Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Mastermind: Mental Training for Climbers...Review

5.10 Teamsters pose in front of Gullich and Albert poster
Man knows more than he understands’ Alfred Adler.

This is the third book published by the Cafe Craft organisation covering training systems for climbing. Who are Cafe Craft in this instance? An organisation based in Germany, with ultra-modern climbing centres in Nuremburg and Stuttgart, at the cutting edge of where training for Sports Climbing and Bouldering is developing. Looming over their story are the progenitors of the Redpoint, Norbert Sander and Kurt Albert and the deceased figure of Wolfgang Gullich who despite being dead since 1992, he was the tragic victim of a car crash, was one of the first of the ‘modern’ elite to bring scientific training methods into his development as a climber. A sports physiology student at Erlangen University, studying under the famous Professor Dr Weineck, he applied his knowledge gained into his climbing and set new standards for Sports Climbing with routes like Action Directe 9A in the Frankenjura and Punks in the Gym 8B+ in Arapalies, Australia. To also note some outstanding rock climbs in the Himalaya; e.g. The Riders in the Storm.
Jerry Moffatt came into the spotlight of British climbing in the early 1980’s and for the next two decades he roamed far and wide, pioneering high standard new routes and boulder problems, participating in competitions and making early repeats in countries as diverse as Britain, France, Germany, USA, Japan and Australia.

Learning, from these experiences and agreeing with Gullich that ‘The mind is the most important muscle’ he has set down in ‘Mastermind’ what he believes are the most important elements in mental training for climbers; guided by two climbers with a Professional background in such, Professor Lew Hardy from Bangor University and Dr Noel Craine an epidemiology researcher in the NHS. This knowledge is formulated in short chapters covering such subjects as visualisation, motivation, goal setting and planning, rehearsal, plus conscious and unconscious thought etc. The books layout and setting is truly modern and is typical of the author, a ’with it’ mind set bolstered by wise sayings and epigrams, everyone from Muhammad Ali, Lao Tzu to Bruce Lee. Unfortunately there are a number of literals and grammatical errors in the text, but they do not affect one’s understanding of any meaning of the contents.
Wolgang Gullich Image and his Professor Dr Weinick,
And so for the mass of climbers who do not aim to be part of an elite performers programme, who only climb for their own enjoyment and ‘fun’ they may ask the question, ‘Why should I bother?’. Well, exploration of the mind is not time wasted, and may be helpful in facing up to life’s inevitable problems in the other spheres of our existence. Present day research into this still rests heavily on the work of three men at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries Freud, Jung and Adler. Each developed their own take on this subject, but the fact of all humans possessing a conscious and unconscious mind is paramount to the understanding of our behaviour. Inevitably as Psychology has developed and new discoveries have been made there has grown a plethora of specialisation; Educational Psychology, Social Psychology, Child Psychology, Clinical Psychology etc but the one of most interest to where climbing is now at, is Sports Psychology.

The core disciplines of performance are bio-mechanics, kinesiology, physiology and psychology and within climbing’s disciplines of Sport, Boulder and Competition climbers are coming to appreciate the importance of the latter, and I guess they are the ones that Moffatt’s book is now aimed at. This is bolstered by a quote elsewhere by Shauna Coxey, who has already twice been the World Bouldering Champion and is the only British climber so far, to have qualified for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo: ‘I long ago came to realise in this sport, psychology is way more important than physiology!’
To return to ‘Mastermind’ we learn the thoughts and how they set about to reach their goals from several of today’s leading Boulder, Sport and Competition climbers, Margo Hayes, Adam Ondra, Alex Megos, Chris Sharma etc and from Jerry himself. Winning in 1989 at the Leeds first World Cup Competition was a major achievement in his life, and this is also of some pride to myself, for I was heavily involved in organising this along with DMM and it took place in that City for that is where I live.
Alex Meglos
Friends of mine owned the venue and I persuaded them to let us use their main hall. But Mastermind is not just about those involved in what many see as the modern disciplines in climbing, for included with their ideas and thoughts about mind control are Leo Holding, Sandy Allen, Pete Whittacker, Stefan Glowacz, Jimmy Webb, Alex Honnold and many more covering everything from an epic ascent in the Himalaya, Base and Wing Suit Flying, Bouldering, and a 24 hour ascent of El Capitan and much more. One interview that really gripped was the one with Mich Kemeter using a breathing technique and slack line walking between two balloons set at 1000 metres up in the Sky. Many of these events are included as ‘Inspirational’ stories at the rear of the book.

However talking about the use of a breathing technique to keep the level of anxiety or fear at managing levels in order to undertake a dangerous challenge like ‘Slack Line Walking’ I have to observe that this is nothing new. It is obvious that Jerry is impressed with Chinese martial artists as I. They are masters at such techniques and are common practice in some of their meditation techniques. I have visited the Shaolin Si in Henan Province, China on two occasions previously: the Monks there have developed Gong (Kung) Fu techniques for over a thousand years. Unfortunately they have become a part of the entertainment industry (and maybe that is where Competition Climbing will also develop into given time) but they can still perform some amazing feats. I also when in Jiangyou in Sichuan Province, China witnessed a Daoist monk perform a staggering feat, a one finger hand stand.

On another occasion in Northern Sichuan I observed a monk tightrope walking between two high rock pinnacles. He had no safety line and if he had fallen it would have been terminal. But finally in reporting the observing of Chinese mind training activities, adherents following Tai Chi exercises can be observed anywhere in Parks throughout China, but the one activity I have seriously studied was at a Qi Gong centre on the isle of Hainan off the south coast of the mainland, and it was most rewarding. In this one follows a strict regime of exercises, calligraphy, meditation etc. And learning how to harness the power of one’s centre using Qi is both relaxing and impressive. It is why a Qi Gong master who came to the UK sat down and challenged a group of Royal Marines to lift him. They could not, and interesting for Jerry’s benefit might be the information that Bruce Lee of ‘Enter the Dragon fame’ was taught by such a master sensai.

