Friday, 4 January 2019

Dirt Bag Climbers

Plas y Brenin.Just don't ask if they do 'Just Desserts' in the bar when certain people are around!

‘Once upon a time’ (anonymous 1595)

Post a bruising experience at a recent Alpine Club AGM when a motion I had put to the meeting (seconded by Stephen Venables) was roundly defeated, I visited the next day, two of my oldest friends Val and Joe Brown. The latter is now like myself; old and infirm, but we swapped memories and talked of absent friends (alive and dead) for some hours. By the time I departed his company, the doubts that had overtaken my thinking about how stupid I had been to ignore the pleas of the Alpine Club Committee to withdraw my motion, these were dissipated by a dose of common sense from Joe, and I realise that it is so right to try to defend the basic tenets developed over the two centuries of our sport.

It is derisory to now dismiss the climbers of our generation, active in the immediate post war years, and the 1950’s /1960’s as ‘Dirt Bag Climbers’, sorry participants in a ‘dark age’ of climbing, when there were just a few simplistic indoor walls, no organised competitions and no olympic recognition. As I left Joe we both agreed how lucky we had been to be active in that period.
Labour’s ‘1949 Access to the Countryside Act’ had allowed for the first time the freedom to climb undisturbed at some of the finest outcrops and mountain crags in the country, and Joe who was at his commanding best as a new route pioneer in those decades, enjoyed this on a scale not previously seen in British climbing. Do not misunderstand, some of my friends continued to climb and explore for all of their physically able lives, I am not sure the last time Joe climbed but my own was in the Fuling mountains of Yunnan, China and I ‘discovered?’ at the age of 74, Keketuohai, the Yosemite of that country in North East Xinjiang in 2009. So I think we maybe have earned a right to offer a view on Quo Vadis British climbing?

There are influences at play now that there never was previously, one is an unbridled commercialisation leading to unalloyed vested interests, and another is an assertive new style Sports Council, which has morphed into Sport England. The Sports Council/s were set up in 1972 with Royal Charters to enable government to have a role in the funding and development of sport, (there are such for each GB country, plus a UK one to meet the demands for Olympic and International participation) brought about mainly through the initiative of the first Minister of Sport Denis Howell (a former senior football referee). It took us time when I was at the BMC to convince the officers of those new bodies that rock climbing and mountaineering were unique, they were not games like netball or football and that our participants were taking part in a high risk activity. This was evidenced by an independent voluntary Mountain Rescue Service, providing help and support for free to anyone in distress or injured in our hills, which originated historically and is still administered and operated by members from within our sport. 

We were lucky that in the early years of The Sports Council/s we could call on the advice and standing of Alan Blackshaw, an Under Secretary in the Civil Service. It was a joy to go to meetings with officials alongside him, for he out ranked them in the peculiar grading system they work under (EO, HEO, SEO etc). And so we built up mutual confidence and personal contact, and thus what has happened in recent years liaising with Sport England, their actions would have been both unthinkable and unacceptable in the 1970’s/ 1990’s. Using funding via grant aid they are forcing National bodies to do their bidding in relation to constitutions that meet their criteria, which is about having influence on how sports organisations are administered in this country. The intention is for them to become business orientated, and administered as market dependant bodies, an ideology that has caused decline in some of the UK’s most essential services? 
At the setting up of The Sports Council it was constrained by the body which pre-dated it, the Central Council of Physical Recreation. This a none governmental organisation, was the initiative of a Physical Educationist Phyllis Colson, which at the inauguration of the Sport Council/s by agreement, handed over its staff and hard won properties which had been set up for individual sports to use such as Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall, the Crystal Palace, Holme Pierrepoint and Plas y Brenin. These were handed over to the Sports Council to further develop and administer, whilst the CCPR became the forum for the National bodies of sport. At this event in 1972 the CCPR was written into an agreement that it was to be the consultative body to The Sports Council, and as it had surrendered properties worth millions of pounds, each year this body had to agree a level of funding for the former to help support its work representing the National bodies of sport. The CCPR has now been superseded by a new body, the Sport and Recreation Alliance which as someone who used to be a member of the formers Executive Committee seems to be less of a force in its dealings with Sport England and Sport UK. The CCPR was not just a London based operation, for it had regional offices including one in Leeds, who in cooperation with the Yorkshire Mountaineering Club organised beginner’s rock climbing courses at Ilkley.
A first future policy review of the BMC was held in 1974 under the Chairmanship of Alan Blackshaw and it was of a different order than the present Organisational review, and it was subsequently updated on two more occasions. Furthermore in 1974 there was no direction to follow via the Sports Council as there is for the present BMC Org review by Sport England, who have demanded that National bodies of sport who wish to be recognised by government and receive grant aid have to meet their demands as spelled out in a Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 format. These are designed so that bodies can be delineated between the ones that merely seek recognition (Tier 1) and those that wish to apply for large sums of taxpayer support (Tier 3). The latter is what the BMC has now decided to become and which to qualify for it has transformed itself from a body, totally answerable for its actions to elected representatives, into an organisation administered by a mainly none elected Board of a Company Limited by Guarantee. Sport England even required for one of the Directors to be an independent (not a climber) and for the Chairperson of the Board not to be the elected President but a separate appointment. This has been agreed and achieved by a new set of Articles, which are actually the Constitution of the BMC. And this will mean a down grading of the role of the National Council; in the past (in my day it’s Management Committee) this has been its democratic forum made up from the Areas.
The Venerable Venables. Photo SV

So why bother, just let Sport England and the new style BMC get on with it, but historical contacts will not allow me to. My own rebirth of interest began in 2014, when arriving home from China my house ‘phone rang as I walked through the front door; it was a long time climbing acquaintance, a Harrison’s Rocks legend Malcolm ‘The Wizard’ McPherson. ‘Did I know what was happening at the Harrison’s complex?’ ‘No’ I responded. ‘There has been a total break down with no maintenance for months, the ablution block has been closed and that means the Julie Tullis camp site is also shut, and the Car Park is breaking up’. This was disturbing news to me for besides being a past member of the Harrison’s Rocks Committee, I had also been a member of the Julie Tullis memorial appeal, and it had taken us ten years to obtain planning permission for a campsite alongside the Car Park. (We also set up and funded the Julie Tullis award, which is handed over each year to a pioneering female climber). The Officers of this appeal, its Chair Barney Lewis and its Secretary Doug Stone had found that their most difficult task had not been in dealing with such as the local Groombridge Council, surprisingly it had been in attempting to work with our own support body the BMC. I listened in disbelief when they confessed this to me; they had found trying to liaise with the Manchester Office, inefficient and time consuming.

