rather more.

Twenty five years ago there were some minor differences in what I believe is called 'the climbing scene' from what you would find in the North Wales of today. For example all the inns and hotels, all the eating places had a notice outside the public rooms, 'No nailed boots beyond this point, please', and there were various regulations, now deemed absurd, like putting on some kind of jacket if you were having a meal. But the men and women and the talk were all much the same, with one major difference. There was an immense amount of evening- indeed practically all night, activity. Everyone, but everyone, indulged in some eccentric display of skill or feat of strength. Groups took off at midnight to run round the Snowdon Horseshoe by moonlight; rooms were traversed, and chairs climbed round; loops of rope were climbed through, and wrist grips exchanged; heads were balanced on, and impossible steps were made across unbridgeable fireplaces.

Dead bodies were simulated and lifted, knots were practised, and peculiar athletic challenges were issued and at once accepted. People raced each other over the Glyders in the dark, or found out who could run from Pen-y-Gwryd to Pen-y-Pass and back in the fastest time. Much later, in the early sixties, the Editor of this Journal* was unbeatable at that particular exercise. There were not so many of us, of course. That was the real secret. We all knew each other, were glad to be meeting each other again and always felt in the mood for nonsense. I remember one such week-end of activity with peculiar intensity, largely I think because it created more confused disturbance in a limited space than I would have believed possible, and because it produced a brand new climber of all round excellence from the unlikeliest piece of material, other than myself, I have ever encountered in the mountain world. It all took place at PyG and it centred on a bag of golf clubs.

It was early winter, and half a dozen of us had been walking over Carnedd Llewelyn, enjoying on the return journey a marvellous snow glissade nearly half a mile in length. We were all in high spirits, kicked off our boots in the bar and sat round in stockings waiting our turn for a hot bath and talking the same nonsense you would hear today. There was a little man in a corner who sat watching us and saying nothing. He was wearing (I can see it still) a rather nice suit of dark grey with beautifully polished brown shoes and he had what I think is still called a 'crisp' military moustache. We were all in breeches and anoraks, one or two of us wearing the red stockings now somewhat out of fashion but then signalling that the wearer had made a first ascent of some importance. The little man must have thought that he had wandered into the clowns changing room in a circus. All of a sudden he spoke. 'What's the golf like round here?' he asked.

In those days he might just as well have asked if anyone had a boa constrictor they were not using, and he produced what is still called I think 'a stunned silence'. No such question can ever have been asked before in that place although I have since heard people there talking about fishing, the archaeological interests of the neighbourhood, and whether anyone would care to make up a four at bridge. But in those days if you were not climbing or walking, or preparing to do either, or keeping fit for both, you had no business in that part of the world at all. We all looked at the little man in silence. Then someone said, 'I've heard that there is a golf course at Harlech and I've been told there's something of the sort down in Bangor'. 'No,' the little man said, 'I mean round here. I'm told there's a lot of good golf round here.

Two of my friends are arriving in Capel tomorrow and they've told me to be sure and bring my clubs'. Even in those far off days, five years before Everest, I was pretty old to be in that company at all and I thought perhaps I ought to speak first. I remember so well that as I replied one of our future 'greats' was working his way round the specially strengthened picture rail in the old fashioned bar of those days. He had just passed the cash register and, in accordance with strict custom, had rung up `No Sale' with his stockinged right foot big toe.

You had to do that or your traverse didn't count. 'There's no golf immediately round here,' I began in my fatherly way, 'this is a climbing inn and everyone who stays here, or comes in for a meal or a drink, either climbs or walks.' `I think you are mistaken,' the little man said, 'my friends are very reliable.' We left it at that and I recall that after dinner we all tried climbing round a chair brought in from the kitchen. The little man watched these antics for a bit and then got up to go to bed. 'This place seems like a mad house to me,' he said, quite mildly, as he left the bar. We instantly forgot about him. The following day we all went off to Tremadoc, those admirable 'wet day on Snowdon' cliffs discovered by Dave Thomas flying over them during the War.

We got back late, just after the early winter dark, and the little man was sitting in the bar alone. He was a terrifying sight, white as a sheet, filthy dirty, his hands all scratched, a pair of flannel trousers ripped to pieces about his knees. He looked as though he had been run over and, indeed, I thought that was what had happened to him. I asked him if he was all right. 'I think so,' he said, 'but you were quite right yesterday —there is no golf round here. They took me climbing.'
I addressed him with great seriousness, and with all the earnestness I could get into my voice. 'Get away from here,' I said. 'One more experience, just one, and you will never escape from these people for the rest of your life. You will never escape from places like this, or worse. You will always be wet, cold, and in misery. All your friends will be ghastly fit men running up and down mountains for what they call fun. In all probability your wife, if you have one, will divorce you within the next couple of years; you will get fond of obscenities like tents and packed lunches, you will take great rucksacks with you wherever you go and they will be filled with rotting meat and Kendal Mint Cake, if you know what that is. Naturally, arriving like that, you will be refused admittance at all civilised lodging or eating houses throughout the world. You will have to know about map reading and the setting of compasses.' I almost went down on my knees to this little torn-to-pieces man. 'Go out into freedom,' I implored him, 'go out into safety and comfort, go back to a loving wife'. I took a deep breath and uttered blasphemy for his battered sake, 'Go back to some bloody golf course,' I cried, almost shouting, 'and be happy'. 

