Friday, 12 April 2019

Peter and the Icicle


 Going...Going...
The alarm rang as usual about seven and, as usual, was ignored. The debris attendant on three climbers sprawled across the floor of Blonde Nick’s caravan while the climbers lay on the bunks and struggled silently with their dreams, their bladders and whatever else came to hand. The van rocked now and then on its rusty springs as gusts of wind blustered down Glen Nevis. During the next half hour mummy like figures struggled half upright one by one and pressed their noses to the cold and misty glass. One by one they lay back down without a word and, as sleep crept back in, a first peculiar ritual of the day seemed complete.


Outside it was snowing.Not up and down snow, but side to side snow. Although each climber was silent and appeared to be asleep, their thoughts were already up and wandering dreamily around the hills outside. They wandered slowly up to the highest gullies of the Ben,down which spindrift poured, and over which cornices creaked.
Down from the ridges and buttresses where a rope of three would shuffle their feet on the ledges and freeze in the bitter wind.
Down to the C.I.C, down the soggy path to the dam, down to the Golf Club, and finally back to the sordid dripping interior of the Van. This was the strenuous reasoning that lulled the climbers back to sleep, a process often mistaken by the inexperienced eye for simple laziness.

An hour later I woke to the sharp and painful knowledge that a second ritual of the day must shortly be performed, or a sleeping bag shortly be watered. I’d had a dream, I’d looked over the mountain and seen Hendrix on stage in Coire Cas. I kicked Phil awake and started to describe the scene. He rolled his head toward me and, with the air of an old and tired confessor, asked: “What the fuck are you on about now?”

But he wasn’t the problem. I’d known him for years and we had developed a range of understanding about life and, broadly speaking, were in favour. Anyway, he’d been climbing all week, an achievement almost unique in an inglorious decade of mountaineering and was consequently knackered. The problem was Pete. He’d arrived last night fresh and keen from a conference in Aberdeen about how to die in the North Sea. It seems this is quite an easy thing to do and so, naturally, Pete spent the evening briefing us against such a possibility. Short of a partner and a doss, a few beers later he had both, and we had the usual highly defined plan. Tomorrow we would have a look at ‘something’ and it would be ‘short’. Now, even though confronted by the white hostility of the day, he was up, obviously driven by a stronger will, or weaker bladder than mine. He made a brew and we sat the three of us with glazed eyes and hands round steaming mugs, like refugees waiting for negotiations to begin.

It was from such unpromising beginnings that the fragile possibilities of the day grew slowly into an Icicle that flows from the undercut base of Number Five gully on Aonach Dubh. A rare and elusive pitch this one, creeping down slowly through the empty air on cold nights, a tantalising possibility seldom strong enough to bear the schemes of those who stood beneath it. But this was the year of the Icicle when everyone’s local crag became an icecrop, guide books were left where they fell, and trails beaten to the most unlikely places.

So, our Icicle had come of age…’ Thirty feet…no more…good landing’ according to the authorative Englishman in the bar last night. Weeks ago, in another bar in Keswick, Davie MacDonald had wizened up his face and quoted us twice that height. But then who would buy a second-hand icicle from a man who was playing pool with one ball? Second hand because Cubby had climbed it but not before showing in passing that the ground below was indeed good to land on.

So that was it, just what we needed, short walk, one pitch climb and
‘…you can always come down if you don’t like it…can’t you?’

A few veils of snow drifted up and down the Coe and the Icicle was revealed, now and then, as a very small icy incident on a very large crag. A sabre-toothed gully with the empty mouth of the rock open and dark behind. It seemed to shrink to our kind of size as we slunk up the slope beneath, only to sprout up fast when we stood with our necks bent back at the dripping bottom. A clear forty feet of it hung completely free, it’s tip tickling the slope below, with a further fifteen or twenty so feet of vertical clinging to the rock until it eased back into the gully above.

It was Pete’s pitch. He’d been here before and this time was psyched up to push things to a conclusion. Phil and I slouched about smug in the knowledge that today at least there would come no moment high and lonely on the Ice with all the choices gone. From this comfortable position we generously offered Pete our various assessments of the problem.

He racks up his gear in a suspiciously systematic way for someone who claims this is his third Scottish ice route. Nobody’s fooled though
because he’s swopped us a Devils Appendix for a Curtain and the Karakoram for a Carnmore. Mysteriously events have now developed their own momentum and the cold shower of meltwater in which we stand evokes no more comment than Pete’s throwaway line about his jacket being not much good below twenty thousand feet.

He climbs up and down the first dubious ten feet or so to satisfy himself that the ice is ok and, since it seems to be, he ties on the ropes and makes a start. The first few fragile moments pass to the sound of tinkling ice and withheld breaths, until Pete develops a rhythm, switches off the relevant part of his brain and clunks slowly up into the sky. The placements are good once the surface crud is cleared away and at about thirty feet he takes a rest, arms dangling, hanging from his hooked in Terrors and apologises for the delay.

I begin to realise that he won’t be climbing down now and fumble superstitiously in my sac for a helmet as odd lumps of ice begin to sneakily appear at speed from high up the gully. Phil scurries about from side to side, framing it, composing it, wide angling and zooming it, calling for smiles and bows. Pete, with some feeling back in his arms, sets off again, almost out of my sight now, round bulges of dripping ice. He’s completed the detached section of the Icicle and moves left to a small grotto in search of some protection more solid than the screws that slid too easily into the ice below. After much mumbling and hammering he gives up the search and moves back onto the ice leaving behind a tied off peg, unconsoled by our encouraging shouts of ‘Only fifteen feet to go!’