So humans for generations have known about the potential of harnessing the power of the mind, and though slow to accept Sports Psychology in Britain it was adopted much earlier in the USA. Coleman Griffith of the University of Illinois is credited as one of the founders of this discipline. In 1918 he began to use cognitive and behavioural strategies to improve the performance of basketball and USA football team members and in 1925 he opened the first research laboratory in ‘Psychology and its relation to athletic performance’. I was invited in the mid 1980’s to join the Board of the British Association of Sports Psychologists, and at that date we still lagged far behind Germany, who like the USA had adopted the discipline as early as 1925 led by Dr Carl Diem in Berlin, and we had hardly noted the fact that 450 Sports Psychologists from many countries of the world had gathered in Rome in 1965 for the disciplines first World Congress.

An amusing anecdote is that one of my fellow Board members was invited by the Manager of one of the First Division Soccer Clubs in 1986 to advise his players and to begin adopting psychometric methods in their training, he came back chastened for the team had ganged up on him and refused to take part in any mind training. They totally misunderstood what he was about and felt it was a dark suggestion that some of them were mentally unstable. Remember that the First Division became the Premier League just a few years later, so this was an indication of how far behind they were in adopting what are now the accepted norms in such training. Sports Psychology came of age at the Olympics in 1984, and for the summer Olympics of 1996 the USA Athletics team had a group of 20 such accompanying their participants. It is now the norm for Sports Psychologists to be a part also of our national teams, and even the Premier Division football clubs.

I am sure like me Jerry Moffatt sees climbing as a different kind of sport than athletics, although it is a sport in which I have also been involved. He started climbing as a 15 year old, and was prepared to really ‘rough it’ just to get out onto the crags. I started as an 11 year old and used to walk long distances to do the same at a time when our country was still recovering from the war. I would have suggested to him when he was putting together ‘Mastermind’ to give an indication of where he thought climbing was travelling along to? It is still a broad church, with boulder, trad , sports, competition, alpine and greater ranges mountaineering all a part of climbing. But will it remain so with Olympic recognition?, and what experience I have is that though several times in ‘Mastermind’ we learn that training and competing is all about having ‘Fun’, it does seem awful serious now with little or no hint that anarchy might still break out given half a chance to do so. So as I have observed before, ‘Quo Vadis Climbing?’ 
Kurt Albert
Finally the book is illustrated by many fine photographs, and is intended to be used as a training manual. At the end of some of the sub-sections there are blank, lined pages to write thoughts and detail as in a diary, of where the climber is at in their training methods ,and progression for example ‘In Strength’. And into the Case binding is bound a page marker and a pencil holder. I am informed that ‘Mastermind’ has sold 12,000 copies outside of the UK so it will be interesting to note how it is received here, doubtless it will be like its author another milestone in our own climbing story.

Mastermind’. Mental Training For Climbers. Jerry Moffatt
288pages Case Bound. Published by Cafe Craft GmbH. £25.00
Available in the UK via Vertebrate Publishing. 

Dennis Gray: 2019 

Friday, 22 November 2019

Grandad Calling

I wake up to a video on Youtube of an old pal talking about climbing the crux of one of my routes in North Wales. It amazes me that anyone can talk their way up a route, move by move in retrospect, logged in fact for almost forty years. I try to mime-climb to the spoken moves like an ineloquent Marcel Marceau, comically out of tune to the speaker. Rewind, play. Rewind, play. But I am lost. I am lost in this time because this is not fundamentally the route of my experience. This is not because my memory has ‘passed away’, although his might have, but because it failed to see the significance in the first place, at source. I would always find it hard to remember where a route went even just after the event of climbing it. It gets me thinking as to why that was? That my conscious mind never logged such information presents an interesting morning ponder.

I have just had my leisurely breakfast at Lous Manes and picked 17 figs after the early morning raid by the male blackcap. The morning dew has bathed each darkening morsel and the white sticky sap from the stem tacks up my fingers like dabs of wood glue that sticks to the coffee mug.
I like the blackcap; he cannot contain his excitement among the tasty, juicy figs and he ‘clicks’ constantly, thereby giving away his game and his whereabouts. I allow a modicum of dainty pecks from this fairly tame bird but keep the greedy jays out of their feeding frenzy… as much as I can, because, as crows, they have ‘the knowledge’ that I am not a morning person. The early bird may get the ‘fig’ but I defend my late starts by knowing the early ‘fig’ gets eaten. Anyway, my blackcapped friend’s clicks inform me of a ripening taking place in the morning sun, and is rejoicing. Time to get up.
I cannot know what the blackcap sees or hears upon my morning approach of “get off me figs you bastard”, but I presume it has little to do with how I perceive myself to be. I cannot say that just because the bird is among the figs that I eat, I am contingent in what I see. Where am I?
And as my old friend’s memory chalks the holds like a ghost in the ether, I am nestled in something that I feel innately as ‘other’ and prior to what I hear. There is remembering here in a way that I cannot associate with. Where was I?
Fundamentally I know that the landscape of the blackcap and my friend’s narrative amount to a morning encounter, a connection, and I say ‘prior to what I hear’ because I feel there is a deeper, greater, older resonance to seeing and feeling. As I pause and look around the vast woodland that surrounds me I am often consumed by a blind potential…an infinite relationship to the animal…kinship…a simulacrum of a darker, dirtier arena and meaning. But this fullness is a momentary flash and then vanishes, and I fall back to an empty rationale, an invasion almost, increasingly more like a show than real life.