To understand why this was so shocking you have need to understand the modern history of Harrison’s Rocks. They were purchased in 1958 by Nea Morin, Ted Pyatt, and Dennis Kemp and handed over to the BMC. But the Council as an unincorporated body could not then own land so a solution to this was found by the CCPR holding the outcrop in trust and a joint Management Committee was formed to administer the crag. This may seem bureaucratic to those who have never visited ‘Harrison’s’, but probably only Stanage can be compared in terms of popularity. Funds were obtained for both a car park and an ablution block which became necessary as parking in the nearby Groombridge village became a serious problem due to a growth in car ownership, and an ever increasing number of climbers visiting the outcrop. At the setting up of the Sports Council in 1972, that body became responsible for the funding of the Harrison’s complex, a task they inherited from the CCPR and from there on its Management Committee was extended to include their representative/s.
At the ‘phone call from ‘The Wizard’ I advised him to contact Bob Pettigrew, a former BMC President and Chair of the CCPR, who unlike me had kept close contact with the hierarchies of those bodies. Bob picked up on this Harrison’s Rocks problem and travelled to meet the CEO of the BMC in Manchester. He was surprised by the information he received at this for he was informed that as the land on which the complex stood was held under lease by Sport England from The Forestry Commission, and as the date for renewal was approaching, they had taken the decision not to do this and to pull out of their financial commitment to fund the facilities. 

There was nothing that could be done to change this situation. When Bob reported this to me I could not believe how such an outcome had been allowed to develop by the BMC, and Malcolm was not appeased when he learnt the news. I pointed out to him that The Forestry Commission also had a brief to support access and countryside recreation, so maybe he should contact them to try to involve that body in solving the Harrison’s difficulties. Which he did, supported by another local climber Sarah Cullen. Malcolm is an impressive persuader, and soon he and Sarah had the ear of the concerned officials at the Forestry Commission, and they agreed with some caveats, e.g. over Parking charges, that they would take on the Management of the Harrison’s complex. At which point the BMC became back and a new Committee was set up to administer the facilities which is now being run to local climber and visitor’s satisfaction. 

However one wonders at what might have been the outcome without the intervention of two locally committed activists? This Harrison’s development should have been a warning as to the changing nature of the administration and funding of sport in this country. It seems that elite participation has become paramount, and medal chasing is more important to the politicians than the encouragement of grass roots sport, despite health problems due to the large increase in overweight children and adults, as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise. Leading on to a massive increase in the NHS needing to deal with the results of this; namely an alarming growth in the cases of diabetes and cancers. Some Local Authority leisure centres and swimming pools have been closing or their access limited, yet £345 million’s is being made available by UK Sport to fund the living/training/coaching costs of participants who might win medals at the Tokyo Olympics or show a potential to do so in future. Do not misread me here, I am a supporter of the Olympic movement and have attended at a Games. I founded the Chevin Chase fell race in 1979 (in which Olympic medallists and many climbers have taken part), I was one of the originators of The Leeds Wall, and I am a former Board member of the Association of British Sport Psychologists. But what is under debate here is it a mistake to allow grass root sports facilities to decline, while generously funding elite participants, which surely poses a question as to what should be the priority in view of the above?
I brought the problems of the events at Harrison’s to the notice of an Alpine Club AGM held in November 2014, maybe that seems a surprising action to take, but the AC founded the BMC and in fact some of its past Presidents began their climbing careers at the outcrop, so there was an interest in my report. I suggested that in view of the way these difficulties had developed that a new future policy review of the Council was needed? The meeting agreed that this was so and invited its President Lindsay Griffin to discuss this with the Officers of the BMC. Which he did, but the response by them was that such a review was not needed! Fast forward to 2016 and the failed attempt by the BMC to rebrand and name change which resulted in further criticism, as to how policy was being formed at the Council. A large grant to facilitate this had been obtained from Sport England (£75,420) and this had resulted in a serious breakdown in relations, as this money was now seen to have been ill used. Once again some members of the Alpine Club were involved in this criticism, and so the Officers of that organisation decided to circulate the membership to ascertain their views on the matter. It being mid-summer 2016 when this occurred many of the members were away climbing in the Alps and Greater ranges, but over 300 replies were received and overwhelmingly they were unreservedly critical. This very much worried the Officers of the Club and I was invited to write a short paper to go to the membership at the November 2016 AGM, and having outlined the difficulties, seconded by Bob Pettigrew, we recommended the Alpine Club request once again a BMC future policy review. 
A new Alpine Club President John Porter was elected at that AGM and he took part in the discussions re the need for a review, which involved several other interested bodies and included the BMC Officers; it was subsequently agreed by the National Council that an Organisational Review would be held during 2017/18. I believe that this was a mistake and it was a Future Policy review that was needed, for under the cloak of the former, major areas have either been passed over or ignored; particularly staffing which is the largest cost centre within the Council’s budget, research into the possible effects of Olympic recognition, the best geographic location for the Council, the future of the relations with Sport England and Sport UK, and a long term view of financing.
However over that period of time more information spilled out about the failed name change. The grant aid to carry this out had been received from Sport England in February 2016, and as someone who had negotiated such grants for special projects from The Sports Council/s for many years I noted this must have been applied for quite some weeks previous? Yet at the BMC AGM in March 2016 no attempt was made to seek approval for such a fundamental decision as a possible name change. Subsequently once this proposed action had become wider known it was overwhelmingly rejected by the membership. 

At which some former BMC senior members decided to take action and openly demonstrate their criticism of how the Council was being administered, and two ex-Presidents Bob Pettigrew and Mark Vallance agreed that they would do this by putting a motion of No Confidence in the Executive at the BMC AGM of April 2017, which was signed by 30 members. I was one of the signatures and had no thought that this motion would be successful, but following on from what had happened at Harrison’s and contradictions in the few other areas in which I still kept an interest, namely the Constitution of the International Federation of Sport Climbing which the BMC had acceded to, which includes the possibility of competitions being held on outdoor crags, this in direct contradiction to the long agreed policy of the Council in opposing any such action. And at the first suggestion that climbing might be recognised by the IOC as an Olympic sport, I had contacted the BMC and advised this might be a game changer. Believing it needed a full investigation of how it might impact our sport for good or bad? I was assured that this would be forthcoming, and a paper prepared which would be widely circulated. That was some years ago now and nothing as yet appeared. So I felt justified in signing the motion and like the others involved believed that this was a plea for properly functioning AGM’s, where all important developments and proposals are put before the membership. 
 Author Dennis Gray and Pete Boardman: Photo DG
Unfortunately in this age of instant report, and social media the reaction to the Motion of No Confidence put to the BMC AGM held at Plas y Brenin in April 2017 was argued about completely out of hand. At least it assured a large turnout, but in the fog of a badly structured debate fences were not mended. I was sorry this led on to the President Rehan Siddiqui resigning. Someone I had known as a friend since he and his brother started to climb; and their father likewise who faithfully attended at the National Mountaineering Conferences in Buxton when I was at the BMC. An event that happened that evening in the PyB bar is without precedent in my own association with the Council, for Bob Pettigrew was physically assaulted by the Hon Secretary of one of the BMC Areas who believed that this was his just desserts for his part in the Motion of No Confidence! 