I realise now that soon I’ll be hanging up there and so begin to scheme the easiest way from A to B. I’ll find all his placements and just hook up it, no scrabbling about with manky ice for me. I’ll leave all the screws for Phil to struggle with by persuading him he’ll need them for rests being so knackered from his big week. I’ll just scamper up with the minimum of brain damage and then I’ll be able to say how easy…BANG!’…..Shit!’ … I dive into the cave …briefly glimpse a pillar of ice in the sky settling for a moment on its fang into the slope like a factory chimney might just before it tilts out and thunders down. Three successive violent blows to my helmeted head follow as the screws attached to lumps of ice rattle down the ropes amid a dense cloud of ice dust.

All you have to do is close your eyes and then when you open them again its gone. Two ropes hanging and spinning round a roof of ice and rock fifty feet up and fifteen feet out. Pete clings to his Terrors
just above the dotted line. Phil gazes through his lens at the pitch
now noisily receding down the hill. A few feet to my left there is a crater about four feet deep littered with ice blocks as if a mortar bomb had landed. ‘Incoming or outgoing?’ I wonder, before deciding it must have been a bit of both.

The fracture had sprung from the tip of Pete’s right axe, run down beside him, curved under his feet and then broke away. Although he’d felt the screws pull he seemed to have some trouble believing that the whole pitch was gone. When he got his mind round this he also realised that going on was definitely too freaky as we could now see all too clearly how much water was draining behind the ice. Pete crept back to his peg slotting the Terrors tenderly into the placements he’d made so confidently a few minutes before. Phil and I felt helpless and silently began to heave the biggest blocks of ice from the landing strip.

Three boys from Devon piled around the corner to help dig our bodies out having heard the Bang and seen the bad news churning down the slopes. Upstairs Pete slowly made his calculations and rigged two ice screws to back up the tied off peg then gently, very gently, floated down through the air to the snow below. We swopped amazements, reliefs and useless wisdoms as passers by did double takes and stopped on the path below.

We slowly packed our sacs with much looking and wondering and shaking of heads. The weight of it…the mechanics…’If I’d ever for a moment, even a moment, thought there was the remotest possibility’….
We could now see exactly how the whole tonnage of the thing was hung from a sheet of ice eight inches thick and eight feet across.
So, treat it gently if you should ever, because there’s a trigger there, a lever, a hidden spring. We came back down as the sun came out and clambered over the blue ice blocks beneath a rainbow.Ducks on the loch stuck their bums into the air and we sat by the river and laughed.
Up there something was missing.Tomorrow was All Fools’ day.

Gone!

Footnote from Phil Swainson.

The “three boys from Devon” who piled around the corner to dig out our bodies were not. They were three Scottish guys, two of whom, John Mackenzie and Duncan Macallum became friends, and sometime climbing partners. Shortly after this wee epic, I left Newcastle to live in Sheffield, where our new pal Pete Thexton became a firm friend. His skill, tenacity and formidable motivation secured him a place on a winter attempt on Everest, and other trips. He died too young in 1983 on the descent from the summit plateau of Broad Peak. And now, forty years on, John Given and I are still hauling our beer bellies up steep(ish) rock, provided there are enough bolts. The combined age of the this pair is 141.



First published in Mountain 71, this attempt at the second ascent of Eliot’s Downfall took place 40 years ago. We walked away without a scratch. Article by John Given, pictures Phil Swainson.



Friday, 29 March 2019

Tony Howard's Quest into the Unknown...Review



Di on the first pitch of The Beauty, Jebel um Ejil, Wadi Rum, late 1980s. © Tony Howard

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, a race that can’t stay still’ Robert Service

This book is a life affirming read, confirming the joy of life. Few other climbers have led such an existence or known or had experience of so many lands, peoples and cultures. Howard’s story is of one that happens to climbers as horizons expand, at first it is the meeting of challenges on rock and mountain faces that is the raison d’etre of their being, but travel begins to widen their mindset and becomes ever more appealing.

The author’s life is laid bare in 68 short chapters; and the sheer breadth of place and event these reveal is impressive. His story begins in Greenfield, on the edge of the Pennine moors in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was born there in 1940, at a crucial date in the history of this country for in the May of that year, the Dunkirk evacuation was under away. It was also in 1940 that rationing of food and petrol began, and continued for some years after the end of hostilities. It is interesting to speculate how these constraints affected all of us who lived them, for many British climbers active in the late 1940’s and 1950’s once it became possible, travelled ever more widely to pursue their mountaineering ambitions, but I am getting ahead of myself, although Tony Howard is an exemplar of such a theory.

Greenfield is probably a good place for a future climber to grow up, for it is ringed around with crags, Wimberry, Ravenstones, Dovestones etc set in the Chew Valley, and over the moors is to be found Laddow and Shining Clough. Initially it was the immediate Pennine countryside that became the author’s childhood playground, but then longer excursions and inevitably seeing climbers in action on his local outcrops, intrigued him and friends to have a go. There was a group of climbers some of whom lived in the area, The Chew Valley Cragsmen, which morphed into the Manchester Gritstone Club, and the author became friends with Roy Brown one of their number who lived in a converted chicken hut near to the Wimberry rocks. 

Di on the committing sixty-metre abseil into the Hidan Gorge. Once the ropes were pulled, there was no way back. Jordan, 1998. © Tony Howard

By then a schoolboy at Hulme Grammar School in Oldham he was influenced by Roy’s enthusiasms, and began to travel to Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. Quickly moving up the grades, and including meeting some of those he would in later years enjoy exploratory trips with to Jordan and the fabled Wadi Rum area. I guess the author was lucky to have started to climb when he did, for the area he lived in was rife for development and by 1958 he and his friends had pioneered almost 200 new routes in that district. Leaving school that year with three A levels, he was determined to follow an adventurous life, school was over and he was going climbing! With his group of local climbers they formed their own Club, the Rimmon and this like other such small groups of that era were to have a major influence on the forward progress of British climbing and exploration.
 