It is not nearly enough to appreciate in wonder the visual nature that surrounds us as if ticking an i-spy book of ingredients.
I think this a tangible premise and part clue to a previous life juggling moves on rock and memory loss. Another fully-loaded coffee offers no comfort. It is obvious that I cannot remember the moves because it was the moment that was moving me. This is a language greater than me, and as I have said many times there is greater significance to the experience than just a route. Climbing is nothing but a format for another encounter that collides dramatically with the force-fed, force-dripped, craft-manual ‘approach’, ecclesiastical in doctrine, colour-coded, institutionalized and authority-ridden; a pack-led approach that has become omnipresent in the world of sport climbing. But I am being far too polite.

Climbing walls are packed with believers singing hymns to a materially-sunk Demiurge whose teachings wrack the body with obediently followed codes of practice. A breeding ground for future robots and a training camp for the death of spirit as I know it, the world surely suffers in response.
John Redhead on his 'Demons of Bosch'

When tumbling joyfully through this loud, physical playground, there can be no ‘otherness’, the fulfilling essence for us to experience. That playground destroys, anulls thousands of years of potential… so who gives a flying fuck when we are strangers in a strange land? Nature is the urgent piss you have to stop climbing for. When we try to remember who we are and protect that which grows around us, climbing walls are a disease of the mind, denoting suffering and death. Adults should know better than to encourage children in a pursuit worth little more than colouring in with primary felt-tip pens, or chasing sweets.

When I take my kids to the wall, we take a few lego men and I put them on holds about ten feet off the deck. They have to climb up and save them. This way they are climbing, and learning how to move, without realising it. Quite a good method for getting kids climbing for fun and not just for the sake of climbing, which may seem quite pointless to some.’
That’s my little Mimi up there. She’s only eight. She’s on a 6a. That’s the red one with the awkward sidies. So much faster than her friends. She refused to warm up and that’s my girl. I’m so proud.”
But enthusiasm is often fostered when there are games and prizes involved. Kids can pretend there are dinosaur fossils at the top of the wall or parents can hide treats in some of the holds. One of the reasons George was so excited about his project was simply because the holds looked—with the power of his imagination—like Mickey Mouse.’
Coaching kids by Ary Shreider.

To me this is abuse. It is conditioning. This is no ‘power of the imagination’ but corporate Disney getting you hooked like addicts on garbage and consumerism. This is Daily Mail climbing, dumbing down the senses to simple soundbites, so indoor climbing walls, UKC, the BMC and narcissistic coaches and sport psychologists can extract your money. Sign up or fall short of fame and ‘fitness’. These are economic considerations that need a healthy consumer base and local government support. The truth of ‘sport’ is the age-old, usual propaganda system of control, where the fears, stress and injustice of a disordered society create and encourage the appetite for a belief that we exist as beings in and of ourselves…the selfies are a creed of ghosts and you cannot see yourself, because you are kept in the dark, performing in bright lights, collecting holds and sequences you remember. No wonder we are paying lip-service to nature deficit disorder. This is toxic thinking.
Competition doping in ‘gym climbing’ comes with Olympic glory, money and prestige’. Well, Fancy that! But of course, these arguments go a lot further than the nonsense of simply climbing for your country. They are manifest in every aspect of society.
when the rock climber understands the nature of ascent he will have no need to climb rock……and one for the crow.

Red Croc Rebel
I hope I have passionately articulated my response to not remembering moves on a climb? That the climb has a physical nature does not mean that the moves cannot take you to that blind potential, to another more ethereal connection. There is no manual for this apart from the words pause in nature by getting out into it.
I guess what I am saying is to never base your identity on this pursuit, because if you do, you do little more that ‘hire’ yourself out of yourself…pimped to the highest bidder.
I can have a laugh and play and work out in the gym but my challenge to others is how seriously they take it. That the psyche can fill up with this shit is worrying. Make no mistake there is a voracious, malevolent background, bankrolled, sitting in high-rise offices planning another wave to suck you into and dumb you down in.
Authentic Desire, Margins of the Mind, Shaft of the Dead Man, were stalked through as if behind enemy lines. One was prepared to die. I cannot remember the moves but there are paintings to prove I returned to my studio. Almost ‘indigenous’ in its primary impulse, nothing but ones own volition energized an ascent. Nobody could take an advantage, or seek to control, or make money from such nature inspired endeavors. The body and soul and psyche are so repleat and nourished there can be no opportunity for ‘foreign’ takeover, they have native immunity. This I call divine and I feel lucky to have experienced and survived it. This approach, almost like an erotic sacrament, sustained a life, is not in the least romantic, it is more pagan in its sensibility. But make no mistake, I am not in the ‘adventure’ game either. This stalking was not adventure. The adventure waits in the studio terrain.
On my third fully-loaded coffee I am well enmeshed. The clicking is persistent like a ticking clock. Again I call, “get off me fucking figs.” I pick another five as they seem to be ripening in front of my eyes. I think of Father Time. I am reminded of my Grandad who instilled a very spiritual respect for all that we share the planet with. But I always criticized him for trying to get me to learn the piano. ‘I don’t care’ I would retort. And to take up his passion for golf; ‘I don’t care’. And walking long distances; ‘I don’t care’. Growing tomatoes; ‘I don’t care’. Card games and crosswords; ‘I don’t care’. Everything and etc etc; ‘I don’t care’. I am my grandfather’s age when I rebelliously and petulantly refused to acknowledge his offers of advice and caring. He is here now smiling, looking at the woodland and appreciating the vegetables growing on the reclaimed terraces. Of course I care. I always did. And now I have become my ‘own’ grandfather, and still as angry as I was at six, concerning the way the world moves. Fighting on the side of ‘otherness’ came early.
It is very hard in this verdant, green wilderness that blesses me each morning, listening to the living earth, to imagine the extreme decay and negligence that humankind have allowed their psyche and the planet to be infected by. That the ‘dark ages’ are still upon us is obvious, that we have fallen and are failing as a species is undeniable. The Kali Yuga, in Hindu mythology may be near its end with a new consciousness, but it wrestles with what I see as the genocide of humanity with…
a hundred generations of dominant pathological affliction and perpetrator religion in global society’. John Lamb Lash.