Subsequently the police were involved and the woman carrying out the attack was interviewed and then apologised. However she was not the only person who should have been brought to book over this, for it had been pre-planned earlier that day by a group which surprisingly included several persons who held positions of influence. Equally to be criticised is the social media activity of those with close connections at the Council, trolling and attacking those they disagree with, hiding under pseudonyms from which they were subsequently ‘outed’ by other computer geeks, confirming their insider positions. From which a picture emerges of an organisation that in the recent past has not been efficiently administered or monitored, particularly the senior staff and some of the elected officers. At least Management by a Board of Directors might be expected to make sure that best practice now ensues over such matters as process and organisational procedures.
Peter Boardman warned when he was the National Officer of the BMC that ‘we were creating a monster!’ And once again long term friendships involved me getting embroiled in a manner I had not intended. I was copied into correspondence by a Climbers’ Club member, for worried by the recent data protection legislation he was not willing for his personal details to be sent on to the BMC, fearing that with its new market philosophy his data might be misused? Currently within the Council’s Articles, each club must pay and affiliate all its UK members at a cost of £14.25 each. The response of the CC President and Treasurer to their member’s refusal to do this surprised me, they declared that the BMC ‘is our governing body and there is no alternative to not affiliating’. So the climber involved found himself parting from a Club he had been a member of for many years. It is not true that the BMC is a governing body in such matters (it is only so for its competition activities), it is a representative body. 
There had been previous debate about the need or not for Clubs to affiliate all their UK members. And in 2008/9 this was discussed within the then recently formed Clubs Committee but ended by not resolving the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. An amount of the £14.25 affiliation fee is handed over to its Brokers by the BMC to provide each Club member with Public Liability insurance. Over the last five years £1.25 million in premiums has been so handed over for the whole Council membership (currently 85,000 approximately), but Individuals who pay more than Club members are also covered for accidents. The claims for these in the last five years amounted to £86,500. There have been no (so far) Public Liability ones.

Once again I felt I had to act, I do not believe that Club members should be forced into affiliation of the BMC, it should be by choice. The majority will, but a sizeable minority for various reasons do not wish to do so! I decided to put forward a motion to that effect at the Alpine Club AGM held this last November, but because the Committee felt that Public Liability insurance for its members is important, they decided to oppose this and advised the members to vote against my motion claiming that if any UK members were allowed to do this it would undermine the PL insurance for all the other members. Frankly that is not true, as the person who with Fred Smith set up the original BMC insurance scheme in 1975/6 and who attended subsequently many meetings with the brokers and on occasion underwriters over the years, I know that such schemes are not so inflexible. Interestingly Mountaineering Scotland Clubs do have the ability to do as I was requesting, namely if any member moves away or becomes inactive in their Club, they can keep up their membership without affiliating to that representative body. I have already reported my motion was roundly outvoted, despite it being seconded by a former President, Stephen Venables and supported by a roll call of distinguished climbers, including an honorary member and former President of the BMC.

So the moving finger writes and moves on! The problems as I see them at the BMC are not going away; an indicator of this is that fewer active climbers with good organisational skill and experience are coming forward to take up the vacant positions of Area Secretaries and Chairs. A list was recently circulated of these, and I have never previously seen so many vacancies. It is also difficult to persuade nationally known figures to take on such as the Presidency. In passing I have spoken to some of these and they are not willing to take on this task, for they realise it has now become the kind of commitment that would be too demanding of their time. However Alan Blackshaw could do this whilst master minding an answer to the countries energy crisis in 1973/4 and he was later in charge of the Offshore, North Sea Operations. In between times he was writing the Penguin Guide to Mountaineering. Something that Alan noted on several occasions, warning his successors to BMC Honorary Office, is that if you professionalise too much of the Council’s operation, and maybe with a staff of 30+ this is now the case, it will become ever harder to recruit qualified volunteers, who will not be willing to take on tasks that lie within the job description of the Pros?

A final word, I believe the danger now facing the BMC (and Mountaineering Scotland) is that a large tail is wagging what is in reality a much smaller body. Many thousands of people, including children on a basis similar to gymnastics, are now taking part in indoor climbing, and sport climbing is now more popular than trad and bouldering is more so than both of these two activities. Competition climbing I believe will enjoy a massive fillip from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and noting current developments where in my own City Leeds we now have seven indoor walls, four of which are bouldering only, a phenomena that is happening UK wide; many of these developments having occurred in recent years. It might make sense to these innovators to break away and form a new National body, covering competitions and sport climbing. This is what happened at the UIAA (the world representative body of mountaineering), where the IFSC broke away and is now recognised by the IOC as the world body of Competition Climbing. I do not wish for this to happen, but when I note how the BMC is currently promoting itself, I have just watched their Christmas TV YouTube, and as Phil Bartlett has previously observed, their presentation is child like (cbeebies comes to mind?), it may be inevitable? 
A major new indoor climbing centre is a big bucks operation, and those behind these developments are no longer just amateur climbers turning their hands into something new, they are now in most cases seriously involved investors and entrepreneurs. I know some of these personally, and they are acting in a separate parallel universe. There is a lack of updated BMC policy guidelines and no overview of where these developments are leading? I was once Chair of the British Administrators of Sport, and at that time climbing unlike most other sports had only a single national body in England and Wales. 

Some sports like Martial Arts had many, and unless the BMC appropriately covers, and administers efficiently all the present activities under the umbrella of ‘Climbing’ it may suffer the same fate? It is up to a new generation of climbers to organise a body that meets these criteria whilst preserving the long standing traditions/history of our sport, so widely admired by other countries activists, whilst not being so cowed as to disagree with Sport England about their undemocratic modus operandi. Who at the end of the day are answerable to politicians, and they are more interested in the views of their constituents and preserving their seats, than if the BMC President chairs the Council’s management board or not! 

Dennis Gray: 2019 


Friday, 14 December 2018

Sport for Spartans

The year has ended and for most folk the memory of a fine summer lingers on. And how marvellous it was after a tardy spring! Of course, people grew very tired of that long, hard winter. But not if you were a skier, for seldom have weather and snow conditions combined to produce such a run of perfect week-ends. Friends of mine notched up over a hundred ski-ing days with hardly a wetting.And in May an old friend celebrated his 83rd birthday by skiing from Cairngorm to Ben Macdui. In the blaze of the mid-summer sun there was still good skiing being enjoyed up there.
I, too shared in the bonanza, and the skiing days that shine brightest as I look back were the first two of 1977. Even the drive up to Glencoe on Hogmanay night was memorable, with snow crunching beneath the car tyres and the icy peaks hard and brilliant under a silver moon. My destination was the hotel where the Scottish Mountaineering Club meet was being held, and it was great to see so many old friends. Sergeant Whillans of the Glencoe rescue team was there, face shining with health, having just climbed the Pap of Glencoe to enjoy the moonlight glitter on snow-shrouded peaks and sea. Other friends who had been climbing that day spoke of the depth of snow which made very hard work of getting to the tops. Hearing this, Iain and I nodded to each other; we had brought our skis with us.

Soon the bells were ringing for midnight and we were toasting the New Year. The company was good, but we stole away to bed within the hour to be ready for what we knew was going to be a great morning. And it was icy perfection, looking across glass-calm Loch Linnhe to Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour as the first rays of sun touched it with pink. Great to head off into Glencoe for the skiing mountain, Meall a’ Bhuiridh. It is equipped with chair- lifts and ski-tows, and the operators were just starting up, so we were amongst the first half-dozen to be hoisted up above a glittering Rannoch Moor. From the top of the first chair you climb gently for a mile to reach the second chair and ski-tows, which brings you into shadow on the north face. Soon we were on the drag-lift heading into the sunshine of the summit ridge where barnacles of ice festooning the crags sparked like diamonds in the sunlight.