But life is a succession of accidents, and via a family connection he obtained a job on a Norwegian whaling ship the ‘Southern Venturer’. In 1958 environmental concerns were not what they are now, the International Whaling Commission decided on how many and what type of whale might be caught, and as the author points out he was ignorant then of the human impact on such species. In 1975 when Greenpeace began a campaign against whaling the author was one of the first to join up for he had seen the slaughter. However this Antarctic journey had a real impact on his thinking, and it must have been educative for someone so young. He had volunteered to act as assistant to the Doctor and this meant a real emergency when a crew member fell from the Crow’s nest resulting in severe internal injuries, which needed a nine hour life saving operation, during which the author was the one acting as the nurse, handing into the hands of the operator the instruments he needed to cut, stitch and stop the internal bleeding.

Returning via South Georgia once back in Greenfield he picked up where he had left his climbing days, travelling at first on an ancient Royal Enfield motor bike (which he crashed) hitching to Llanberis, off to the Lakes, and winter climbing in Scotland. In 1962 the Rimmon organised its first expedition to Arctic Norway, five took part in this journey which included pioneering some new routes in Lofoten, inspired by Per Prag’s guidebook to the Island. The author and another Rimmon member Jonah ran out of money and from then on to get back home meant working on the way in a cafe and a hotel, jumping ferries and hitch hiking. This was a life style that was typical of the 1950’s/1960’s climbing scene, peopled by some truly memorable characters like Barry Kershaw. Who along with Don Whillans was the most talked about figure then around, and well framed in the author’s anecdotes, but who tragically succumbed to cancer whilst still a legend for hard climbing, and bar fighting! 
 
Once home again the author had to earn a living, and for this he began to work towards qualifying as a guide. He started his instructing career at Plas y Brenin, then moved on to a post working for the Mountaineering Association based at their hut, above Llanberis. Working alongside Eric ‘Spider’ Penman, Rusty Baillie and his old Chew Valley friend Roy Brown, he instructed beginners in the Pass, at Tremadog and in Ogwen, later he worked at the Outward Bound Schools in Ashburton, and Tywyn. A useful skill he learnt there was canoeing, making what he and his fellow instructors believed was the first crossing of Cardigan Bay and in 1965 he passed the then guides test. 
 
Back in the Chew Valley there occurred in the big winter of 1962/3 an unprecedented event in the modern era, a huge avalanche. Unfortunately four climbers who had been out on a nearby hill climbing up the Wilderness Gully were caught in this. The two in the lead Graham West and Michael Roberts were buried deeply, and the two below not so. They managed to extricate themselves and go for help. Arriving back from Wales the author set out immediately, and helped to dig, but by the time West and Roberts were found the next day it was too late. Like the author: I knew both of them, and they were climbers who had made their names known by their pioneering, particularly on Peak limestone to which West had written a guidebook.

With the above foregoing the author was now set on a life of adventure, in 1963 a trip to the Dolomites, and then a mind expanding journey in Morocco the following year, ascending Toubkal in winter conditions then heading to Tafraout in the Anti Atlas. My memory had failed me on this, for the author points out that this was the first visit by any British climbers to this, what has become one of the most popular rock climbing venues. I thought I was the first in 1987, returning the following spring with John Beatty and Ron Fawcett but I stand corrected. But of the climbing he had done up to 1965 it was dwarfed by the authors and other fellow Rimmon club member’s successful ascent of the Troll Wall in Romsdal, Norway. This the largest wall in Europe was thought to be unclimbable, and the fact that this ascent was achieved in good style by a team of mainly unknown British climbers really figured in Scandinavian and European climbing circles. Joe Brown noted having climbed in Romsdal himself that this was ‘one of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers’.

This ascent led on to the author more or less living in Romsdal for quite some time, he wrote a Cicerone guide to ‘Walks and Climbs in Romsdal’ and continued to make first ascents there, but then life overtook him, for he fell in love, married a Norwegian girl Mille in 1969 and later became the father of a daughter Tannith .Meanwhile a spin off from the Troll climb was that the webbing belts and other equipment they had designed for the climb became much in demand. With Alan Waterhouse, Paul Seddon, and the author the Troll Company was formed and in 1970, after prompting from Don Whillans who suggested the original design, a sit harness was developed, the first of what is now an essential piece of equipment used worldwide by rock climbers and access workers. The Troll Company became legend, and any time we had an event at the BMC I would call them, and they would donate a barrel of beer to make the evening flow with bonhomie. I recall one outstanding ‘Mountain Literature’ evening we held with Harold Drasdo, Tony Barley and Ivan Waller as the speakers whilst their donated beer flowed!
 Exploring Zubia Cave, then pristine but much of it now damaged by tourism. North Jordan, 2007. © Tony Howard

But the author would not sit still and the call of the wild he could not resist and soon he was packing and off to the Yukon, working in extreme cold in an opencast mine and eventually moving his wife and daughter to join him. Whilst in the Yukon he took on with another novice a 1000 mile canoe journey following the gold Miner’s trail of ‘98’,from the Mackenzie Delta to Dawson City, a journey which took six weeks of hard and dangerous paddling. They stayed in Canada for a couple of years, but then returned back to Greenfield and Troll. The author’s ongoing adventurous life was set, designing and promoting Troll equipment, but off whenever possible to explore and climb in remote areas of Greenland, Iran, the Sahara including the Hoggar, Morocco once again and the Sudan.