We have been hammered. How can we reclaim what we have lost when we are so full - full of dubious outside influences that seem joyful and life affirming? What a privileged life. We are not fleeing slavery in Africa or paying human traffickers for a better life somewhere else. But wait! As the media pumps out the horror from the world stage, another, unknown, silent horror that writhes in everyone, slave, migrant, banker, is the ignorance, the fatal ignorance of having forgotten how to read ourselves in the planet and the cosmos which is our home.
We climb out of ourselves and home.
We run out of our selves and home.
We work out of ourselves and home.
We escape out of ourselves and home.

The anchor was severed long ago by serpents unknown.

Do not believe, but know, you are the craftsman of yourself…

John Redhead

Talywaenydd, N Wales. October 2019

All Images JR.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Roger Hubank's North Wall...Reviewed

140pages: Perfect Bound Paper Back £12.99; e-book version £4.99.

Roger Hubank is one of those seminal figures whose writing en-riches the climbing scene. He has published five novels so far, and North Wall which was his first such, appeared over 40 years ago. His greatest success so far as a climbing novelist was Hazard’s Way, set in the mountain fraternity at Wasdale Head in the early years of the 20th century, a volume which won both the Boardman/Tasker award and the Grand Prix prize at the Banff Mountain Festival.

I had read Hazard’s Way before I was invited to review the re-published edition of his Alpine climbing novel, ‘North Wall’ and most interestingly in this he has penned a Foreword explaining the stories genesis. And how it is actually set in the Bregaglia Mountain Range, and that the fictitious village of ‘Molino’ is actually Promontogno at the foot of the Piz Badile. I found resonance in his story as to the actual happening during the first ascent of the North East Face of that mountain, which was led by Riccardo Cassin. They were caught high on the face in a terrible storm and two of those who joined up with his party they met on the climb, whilst pioneering the route, died in similar storm conditions to those faced by the main characters in North Wall.

The author also explains in this Foreword why because his novel contains a certain autobiographical element, he was persuaded that his two main characters, Daniel and Raymond should be French and not English, lest the originals be too recognisable. Although the mountain Piz Molino does not exist, at the preface to the novel he has also included a topo and route description for ‘the direttissima on the north-east face of the Piz Molino’. Sufficiently like the real thing for some to have claimed to have ascended this climb!

The story appears to be well set in its era of Alpine exploration, now changed beyond recognition by the advances in equipment and technique. To fully appreciate this one has to know that the author began his climbing career in an era of moleskin breeches, jammed knots and long run outs. And though some of today’s super Alpinists may find the whole premise of such a climb too far-fetched, the plot is sound; two climbers, Raymond a hard case professional mountain guide and Daniel a talented amateur set forth to take up the challenge to climb the 1200metre north-east face of the Piz Molino; a fearsome route that has not been repeated since its first ascent twelve years earlier in 1954, by a team of four Italian climbers, two of whom perished on the descent in the inevitable bad weather of storm conditions.

Though in the story of the climb, four climbers are involved, for they meet up with two Czech climbers, Tomas and Jaro on the face, only Raymond and Daniel really matter to the story. I found it difficult to get into the story, which starts during the two climbers walk in to the base of the climb. Within these early Chapters we learn something of their characters; Daniel a practising Catholic but confused about his beliefs, a pious domestic orientated man, who when not climbing attends at Mass on Sundays, and who worries about his wife and child back at home, with a partner who has never understood his need to go and challenge himself in the mountains. Raymond is the wise old guide, who has seen it all, but is haunted by his previous participation in a Himalayan expedition, during which several members of their party were deceased in an avalanche, and the death of his brother whilst climbing on the Aguille du Plan.
Once the climbing actually starts it does become page turning, the mountains face is split by a huge diedre, and the line of the ascent is always obvious. Access to this feature becomes one of the cruxes of the ascent for it closes above the first bivouac and necessitates a daring pendule across the face to reach a parallel flake crack. This is followed until it is possible to regain the upper diedre, which once achieved it is better to press on to the summit than to attempt to retreat. Unfortunately during this Raymond is hit by stonefall, which shatters an arm and renders him unconscious. The Czechs catch up and help all they can and eventually agree to climb on and go for assistance. However once Daniel is alone with Raymond he begins to realise how serious their position really is. Retreat is not possible and the weather is closing in, their food and fuel are running out and though Raymond is now conscious he is limited by his injuries and cannot lead on up the climb.

So the scene is set for a climbing epic, for above Daniel and Raymond are several hundred of metres of difficult climbing some of it grade six, and in part with sections of high standard artificial ascent. But with no way of communicating with anyone else, and believing that the Czechs must have perished high above in the storm, after a couple of days waiting they realise they must try to ascend to be saved. Daniel must become the leader and Raymond with his one good arm must somehow manage to follow him.I will not describe the climbing further but I believe the story from thereon, written in short sentence syntax, is carried forward by some truly, great evocative writing. The perspective in this is also enhanced by moving from character to character. You get to know what Daniel is thinking and likewise Raymond.
North Wall is much more than a gripping survival story; it is one that examines the nature of climbing itself? Why trade earthbound comforts for the allure of the mountains, risking all to achieve something in climbing terms which might be extraordinary. But which to the average none climber could mean something akin to a madness. As an aside is it now Quo Vadis for climbing, set against such as an ascent as described in North Wall? Will new generations of participants be more enamoured of relatively safe and cosseted gymnastic performance, via artificial walls, and competition climbing and its outstanding ‘winners’ at an Olympics, than my generation were of the ascents by Bonatti, Cassin, Heckmair, Robbins and our own Joe Brown?

