Friday, 10 May 2019

Lost in Time: Napes Needle Mystery Solved.

Who are the two mysterious figures at the base of Napes Needle?
On Monday 31st March, the first female ascent of Napes Needle was undertaken by Miss Dorothea Julia Koecher (aged 26), who was climbing with her two brothers – Otto Julius Koecher and John Edgar Koecher, all from Rusholme, Lancashire. The climb was captured on camera showing her standing on the summit which was later used in the 1914 FRCCJ, in an article Haskett Smith wrote, titled ‘The First Ascent of Napes Needle’. What is interesting about this photo, is not so much that a woman is standing on the top after the first female ascent, but the two men standing at the base of the cliff, looking as if they are posing for the photographer.

Haskett Smith makes no mention of who these two figures in his article let alone the photo of Miss Koecher, as it just relates to his 1886 solo ascent.
Over the years, no other mention was made as to who these two figures were, and so both the photograph and the unanswered question as to their identity, sank into historical darkness, that is until 2018 when their identities were finally established.
During my research into material for the biography of Rusty Westmorland, OBE, Lakelands last climbing pioneer and founding father of Keswick Moutain Rescue Team in 1946, I came across an old sepia photograph of someone posing half-way up Napes Needle. On the reverse of the photo was the date 1890 and the name Thomas Westmorland with a ? beside it (this being Rusty’s father, also an early Lakeland climbing pioneer).

After extensive research, it was obvious that the climber was not of Thomas Westmorland, who was in 1890, overweight, clean-shaven and unable to climb due to a debilitating illness. At that point, I put the image aside and finished Rusty’s biography, although earlier, I had decided that when finished, I would start on the biography of Haskett Smith, as he appeared in Rusty’s story several times at pivitol moments in Haskett Smith’s life.

When compiling material for Chapter Five – Beyond the Needle (1887 - 1899) – I was looking through pages of Edmund Haskett Smith’s diary (which he kept every day since the age of ten), and read that at Easter of 1890, the Haskett Smith brothers (Walter and his younger brother Edmund), travelled to Wasdale as they did most Easter’s and Summers from 1882 to 1911. I was intrigued further when I came across information which stated that the Haskett Smith brothers knew the Koecher family well and were present when she made her ascent.

So, putting two and two together and getting the proverbial four, on further close examination of the two photos, it was apparent that the two mysterious figures standing at the base of the Needle on Miss Koecher’s first ascent is none other than the Haskett Smith brothers (Edmund on the left and his brother on the right), and on comparing the clothes of the individual wearing a hat in Miss Koecher’s photo with that of the individual posing half-way up Napes Needle, it is clearly one and the same person, even down to the moustache – i.e. Haskett Smith.
Haskett Smith posing on the Needle. Limited Edition prints available from the author. Details below.

Then to substantiate my findings, a few weeks Iater, I came across a scribbled note in Edmund’s diary, stating that he and his brother (Walter), had climbed Napes Needle in 1890 before Walter was to go to the Alps with Cecil Slingsby and Geoffrey Hastings a few months later in August.
So there we have it, mystery figures identified; another interesting fact about Haskett Smith and the Napes Needle; and another gap in Lakeland climbing history filled.
Note: The 1890 Haskett Smith photo posing on Napes Needle has been made into a limited (numbered) print run of 50 (mounted – 35cm x 46cm) and can be obtained from the author: for £36 [includes postage]. 

Frank Grant: 2019 


Friday, 26 April 2019

Michael Gill's 'Edmund Hillary: A Biography'...Reviewed

Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill, is the story of the man who took a photograph that electrified the world: his companion, Tenzing Norgay, ice axe and flags held aloft, on the summit of Everest. Unheard of for the first third of his life, Hillary was thrust from obscurity in distant New Zealand to front page news on the day of the Coronation. His name transcended the narrow world of climbing and mountaineering, and, like Yuri Gagarin eight years later, everyone knew who he was.

In the pantheon of action heroes for boys growing up in the 1950s, none ranked higher than Hillary, seemingly the embodiment of the expression 'larger than life.' And what a life his was. Over its span the author describes a string of remarkable metamorphoses: from unsure boy, the smallest in his class, to physically assertive young man, and force to be reckoned with on the rugby field; from conscientious objector, to wartime service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force; from abandoned university career, to honorary doctorates; from loose cannon on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, to New Zealand's High Commissioner in Delhi, and Garter Knight.

But what lay behind the received narrative of the self-effacing bee farmer from Auckland, and how did he wear the mantle of New Zealand's favourite son for over 50 years? Having known his subject personally, the author is well qualified to tell us. His primary sources include the Hillary archive in the Auckland museum, personal contact with many of the Everest team, and access to private letters. In an outstanding book of over 500 pages there is scope for width and depth, both of which he develops to advantage, writing with an engaging style, light on jargon for the general reader.

Ed and Harry Ayres on the summit of Aoraki-Mt Cook, 1947. © Hillary Museum Collection 
Gill lays out Hillary's ancestral line from 19th Century New Zealand to his birth soon after the end of the First World War. The subject is neatly placed in his time, as when describing his own young country as 'makeshift', and, on a 1950 visit to London, himself as 'British first and a New Zealander second'. A brief aside tells us of the young man's awareness of bygone attitudes to the indigenous Antipodean people, still an uncomfortable subject today.