Putting strain on his relationship with his Norwegian none climbing wife, who left him but agreed to the author having custody of their daughter. So ends the first half of this fascinating story, with enough action to justify being a standalone book, but there is more, much more to enjoy in part two, beginning with the discoveries in Jordan initially around the Wadi Rum area but then further afield in that country.

The idea to visit this unexplored region for climbing came about through the author watching at Christmas 1983 a viewing of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with some of its settings being in the Rum Mountains of Jordan. And so in September 1984 the author and companions set out to investigate the climbing potential of this area, and found in the Wadi Rum one of the best desert climbing destinations in the world. An extra bonus being its friendly Bedouin people, who for generations had climbed to the summits of some of the areas peaks whilst on their regular hunting trips; and their help and advice was crucial to the author and his friends in their ongoing successful explorations, which they have carried out now for over thirty years, including eventually developing a long distance ‘Jordan Trail’; which took its first completers 39 days to follow this challenging trek. The author published in 1987, supported financially by the Jordanian Tourism Board a Cicerone guide to ‘Treks and Climbs in the Mountains of Rum and Petra’ which encouraged climbers from many countries to visit. 

Desert travel is a unique experience and having spent time and journeys myself in parts of the Sahara, the Gobi and Taklamakan I think I understand how the author became so enamoured of such exploration. He also had a new soul mate, Di Taylor who could climb and hack it as well as the author and his friends, who eventually was to become his second wife. A criticism here about the eleven Jordan mountain chapters, a map would have been helpful to orientate the reader, for I became lost in the Rum canyons.

The success of the author’s explorations in Jordan led on to invitations to explore in Oman, Egypt, Libya, and Palestine. In the latter the development of a new trek ‘The Nativity Trail’ partly in Israel lead the author on a return visit, to become openly critical of the political situation that pertains there. But between times he was also off trekking and climbing in Thailand, India, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mali. Having sold the Troll Company he along with Di are now free agents, and I note from a post on the Internet last night they are back in the Rum mountains. This despite the difficulties posed presently by Middle Eastern travel and the Syrian tragedy.

So this is a book to savour, and the second part with its myriad of travel stories stands comparison with the writings of such as Dervla Murphy, Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. It is also an important historical document, covering the development of life and climbing in this country during the immediate post war years. The only weakness for me is a lack of character delineation, for not a few of those who appear within its pages such as Graham Desroy, Andy Perkins, and Don Whillans their personalities and histories are known to me but I have no knowledge of the lives and fates of many of the authors other companions. 
 Di and me exploring the Jordan Trail, 2015. © Tony Howard

Sadly I read near the end of the book of the death of Bill Tweedale one of the participants in the Troll Wall climb, who I have no knowledge of his character and life. But that apart this is a volume to dip into again and again, for it is an inspirational read, well illustrated by over a hundred colour photographs in three inserted sections, and of an overall quality of production that is now of the high standard set by this publisher. 

Dennis Gray: 2019 

 
QUEST INTO THE UNKNOWN : Tony Howard. 440 pages perfect bound paperback. Published by Vertebrate £14.95. 

 


Friday, 15 March 2019

Margins of the Mind - Cobalt and Vermillion

Margins of the Mind:
A jovial and intense Alastair Lee of Posing Productions had been texting me for a while now. I knew that soon I would have to answer and be proactive to his proposal. It wasn’t that I was apathetic, just knowing of the time, effort and commitment needed to ‘extra’ in his new film ‘On Sight’. Okay, to be honest, perhaps it was more than that. At my most cynical I was the errant, historical guest, holding the life of the young contender, the trad-lad who would succeed, fail or die attached to me via knots and colours of choice. But I guess there’s more than that. As the first ascensionist, I had been there, in a four-hour negotiation with the rock, virtually on-sight after a quick clean and the curious placing of a sawn-off peg. My musings were not at all a physical response to my experience, my torn fingers told that pain, hell no, but more esoteric and a passionate rage against sport as a betrayal of all I consider to be of sanctity in the landscape. However, Margins was not ‘trad’ or any other label to me but an ingredient of doubt that opened doors to more abundant life and informed my work as an image maker. Hit or miss. Al Hinks guest appeared on his own journey via Pinnacle Arete and took the photo in Welsh Rock, “getting a bit dark youth”.
The concept ‘on sight’ was, in essence, to be applauded in this world of colour coordinated workouts in synthetic prisons, but the reality would surely be a prosaic, commercial enterprise no different to any other that sells style and designer fashion and brave ‘extreme’ sporty stuff to consumers. The deeper, more visionary, alternative consciousness stands by and distills in a much darker place. Beware, it is in danger. It must never be lost to the Oscars! However, I knew of Al’s unequivocal talents, behind, within and beyond the camera, and in a moment of my own, nebulous, daily routine of ‘blackening’ canvas, acquiesce with the man’s movie chi.
It had been twenty-four years ago since my ascent of Margins of the Mind. I had forgotten the moves but my psyche still remembered the reverie of the green world - the bilberry and fern beneath me, breathing with the slimes of grubs, worms and entities unknown and the very real prospect of joining them as a tapestry of skin, vein and bones, torn apart and leaching unguents over the horned-bed-rock that mocked my questioning.