Not tonight,' he said, 'I'm too tired, too much hurt.' We all went into dinner. That night there was 'traversing' in the bar. Several people had got round and I, as usual, had fallen off, only, that time, hurting an ankle a little bit. Everyone was pretty happy.

Suddenly there was a disturbance; the little man had begun shouting. 'Damn and blast you all,' he cried, 'every last one of you'. He kicked off a slipper. 'And damn and blast this place and every place like it in the whole wide world.' He stood up in his socks and flung himself at the picture rail, muttering curses all the way round, but never touching the floor. He arrived at the cash register and I expected to see him lash out at it. Instead, with a most dreadful and sinister smile, he looked down over his feet and, with an infinity of care, rang up 'No Sale' with his right foot big toe.

He completed the traverse and sat down by his slippers. 'So much for all that blankety stuff,' he said, 'And so much for all of you. Good-bye'. He limped out of the bar. But it's nice to be right sometimes. It's not five months since I last saw that chap, and I see him pretty often as the years go by. He belongs to most of the recognised climbing clubs and organizations. I always say the same thing when we meet, and I said it then. 'How's the golf going,' I asked him, 'Not too good,' he replied as he always does, a man who hasn't touched a club for a quarter of a century, 'but I tell you what, Kevin.

That climb on El Capitan they call The Fairway is tremendous. It's miles above my standard now but at least I've seen it, and been on the first pitch and a bit of the second. Talk about hard!' `I don't know about it,' I said, 'but I suppose it's named after one of those big chaps, Nicklaus, Palmer, or Jacklin; one of those'. `Oh them,' he said, stooping to his boots, 'imagine footling around on some golf course when you could be walking about on a hill.' He went off to have a bath. Even his language had improved.

Kevin FitzGerald insists that the whole story is true — The chap DID come to play golf, he DID get taken up East Gully — and I never saw a man so frightened as he was that night. I DID beg him to go away, he DID fall off the boulder and he DID make the traverse round the bar. In later life, he preferred sleeping out of doors in a bag, and two years ago — while we were having lunch in London —he actually said to me 'let's do something bloody silly, like walking from here to Wales.... Now!'

Kevin Fitzgerald: First published as 'Be sure to bring your clubs' in * Mountain Life-April/May 1975

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Survivor's Tale

Life in the military during the 1960’s was full of ups and downs. Depending on how you looked at your lot in life-glass half empty or half full- and of course, what you could get away with. For me and my four climbing and drinking friends (Chalky, Pete, Geordie and Sam), our glass was always half full, for no other reason, that we found time to indulge ourselves in our three passions – climbing, alcohol and climbing and not necessarily in that order. Being a part of NATO Search and Rescue Team stationed at RAF Bruggen in Germany in the early 1960’s, when life was both exciting and frightening.

Exciting because we were young, naive, energetic, full of life, carried a couldn’t care less attitude on our shoulders and yes, we enjoyed the freedom climbing gave us despite wearing uniforms and being subjected to banal orders, given by newly commissioned officers, fresh out of RAF Cranwell training school who thought, no believed, that as they walked up to the summit of Snowdon one summer, they were experienced and competent climbers/mountaineers! 

The five of us became good friends when we found ourselves, independently volunteering for a rescue mission to the Monte Rosa region within three weeks of being posted to the station. We found ourselves in the same search group, which entailed climbing several high cols, across two glaciers and traversing one long pinnacle ridge, and as we climbed as if we had been doing it for ever, we formed a bond which was cemented through our passion for climbing and alcohol.

However, such things never last. Within two years of being together, Chalky was killed whilst soloing on the Dorset cliffs in March 1964 when he went on a rare home-leave; Pete was posted to Aden a year earlier at the start of the troubles (1963), and on his first day off, he went into a local bar where a young lad came in and threw a grenade in his lap, and Geordie was killed on a rescue mission in the Alps when he was assigned to an international rescue group, which was the first (and last) time the five of us were not in the same mountain rescue group.

Only Sam and I remained out of the small merry band of climbers and we climbed together all the time, sometimes using a rope, and other times climbing unroped. It depended on how we felt at the time. Either way, we were both aware of our mortality given what had happened to our friends.

In July 1964, we had 3 weeks leave coming up, so we made plans to go to the Picos De Europa to try a new route on the South Face of El Naranjo, but a few days before setting off, I was sent to Berlin for a week. Sam being Sam, decided to go by himself and play around on the rocks until I joined him later.

