Friday, 30 June 2017

The Conservation Ethic

Artist:Ricky Blake 

He who experiences the unity of life, sees himself in all beings, and all beings in himself’ The Buddha.

One would expect that climbers would be bound by a strict conservation ethic, but unfortunately that is not always the case, and some of the most pristine of natural sites have suffered severe degradation in recent years. I guess it was easier to be high minded and highly motivated to conservation when our numbers were small, but as our sport becomes ever more populated there is a real task in educating the new comers, mainly coming from an urbanised existence, into the fragile nature of crag and hill environments. Historically they have many role models within the wider realms of mountain activities to emulate, and it is a source of some interest and pride that three of the most influential figures in this respect, John Muir, David Brower and Amory Lovins were all mountaineers. Between them they cover the whole time line from the mid-nineteenth century to date.

John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar in East Lothian but he was emigrated; to the USA with his deeply religious family when he was eleven years old. After growing up on the family farm in Wisconsin, working around the clock driven by a father who had him memorising from his earliest years huge chunks of the King James bible, he moved to work in Canada. Where he might have remained, but after suffering an industrial accident, he set forth and walked the hundreds of miles, down through America to the Gulf of Mexico. This gave him the taste for the adventure he craved, and from there he found his way to California and the high country of the Sierra’s, and to Yosemite, eventually making the State his permanent home.

For the next decade, from his first visit to Yosemite in 1868, he wandered amongst and climbed to the summits of the Sierra Nevada. Making many first ascents, mostly accomplished climbing solo. His ascent in 1869 of Cathedral Peak (10,940ft’) in Yosemite was impressive, and probably at that date one of the most difficult such climbs in North America. To write that he was physically robust is an understatement, for his equipment was rudimentary and he endured many bivouacs in the mountains living off hard tack, sleeping wrapped in a single blanket. Besides his climbing activities, he  was educating himself, heavily reading and studying, and it is obvious that he was highly gifted for he quickly realised that it was glacial and river action that had formed Yosemite, not volcanic activity as promoted by the then leading US geologists. He then undertook some climbing trips further afield, to Glenora Peak now in British Columbia, to Mt Rainier making the seventh ascent of the peak, and to Alaska. The story of the rescue on Glenora Peak of Samuel Hall Young by Muir, written up by the injured man, deserves to be a classic of mountain survival stories. At one stage in the narrative, hanging out over a 1000ft drop to the glacier below, Muir pulled his companion up to a safe perch, dragging him by his teeth biting into his collar!

John Muir's Lost Valley; Hetch Hetchy before and after the state sponsored flooding of the valley.

It was during his time in Yosemite when he worked as a shepherd and at other tasks that he came to realise that human beings are merely a part of the natural world, and not the centre of it. If you look at photographs of Muir from this era, lean, spare and heavily bearded, he looks what he later became, a prophet of the spiritual quality of nature, and from thereon he became an ardent supporter of the wish to preserve such wilderness areas.  He petitioned Congress with the need for National Parks to be established and in 1890 a bill was passed that set up the first: Yosemite. His continued activism in this cause then led on to other areas being so designated, including the Sequoia National Park, and he is now universally recognised as the ‘Father’ of those designations.

Over the next years Muir became a National figure in the US, writing many books and essays about his adventures in the Sierras, and his wish to conserve and preserve the natural environment for all his countries citizens. In his campaigns he met with Congress Men, the President and other like minded outdoor enthusiasts. This led on in 1892 to him co-founding The Sierra Club. Which today, via many stages in its development, has become the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation in the USA with millions of members, and Chapters across the Nation; The Sierra Club has a permanent base in Yosemite, and Muir’s later family residence in Martinez, California is also now a National historic site.

Few mountaineers can have made such an impact on subsequent generations, for as an outstanding ‘Wilderness Prophet’ who helped to lay the groundwork for modern environmental thinking, he has inspired so many others to carry his message and to act. In the UK the John Muir Trust founded in 1983, is dedicated to protecting and enhancing wild places, and is the owner of some of the most important natural and mountain sites in the UK, including Ben Nevis. There is the John Muir Way, a 215 kms long distance walking route running from Helensburgh in the West to Dunbar in the East. And the Muir original family home in that town is now a museum. The John Muir Trail in the US is recorded as that Country’s premier hiking route, 211 miles in length passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

 His books are all still in print, but what might be a failing in this commentator, is that I find his writing too set in his religiosity, and even child like, but they are honest and true to his mission of enthusing his readers about the restoring spirit to be found in the earth’s wild places (In later life he travelled widely including ascending the Mueller Glacier on Mount Cook in 1903). Anyone who is interested in reading more about Muir’s mountaineering should study, ‘John Muir’s Greatest Climbs’ by Graham White published by Canongate in 1999. Finally the Muir name is now so well used in the US, in educational and ecological nomenclatures on an almost industrial scale, that I will mention only one more, April 21st is John Muir Day, his birthday. 