Pause. A soliloquy –

I couldn’t find the tiny slot that I remembered from the abseil. It evaded my frantic searching. Surely to the right, shoulder height? Had I passed it? The sawn-off was well below my feet – in fact I couldn’t even see that. What is it with these routes that drift you into unexpected germinations? Is the elusive RP1 placement symbolic of some other, more major loss? It often seems that way, that, in situations like this, there is indeed more to the moment than there appears to be. An allegorical door opens…and the vital vision is not one of RP1 placements…it is of two ropes as two accusing lines, tempting me off onto the gully rocks. Why does the gully beckon? Surely the finishing holds are better placed to aspire to! But no, the moment waits to linger…the gully, its green world just ‘so’, just there…just so…alien to all this…this that I have invented…this warped struggle’. and one for the crow


Neil Dickson was to attempt an on-sight and I was to hold his ropes. In all those years the route had only seen a top-roped, practiced ascent by cool adventurer Nick Dixon. He thought it ‘nails’. Fine effort but bad move. A route not top-roped on the first ascent should never suffer the defeat of practice. The modern, politic, egalitarian ethics of sports climbing, the physicality of movement on rock and the search for beta and a move to be made is addictive and infectious. I think it exhausts a raw vitality and at most warps our bond with the planet. Welcome to mass-culture, adventure, Red Bull, trophies and souvenirs? Practice makes perfect eh, is my glib response in a perfect world? The Olympics are popular… Hell, accept it. Errrr no.

The day before my ascent of Margins I climbed the second ascent of Master’s Wall (funny enough Jerry, meandering right well below my errant bolt hole) in the new sticky boots without stopping. Dave did the same. Not so in pre-sticky, non-top-rope 1980 on a different project, in a different lifetime, The Tormented Ejaculation.

Neil Dickson...footloose and fancy free on 'Margins'.
 

the mental preparation was becoming harder and harder. The so-called psyching-up, a pain beyond reason. Out of the acquaintance grew more and more fear. Gone the initial naiveté that had sparked off this now terrifying enterprise. I knew the score and was unnerved by it… I was sliding from the very start in ‘Canyon boots’. Friction was minimal. I felt insecure. The rubbed-in resin was wearing off. I placed an RP1 whilst dangerously pumped. I clipped in and was about to place a No 2 when I was off. The RP ripped and I fell a long way down the wall (Cartwheeling 70 feet by all accounts). A tiny stopper held! Keith was momentarily stunned then calmly stated, “Oh, you’re still alive… well, you’d better climb back up.” His amazing insouciance was contagious. I climbed back up…’ and one for the crow

I had never envied anyone holding ropes. I preferred the sharp deal…thrusting the weapon in the right direction, and closing the gap…to an unknown dialogue of doubt, knowing how absurd is the effort of order and routine. Focus was never my strong point but the sharp deal enforced it.

I met Neil, a smiling, nonchalant, gangly youth and an enthusiastic Al in the sulphurous-hell of Snowdon Mountain Railway station in ‘Beris. Neil looked like a normal lad in his final year of a degree in economics, or a scout leader applying for his first mortgage… and I accepted that the looks and demeanour of a respected, ‘top trad climber’ of the day may be deceiving to me. I caught myself thinking, here is a nice lad, why is that so odd? Why shouldn’t he be? Indeed, something had shifted. Al is psyched like a hungry vulture for his new outdoor extremextravaganzadventure.

The wild and the innocent

“Will we fuck take the tourist train”, was my regrettable exclamation as we burdened ourselves upwards with Al’s trade tools. Twenty-four years ago, as I desperately clung on in search of an RP1 placement, Neil had not yet been born. As if from a surreal sketch I asked him where he had been born. Llandudno he answered. I rambled on about what a great scene Llandudno had been in the eighties, how Williams and Pollitt et al had unleashed a pagan sexuality toll upon the Marine Drive toll and the Parisella ice cream family in particular nailed hard, and how bars and pubs and bouldering caves became sites of Dionysian worship.

“Yeah”, he surprisingly remarked, “My Mum, Anne, used to hang around The Bearded Clam bar in Llandudno.”

“Anne?” I said. “I briefly went out with an Anne and regularly went into Pigeon Hole Cave with her at low tide, looking for holes in pebbles that would become indented into her buttocks like a mold”.

Al gasped, “fucking hell JR, too much info man.”

I asked if she had blond hair and had been about twenty-five? We all stopped on the track, sweating under heavy loads like donkey’s awaiting a good kicking.

“Fuck, yeah”, he exclaimed!

“Fuck, Neil, I could be your Dad”! At this point, Al dropped his baggage and collapsed on all fours in hysterics, “What the fuck, fuck the film, I’ve forgotten the bit on the way up where we stopped and took acid! Low fucking tide dudes!” I gave Neil a knowing Fatherly look, checked out his eyes and embraced him, “I am your father and will hold your ropes.”

“Not too sure I can do this”, sighed Neil smiling.

Deep down I knew I was failing to conjure an eighties feel. I was the joker in the subtle shift in ethos that meant this was not my era. I was spanning. They had jobs, sponsorship, and plans. Al was the best in his bunch and I just hoped Neil was the same. They had come to Cloggy as professionals to produce a clean sell-able product and Neil was the token celebratory of the day. He was cool and modest with that and couldn’t wait for rock action, the main menu, possibly indifferent to companions. We passed by the circle of ritual stones before the track snaked down into the cauldron of dense, black cliff, where Dave and I would ‘collect the shapes’ before a climb…not today though and perhaps never again. As donkeys, the rational carrot of E8 on-sight kept us on the rocky track to East Gully, leaving the stones as ornaments atop the TV of a new age. We exit steeply left up the gully of clues and with damp earth under my fingernails arrange myself into position. I remembered this belay, it was Dave’s making and it was choss. I secured and embraced my perch as best a creature could do. Action had started. Colours arranged. 
  