We climbed up the edge of the pendulous snow cornice overhanging Corrie Ba to enjoy in isolation the incredible vision of Arctic Scotland in the low light of the January sun. What a welter of peaks! In front of us Ben Dorain, Ben More, Lui, Starav, Cruachan and the hills of Mull above a soft gleam of Atlantic; behind us Nevis and the Mamores ; eastward Ben Alder. Nor was it just a white world. It was full of texture, colour and moulded by shadow.

Now I braced myself for the big test. Could I handle my skis as of yore? Meall a’ Bhuiridh is rockier, steeper and more daunting than the smoother Cairngorms of Glen Shee. Two skiers were killed on it last season. You always feel slightly nervous about your first run, so there is an inclination to be tentative rather than bold. On the other hand there is a special, delicious quality about the feeling of the skis below you when you have been off them for some time.
I don’t think I shall ever forget the take-off on the unflawed powder of that New Year’s Day as the skis floated smoothly, responding to the slightest direction of knees and shoulder. One felt almost disembodied, moving as effortlessly as if through the air. Whooping with delight, we threw caution to the wind as we swung across each other’s powder sprays in a 500-ft. plunge loop away on a fast leftward traverse into Happy Valley for its wall-of-death narrows leading eventually to the plateau.

By mid-afternoon we had notched up about 15,000 feet of downhill-running, yet not a muscle felt tired. When the lifts closed we climbed to the summit and in a bitter wind watched the red ball of the sun go down, casting a crimson light in Alpenglow on every peak. It was magical, especially when snow spume blown vertically upwards from the corrie showered round us like sparks from a fire. We took the descent from the 3000-ft. top with only one stop—to watch the full moon rising over the wan shoulder of Schiehallion.The skiing was even better next day, but some of the magic had gone with the arrival of hordes of skiers, now recovered from Hogmanay. Queues were vast, so we went seeking the remoter corners of the mountain.

To an old-timer like myself, who has been skiing since 1947, the standard of ski-ing to be seen on a busy day like this is nothing short of miraculous—certainly as high as you will see in any Alpine resort. Look at the fashions, too, colourful ski-suits built for warmth and to show off the slim line. Examine the rigid clip-boots, the short poles and the streamlined skis built of modern materials which do not warp like wood. Talk to the skiers and you will find that most are working class, as are so many climbers nowadays. I have been exercising myself tracing the evolution of Scottish skiing, which begins with W. W. Naismith and a friend skiing to the Meikle Bin on the Campsies in 1892. Naismith has been called the father of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and he observed that they moved faster and with less effort than on foot, also “… that a very slight gradient was sufficient to get up a tremendous speed.” Summing up, he thought that skis might often be employed with advantage in Scotland, and the sport might even become popular in the Alps.
In fact, it was the British who took the sport from Scandinavia to Switzerland, but it was a German called W. R. Rickmers who stimulated interest in it in Scotland when lie took a party of Scottish friends to Ben Nevis at Easter 1904. His article in the S.M.C. Journal called “Aquatic Sport on Ben Nevis,” describes eight days of rain teaching a party to ski on the summit slopes of our biggest Ben. Rickmers thought nothing of the big carry-up there because the 2000-ft. skiing slope from summit to lochan was so good. Rickmers was teaching a technique that had no real future in Scotland. The short, grooveless skis steered by a single pole were all right for soft spring snow or deep powder, but no use on the icy conditions which are so common in Scotland.
He certainly liked what he saw on Ben Nevis, saying that such perfect slopes of 2000 ft. length in such line conditions for skiing are rarely met with. But the shrewdest observation he made was that in a climate like ours the best skiing possibilities would be in spring rather than winter. Four years after these adventures on Ben Nevis another advocate of ski-ing, Allan Arthur, of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, was advising fellow climbers, “Make a start and keep it up till you master the art a little, and very soon—if I am not mistaken—you will be down badly with ski-fever.” From his own experience, he thought the best conditions were from about Feb. 10 till March 15.
Arthur was a real enthusiast: “It was a morning to delight the skier’s heart when I tumbled out of bed shortly after 4 a.m., with a clear, crisp atmosphere and not less than twenty degrees of frost.” He describes the perfect snow and his peace with the world on the summits in hot sunshine: “the snow was as keen and dry as any I ever skied on in Switzerland.”

Fifty years after he wrote these words I met Allan Arthur. He was old and deaf by that time, but his interest in skiing was undiminished and he was a regular attender at club lectures. I found myself thinking of him last March as I skied up the north ridge of Ben Vane and looked across to the adjacent top of a flawless white Ben Ledi. Following the line down from the summit, I fancied I saw him with three other members of the Scottish Ski Club, swinging down in wide turns for a full 1500 ft., then shouldering their skis to climb to the summit again for another run down.
Of that particular occasion, he wrote, “We one and all agreed that even in Switzerland such an expedition, on such a day, could not well be beaten.”
I echoed these sentiments as I swung down from the summit after half an hour of glorious views from the summit stretching from the Forth to the hills of Arran.
Scottish skiing, like Scottish mountaineering, received a big setback because so many keen men died in the 1914-18 war. But in 1929 the moribund Scottish Ski Club was revived by a new kind of skier, one who had mastered the art of making fast turns on icy snow, and the emphasis now was on harder and steeper ways down from the summits. This revolutionary turn was known as the stem- christie—now regarded as the hall-mark of old-fashioned skiers.

The new technique could be said to have come in with motor car ownership. By 1938, membership of the Scottish Ski Club was 400, and the Ben Lawers region became the focal point of week-end activity since it was within reasonable motoring distance of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth. The high road to 1800 ft. cut down walking time to the slopes, where a spacious hut was built between Beinn Ghlas and Meall Corranaich. Then came the installation of two small ski-tows above the hut in January 1952, precursors of the first Continental-type ski-tow in Scotland.

For this most ambitious development on any Scottish hill the Scottish Ski Club wisely chose Meall a’ Bhuiridh. It is in a bad weather area, but possesses north-facing, snow — holding corries — the major deficiency of the Lawers range. Nor were Dundee skiers idle at this time. They had put up small ski-tows in Glen Shee, on Ben Gulabin above the Spittal, and on Cam an Tuirc. It didn’t take long for me to see that touring men like myself, who had thought of themselves as competent skiers, were being left very far behind by comparative beginners applying themselves to a new style of dynamic ski-ing based on the parallel swing.
Chair-lifts on Meall a Bhuindh, in Glen Shee and a big mechanisation programme above Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms, speeded the technical advance as ski-teachers, trained in the latest Continental methods, imparted their knowledge to the thousands wishing to learn it. Ski business became big business, especially in the Spey Valley where local hoteliers provided entertainment every evening long before the concrete towers of the Aviemore Centre arose to offer skating, curling, skittles, sauna baths, cinema, a heated swimming pool and an artificial ski slope.