From the front cover Hillary's face, bearded and unsmiling, looks hard into the camera lens. We read of the restless son of an austere father, finding his metier in the snows of the Southern Alps; later going on his first expedition, to the Garwhal Himalaya, in 1951. On Mukut Parbat he experiences the rigours of climbing a big mountain, dropping nine kilos in body weight, and learning a hard lesson... 'that the race is not just to the strong, but to those who have the courage and tenacity to see it through to the end.'

Gill is particularly good on Hillary's interactions with family members, friends, and contemporaries: the relationship with his father; his ever dependable brother Rex; his long friendship with George Lowe; his respect for John Hunt and mentor Harry Ayres, and many more. Neither is Gill's objectivity compromised by friendship with his subject: whilst Hillary was generous in praise of his climbing companions in published writings, diary extracts show that in private he could be sharply critical, even of his closest friends. His winning affability served him well, but was not always enough. On the Garwhal trip, Gill contrasts the waggish humour of Hillary and Lowe with the more cerebral Earle Riddiford, who...'with his cool intellect just wasn't Ed's sort of person.' We learn that Hillary could be sensitive to criticism, and, in Gill's words, 'preferred his own version of his life,' admonishing an unauthorised biographer with “I write my own books!” Public appearances brought contact with the political class, for whom he showed scant regard; there were clashes with two Prime Ministers, Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon. This spikier side shows in the account of the 1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, when, disregarding team orders, he made a 500 mile dash for the Pole, upstaging the British party approaching from the Weddell Sea. It went down badly in the British press, and his own Antarctic Committee in New Zealand disapproved. 

Ed with companion (probably Jack McBurney) and two unknown young women outside a corrugated iron hut. © Hillary Museum Collection 

Inevitably, the narrative leads to Everest. Gill addresses the question of why success was so long in coming, when a 19th Century French scientist had shown in the laboratory that breathing supplementary oxygen could overcome the debilitating effects of altitude. In chapters examining the early attempts on the mountain, the author's skill in portraying the individuals and institutions at work shows far reaching consequences flowing from random interactions and prejudices: in London, the Everest Committee; on the mountain, the solid Lieutenant-Colonel Howard-Bury, leader in 1921; the pithy General Bruce, of 1922 and 24; George Mallory, outstanding climber though 'technically illiterate when it came to equipment such as cameras and oxygen apparatus'; and Australian George Finch, Mallory's equal as a climber, possessing the technical skills he lacked, but whose independent views offended the establishment. 

Following the tragic end of the 1924 attempt, the 1930s expeditions fared no better. Still the view held that given the right conditions, an ascent without oxygen was achievable. After the hiatus of the Second World War, geopolitics intervened. With the opening of access from Nepal, success in 1953 became imperative after the Swiss got close in 1952, and the French were booked for 1954; 'merde!' the author observes, further comment clearly unnecessary. The 1951 Everest reconnaissance, led by Shipton, showed Hillary's credentials. In London, a more single minded leader was appointed for the next attempt, and now was the time for oxygen to be fully embraced. Digressing occasionally, Gill imagines a parallel universe where events diverge from the version we know: what if Finch had gone back to Everest with Mallory in 1924? What if Hillary had not been the youngest in his school class? The conclusions are invariably thought provoking and point to how history might have been written very differently.

Having climbed Everest, how does one follow that? There would be no further Himalayan trips for some years; instead, marriage, and a young family. The hitherto male dominated story is leavened by extracts from personal letters from the time of Hillary's courtship of his wife Louise, showing his reliance on her for emotional support, and later for active help with his work in Nepal. There was international travel, and authorship too; High Adventure, his account of the 1953 success was published to critical acclaim in1955. From a bizarre early 60s expedition to find the yeti came the seeds of development work among the Sherpa people. Schools, hospitals, and airstrips followed, and a close association with the Khumbu area for the rest of his life. 

Aoraki-Mt Cook. The prominent rock ridge between sun and shadow is the South Ridge which was first climbed by Ayres, Hillary, Sullivan and Adams in 1948. It leads to Low Peak. The summit ridge continues to Middle and then High Peak. © Colin Monteath/Hedgehog House 

The latter years are passed over briskly. Gill suggests that a later biographer might write more fully of this time, yet I felt an opportunity was missed. At the close of the narrative the author quotes the Everest tribute by Jan Morris, referring to '...the last earthly adventure before humanity's explorers went off into space.' In this context, it would have been entertaining to read of the 1985 meeting of Hillary and Neil Armstrong. One can imagine a conversation on memorable one-liners.

For the climber, the book will be essential reading, but there is much here too in the more general appeal of a life well spent, in making the utmost of one's talents, and in man's pursuit of goals at the limit of human endeavour. A minor criticism concerns two useful maps, one of New Zealand and one of Antarctica, among the appendices, which could have been placed to better effect in the appropriate chapters.

Mike Bailey: 2019

Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill. Published 2019 by Vertebrate Publishing £24.00
ISBN 9781911342960 


Friday, 12 April 2019

Peter and the Icicle

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.


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)


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.