Hello again old friend. This time tied-in, wrapped tight-close to the fecund energies with which I had dialogue with on my ascent… like bowing before the trap, that which questioned what the hell I was doing there.

“…I am angry, green fucks, I need to know”

You know that beauty would take your ribs for nest material, and these raw granite hills would take your eye sockets to sprout future growth…”

I am here because there is no place left”

Dying must your species be” and one for the crow

Neil was a stranger to me but the two-stranded umbilical bond of cobalt and vermilion that connected us across the span of granite, the mythical Final Judgement Wall, was as ancient as the love between Paleolithic hunters, spanning eras, closing the gap on the prey. The climb is serious immediately and Neil was slow and methodical in approach. He worked his way up strongly to a psychological impasse, climbing up and down to his own meaningful dialogue. He almost came unstuck with a snappy, but like a cat bouncing off an invisible wall, found himself back on the rock. I offered helpful advice like, ‘yeah, just keep going up, don’t look down, somewhere there’s a reach then keep going to the belay’. After about four hours his fingers were bleeding and enough was enough. The wall, as the great stone tool, was laid down to rest. I was relieved to be back with slack ropes, playing with the colours like Jackson Pollock, but without being filmed. Belaying on this terrain was intense. Every inch, in and out of the sticht-plate was crucial. The slack, the tension, the breathing between bodies, the colour coordination, the reading and timing of moves and the preparedness for a slip, all in sync to Neil’s specific character of movement. It’s a rap for the day.

I was persuaded to return after a month. Al wanted his film. Neil wanted his on-sight. I wanted to paint - from the sounds I had recorded at Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathari, the heretics, who were persecuted by the Catholics during the Albigensian crusade; where the last remaining initiates walked silently into the flames…letting go of their ‘book of love’ into a book of lore…

Neil succeeded after another four hours of negotiation. Al succeeded in producing his film. I succeeded in holding my ‘seed’. (sic)

Author

Six years later, again on-sight, the extremely bold and reticent Caff, thrusting his own weapon, met with the same shapes, in the same place and was lucky not to fall, as the wall, again, laid down its great, stone tool. He returned in trainers to check it out but his prey had been wounded. Only Caff himself knows what his subsequent ascent means…with the earth, the stones, his breath. For certain, these super-technical ‘heads’ have more to battle with than just the rock. Their focus and commitment is incomprehensible to me. In the anti-institutional spirit of Edward Abbey, I feel like indulging in a graffiti campaign, just to push some dirt back into the outdoor environment.

For me, adventure starts in a dark seedy studio… surely having a laugh!



John Redhead: 2019
Photos: Alastair Lee



November 2016



St Laurent de Cerdans, Catalunya Nord.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Edmund Hillary- A Biography...extracts



The following extracts are from the forthcoming Vertebrate biography of Sir Edmund Hillary. Authored by Michael Gill.Publication date is 7th March 2019.