I have already noted the quality of Hubank’s writing in ‘North Wall’, it received many plaudits on its first publication. It achieves something extraordinary in its relationship between the climbing and the writing, highlighting the mental impact on its participants of dedicating one’s life to such an activity as North Walling! However in this it exemplifies that mentally there is no way you can ‘method’ your way out of such a predicament, you adapt as you go on. Interestingly someone who really knows about such is Mark Twight. In his collection of short stories/articles which also won at Banff; ‘The Confessions of a serial Climber. Kiss or kill’ he notes this aspect found in the pages of North Wall and quotes from these.
Roger Hubank: Image-Boardman Tasker
Expanding on such the book highlights more closely the context within which climbing takes place, the lives of parents, wives, girl, and or boy- friends. And families as well as the larger cultural, social and political worlds, for often they do not appear in the pages of mountaineering books. Finally, Vertebrate are to be congratulated on the re-publication of North Wall, for it has brought to attention once more the writings of Roger Hubank, a former Loughborough University English literature lecturer, who is heading the judges this year at the Boardman Tasker award; an outstanding commentator on our sport. 

Dennis Gray: 2019

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Accident on the Cyfrwy Arete

The Cyfrwy face of Cader Idris. The route takes the left ridge.
Climb the Great Gully. A casual remark of Mr. Syme's revealed the fact that Mr. Warren was a rising surgeon on the staff of the London Hospital. Another casual remark disclosed the name of the small village where Warren and Syme were staying. I should at this moment be wearing an artificial leg but for this lucky series of accidents, beginning with the nailed boots which Syme was wearing and which had effected our introduction. On the following day Lindsay felt like a rest, so I set off alone and climbed the east ridge of Cyfrwy, off which I fell two days later. It is an interesting climb, not very difficult judged by modern standards, but quite amusing. The steep face looks sensational but is really quite easy. The best thing on the ridge is a miniature Mummery crack which calls for skill if one wishes to climb it without disproportionate effort. On August 28th I started for my last climb. Lindsay was not feeling fit, and he left me near the top of Cader Idris. I decided to descend the east and to climb the north ridge of Cyfrwy. I was carrying a short rope which I had brought along on the chance that Lindsay might join me. The day was perfect.

The burnished silver of the sea melted into a golden haze. Light shadows cast by scudding clouds drifted across the blue and distant hills. The sun flooded down on the rocks. I slid down the crack and reached the top of the steep face of rock above " The Table." The usual route dodges the top fifteen feet of this face, and by an easy traverse reaches a lower ledge. But on that glorious afternoon I longed to spin out the Joys of Cyfrwy, and I found a direct route from the top to the bottom of this wall, a steep but not very severe variation. It was one of those days when to be alive is " very heaven'. The feel of the warm dry rocks and the easy rhythm of the descending motion gave me an almost sensuous pleasure. One toyed with the thought of danger, so complete was the confidence inspired by the firm touch of the wrinkled rocks. In this short span Between my finger tips and the smooth edge, And these tense feet cramped to a crystal ledge, I hold the life of man.

Consciously I embrace, Arched from the mountain rock on which I stand To the firm limit of my lifted hand, The front of time and space ; For what is there in all the world for me But what I know and see ? And what remains of all I see and know If I let go ? I was glad to be alone. I revelled in the freedom from the restraints of the rope, and from the need to synchronize my movements with the movements of companions. I have never enjoyed rock-climbing more. I have never enjoyed rock-climbing since. But, at least, the hills gave me of their best, full measure and overflowing, in those last few golden moments before I fell. A few minutes later Lindsay, who was admiring the view from Cader, was startled by the thunder of a stone avalanche. He turned to a stray tourist, urging him to follow, and dashed off in the direction of Cwfrwy. And this is what had happened. I had just lowered myself off the edge of  'The Table'  There was no suggestion of danger. Suddenly the mountain seemed to sway, and a quiver ran through the rocks. I clung for one brief moment of agony to the face of the cliff. And then suddenly a vast block, which must have been about ten feet high and several feet thick, separated itself from the face, heeled over on top of me and carried me with it into space. I turned a somersault, struck the cliff some distance below, bounded off once again and, after crashing against the ridge two or three times, landed on a sloping ledge about seven feet broad.

The thunder of the rocks falling through the hundred and fifty feet below my resting-point showed how narrow had been my escape. I had fallen a distance which Lindsay estimated at a hundred feet. It was not a sliding fall, for except when I struck and rebounded I was not in contact with the ridge. The fall was long enough for me to retain a very vivid memory of the thoughts which chased each other through my brain during those few crowded seconds. I can still feel the clammy horror of the moment when the solid mountain face trembled below me, but the fall, once I was fairly off, blunted the edge of fear. My emotions were subdued, as if I had been partially anaesthetized. I remember vividly seeing the mountains upside down after my first somersault. I remember the disappointment as I realized that I had not stopped and that I was still falling. I remember making despairing movements with my hands in a futile attempt to check my downward progress. The chief impression was a queer feeling that the stable order of nature had been overturned. 
The tranquil and immobile hills had been startled into a mood of furious and malignant activity, like a dangerous dog roused from a peaceful nap by some inattentive passer-by who has trodden on him unawares. And every time I struck the cliff only to be hurled downwards once again, I felt like a small boy who is being knocked about by a persistent bully—" Will he never stop ? . . . surely he can't hit me again . . . surely he's hurt me enough.-When at last I landed, I tried to sit up, but fell back hurriedly on seeing my leg. The lower part was bent almost at right angles. It was not merely broken, it was shattered and crushed. I shouted and shouted and heard no reply. Had Lindsay returned home?