David Brower:Image The Sierra Club

David Brower (1912-2000) was another key figure in the development of the modern environmental movement, who came to this through his interest in mountaineering. He was born in Berkeley, California and it was whilst he was a student at its University he began to climb. He quickly made a name as a high standard friction climber and he was one of the first to attempt an ascent of the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite. A fellow student was Hervey Voge, who later wrote one of the earliest climbing guidebooks to the Sierras, and with whom in 1934, Brower traversed the bulk of the High Sierras from Kearsage Pass to Yosemite, summiting 59 peaks in 69 days. Voge had persuaded Brower to join the Sierra Club in 1933, an organisation which in later life became synonymous for many years with the name Dave Brower. But that was in the future, and on graduating he took up a post with The University of California Press, and it was because of the knowledge he gained of the publishing process which enabled him to launch many outstanding wilderness and mountaineering volumes in the years ahead.

In 1935 with a group from the Sierra Club, he attempted to climb Mount Waddington (13,186ft) in British Columbia. He and his friends had by then begun to winter climb in the Palisades, a part of the Sierras and they were as at home on ice as rock, but the weather in the Coastal Range is notoriously bad, and their attempt was  beset by bad weather and despite repeated attempts they had to retreat . But in 1939, Brower along with Bestor Robinson, Raffi Bedayn and John Dyer decided to take on the challenge of ‘Shiprock’ in New Mexico. This huge volcanic peak had already defeated 12 previous attempts by groups from around the USA and it was known as ‘the last great American climbing problem’. Initially they tried to climb the mountain by ascending and descending from their high point each day, but they realised that they needed to keep climbing up from a bivouac. After some fine leads by all the other three, belayed by Bedayn, who had made a name for himself as a holder of some big falls, they succeeded in ascending ‘Shiprock’. Not without controversy for they used four bolts on the climb, two for aid, and two for belays. This was the first time bolts were placed on a climb in the USA!

The war then intervened, and Brower was called up as a Lieutenant and inducted into the 10th Mountain Division, an elite unit with whom he served as a mountain, and skiing instructor. He put together for this ‘The Manual of Ski Mountaineering’ which subsequently continued in demand post war in several editions. The 10th Mountain Division was involved in several key battles in North Italy and Brower earned a decoration for bravery in action in the Pre-alps. Returning to California on demob Brower along with Ansel Adams, and attorney Dick Leonard were the young Turks who set to and revitalised the Sierra Club which had become somewhat atrophied during the conflict. One has to understand that in the USA, there was not long standing local climbing clubs at that date, but what there was in California were the local Chapters of The Sierra Club, who organised climbing meets and beginners events at such outcrops as Stoney Point, where climbers like Royal Robbins learnt to climb as a member of the Los Angeles Chapter, and it was through these and building up the membership that a revitalised Sierra Club was reborn.

In 1952 Brower became the first Executive Director of The Sierra Club, and he brought a dynamism to the role not previously experienced in such a body, taking on the big corporations, and opposing developments the organisation felt damaged the natural environment such as a series of planned dams within the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River, and lobbying against these by taking out whole page advertisements in National newspapers, by appearing in the media, arguing the conservation cause, and winning a series of high exposure battles. In 1960 Brower drawing on his publishing experience launched a series of coffee table, exhibit format style books amongst which was in 1962, ‘In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World’, with photographs by Eliot Porter. Which became an international best seller; I still have my copy, and the pictures are still gob smacking. The Sierra Club also published climbing guidebooks to the Sierra, and Steve Roper and Alan Steck’s, ‘Fifty Classic Climbs in North America’.

Campaigning takes its toll on friendships and tempers, but mainly because of Brower’s expensive campaigns and his opposition to atomic power generation, worried by the problems of security and the expense of decommissioning, he faced serious criticism for his actions. A vote of no confidence was defeated in 1968, but in 1969 the heat was on again and this time he resigned. His old friends, Ansel Adams and Dick Leonard voted against him, but at least he could leave knowing he had put The Sierra Club centre stage with a massive increase in membership and its public profile.