South Face of El Naranjo
However, a day before I was to fly back to RAF Bruggen and then on to the Pyrenees, I was told I had to fly to RAF Laarbruch for another two weeks, so any chance of joining Sam was out the window.When he rang me later, he was disappointed to hear that I would not be joining him, so he said he would find a climbing partner from a group of local climbers who were in the area. A week passed and on the Friday night, I had confusing dreams which to some degree, disturbed me when I woke and recollected some of the images I envisioned. One being of a climbing helmet with a hole in the top and the words Gibanna written on the side in yellow paint.

On the Saturday, Sam rang to say he had found a local climbing partner and they had already completed some climbs together, and had made plans to climb a new route on the East Face of El Neveron de Urriellu on the Sunday. Just as the phone call pips went, I heard him say, his climbing partner was called Hośe Gibanna. The word Gibanna hit the pit of my stomach like a sledge hammer. Blood sank to my feet leaving me light headed. I shouted incoherently to Sam not to go climbing but to return so we could have some beer and talk about another expedition to the Alps or even the Himalaya. But Sam was like a kid on Christmas morning who just found out he had a room full of presents. Then the phone went dead.

Two days later, I was told to report to the duty officer in the guardhouse, where I was told that I had to go to Rhinedalen to identify Sam’s body as it had been flown back from Spain. Sam was an orphan and had no other relatives, and unbeknown to me, he had put me down as his next of kin. It appears that he was belaying Hośe on the third pitch when Hośe dislodged a stone, which plummeted down in accordance with Newton’s law and lodged in Sam’s head after penetrating the spare climbing helmet he borrowed from Hośe, as his was well past its use by date.

Sam was buried in a Military cemetery in Germany with just a few friends around. For the next few weeks, I felt emotionally empty. All my climbing partners were gone within a two-year period. I was angry at everybody and everything including each of them in turn. Angry for deserting me, leaving me to cope with this void within me, to grieve alone without comfort.The next few weeks were a blur, and I knew that I had hit rock bottom, when one weekend, after taking a weeks’ leave, I drove to Fleurus in Belgium, to drown my grief and sorrows in alcohol, with the thought uppermost in my mind, that I did not care what happened to me. What right had I live!

On the Saturday, my headache was the monster of all headaches but none the less, I reluctantly drove south, with no real idea where I was heading for, but as I couldn’t care less where I was going, or why, I just drove until I saw some limestone cliffs poking out of a wooded area. I drove down a track until I could park below the cliff face.  I left the car unlocked and started to climb on the warm grey rock, and the pleasure it gave me as soon as I touched it, ‘stilled my troubled breast’, and I felt at home, despite not being aware of anything other than empty space and none existent time.

Climbing blindly, I ascended a large crack which ended in a blind scoop. I stood and surveyed the ground some distance below. The ‘stilled breast’ was no longer ‘stilled’ but was raging with anger, guilt and self-pity. Why did they have to die – how could they leave me alone like this – what were they thinking.Here I was, 20 years of age, and my four climbing/drinking friends had already departed this life, leaving me bereft and alone. Clearly, all rational thought had suddenly gone walk-about and I was in no mood to recognise logic. As I stood there for goodness how long, the thought came to me, that if I just let go and stepped forwards, I could join them, and all my pain, guilt and anger would evaporate. I would be at peace.

With eyes misted over with tears as I leaned forward, but was startled by a bird of prey that flew in front of me, so close that I felt the disturbed air current on my face as it flew past. My eyes cleared and I realised this was no answer, so carefully and purposefully, climbed back the way I had come.

Back on the ground, I sat and drank a few beers. When I woke at sunrise, I was covered in a heavy dew and snail slime, but I cared little for my appearance, so drank several bottles of lager for breakfast and set off up a crack not caring where it would lead. I remember nothing of the actual climb and came to some semblance of sobriety, when I found myself unable to move on a small ledge. As I perched there alone, I realised there was a putrid smell from somewhere, and was horrified to find that I had vomited over myself as well as having had a bad case of diarrhoea during the night, but had not noticed it earlier.

I climbed back down, sat and cried for what seemed a very long time. I felt ashamed, and angry with myself with the knowledge that I had debased my humanity. I knew I had to do something about my life style as it was not serving anyone’s purpose, not least those friends who I would never climb with again. As I sat there in my own filth, I became disgusted for letting myself get to such a debased state. The tears came in sobbing waves, like a raging winter’s storm. I had humiliated myself and even though I felt totally bereft at the loss of so many good climbing friends, I knew this was no excuse, none what so ever.

After a while of retching, interspersed with racking sobbing, I stood up, took off my clothes, and ran naked into the nearby river to wash away my disgust in the silent current, hoping it would wash away the shame I was feeling.