Would I have to wait for hours before help came ? Solitude had lost its charm. I no longer rejoiced in my freedom from intrusion. On the contrary, I raised my voice and called upon society to come to my assistance. I set immense store on my membership of the Human Club, and very urgently did I summon my fellow members to my assistance. And then suddenly I heard an answering cry, and my shouts died away in a sob of heartfelt relief. And while I waited for help, I looked up at the scar on the cliff where the crag had broken away, and I realized all that I was in danger of losing. Had I climbed my last mountain? During the war the cheery dogmatism of some second lieutenant home from the front was extremely consoling, for the human mind is illogical and the will to believe very potent. And so when Lindsay arrived and replied with a hearty affirmative when I asked him whether I should ever climb again, I was greatly comforted, even though Lindsay knew less of broken legs than the average subaltern of the chances of peace. 

Lindsay was preceded by an ancient man who keeps the hut on Cader. He examined my leg with a critical eye and informed me that it was broken. He then remarked that I had been very ill-advised to stray off the path on to " rough places " where even the natives did not venture. He grasped my leg, and moved it a little higher on to the ledge. This hurt. He then uncoiled my rope and secured me to a buttress which overhung my narrow perch. Then Lindsay staggered on to the ledge, gave one glance at my leg, turned a curious colour, and sat down hurriedly. He suggested breaking off a gate and carrying me down on it. The ancient manor of Cader hazarded a tentative suggestion in favour of sacks. I demurred, for a sack may be appropriate to a corpse but is not conducive to the comfort of a wounded man.

Lindsay, by a lucky accident, remembered Warren's address, and so I sent him off to find him. He left me in charge of the tourist who had followed him, and departed with the man of Cader. Lindsay's chance companion was useful while he stayed, for I was lying on a sloping ledge, and was glad of his shoulder as a pillow. Ten minutes passed, and my companion remarked that he thought he ought to be going. I protested, but could not move him. His wife, he said, would be getting anxious. I hinted that his wife's anxiety might be ignored. "Ah, but you don't know my wife," he replied, and, so saying, left me. He consented to leave his cap behind as a pillow. A month later he wrote and asked me why I had not returned it. This struck me as unreasonable, but—as he justly observed —I did not know his wife. I fell at 4 pm. About 7-30 p.m it became colder, and shivering made the pain worse. About 7.45 p.m. the old man of Cader returned with some warm tea which he had brewed for me, and for which I was more than grateful. Half an hour later the local policeman arrived with a search party and a stretcher. Luckily the ledge ran across on to easy ground, but it was not until midnight—eight hours after my fall that I reached the Angel Hotel. My leg was broken, crushed and comminuted. Twice the preparations were made for amputation. Twice my temperature fell in the nick of time. At the end of a week I was taken home, and lay on my back for four months, much consoled by a Christian Scientist who assured me that my leg was intact. But it was to the faint hope of the hills that I turned for comfort in the long nights when pain had banished sleep. 
Four months after I fell I left my bed bed and began to walk again with the help of a splint My right leg was slightly crooked and was two inches shorter than the left. An open wound on the shin did not disappear for eleven years, but in spite of these and other defects, Warren's skill had left me with a very serviceable leg. I began to ski again fifteen months after the accident. Unfortunately, I wasted two seasons trying to ski with ordinary bindings, and it was not until I secured spring bindings that I began to feel reasonably confident. My toes were very stiff, and in Huitfeldt bindings it was impossible to fall forward with any real pleasure. Two years after my fall I climbed the Dent Blanche. I ought to have chosen an easier and shorter expedition, for I was very heartily sick with pain and weariness long before I reached the top. But the moment of arrival on the summit stands out—unique in my mountain memories. Nothing mattered now that I had finally routed the fears which had haunted me for two long years. I could still climb, could still say

I have not lost the magic of long days, I live them, dream them still . Still am I master of the starry ways, And freeman of the hill. Shattered my glass ere half the sands were run,I hold the heights, I hold the heights, I won .

Arnold Lunn: 1924 

First published in ' The Mountains of Youth.'

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Gary Gibson's 'Blood, Sweat and Smears'...Reviewed

Good, bad or indifferent, beyond death one leaves a reputation. For one thing I’m sure, Gary Gibson from whichever category he comes to fall, will leave behind five thousand new routes and often forgotten, a legacy of guidebook work which, from the voluntary sector is unlikely to be surmounted. If you climbed English or Welsh rock you have made a connection with this incredibly driven man and you’re likely to have climbed one of his routes or handled a guidebook in which Gibson played some part.

A huge man with an even bigger ego, he recently wrote his autobiography, how he found the time I am not quite sure? One of the most controversial and outspoken figures in UK climbing history, Gibson ruffled more feathers than a pheasant plucker’s son! He writes of his father, ‘My dad was something of an enigma … But my dad also had an awkward, almost belligerent side, one that seems to have been passed on to me.’

Edited by the respected, Mick Ward with a forward by Mark Pretty, one friend read the book in just four days, a measure of its fascinating content. Pretty argues, ‘He was (and is) a rule breaker, something of a maverick who had the vision and the nerve to change the nature of the game in the UK.’

His climbing career started as a boy, inspired and encouraged by his brother Phil and as a young man, unapologetically ‘wagged college to climb’. Although good, he was not destined to be, a ‘top’ climber by grade, he developed a quest for stardom, inspired by a photo of Ron Fawcett on the cover of Crags. ‘I wanted to be on the pages of Crags. I wanted my name there. I wanted fame.’ Gibson, described as, ‘the man who bleeds climbing’ in OTE Magazine spent his honeymoon new routing with his new wife Hazel — enough said!