Harry Ayres teaches Ed the craft of mountaineering
A few days later, Ed had the breakthrough he needed. At short notice a client cancelled and Harry was available to guide Ed for a week, with an attempt on Mt Cook as the final goal. On 30 January, they set off from Haast Hut towards Cook under a starlit sky. In the dark Harry led through the crevasses of the Grand Plateau and the Linda Glacier with its litter of avalanche debris. Not long after dawn they reached the summit rocks. At the foot of the summit ice cap they put on crampons and climbed steadily up hard snow, with bouts of step-cutting on patches of ice. At 11 a.m. they were on the summit. To the north they looked on the ice-bound ridges of Teichelmann which they would climb five days later. Further north was Mt Tasman, New Zealand’s second highest peak, which Ed would climb with Harry three years later. To the south, the mile-long summit ridge ran down to the Middle and Low peaks of Cook, and beyond them on the plains far below stretched the milky turquoise waters of Lake Pūkaki.
Ed was always unstinting in his praise of Harry Ayres:
The technical climbing knowledge I gained in the New Zealand Alps came from Harry. We did some great climbs together and I was constantly amazed at his shrewd appraisal of difficult situations and his superb skill in overcoming them ... Of moderate size but incredibly wiry and strong, he had the toughness and endurance to tackle any problem. His great ice axe cut innumerable safe steps in solid green ice and his arms seemed tireless. As a guide he was patient, encouraging and very secure ... Up on the mountain he was incomparable.
Harry had learned his craft largely from experience. He was born in 1912, almost exactly seven years before Ed. His father was a plasterer and lather in Christchurch; his mother died when he was only 12. He followed the path of many Kiwis born into straitened circumstances during the early twentieth century: he left school at 12, did a milk round and picked up low-paid jobs such as collecting spent hops from the local brewery. At age 16 he left home to look for work on the West Coast. He milked cows, cut scrub, laid railway lines in the Buller Gorge, went panning for gold in the Coast’s brutally inaccessible gorges.
The break into guiding came through working on the farm of Mick Sullivan at Fox, where a hotel was being built. Tourists were taken on to the nearby glacier using steps cut into the ice by the guides – not death-defying climbing but the ideal training ground for Harry, who learned to cut perfectly shaped steps. In 1937 he went east across the Alps from the West Coast to take up guiding serious climbs on the high peaks around The Hermitage. This was the golden age of guiding when few amateurs would attempt high peaks such as Tasman or Cook on their own. Equipment was primitive. Boots had leather soles fitted with metal tricounis and clinkers which gave poor grip on rock and very little grip in small steps badly cut in ice. Crampons were available but required a modest level of experience and were not always used. The job of the guide was to know the route, judge the snow conditions and weather, and cut bucket steps in ice or frozen snow. And he had always to be ready with ice-axe and rope to hold a client who slipped on an icy surface and took off at high speed down an exposed stretch of mountainside. 
For Ed, joining up with Harry was a quantum leap forwards in the development of his mountaineering skills. Country like the Kaikōuras was turning him into the tough all-rounder who could carry a bigload over difficult mountain terrain, but it was Harry who led him into the big central peaks sheathed in dangerous ice. Where an icefall looked impenetrable, Harry could show him a way through. He passed on his knowledge of how to handle the multitudinous varieties and textures of snow and ice and how to use a rope for safety. From being just another Auckland amateur, Ed moved into the ranks of the best climbers of his day.
This is not to say that he, or any other New Zealand climber, had technical skills comparable with those of top Swiss, Austrian, German or Italian climbers who between the wars had been putting up routes on faces that had previously been thought impossible. Climbing in the Southern Alps was still at an exploratory stage of its development and its devotees were for the most part self-taught. The first ascent of Mt Cook in 1894 had been made by three patriotic young employees at The Hermitage who improvised a route up the north ridge when they heard that a British-American climber, Edward Fitzgerald, with his Swiss guide Matthias Zurbriggen, might beat them to it.
By the late 1930s and ’40s Europeans were adopting smaller ice-axes as front-point crampons came into use, but in New Zealand, where step-cutting was still in favour, the long-handled variety of ice- axe was still used. Ed learned to apply his natural strength and stamina to cutting steps tirelessly in frozen snow or hard ice. He thrived on long, hard days in difficult conditions and bad weather. He was not aware of it at the time, but it was excellent training for the Himalayas.
His partnership with Harry Ayres was put to the test the following year when, in February 1948, they set out for the unclimbed South Ridge of Mt Cook with guide Mick Sullivan and client Ruth Adams. This was the outstanding challenge of the time. They began from a high bivouac at the foot of the ridge just north of Nazomi. The early morning light showed a fine, windless day as they ate breakfast and stuffed their sleeping bags into their rucksacks while looking up at the three rock steps guarding the ridge. Previous attempts had reached the top of the first step but no one had climbed further. The second step was steeper than the first, but they were fired up and strong, and by 9.15 had climbed it. The crux was the third step which was steep, smooth rock at the limits of their combined abilities; but Harry, with help from Ed’s upstretched hand, was finally able to climb the last vertical section of rock and step on to the snow ridge leading up to the Low Peak. Back at The Hermitage, a watching crowd used mirrors to flash sun messages applauding their progress. Fourteen hours after leaving their Nazomi bivouac, the climbers were back at their base hut in the Hooker.
Three days later, the same South Ridge quartet started out on the week-long epic that became known as the La Perouse Accident. Before the days of the magical nylon rope, Beale’s hemp rope was the preferred material for climbers, but it was awkward, unpredictable stuff that would invisibly rot from the inside. Older ropes would be cynically appraised as ‘probably all right if you don’t fall’. Ed’s first letter after his 1947 climb of Cook had been to his sister June on her way by boat to England to study psychology: You’ll be through Panama by now. I may as well get down to business straight away and say the only thing I really want is 120 feet of Beale’s Alpine rope.’
The accident happened when Harry, Ed, Mick Sullivan and Ruth Adams were close to the snow summit of La Perouse. Mick was protecting Ruth with a shoulder belay when she slipped on steep snow. Holding such a slip was routine for a guide, but this time the rope snapped and Ruth was gathering speed down a steepening slope. Just short of a fatal plunge over some cliffs, she was brought up short by a rock. Ed and Harry found her bloodied and unconscious and perhaps with spinal injuries. Helicopter rescues were unavailable in those times; instead they divided between them the work of calling in a rescue team: Ed to stay with Ruth; Mick to descend to the hut for bivouac equipment, warm clothes and food; Harry to run to The Hermitage to summon a rescue team of top climbers from Christchurch. 
Over the next week, they dragged, lowered and carried Ruth’s stretcher down icefall, snow, rock, tussock, alpine scrub, thick forest and finally the bluffs of a river gorge to the West Coast. Ruth’s father, who ran a cake- making business, air-dropped in 10 kilograms of his best fruit cake. She made a complete recovery. Ed had climbed another memorable mountain, participated in a vital rescue, and met some top climbers, among them Earle Riddiford who was to play such an important role in the next chapter of his life.


Quest into the Unknown

Exploring Jordan – The lowest adventures on Earth
Returning to the 1990s, Jordan still had numerous challenges waiting for us. I couldn’t wait to try to descend the great chasm of the Mujib Gorge, Jordan’s answer to the Grand Canyon. What had really grabbed my attention in 1984, apart from the immensity of it when you first arrive on its upper rim, was the river in its depths and its mysterious disappearance into distant mountains. Now Di and I were back, once again heading south along the ancient ‘King’s Highway’, a route which reputedly dates back 3,000 years to the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom.
As the road abruptly reached the upper edge of the gorge, we looked down into the abyss where the sunlit river snaked between tumbled boulders. To the east we could see the forked tongues of its tributaries descending from the high desert plateau. The far southern rim, five kilometres opposite us across the gorge was equally bare and rocky. Even so, the river, 600 metres below, had mustered its waters from unseen springs and was making its way to the Dead Sea concealed beneath blue mountains and a heavy heat haze about thirty kilometres to the west and 400 metres below sea level – the lowest point on earth.
We didn’t know if it would actually be possible to follow the river and as there was – as far as we were aware – no other way out. It seemed that failure to make our way to the Dead Sea and up the coast would mean totally retracing our steps – a rather grim prospect. And our road map, which was all we had, showed no road along the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. All we knew was that a road was being built, but not how far it reached, so we had to plan for a possible additional forty-kilometre walk all the way out north to the Jordan Valley, making about eighty kilometres in total. We took four days’ food and hoped for the best.
Having arranged a lift down to the point where the King’s Highway crosses the river (now a reservoir) we threw our sacks on our backs with a deter- mined flourish and waved a positive and cheery goodbye to our bemused driver. It was already close to midday and hot, but this was not an occasion for seeking the shade; the unknown twisting canyon disappearing between hazy blue mountains beckoned irresistibly.
Initially, shepherd’s paths wound around fields scattered with poppies and beneath riverside cliffs of white limestone. The barren hillsides rose ever higher above us, inhospitable and forcing the eye back to the sparkling waters of the river that cascaded between boulders and banks of pink- flowering oleanders with the delightfully refreshing sound that running water always has in otherwise parched lands. Occasionally the cliffs closed in, forcing boulder hopping. Once or twice we passed Bedouin shepherds or farm boys at water pumps, their rusting irrigation pipes snaking crazily up to small thirsty fields hidden by the folds of the gorge. They looked at us quizzically:
Salaam alaikum?’ – ‘Where you go?’
‘Walaikum salaam, El Bahr el Moyed’ – The Dead Sea.
‘Inshallah!’ – ‘Not possible!’