Once I felt cleansed, I ran back to the car, oblivious to the pain the stony ground caused my bare feet. Got dressed in my spare clothing and returned to where my soiled clothes lay and burnt them. Later, I went for a walk along the base of the cliffs, allowing my thoughts the freedom to go where they wished. After a while, I came to a part of the cliff which had a large rising crack, until it vanished as the cliff face became concave. I knew I had to climb it, if not for me, then for Chalky, Geordie, Pete and Sam. This would be my testament to our friendship.

The moment my fingers touched the grey rock, I felt the energy surge up my arms and through my body. I was alive and guilt had no part to play in the loss of my friends. I had to live for them, to climb for them, they would expect nothing less. Up I went, cat like movements, singing to the tune of the soft summer breeze, feeling every touch of the rock with my fingers and toes. This was what I wanted to do – climb, nothing more but climb alone. This way, I would never again find myself in such a low emotional state of mind nor feel the sadness at the loss of a climbing friend. A new door had opened and I walked through it with open eyes. My life would never be the same.

Note: From 1964, I climbed solo with a passion that only abated when in my late 50’s, ‘living life’ became important to me. Despite not caring about death whilst pursuing my mad-cap adventures around the world, I remained addicted to soloing's adrenalin rush.

Frank Grant © 2017

Friday, 18 August 2017

Ed Douglas's The Magician's Glass...Reviewed

Ed Douglas’s collection of eight essays which have previously graced the pages of the US Alpinist and Rock and Ice magazines are brought together in 'The Magician Glass'; after being re-edited-in Ed’s words-’for a British readership’. I’m not sure how British and US mountaineering buffs, sharing a language, differ in their interpretation of a mountain essay to the extent that they require them to be re-worked, but as I have not seen the originals then I’m not in a position to speculate? That being said, for someone who at times has become a tad jaded with so much mountaineering material, I did find The Magician’s Glass something of an exception.... In fact, it's a bit of a cracker! 

The eight essays herein, are never less than absorbing and extremely well crafted. Another alternative title for the book could have been ‘The Black Mirror’-if Charlie Brooker had not got in first!- for each essay addresses the dark reality behind mountaineering at the limits of possibility. Those fatal human emotions- Pride, Egotism,Envy and Wrath fall off the pages like ripe fruit while death is never more than a few page turns away. Yes...The Magicians Glass is dark but isn’t that the point about extreme climbing and mountaineering; that those who ‘succeed’ more often than not, ultimately fail? Both at their craft and/or as grounded human beings?

After saying that, there are not many people better than the author at putting flesh on the bones of a story and Ed is such a good writer. Very much in the Orwell tradition; That is, never use a dozen words when half a dozen will do. No ornate peregrinations in the telling of the tale. Instead, the writing is clean, sharp and to the point. The book's eponymous opening essay tells the epic story of glorious failure on Annapurna III, and essentially revolves around the enigmatic Nick Colton. It was an ascent upon ‘The Adamantine Wall’ that is best summerised by Lindsay Griffin....

In 1981 Steve Bell, Nick Colton and Tim Leach became the first climbers to reach the South East Face of Annapurna III via the Seti Khola.

They first acclimatized on the East Ridge, and then cached equipment on the pillar, before setting off for an alpine-style attempt. They reached the crest via snow runnels on the right flank, continued past a difficult section of V and V+, and reached a high point of 6,500m. Although they had probably climbed the most technical section, the ridge above looked dangerous and time-consuming. Calculating that another five or six days would be needed to reach the top and get down again, they retreated.

Subsequent parties, which have included a number of outstanding alpinists, have barely been able to set foot on the route, adding to the aura surrounding this line and the now legendary status of the 1981 attempt.

The effort essentially left the team broken. With Colton effectively stepping off the gas for several years and Tim Leach giving up altogether to became an architect. An essay which sums up the psychological warfare and physical shredding which so often defines extreme mountaineering projects.

In Stealing Toni Egger the author describes ‘The murder of the Impossible’. The hugely controversial  Cesare Maestri/Tony Egger ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and its explosive aftermath. Not least the mystery surrounding the death of Austrian guide Toni Egger in the retreat off the mountain. Much of the account has inevitably been told before in various books and journals but Ed goes further into the darkest catacombs. Visting friends and family members who throw new light on what we already know. A light from which the clown prince Cesare Maestri cannot escape.

Searching for Tomaz Humar fleshes out an obituary which Ed did for the Guardian in 2009 after the Slovenian super nova died on Langtang Lirung during a solo ascent of the mountain. To say that Humar was ‘driven’ would be an understatement. Here was a supremely talented mountaineer who had an ego the size of a London bus and who had a penchant for new age mysticism. While undertaking an epic solo ascent on Nanga Parbat in 2005, his team included an astrologer who read his aura and who could predict a favourable climbing window. The mystic was presumably sacked as Humar escaped with his life by a hair’s breadth after bad weather closed in and left him at the mercy of the elements. Such was the standard that Humar climbed at that even though he was continually pushing the envelope, his natural ability, it appeared, would always carry him through. However, Humar was indeed human after all and in his later life, he suffered both physically and mentally. Surviving a terrible fall at his home which left him with a shattered leg, and seeing his family life and business suffer. The end of course, became all too predictable.