Lemon Crushed
Gibson’s book is easy to read, funny, informative and yes absolutely controversial, his words reflective and diplomatic. Having met the man I cannot help but feel Gibson has mellowed with the passage of time. At a recent book event, Gibson was prodded then poked, his response measured and polite! He once remarked, ‘opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one, and they all stink.’

If you want a job doing look no further than Gibson, recently retired, he has an energy rarely found in men a third his age. In my mind, the way he promoted the book with dozens of talks demonstrates a man driven, a man for whom the words, ‘I did it my way’ are not only accurate but, seem to sum up this complex, ebullient and ambitious character.

A target of, ‘innuendo and hatred’ to this day, Gibson did make mistakes, bolting where he shouldn’t, chipping holds and making false claims. I find his open admission that he, ‘lied’ refreshing, his over enthusiasm perhaps a symptom of his drive, ambition and determination. Make no mistake, now repentant he achieved his goal, to make his mark in the climbing world. Not alone in his misdemeanours, he states, ‘I am of course, not the first to cheat; nor sadly will I be the last.’ Keith McCallum appeared to make up first ascents, in 1969 a Sunday Times article suggested he was a fantasist who even invented climbing partners. And Si O’Connor, a one-time UKC moderator, claimed boulder problems with outrageous exaggeration in grades. Unlike Gibson, McCallum and O’Connor disappeared from the climbing world, perhaps a reflection of his often conciliatory mood.

Many of the words written in magazines and on-line, revolve around controversy and his, ‘crap routes’, not my words by the way! Gary writes, ‘But 1983 would bring new climbs and plenty of controversies, mostly of my own making. One would turn the climbing world upside down, others would be forgotten and one or two still come back to haunt me publicly or privately, even today.’

Chapter eight, ‘A Kind of Death’, describes the time Gibson came close to death. In 1988 a 70 foot ground fall at Ban-y-Gor whilst new routing left Gibson fighting for his life. When help arrived, Hazel said, ‘He’s down there; I think he’s dead.’
On humour, Gibson has a comic side, on one occasion challenged by a Tarmac representative and police officer whilst new routing, the angry quarryman was escorted off his own land by the constabulary; a well written and hilarious story. Another day another quarry, questioned for alleged ‘egg stealing’, it was said, ‘you might have had a gun’. The reply — ‘It’s not fucking New York you know.’

Obsessive to the un-educated, bodacious to those who know. It’s new routes and controversies Gibson will be remembered for. With a tally fast approaching five thousand lines he writes, ‘I am what I am. I do what I do. My mission isn’t over until I’m finished.’ To me that sums him up. He is very much his own man, to climb his routes is your choice. In my mind, it takes a very big man to hold his hand up and admit he was wrong! I make no excuses for past actions however, the Lycra loving Gibson is now reformed, an honourable man who just likes to do what he does. Would I trust him with my pin number — yes I probably would!

Blood Sweat and Smears is a great read about a very interesting and without question, an energetic and enthusiastic man. I would have liked more detail in this book, perhaps his side of the 1999 Wye Valley guidebook fiasco in which Gibson threatened legal action against the BMC. This a result of Geoff Milburn’s words about Gibson. Differences were settles in the form of retro stickers with revised text, but Milburn, editor of over 20 guidebooks for the BMC and Climbers’ Club resigned over the matter — I know he is still bitter today! And, I would have liked to see some correspondence reproduced in this book, there must have been some memorable and explosive letters.

With the last word for his wife Hazel, his Second Lieutenant. A lady who was and is, always there. Although not exclusively his second, Hazel must have spent half a lifetime holding his ropes, an act I am sure will never be forgotten.

A few quotes for your consumption.

‘As regards whether Gary has done any classic first ascents, bollox, of course he has, the list is endless.’ Al Evans

‘As a psychologist, I found Gary very interesting. He turned out to be NOT NORMAL, but not disturbed either … A friendly, driven guy, who has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and misunderstood.’ Nadim Siddiqui

‘To quote the old magazine article " Gary Gibson routes are like Michael Caine movies - so many, some have to be good" (or something on those lines)’. Chris Fryer

'While the elite of British climbing have consistently ignored or dismissed his achievements … they cannot be so easily ignored. He is someone who, more than anybody else, has advanced easy to mid-grade sport climbing in this country — not to mention his trad routes.’ Mark Petty

‘He has undoubtedly given a lot to climbing both in terms of time and effort. Many of his routes are very good quality, and his guidebooks speak for themselves … he has an impetuous streak, an impatience that leads him to over-step the mark.’ Keith Sharples 1996

‘A more serious accident occurred when a block hit him on the head at Ban y Gor, necessitating surgery. Not that it stopped him. Probably nothing could, for Gibson is probably the epitome of the climbing obsessive. Like a dog on diuretics in a lamp post factory Gary has been there, seen it and done a new route on it.’ Colin Wells

‘I guess, in the end, it boils down to whether you believe in redemption. Can a man truly reform, revisit the mistakes of his youth and do his best to effect redress? I believe in redemption. I believe that Gary’s redeemed himself again and again. Cleaning up old crags which have fallen into disrepair? Rebolting other people’s routes? No glory in that. But he does it.’ Mick Ward

The man they love to hate

‘If Hazel ever asks me to give up climbing, I will, but I don’t think she ever would!’ Gary Gibson
David Price:2019 

All images supplied by the author

David Price is an enthusiast and collector of climbing and mountaineering books with a special interest in UK climbing guidebooks. He is keen to meet fellow collectors to swap, buy and sell books, journals and magazines.You can contact David by emailing him at davidprice5252@gmail.com

Sunday, 29 September 2019

John Burns' Sky Dance...Reviewed

Published by Vertebrate: £9.99 paperback or £24 in a case bound format.