... was the usual reply, or ‘Big problem, many snake, maybe hyena, not good to sleep,’ was a more optimistic response. Always we were welcomed to drink ‘shai’ (tea), as is the Bedouin custom, while we wondered what lay ahead. We moved on as quickly as politeness and tradition would permit, pointing at the lowering sun and making our excuses.
We found a perfect campsite some distance above the river behind a huge boulder, yet still in the upper driftwood zone. The weather was settled so hopefully no flash floods to sweep us away in the night. Relaxed and glad to be in unknown country we ate well as the stars of the desert night appeared, far above the black, gaping jaws of the gorge into which we had been swallowed.
We slept late in the shadow of the boulder, but were soon off, walking briskly in the precious cool of the morning. As the hills drew closer, so the cliffs grew steeper, plunging directly into the river and forcing us finally to walk in the water. Hot springs cascaded in from hidden side valleys. Bright green frogs and large freshwater crabs jumped and scurried from under our feet. A mongoose dashed for cover into the reeds at the water’s edge. A porcupine rattled through the scrub on the shore. Eagles flew overhead.
A tent-sized beach under the cliffs offered a home for the night; driftwood was piled five metres above us by the floodwaters, but the weather was still settled so we slept well.
Half an hour’s walk downstream next morning brought us out of the ‘narrows’ into more open terrain, though still with no sign of the Dead Sea. Just beyond, another river entered from the north, a waterfall spouting from the mouth of an extremely narrow canyon. We consulted our woefully inadequate map: it was the Hidan Gorge and it looked every bit as long and impressive as the Mujib – something for the future we thought, but it was going to need a rope to escape from the canyon without being swept over the waterfall.
Walking on downstream, we saw the combined waters of the two rivers disappearing into another narrow and ominous-looking canyon. I took my sack off and waded in, only to find that it was immediately necessary to swim. The fast-flowing water swept round a bend into the unseen chasm beyond: there would be no way back. It would, anyway, be impossible with our sacks. I came back thinking dejectedly that we weren’t going to make it, and unless we could find a way out to the Dead Sea we had a two-day walk to do to retrace our steps.
Di, however, didn’t live on a hill farm without knowing donkey-poo when she saw it. She had commented on it once or twice on the way downstream and there was more, with accompanying human footprints, on the beach.
‘Bedouin come down here for water,’ she said, ‘maybe there’s a way out up that ravine’. 
 
Climbing up through foliage above the beach, she shouted down excitedly. Sure enough, there was an old trail. It eventually widened to a long- disused and washed-out four-wheel drive track which we followed up over a bizarre moonscape of dried mud hills, topping out to a view of the Dead Sea immediately below us and hardly a kilometre away. We were out! We picked our way down to the salt-crusted coast then along its edge to the downstream end of the canyon. Just to the north, a road construction camp could be seen but, reluctant to leave the mountains, we camped hidden inside the mouth of the gorge. 

Michael Gill: 2019 
Images courtesy of VP

Edmund Hillary-A Biography. Available from Vertebrate Publishing 
this month
                                                                 *
Note, that while we are on the subject of Everest legends,Doug Scott has released the remarkable story of his and Chris Bonington's first ascent of Pakistan’s Ogre in audiobook format.

When an accident that resulted in Scott suffering two broken legs and Bonington smashing ribs turned their 1977 climb into a desperate fight for life, the roles played by their team members Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland in shepherding the pair off the mountain was essentially written out of the story by the national press, which focused on the two already-famous mountaineers. Using newly discovered material, in The Ogre Scott reveals the truth for the first time.

The Ogre is the first book by mountaineering publisher Vertebrate Publishing to be made available as an audiobook. Commenting on its release Scott said, ‘I'm thrilled Vertebrate Publishing chose The Ogre as its first audiobook publication. It's testament to how much readers have engaged with the story. Now the book can be heard read aloud for the first time, the truth of the story behind our ascent can potentially be made available to an entirely new audience'.

Rising to more than 7,000 meters in the centre of the Karakoram, the Ogre – Baintha Brakk – is notorious in mountaineering circles as one of the most difficult mountains to climb. It waited almost twenty-four years for a second ascent, and a further eleven years for a third.
The Ogre audiobook – dubbed as ‘one of the greatest adventure stories of all time’ – makes for a thrilling listen and is available to purchase from Audible, Amazon and iTunes.