Big Guts revolves around the legendary German climber, Kurt Albert and continues the ‘doomed romantic’ theme. Albert was a larger than life figure who gave the climbing world the concept-and name- ‘Redpoint'. Albert was the passionate explorer of new horizons. Both physically and mentally. Never a mere climbing machine, the man the author describes in Big Guts, is at all times, warm and generous towards his peers, irreverent and self-deprecating yet totally focused on his passion. Albert’s big hearted approach towards his fellow climbers and his pioneering zeal gained him world wide respect. Not least from our own Jerry Moffat who provides a swathe of anecdotal material which brings his late friend to life.

Crazy Wisdom
Brings the author’s deep interest in the Sherpa culture into focus. A community which has come under the international spotlight in recent years. Particularly after the unsavoury incidents on Everest in 2013, when angry Sherpas and western climbers-including Ulli Steck-were involved in a simmering dispute which spilt over into violence. What perhaps is not commonly known to the everyday climber back at home, and which the author brings out in this essay, is the fact that although in the West we use the word ‘Sherpa’ as a generic term to describe someone from the region who is usually employed to ferry supplies and to fix ropes etc, for usually western expeditions. In fact, these roles are carried out by several different ethnic cultures.

The true Sherpa is someone of Nepalese extraction from the northern region of high Himalayas and who is Tibetan speaking. This group could be said to be basically at the top of the tree with regard to status and earning potential. In reality, other ethnic groups including The Gurungs, the Tamangs and in particular the Rai who overwhelming these days, take on the hard donkey work. And donkey work it is for the poor Rai in particular who often find themselves carrying incredible loads to boost their meagre earnings. The historic exploitation of these indigenous people and the fight to improve their lot by both the 'Sherpas’ themselves and enlightened, sympathetic westerners, is at the heart of Crazy wisdom.

What’s Eating Ueli Steck, written well before the ‘Swiss Machine’s’ untimely death, visits the scene of someone quite rightly hailed as one of our greatest ever mountaineers, greatest ever controversies. The Piolet d’Or nominated ascent of the Annapurna's South Face. There and back in an incredible 28 hours. Problem is that Steck has no concrete proof to support his claim. He told reporters that he had been caught in an avalanche and lost one of his gloves and his camera in slough which meant that he could not provide any summit photos to back up his claims. He also claimed that his altimeter wasn’t working so a GPS tracking on his ascent became impossible.Despite these problems, Steck took the award despite many mountaineers throwing doubt on the ascent. For Steck, that was their problem.It's fair to say that the aftermath of the affair still reverberates around the mountaineering community.

Lone Wolf describes that fallen giant of French rock climbing, Patrick Edlinger. A household name amongst rock athletes, not only in his native France but around the world. During the 80‘s and 90‘s, Edlinger’s rock star image became almost iconic. Gracing the front covers of the climbing glossies and defining an era in all its wild haired, day-glo, ripped lycra glory! However, the showman the author describes, whilst being an outstanding talent and rock pioneer, was prone to self-doubt and ultimately, deep depression. His end when it came, falling down a flight of bathroom stairs at home, was cruel in its mundanity and almost darkly ironic given the extreme places Edlinger had visited during his all too short life.

Lines of Beauty: The art of Climbing uses the climbing artist Andy Parkin as the hook to hang an essay of the visual aesthetics of climbing. Although Parkin takes centre stage, figures from Jim Curren and Julian Heaton Cooper share the pages with Brown Whillans and Dawes.  That shared space between climbing and painting-the line of flight-which has always informed the activity and which can be observed both on canvas or through the sinewy lines drawn by the climber on stone. An essay which in its appreciation of nature and beauty is rather an exception to the air of tragedy which pervades the majority of essays herein.

So...there you have it. A journey through the glass darkly, which deserves to be widely read. Not just by mountaineering anoraks who will will appreciate the depth of insight and detail surrounding these iconic figures, but also those who just enjoy a good yarn. For the latter constituency, there are gripping moments aplenty to sate their appetite. As for the book’s title. It comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

There’s something ever egotistical in mountain tops and towers, and all the other grand and lofty things...which like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back to his own mysterious self

Captain Ahab

Available from Vertebrate Publishing

John Appleby:2017 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Bernadette McDonald's 'The Art of Freedom....Reviewed

The Art of Freedom- The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka .
Bernadette McDonald.

Published by Vertebrate Publishing. Under licence from Rocky Mountain Books, Canada. Price £24.