In terms of mechanisation, Glen Slice and the Cairngorms have attained the status of ski-complexes offering a whole variety of permutations, while Meall a’ Bhuiridh of Glen Coc remains small-scale because of the nature of the mountain. The two big centres operate every day of the season, whereas the Meall a’ Bhuiridh ski-tows run only at week¬ends and holidays or on special charters. Ski-ing there is therefore more expensive because of the small financial return for a big outlay.

When it comes to comparing the relative merits of Scotland or the Continent for skiing there is no doubt at all that you stand a better chance of getting value for your money in terms of sunshine and ample snow than in Scotland. What we offer is sport for spartans. True, last winter was marvellous, and so was 1963 and 1952, but let’s face it, in the name of ski-ing we endure whiteout, wind, rain and sunless grey days that would be intolerable to Continentals. We cannot even guarantee snow until the February storms fill the gullies. Rickmers was right when he nominated the spring as the season for Scottish skiing. Yet it is also true that it can be winter any day of the year on the Scottish hills, and that January, February and March usually provide excellent ski conditions somewhere, sometime.

I am all for advertising and attracting people to the Scottish ski resorts, but they should be warned what to expect. The best bet is the Spey Valley because of the lovely variety of walks in sheltering woods should the weather be rough. There is little to do in Glen Coe or Glen Shee in foul weather. At Continental resorts it is usually pleasant standing in a queue waiting for a ski-tow or chair-lift. In Scotland you can feel you are slowly freezing to death, and in addition, be buffeted by wind and flying spume, and half-blinded as you are being towed uphill. Which is one of the reasons why I do not favour special boots and bindings that are so rigid on your feet that you cannot walk comfortably.
I prefer boots in which I can walk and climb, and I use a touring binding on my skis which enables me to lift the heel and ski in the good old cross-country Scandinavian way.
Allan Arthur was right about ski-fever being an incurable disease. And so was the late Harry Mac Robert when he advised climbers to take up the sport, “even if only for something less strenuous than rock-climbing to fall back on in old age.”

Tom Weir: First published in the Scots Magazine 1978

Friday, 30 November 2018

Strings over Indus

Commissions had dwindled almost to almost a standstill. As tastes changed-the old making way for the new- the proprietor of the ‘Sitar Sales and Repair’ shop overlooking the rugged valley in the north of England, was looking at the future with some trepidation; albeit laced with some slight relief. David Croft- who two weeks earlier, had dispatched four hand crafted sitars to the director of Melbourne city orchestra in time for a music festival in early Autumn- which David very much hoped to attend- contemplated if this was to be the last of these orders. Only three options were available he thought: to sell as a going concern; to wind down the business, or to speak to Elizabeth to see if she would be interested, or at least, continue to give it a go for a while.

"It never used to take this long did it David? "
" No it certainly did not"....David replied to Harold Drasdo as they climbed up the Black Hill. It was in this unique English landscape bordering two counties, with its sandblasted rock faces and crags, that David Croft, Harold, Neville Drasdo and Arthur Dolphin had thought up the idea of forming ‘ The Bradford lads’ which evolved into a unique, working class climbers club, after the war. Going on to make its mark on British climbing and forging national and international reputations.

Returning home that evening David looked into the bathroom mirror, still a handsome man with somewhat sad eyes, tinged with resolve; stepping on the scales,  he observed how his weight had fallen significantly since the last time he checked.
The love affair started in the busy Pakistani port city of Karachi, bejewelled and bedraggled in equal measure. Arriving with the team, David was to lead on to Gilgit., The route chosen was to follow north, the lifeblood of cities, empires and civilisations, the mighty river itself ...The Indus.

It was just beyond the capital that they decided to stop as a final resting place before arriving tomorrow at the base camp. In the unforgiving heat, David left for a swim in a one of the Indus tributaries. While heading there he heard extended series of sound, vast and epic. In the market place a crowd gathered to listen to Sitar and Tabla players. The stringed instrument with its elaborate patterns, had a hypnotic effect that night which was at once both sobering and disorientating.

They had arrived on the Karakoram Highway, it was in these mountain ranges that the Indus which flowed west from its source in Tibet, was forced down south to where Karachi opens its mouth and pours the Indus into the Arabian Sea.

There she was within sight, Nanga Prabat ‘The Naked Moutain’ . This was majesty, captivating from the ground, but the higher you go the more the metamorphosis takes place. Slender shoulders and curves give way to ugly disfigurement and crooked teeth, the mountain literally becomes a Maw… a ferocious mouth. David looked at everyone in stunned silence, here we are, this is what they call The Killer Mountain.

Elizabeth Croft threw her soul into the business and the rapid transformation was astounding. Out went the dusty shelves and memorabilia, in came music workshops, art exhibitions, yoga and well- being evenings. A major music event was planned for the following summer. Gregarious and quick witted, Elizabeth attracted a new clientele which the existing shop could not accommodate. Plans were afoot to expand the premises. Local and national newspapers sent journalists to conduct interviews. Invitations arrived for business awards, local politicians jostled to have photographs taken. The editor of the prestigious culture magazine ‘Late Evening Style’- Russell Brook- Lewis had in particular shown early interest and Elizabeth enjoyed chatting to him.
Returning home after the dinner with Russell, opening the kitchen door Elizabeth walked out bare foot into the warm night air. The sky was the glowing synthesis of gold and black. Sitting cross legged on the grass, she was lost in thought for a long time. “This is really it...enchantment.!' Stretching her right index finger into the air, Elizabeth ran her finger over Russell’s eyes, over his cheekbones, his lips along the back of his neck.
Horror and pain comes to us when we are at our most happiest. Like an avalanche, it arrives without warning and tears the ground on which we stand, consuming us at once. "David did not want to tell you himself, but will be at home to see you ", Dr Stobowski said to Elizabeth

"It is a very aggressive tumour that has spread to his lungs and chest, a specialist in this area has advised me that it is terminal. There is treatment available to slow down the disease, but David has declined. Perhaps you can talk to him. We expect two months at most. Elizabeth, we are here to help anytime of the day and night and there might be other help available. I’m so sorry "


The Burial took place in the nearby Methodist church, a plot which had been bought by David next to Mary -Elizabeth’s mother. It was private affair, Elizabeth was accompanied by Russell, Dras and the remaining members of the ‘Bradford Lads’. The British Alpine club sent someone, the Pakistani Embassy in London- where David was on first name terms, due to his service to Pakistani tourism and mountaineering- sent a high ranking official.

Elizabeth returned home alone, sifted to through the many letters of condolences that arrived from UK and overseas. Some from editors of mountaineering journals, from university climbing clubs and members of the public. One letter was address Elizabeth Croft stamped Melbourne, Austrialia. Opening the letter, the director of Melbourne City Orchestra expressed his sincere condolences at the loss of David whom he got to know well and how the world was very much poorer without him.

Elizabeth open the card which included invitation to the festival and continued reading 
..rush and retreat, cadences of ebb and flow
Strings over Indus
take us to where we came...

Elizabeth’s back crashed against the wall and she slid down to the floor, tucked both knees close to her chest and covered both her eyes with her hands. 

Zafar Ramzan: 2018 

Friday, 16 November 2018

What's in a name?