But you cannot keep a campaigner like Brower quiet, he went off and founded in 1969 with Anderson, Aitken and Jerry Mander, a new environmental agency, with an international scope, ‘Friends of the Earth’. This is now bigger than The Sierra Club, with an international network of organisations in 74 countries; its first overseas employee was Amory Bloch Lovins, (more of him anon) and its Headquarters are in Holland. Brower was so famous in the following decade that he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize,  and he was  affectionately referred at as the ‘Arch Druid’, reported on as such by a New York Times reporter, John McPhee in a series of essays; ‘Encounters with the Arch Druid’.  Two of Brower’s own books were high sellers, ‘The Population Bomb’ this a major alert about the affects of a massive growth in the world’s population, and a truly environmental preservation work: ‘Let the mountains talk, let the rivers run’.

In 1986 Brower resigned as the head of Friends of the Earth, but meanwhile he had founded another organisation with a US brief, ‘The Earth Island Institute’. This is still like the other organisations he had given his effort and direction to, going on from strength to strength as is the David Brower centre in Berkeley. He died in 2000, but not before he had been invited back twice onto the Board of The Sierra Club. I met him once at an event organised by the American Alpine Club in Colorado in the 1980’s, he was tall, with an impressive presence and a very inquisitive look for all around him. When I was introduced to him by an old friend, a former President of the AAC, Bill Putnam he looked at me for a moment and demanded to know what was happening ‘to conserve the mountains of Snowdonia?’ He was as we might say in Yorkshire ‘an old cough drop!’

Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins is in a long line of scientist mountaineers; born in Washington D C in 1947 he began his academic career at Harvard, but moved to Oxford University to study Physics in 1967. He had already started mountaineering in the White Mountains of New Hampshire before that and each summer from 1965 Lovins guided trips there, earning a reputation as a photographer and essayist. At Oxford he joined the University Mountaineering Club, and contributed articles to its journal, including a contribution in 1969 about some of his Appalachian mountain activities entitled ‘New England Wanderer’, and whilst in the UK he became enthused by the hills of Snowdonia, and in 1971 this led on to the publication of his first book, ‘Eryri, The Mountains of Longing’, with photographs by Philip Evans and a foreword by Charles Evans. This put him in touch with Dave Brower and The Friends of the Earth who edited and published the book in their Earth’s Wild Places series. This volume is now a collectors-item, including poems and excerpts of writing by many other authors including R.S.Thomas to W.H.Murray with a mountain/wilderness theme. For some years he stayed on at Oxford gaining an M.A and becoming a Don, but then he was persuaded by Brower to become the first overseas employee of Friends of the Earth, and so he left academia and moved to London where he stayed until 1981.

In my early years at the BMC in the 1970’s we were hard wired into developing our policies over conservation and access, for we were often faced with threats both by access problems and inappropriate development schemes. In 1973 the World Energy crisis focussed our thinking about its generation, especially potential further Hydro schemes in the hill regions of the country. Alan Blackshaw was a high powered civil servant, the Under Secretary for Energy no less, and was later to be responsible for the bringing in of North Sea Oil. He was also the BMC President. Lovins had begun to specialise in the energy field, and I can remember Alan suggesting we try to get him involved, and so we welcomed him to advise in this area. He was very easy to know, and looked like a stereotypical Professor with a studious aspect that belied a fine sense of humour.

Amory returned to the USA in 1981 and in the following year he established with his wife Hunter Lovins, The Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. There he developed his theories of a ‘soft energy path’, based on efficient energy use, and also utilising diverse and renewable sources; wind, solar etc. It all reads as standard thinking now but in 1982 this was revolutionary.  To promote his ideas he made with his wife ( a photographer) a film documentary that won awards and he began a series of books to follow this up, some of which became best sellers, ‘Reinventing fire’, ‘Small is Profitable’, ‘Natural Capitalism’ and as of today he has now published 31 volumes in all. A volume of his selected essays, ‘The Essential Amory Lovins’, covering every subject from climbing to research physics was put together by the well known mountaineering commentator, Cameron Burns in 2011, and it was published by The Green Library.

His ideas are now centre stage, influencing Al Gore and other major public figures and he is so weighed down with awards and recognition, so much so that I will only, note that he has so far received ten honorary doctorates, two medals-The Benjamin Franklin and Happold medals, and dozens of other awards (The Heinz, Nissan, Lindbergh etc). In 1994 he started to work on ideas for improving and developing more energy efficient cars, which led to the Hypercar which was hydrogen powered, his ideas have led on to the major motor manufacturers bringing out a range of hybrids, including both BMW and Volkswagen.

He has now worked in the area of energy policy and its related fields for four decades, including advising several overseas governments to help develop their policies in this field. In 2009 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s 100 most influential people. The lad has come a long way from his youthful scrambling along the Grib Goch Ridge many years ago, and so the last words might be to any young climber just setting forth on their first tentative climbs; think where an awareness and respect for the mountain environment might- just might lead you?    
Dennis Gray: 2017: Previously Unpublished