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible

Voytek Kurtyka is one of the most outstanding climbers in the history of the sport, equally significant as a rock climber and mountaineer. One of the leaders of a Polish led revolution that redefined Himalayan climbing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. His visionary approach marked him out even from many of his own countries mountaineers, with an emphasis on alpine style ascents on the highest mountains of the world. Born in 1947, it was when his family moved to Wroclaw that he started to climb at a local outcrop, persuaded to try this by a female fellow student whilst studying electronics at the local university in 1968. He was immediately smitten, and began to visit the rocks as often as he could, much to the chagrin of his father, a writer who later became well known in Polish literary circles. 

I was fortunate to visit Poland and the Tatras in 1967, the year before Voytek started to climb, and from later experience in the following decade, climbing in Czech, Slovakia and Bulgaria (the Rila mountains), all communist countries in that era, I was to find climbing was ‘organised’ along lines that fitted into the prevailing political system, with tests and examinations, and you were only supposed to climb unsupervised when you had passed these. The Wroclaw Climbing Club was teeming with good climbers, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Bogdan Jankowski and Kryzysztof Wielicki all future stars of Himalayan exploration and Voytek soon provided an intriguing addition to that grouping, but he was from the first, a non-conformist.

He never bothered with instruction and the tests set nationally by the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA), but by the time he finished his degree he was one of the best rock climbers in Poland, known by a soubriquet as the ‘Animal’. Why this nick name I am not sure, but in looks he was compared with the brilliant Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. Having met (once) this latter person, and looking at photographs of Voytek in his early twenties, the comparison is apt for he too was lithe, of medium height and moved sinuously. I did meet him at that time but I guess he will not remember.
The Tatra Mountains are a proven training ground for Polish and Slovak mountaineers, and in some ways, they are for me reminiscent of the Cuillin Mountains in Skye, but their higher altitude and eastern continental position mean severe winter conditions. And it was in these mountains that Voytek over the next few years honed his mountaineering skills, pioneering rock routes harder than the then existing grades and winter ascents such as the Sciek(The Sewer) and the Pajaki (Spiders) on the huge Kazalnica wall. Working at a succession of jobs, climbing began to dominate his life, but he was operating historically in a tumultuous period politically and of religiosity in Poland.

The Roman Catholic religion held sway despite the Communist masters, but for the climbers, it was freedom that they sought, and for Voytek he was neither caught by religion or politics he was keenest on developing his climbing and travelling experience, despite the travails caused by money and equipment shortage. He also had literary ambitions and was moved by art and music. A most telling quote about his winter climbs in the Tatras was his attitude to bivouacs, ‘you had to learn how to live on the mountain, making comfortable and safe bivouacs. This is the knowledge we later took to the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya’.

A surprise to me is there is no coverage in the book of Voytek’s Alpine climbs. Because of his outstanding routes in the Tatras, he with some other Polish climbers, were able via PZA arrangements with the Ecole National (ENSA), to visit Chamonix. Voytek made repeats of some of the areas classics, and in 1973 a new route on the North Face of the Petit Dru with Jerzy Kukuczka and Marek Lukaszewski, and in 1975 with the same partners a new Polish Route on the Grandes Jorasses North Face.

However, prior to these Alpine routes in 1972, he had been on one of the multi member Polish expeditions to the Hindu Kush, in which ten climbers from Krakow took part. They were a feature of that countries mountaineering in that decade, by ducking and diving, with limited funds, somehow they transported themselves and their equipment by truck or by train to reach Afghanistan. On this trip Voytek made three first ascents including one of the first Alpine style climbs over 7000 metres, the North Face of Akher Chioch 7,017m with Piotr Jasinski, Marek Kowalczyk, and Jacek Rusieki; an experience that was to influence his approach to high mountains in the future. This first expedition was a happy one and all the participants returned to Poland as friends. But it’s a good job none of us know what lies ahead in our lives, for three of these close friends of Voytek’s from this trip were all to die subsequently in road traffic accidents! 

In 1974 Kurtyka took part in a repeat of the French Direct on the Troll Wall in Norway, in winter. This really was a test of endurance taking 13 days to complete. But somehow it was not what Kurtyka came to be about, neither was his participation in a large Polish winter expedition to Lhotse 8.516m in 1975. This was led by Andrzej Zawada who had the idea that Polish climbers with their winter climbing experience in the Tatras, were uniquely suited to such ascents. This was the first ever winter attempt on an 8000m peak, Voytek reached 7.800m and Zawada with Heinrich 8.250m.The following year Kurtyka was a member of another Polish expedition, this time to the North East Ridge of K2, reaching 7.900m.

Voytek Kurtyka on the Lhotse expedition:Bogdan Jankowski.
1977 was to be the year that Kurtyka began to climb with mountaineers from the West, and I had a little to do with this. Whilst I was at the BMC we had started holding invitation International meets, and one of these had been with Polish climbers. John Porter had been a volunteer helper on this gathering, and got along with this group led by Zawada famously. The PZA subsequently invited a group of British climbers to the Tatra, and then subsequently in 1977 to join one of their trips to the Hindu Kush. John Porter was up for both of these, and persuaded Alex MacIntyre to join him. The rest is history, and Kurtyka, Alex and John, climbing Alpine style made the impressive first ascent of the North-East face of Kohe Bandaka, 6.843m.