Arni Strapcans: Original Image-Photographer unknown?
It has been suggested that routes with boring names should be omitted from future guidebooks. Alternatively, routes with names such as "Straight Crack" or "North-East Climb" will be exchanged for more intriguing options such as "Outer Plasmic Membrane", "Rupert Bear Goes Hiking", or even "Bimbo The Lorry Drivers Gulch Eliminate". ("Exploding" is an optional extra applicable to all route names.) Names will be reappointed by a qualified body of verbal diarrhoea sufferers on a three-yearly basis. All British route names will be placed in a lottery barrel in a heavily guarded room at the BMC head-quarters in Manchester, then drawn out at random and reappointed to completely different routes. By this method, classic routes will not get over-polished because nobody will know where they are.

Consequently, chalk will be rendered unnecessary, and the more congested routes will be relieved as traffic gets more evenly distributed over all the crags from Land's End to John O' Groats. Every decade, all the names will be discarded and replaced by a completely new set—to prevent boredom, of course, and also to provide permanent employment for guidebook writers (a profession which was beginning to look increasingly insecure owing to the worsening new-crag and line shortages. Who cares what a route is called? Does it matter? What difference would it make if White Slab was called "The Orange Throated Gonk"? Would it be any worse a route? Well, a name certainly does have a predominant influence on the first impression given by a route description, and therefore a well chosen name may well even enhance the existing character of a route. The honour of naming a climb is given exclusively to the first ascensionist, who apparently has the right to call his route whatever he likes, whether relevant or not.

A route name might be merely functional—pinpointing a feature or features encountered on the rock face. On the other hand, a little imagination might be employed and something more entertaining might evolve. Therefore the simple role of naming and describing a route can provide an amusing literary side to climbing which can only come as an enrichment to an activity which is becoming increasingly categorised. But in the '50s British climbers realised that if they were going to rate by European standards in the Alps and elsewhere, they would need a thorough knowledge of pegging. Hence, not wishing to undermine the free-climbing tradition, they set about catching up with the continentals by smashing to bits what were then the less popular crags — especially on limestone, which had not really been accepted as a free-climbing medium. The idea initially was that of practice for bigger things elsewhere. 

The very nature of this type of ascent gave little motive for consideration of a route beyond the desire to practise. Consequently, little attention was paid to its potential value as an addition to the wealth of British climbs. Times have changed, unscaled rock is becoming increasingly scarce. Consequently, areas of rock once taken solely by pegging-practice routes are rapidly getting overlapped by free-climbs, often of the highest quality and difficulty. Surely this totally different outlook can no longer be compared with its shady predecessor. And the renaming of areas of rock is highly commendable as a blunt rejection of the low values which no longer apply. Yet perhaps this harsh wipe-out of the past is a far too insensitive attitude, as there are several pegging routes which hold a lot of historical value, and even quality, in themselves,.Routes such as the Main Overhang at Kilnsey stand out as milestones in the development of British climbing and their mode of attack is still far from obsolete—as can be seen by the tactics of ascent which still seem necessary for scaling impasses on the huge remote rock walls of Patagonia, Baffin Island and elsewhere. Maybe a compromise of some sort is the logical answer. 

If an aid route is climbed without aid but along the very same line, should it be renamed?  * What does the name apply to? Is it the line, or is it a reference to a particular climbing experience? If a name is given as an indicator of the line, its significance is unchanged by the new method of ascent, and a renaming may be difficult to justify. However, modern free versions of old aid routes frequently merely overlap at certain points and the lines of ascent, though close, may be significantly different. Where this situation arises, it would be quite false to apply the old name to both routes. Nevertheless, the matter is a delicate one, and points of view will inevitably clash. The final decision, of course, has to rest with the guide-book writers, who will, I hope, take account of current trends and opinions rather than stand doggedly by their own personal ideology. 

Arni Strapcans : First Published in Crags 3.

Editors' Note.—( Crags Editor) People are very sensitive. We had a quick dig in the ribs at some folk in 'Crags' 1 and look what happens. Harness Can-straps sends us 50,000 words which have to be typed-up, Vesta Bincroft is now wandering around every climb muttering the words "Here Steve Bancroft is climbing this 10 foot crack before an unknown crowd". 

* See Paul Ross's 'The Great Overhang' and Pete Livesey's 'Footless Crow'.

Friday, 2 November 2018

The Totem Pole- 20th Anniversary Edition....Reviewed

 Photo: Paul Pritchard

Unless you approached this book thinking it was an anthropological study, examining the belief systems and symbols of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or perhaps more appropriately, a rock climber who nevertheless has spent the last 20 years in a coma after being hit on the head by a television sized rock, then you must be aware of Paul Pritchard's Totem Pole saga. And indeed it is a saga, which 20 years on still has the power to shock and awe. As survival stories go, the story of Paul's accident, heroic rescue and rehabilitation, stands up with some of the gnarliest tales of triumph over tragedy within the climbing/mountaineering genre. Except this time, the hero doesn't get the girl and ride off into the sunset, fully restored and imbued with sage-like wisdom. Our protagonist loses the girl- girlfriend and heroic rescuer Celia Bull- ends up a smashed up hemiplegic and sees the whole focus of his life, cruelly torn away forever. An experience which left him facing nebulous demons in the guise of anger, despair and confusion. An unholy trilogy of emotions which in those first months after the accident had left him broken, both mentally and physically.

Paul's road to recovery came about by getting the whole experience down in words. A project which manifested itself in the original book which went on to take the Boardman Tasker prize in 1999.. Now, twenty years later, Paul has re-released The Totem Pole after a successful crowd funding campaign which uses his original work as the foundation but as Paul explains in the introduction...”restored my authentic voice which had previously been edited out'.

If anything, The Totem Pole is a story of redemption. Not achieved through overcoming disability and routing those dark demons buried away in the darkest recesses of the soul, but through a gradual philosophical acceptance that things will never be the same again...just different. As intimated above, one of Paul's first steps in his rehabilitation is to write down his thoughts and describe his experiences honestly and graphically. Despite struggling in those early months to articulate these thoughts and put them within a coherent structure, through a grim determination to paint the picture as accurately and honestly as he can, he perseveres . Despite the picture he is trying to paint being more Jackson Pollack than the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood in those confused early stages when his pummelled brain struggled to make sense of events. Locked in an endless, frustrating ritual of therapy and treatment, he finds solace and satisfaction through working these thoughts out and getting them down. As much to work out the chain of events which had led him to this point and attempt to make sense of the chaos. I'm imagine that when he started setting down these thoughts, the last thing in his confused and groggy mind was 'this will make a great book...Banff here we come!'.

The bulk of what evolved into The Totem Pole appears to have been written in Clatterbridge Hospital on the Wirral, about 60 miles from Paul's then North Wales home in the Welsh climbing capital of Llanberis. Sharing a ward with what sounds like the cast from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest- a cast which the author is never less than sympathetic and kindly disposed towards in most cases- he nevertheless took pleasure in shaping the book in what quiet spaces and moments he can find. I cannot imagine what is must have been like for a climber who was used to freedom, travel and wide open spaces to find themselves imprisoned, amongst strangers. I guess that writing, apart from its therapeutic value, would also be an escape from reality. A pretty grim reality at that but isn't the best art hewn from darkness and struggle?

I'd forgotten that Paul had undergone a similar experience here in north Wales when he took a huge ripper at Gogarth and ended up amongst the Irish Sea washed rocks at the foot of the Zawn. That time, despite being smashed up and subject to a lengthy rescue, the injuries sustained were not life changing. Students of Oscar Wilde at this point might proffer the suggestion that to suffer one such accident might be considered unfortunate, to suffer two such accidents looks like carelessness! But then again, why would a climber who has survived a serious accident not carry on? Perhaps a feeling of immortality might kick in after coming through such an experience? Although some climbers do indeed pack it in and take up something safe like fell running or hillwalking after a brush with death, in Paul's case, as a high end activist of international repute, giving up would never have been an option after an accident. Especially one which you fully recover from. The mental turmoil that an individual experiences after being involved in a serious accident will vary of course from person to person and their investment in the activity.

Fortunately, I have never suffered a serious accident whilst climbing myself. I have however experienced the horror which comes when witnessing a jagged rock freewheeling through the air with flesh and blood within it's terrible orbit. Although not in the same league as that experienced by Celia Bull as she watched 'that' block bulls eye on Paul's bare bonce in Tasmania, I recall a late friend trying to re-direct a sizeable flake of rock he had pulled on, away from me on Craig Dinas in North Wales as I looked on helplessly. Being lashed onto 'The Boulder' and unable to move more than a foot or so either way, I watched transfixed as the flake spun towards me. Growing in size with each nanosecond until it exploded just inches to the side of me. Even worse was when I trundled a huge fang of rock on a ground up first ascent in Nantlle, which twisted 90 degrees from its intended destination, and just missed my then 14 year old son who was belaying at the foot of the rib we were climbing. Its terrible trajectory so close that he felt the rush of air through his hair. The thought of what might have been still gives me nightmares! These accidents are freaks of nature which often defy all attempts to minimise risk and climb safely. Wrong place, wrong time and even the best mountaineer in the world can be swept away in a moment.

In some ways, being injured when climbing through a fall or bad technique can be accepted as it's just part of the game. Being struck by a rock on the other hand, is like being stabbed in the back rather than thrust in the chest by a rapier in a fencing duel. It seems as if fate is not playing fair! The tendency to curse your bad luck and succumb to despair, a debilitating and possibly inescapable condition which may become a prison cell from which there is no escape. The message which Paul, conveys through the Totem Pole challenges this fatalistic mind set. The goal which can be applied to most people who suffer mental, physical or emotional life changing turmoil, to find a way through the maze. Despite the endless dead ends and U turns which bring one back time and again to where you have started your journey. Through perseverance and with more than a little help from your friends, you can find a way through the towering box hedges and reach, if not the point from which you set out, an escape back into the light.
Paul and a handful of Totem Poles: Photo Eli Pritchard

When the Totem Pole first came out two decades ago, it took that years' Boardman Tasker award. A double header for the author after the success of Deep Play. To write a book of any description after having your skull stove in and your brain ruptured and plastered to your scalp, is just about beyond imagination. However, to write an honest account of such a traumatic, life changing event with such clarity, without any self pity or rancour and imbued throughout with that quiet northern self deprecating humour -which friends will describe as the essential essence of the man- is quite inspirational.

John Appleby: 2018 

Friday, 19 October 2018

Wild Light/ Extreme Scotland....Reviewed

High winds and poor visibility are common during a day’s climbing or walking in Scotland. This photo was shot on the same day as Ines’s ascent of The Hurting and shows just how brutal conditions were.(Extreme Scotland)

‘Wild Light’. Scotland’s Mountain Landscape. Craig Aitchison.Vertebrate Publishing. 160 pages £25. Large Format, Hard Back.
‘Extreme Scotland’. A photographic journey through Scottish Adventure Sports. Nadir Khan. Vertebrate Publishing. 184 pages £25. Large Format. Hard Back.

Photography is truth’ Jean-Luc Godard. 

Maybe Godard would wish to now surround his view of the standing of photography with a less-Certainty, for digitalisation has changed as to whether photography is an art form or a developed skill? But these two books are an exemplar of both forms of today’s present image recording, film and or digital, both succeeding without question in a wish to faithfully record for us the spectator what they felt to be their vision in one moment of time.

‘Wild Light’.
This is Craig Aitchison’s second book, his first ‘The Highlands: Land and Light’ published in 2012 was successful, but it has taken him seven years to prepare and execute his second, ‘Wild Light’. Such a work of landscape photography to achieve a sumptuous coffee table result requires careful planning, with hours, and days of waiting with nights spent in lightweight tents anticipating the key time of dawn light or an evening sunset. 
Aitchison despite still working in film is a modern, for his equipment would more than impress previous generations of landscape photographers, his main camera being a Hasselblad X Pan, which was developed by that Swedish firm in co-operation with Fuji to produce the world’s first 35mm dual format camera. The concept behind the X Pan was to provide medium format image quality with the convenience of 35mm film, for which Aitchison uses the Fujichrome 50 Velvia. 
 An Teallach, Dundonnell :February 2016
The first light of dawn ignites the chiselled slopes of An Teallach on a perfect winter’s morning. After years of waiting for the right conditions, I finally achieved the image I had hoped for and realised a long-standing photographic ambition. (Wild Light)

Interchangeable lenses are also a key to his success, but surprising to me he only carries three, a 30mm, 45mm and a 90mm. Which somehow yield a wide angled, scene grabbing result in the mind and hands of an operator like Aitchison.

Using film employs an authentic approach to Landscape photography, for it enables the picture taker to capture the nuances of colour and light in the mountains, extremely accurately something that is difficult to replicate digitally. There are however problems with this approach associated with perspective and distortion errors; and in Scotland’s mountains, the ever fast changing light and moving objects, such as clouds and day lighting! And in this day and age working with film means high additional costs in processing and scanning; I guess that might mean ensuring that making sure the technicalities of composition and exposure must be executed correctly out in the hills, for little can be achieved in the laboratory.

Interesting to me is to compare Aitchison’s sumptuous colour results to those of some landscape photographer’s of yesteryear known to me; Ben Humble immediately comes to mind. Someone I was fortunate to get to know in the early 1960’s. Two of his books ‘On Scottish Hills’ 1946 and ‘The Cuillin of Skye’ 1952 were groundbreaking in their era, as was Walter Poucher’s many publications also around the same time, ‘The magic of Skye’ 1949 being a book to own at that date. However I must confess that my own most precious mountain picture book as a young teenager was the Swiss Andre Roch’s ‘On Rock and Ice’. In more recent times concentrating on Scotland, Gordon Stainforth’s beautiful opus, ‘Cuillin: Great Mountain Ridge of Skye’ published in 1994 remains the outstanding work on that range of mountains. Interesting that despite the far reach of Aitchison’s book there are no pictures contained within of the Cuillin.
An Teallach, Dundonnell:  July 2017
Standing at the foot of An Teallach in the predawn light I knew from experience that the low-lying cloud above me was indicative of a potential cloud inversion surrounding the mountain. With the thought of what might lie above I pushed on hard, hoping to capture this rare phenomenon before it burnt off. In a little over ninety minutes I had reached the summit. I was in luck: above the cloud it was warm and windless, the silence – absolute. I immediately set up my camera to capture the stunning conditions; I made my exposure and only after that could I finally relax. I sat down to recover, taking it all in. Two hours later I was still there: it was almost impossible to leave, but as the sun gained height the sea of cloud gradually dissipated and I returned home sunburnt and happy. (Wild Light)

There are however ones of more remote and more difficult to reach mountains such as Canisp and Suilven, An Teallach and Torridon. Based in Glasgow, fretting over weather forecasts he must have clocked up thousands of miles over the seven years of putting together the 156 photographs in his book.

The Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms: December 2012
The Lairig Ghru is a high mountain pass that carves its way through the heart of the central Cairngorm plateau, one of the wildest areas in the country. This great gorge features some of Scotland’s most revered winter mountains and this image shows its western aspect. From left to right are the summits of The Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul and Braeriach. (Wild Light)

Aitchison was the inaugural winner of the ‘Scottish Landscape Photographer of the year’. His photographs are ones to savour and memorise over, plate 134 Braeriach in winter is one such for me, a night spent in a bivouac in February 1963 at the foot of a possible new route with Eric Langmuir (now deceased), to almost die retreating next morning in an ensuing blizzard. So Aitchison is in a long line of Scottish mountain photographers, he may not be the last, but he will remain I am sure one of the best! Everything about ‘Wild Light’ is appealing, none more so than the huge panoramas of favourite hills, for me the one of ‘The Cobbler’ (plate 124 shot in February 2017) remains breathtaking. It must be a huge gamble by Vertebrate to publish this book, and knowing a little of how much it must have cost to put together, I do hope it is successful for it really does justice to the finest mountain scenery we have in the UK.

‘Extreme Scotland’.
Nadir Khan has a most unusual background for an adventure photographer, post a career as a hospital based oral surgeon, working on facial trauma and reconstructive surgery, he now concentrates on his first love, photography. A journey which started at Glasgow University when his father, also a surgeon, gave him an old SLR Canon film camera, which became a companion on his early mountaineering adventures in Glencoe and on Ben Nevis recording his own and friends activities in these mountain areas. From such outings he began to develop a major interest in wilderness photography, studying the work of such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. The latter must have inspired many to take up climbing photography for besides being one of the most outstanding exponents of this type of image; he was himself one of the leading pioneer climbers of his generation. His two seminal works; ‘In the throne room of the Mountain gods’ 1977 and ‘Mountain Light’1986 would inspire any tyro as they seem to have done so for Khan? I did meet Galen on occasion in the States, and his death in a plane crash, returning from Alaska in August 2002 was a shock to all of us who knew him. 

Dramatic skies and light on Sgùrr an Fheadain, the Cuillins, Isle of Skye. Climbers: Matt Barrett and Scott Brooks.(Extreme Scotland)
It is always interesting if you yourself have an interest in photography to discover what equipment such an operator as Khan is using to craft his images. He has long ago left behind his old film camera and is now a digital user, mainly with Canon EOS lDC and a 5D Mark lll, along with L-series lenses as well as for flash a Canon 580 exii and Elinchrom Quadra. There is a short but interesting Foreword to ‘Extreme Scotland’ by Hamish MacInnes, explaining his long held belief that a timeless book of mountain images holds sway with him, over the moving picture. Stating ‘I must admit I am a large-format buff , an admirer of Vittorio Sella and the Abraham brothers- such subtle light and shadows’. Hamish does go on to also note how much digital photography has changed the name of the game. I myself still use film cameras, but I do understand the benefits of digital whilst filming moving images.....a major one being I understand is exposure speed. And of course you can also see what image/s you have captured in an instant.

Extreme Scotland is broken into four sections, by season. Winter first and for me this is where the books greatest pictorial strength lies, then Spring, Summer and Autumn. And in each season there are activities which seem to complement, with trail running and rock climbing in summer and kayaking in the Autumn. 
Extreme Scotland’ covers all the major adventure sports which Scotland plays host to. Ice climbing, kayaking, ski-touring, trail running, surfing, mountain-biking and rock climbing. But the book is about more than just a recounting of some adrenaline junkies doing their thing! There are some thoughtful articles and poems from such as Nick Bullock, Tom Livingstone, Elana Bader, Mike Pescod, David Canning and Stuart Campbell. A poem I enjoyed was ‘One Day’ by Elana Bader and an article ‘Creme de Violette’ by Tom Livingstone repeating a Nick Bullock/Tim Neill route on Beinn Eighe. I would have thought that perhaps a longer scene setting historical revue might have been included? Who for instance first ran the Scottish 4000’ers, or kayaked the middle Etive, or climbed in the Scottish winter?

The winter climbing photographs are frankly stunning, and some of the climbers featured all have wonderful, memorable names..... Caspar McKeever, Uisdean Hawthorn and Ines Papert. The pictures of her repeating ‘The Hurting’ (Xl. 11) in Coire an t-Sneachda, pages 4-7 are I guess what modern, winter climbing at the front edge of performance are all about. But I wonder, as to when did climbers, start calling themselves ‘athletes?’ Although I was once a member of the Manchester Athletic Club and similarly The Leeds A C and such as Arthur Dolphin ran every year for Yorkshire in the Counties Cross Country Championship, I never thought of him, Brown or Whillans as ‘athletes’. They were ‘climbers’ which was a superior designation, yet in ‘Extreme Scotland’ the climbers are all athletes just like the trail runners.
I think ‘Extreme Scotland’ which highlights the use of all of today’s innovations in adventure sports is nevertheless a worthy successor to much that has gone before. A list of climbing photographers is almost endless but Nadir Kan is using some of the techniques pioneered by John Cleare for his now historical work, ‘Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia’. I mention this because I was Joe Brown’s second while John filmed him off an abseil rope, climbing Vector. But earlier works also set the scene, C. Douglas Milner’s ‘Rock for Climbing’ with its sense of period (the 1940’s) and its climbing sequences that were revolutionary in that era. A final mention of climbing photographic development must rest with Ken Wilson. His large format books, such as ‘Hard Rock’ 1974, ‘Classic Rock’ 1978, ‘Cold Climbs’ 1983 and ‘Extreme Rock’ 1987 set a standard that it is hard to equal for capturing a climb, a climber and a place. 
To be fair ‘Extreme Scotland’ could not be anywhere else in the world, with its unique setting of Mountains, Lochs and Wilderness Areas. Some regions are harder to capture the zeitgeist, and some activities are more photogenic than others. And here climbing comes into its own, although Callum Anderson kayaking the Middle Etive in a double edged spread (pages 92 and 93) is pretty awesome. 

Surfing in Thurso in fine evening light.(Extreme Scotland)
So all in all this has to be a ‘bible’ for future adventurous souls to go forth, to ski tour, to trail run, surf, mountain bike, rock climb, kayak and winter climb. Knowing much of the territory the pictures cover, I would be surprised if anyone else could improve on this work of Nadir Khan. So I congratulate him on an outstanding book, and I do hope it proves to be a well thumbed, well read success.

Dennis Gray:2018 
Images-Vertebrate Publishing