The following year Voytek, John, Alex and Krzysztof Zurek ascended the south buttress of Changabang. These two ascents, although at the time not so lauded as some others, were in retrospect game changing for they confirmed to such as Kurtyka, Kukuczka, Alex MacIntyre, Doug Scott, Rene Ghilini and others, that to tackle Himalayan peaks you do not need large parties and fixed ropes. Alex was by this date working with me at the BMC, and we had many discussions about how this climbing style might develop over ensuing years.

From that date on for two decades, Kurtyka was active at the forefront of Himalayan climbing. Dhaulagiri, Makalu, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum ll Gasherbrum l, Trango Tower, K2, Cho Oyo, Shishapangma, with some successes, and some failures. Outstanding with Kukuczkza was the first ascents of Gasherbrum ll, 8.034m by its South East ridge and Gasherbrum l, 8.080m by the South West Face, and the Broad Peak 8.051m traverse.  For me, Kurtyka’s two greatest climbs were the West Face of Gasherbrum 1V, 7.932m (The Shining Wall) with Robert Schauer in 1985, and a new route on the Trango Tower, 6.239m by its East Face in 1988 with Erhard Loretan.

I spent a week sharing a hotel room with Robert Schauer in 1986, when we were both on the jury of the Trento film festival. After which I also went rock climbing with him at Arco, and to hear first hand from him about The Shining Wall ascent was truly dramatic. This ten day epic was as close to the edge as one can get, for they ran out of food and gas, had nothing to eat or drink for two days and only just survived. It is still one of the most impressive ascents recorded in the Himalaya, and is now referred to by the pundits as ‘the climb of the century’.

There is much soul searching in this book, for Kurtyka is troubled by the many accidents that happened to his former climbing partners. Alex MacIntyre had made a big impression on him and his death on Annapurna in 1982 really hurt, as did the death of Erhard Loretan in the Swiss Alps. He became disenchanted with his most famous climbing partner Kukuczka for seeking out recognition in a ‘race’ with Messner to become the first to ascend the 14 highest peaks in the world. The more so because in this he felt that safety considerations were being ignored, resulting in the death of several of his companions. However, Kukuczka is not alive to defend himself for he too perished, on the South Face of Lhotse in 1989. The death toll amongst the leading Polish alpinists became frightening around this date, four died on the west ridge of Everest that same year.

Rather like the British earlier when Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker, Alex MacIntyre, Nick Estcourt, Roger Baxter Jones, Dougal Haston, Al Rouse, Julie Tullis, Paul Nunn all perished in the mountains. However no one ever died sharing a rope with Kurtyka, several times he turned round when he felt conditions were not safe. Like Reinhold Messner observed ‘the best climber is the oldest one’.
Kurtyka continued pioneering into 
advanced age, in 2003 he was still making new routes in summer and winter in the Tatras, and his last major Himalayan climb was the Biacherahi Central Tower, 5.700 metres in the Karakoram, a new route on its south face with Japanese climbers Taeko and Yasushi Yamanoi in 2001. He confesses that he is impressed by Japanese culture and thinking, and it seems that he does have something of a Zen like approach to life.

The book starts with Kurtyka agonising over and refusing to take part on several occasions when he is invited to receive recognition over a Piolets d'Or award, becoming ever more impatient with the organisers for inviting him. I empathised and although I have never been invited myself for any such award, and never will be I am not sure that mountaineering needs any such form of recognition. I am not against competition, in fact, I founded one of the best known athletic events in Yorkshire in 1979, the Chevin Chase, won for the last six years by one or other Olympic Triathletes, the Brownlee’s, Alistair and Johnny. But what a climber experiences in the mountains is not like kicking a ball, or running along a track, it has elements of Chan, which is actually where Zen thought comes from.

A fusion of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is beyond description and too precious to confuse with awards, however well intentioned. However ‘Art of Freedom’ ends in 2016 with Kurtyka accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, at a Piolets d'Or ceremony in La Grave, leaving the reader to ponder which road rock climbing and mountaineering will now travel down, with Olympic recognition looming and climbing imagery becoming a mainstay of consumerist advertising.

Tadek Piotrowski and Voytek Kurtyka in Camp II (7,300 metres) on the Lhotse Wall, waiting for the weather to improve. Polish autumn–winter 1975/1975 expedition. Bogdan Jankowski

The author of this biography, the award winning writer Bernadette McDonald has crafted an outstanding book about a mountaineering legend. It is a warts and all portrait of Kurtyka’s complicated personality and relationships, with partners, family, the law, risk, and an uncompromising lifestyle whilst meeting his climbing goals. She has produced a thought provoking master work. The publishers are also to be congratulated for such a well presented volume, copiously illustrated with many personal and historic photographs. 

Dennis Gray: 2017

Available Direct from Vertebrate Publishing

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Art of freedom: The life and climbs of Voytek Kurtyka..extract

Porters on the way to the Gasherbrums in the Baltoro,1983.Image-Voytek Kurtyka.
It’s hard to assess the value of finding the right partner for any particular climb. For the Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV, Voytek chose Austrian alpinist, Robert Schauer. Although it was their only climb together, after eight days on the unclimbed West Face, high on the mountain in the midst of a crippling storm, they attained a level of communication that astounds.

On 18 July Robert and Voytek reached 7,800 metres. They had arrived at the final slabs and snowfields leading to the summit, but by afternoon it began to snow in earnest. The snow continued throughout the night,building up around their bivouac sack and threatening to push them off their airy perch. They no longer had food, and they were out of gas.

That meant they couldn’t make more water. They could barely poke their heads out of the bivouac sack because of the blowing snow. They waited all the next day for the storm to break, but it persisted. The snow piled up around them at an alarming rate. Voytek wrote: ‘Snowstorm. Jail at 7,800 metres. No food and no liquid.’ Retreat was out of the question, since they only had ten remaining pitons, not nearly enough to rappel down the face they had climbed. Their only option was to outlast the storm.

Voytek Kurtyka approaching the rock barrier on Gasherbrum I on the first day of the climb. Jerzy Kukuczka, Voytek Kurtyka collection.

Sleep-deprived, hungry, thirsty, hypoxic and stressed, they drifted into a delirious state. It was at this point, in extremity, that both Robert and Voytek sensed something – an independent spirit on the mountain that, for Robert, grew more ominous and real with each snowflake. So real that they waited expectantly for some signal or action from their invisible ‘third man.’ Robert began to blame their imaginary companion for having slowed them down on the face. As avalanches surged over them, nudging them, almost burying them, Robert became convinced that the third man was trying to push him off the ledge into oblivion.

It’s not unusual for an invisible person to appear in dire circumstances such as these, but in most cases the presence is helpful, giving suggestions and support and companionship. When Stephen Venables was descending Everest after having climbed the Kangshung Face, he was forced to bivouac not far below the summit. He wasn’t alone, however. An imaginary old man kept him company throughout the night and on his exhausting descent the next day. Once Stephen and the old man reached the South Summit, they were met by an imaginary (and long-dead) Eric Shipton, who helped by warming Stephen’s hands. There are countless high-altitude examples of these wonderfully kind, unexplainable creatures, yet Robert’s third man was strangely malevolent.

Voytek Kurtyka on the summit of Gasherbrum II East, 1983. Jerry Kukuczka.

Voytek, while acutely aware of their new partner, was preoccupied with carrying out odd experiments, such as pinching his thigh and wondering if the pain would disappear when he neared death. He relished the pain, for it confirmed that he was still alive. He was already imagining the distinct possibility of turning into a lifeless block of ice on the narrowing ledge slowly disappearing under drifts of snow.

Occasionally they would burrow out from one end of their bivouac sack to remove enough snow to avoid suffocation. As they shivered on their ledge, they considered their options. Again, thoughts of retreat were discussed then quickly abandoned. Going up was also out of the question in this storm. Waiting – the most agonising option of all – remained the only feasible choice. Cold and hungry and so dreadfully thirsty, they waited. From time to time they reassured each other with little niceties. ‘Are you feeling okay, Robert?’ ‘Oh, yes, I’m feeling fine.’ Robert described it as a ‘fragile mood of hope.’ Voytek recalled that he had never had so much ‘free time’ on a climb. ‘We had two nights and a day up there. We just sat. We had a stove, but the gas was finished, so we had nothing to do but think.’

Time became warped, stretching and contracting at will. One hour was the same as one day. The darkness pushed down on them, coating their heaving lungs. It felt aggressive, as if it would swallow them. Voytek’s thoughts drifted into dangerous territory. Death was something he had often mused about in the past, and now it seemed inevitable and barely worth worrying about. What was most important to him was to be fully aware of the experience. Being completely conscious of the process of dying, particularly in this remote and savage place, would be interesting.
Voytek Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka arrive in base camp after having completed a new route on Gasherbrum I in 1983. Voytek Kurtyka collection.
As he pondered his own demise, Voytek became concerned about Robert. Was he also aware of how close they were to death in this terrible place, this wonderful place? It became incredibly important to him that Robert understand what was happening – that they share this almost sacred experience. But it was a delicate topic, and Voytek struggled with his decision to speak with Robert. Finally, he could no longer hold back. He began, his voice raspy with cold and fatigue, ‘Robert, I…I…I’d like to…’ Robert interrupted quietly but firmly in a painful whisper, ‘I know what you’re thinking. I’m ready. I’m prepared for this. Don’t worry.’

Bernadette McDonald

The Art of Freedom is available from Vertebrate Publishing