John Burns is an almost unique polymath of the hill walking/climbing fraternity with a passion for writing and performance. Originally from Merseyside he moved over thirty years ago to live in Inverness to be closer. Pulled by a love of the Scottish Highlands. A keen winter climber and former member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team, he commenced his writing career in 2002 with a book of his poems, ‘Wind Danger’ aimed at raising awareness of autism, a condition affecting one of his two children.

This led on to his participation in the Edinburgh fringe with two one man plays, the first in 2010 ‘Aleister Crowley: a passion for evil’ became an instant success to be followed in 2014 by ‘Mallory: Beyond Everest’ a portrait of a man torn between the love for his wife/family and his burning ambition to climb the world’s highest mountain. Both of these plays he has performed in different venues around the UK, including his Mallory drama at a Kendal film festival. I have watched this with both intrigue and enjoyment wondering if John had not missed his true vocation as an actor story teller. He then published in 2017 his first book, ‘The Last Hill Walker’ tales gleaned from over 40 years of activity in the hills of Britain and adventures further afield in the Rocky Mountains of the USA and Canada. This has quickly become a hill walking standard which received almost rave reviews, and its follow up in 2018, a volume of ‘Bothy Tales’, stories gleaned from the mountains and bothies of Scotland, testifies to the authors intimate knowledge of that countries wild places.
And so we come to ‘Sky Dance’ a novel which has for its sub title ‘Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands’. It does just that for it is the most ‘out’ political mountain book that I have read, dealing with what are now ‘hot’ issues in Scotland and further afield including land ownership, re-wilding, and support for some form of limit on driven grouse shooting. There are no regulations pertaining to grouse moors; which are 15% to 20% of Scotland’s hill areas, and include estates which receive large public subsidies. And which means their environments are far removed from their original natural state. 
Sky Dance’ tackles these issues head on, with the two main characters of the novel being ‘Rory’ a young climber/hill walker trapped in the drudgery of his everyday life working in a factory environment, and ‘Angus’ an older more experienced mountaineer; a President of the Highland Mountaineering Club and a senior clerk serving the Council in Inverness. They get together and start visiting bothies at the weekends to walk and climb on nearby mountains. One of the areas they begin to visit regularly is the fictional Isle of Morvan, reached from the mainland by a short ferry ride on which the Muir and Purdey estates figure large in the story which enfolds in ‘Sky Dance’. The Purdey Estate is in the hands of Lord Purdey , a caricature of all that is bad in a hereditary landowner; of old money with over 300 years of ownership which he believes gives him the right to do whatever he pleases on that ground, bull dozing new access roads, encouraging his game keepers to kill anything which might affect his shooting clients; raptors, hares, voles etc..even though such as the first are protected and killing them is illegal. 

The Muir estate is the opposite run by a new money incomer who won his estate from Purdey in a gamble during a card game! Huge swathes of Scotland are ‘managed’ to increase the numbers of grouse and deer for sport (shooting) for little benefit to society and at a huge cost to wildlife and the environment. A coalition of bodies with interest in changing this has been formed under the title ‘Revive’, and they quickly won public support by organising a petition which received over 100,000 signatures, but which was just as swiftly rebuffed on submission by the Scottish government who stated ‘Grouse shooting is a legitimate activity providing benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation and investment in remote areas’. I do not think the five bodies now involved in demanding change agree this, and they are to meet shortly in Inverness to consider their response. 
Both Rory and Angus are married, but as the story develops these relationships are strained for they become ever more involved in the ideas around re-wilding, even receiving support for such from Sinead, a young Irish ecologist and the new estate manager for Tony Muir. They break into a private wild life park, steal two lynx and transport them back to Morvan, releasing them in a forest which is a part of both estates. Not being professional wild life thieves they are eventually caught and arrested, charged and out on bail for an act which in reality is currently a major topic amongst naturalists and environmentalists throughout Europe. 
Re-wilding is now on the immediate agenda in Scotland, and an organisation to investigate, promote (?) such was founded in 2015, and a National Conference took place on this subject in Stirling on the 21st September 2019. Already one land owner Paul Lister of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve of 23,000 acres near Inverness is planning to re- introduce such wildlife; lynx, wolves etc to the disagreement of many other Landowners and some local authorities. However this may be short sighted, for Lister believes he can show there is much more money and interest in managed tourism than in shooting, noting once again that this so damages the natural habitat of the Highlands. Which was once covered by 1.5 million hectares of Forest, but now boasts less than 16,000 hectares and where there are now bare open hillsides and valleys that previously were covered by Scots Pine, Rowan, Birch, Oak, Aspen, Alder and Hazel trees. 

The proponents of re-wilding point out that since wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in the USA there has been a massive increase in visitors and income, and to consider within the situation in Scotland the benefit that tree planting might make to off-setting global warming and in some areas the threat from flooding and or future storm damage. Obviously to re-introduce lynx or wolves into Scotland would require careful management, but Paul Lister of Alladale is certain this can be undertaken safely despite objections especially from the local farming community.

Sky Dance skilfully brings into its sub plots all the above issues and several more. Trophy hunting is swiftly dealt with and somewhat lampooned by the case of a wealthy German client set up to shoot a stag on the Purdey estate, by its two gamekeepers Donald and Hamish who stalk a suitable ancient animal, beyond its normal life span. And then after its despatch, they build the client up with congratulations noting he was ‘so brave’, and smearing his head with the blood of the dead animal, a ‘Highland’ tradition. Another issue arising in the novel is the use and abuse of bothies; in the main their occupants treat them with respect, take their rubbish home with them but on occasion large groups arrive at the more accessible ones, leave their trash behind and destroy some of their features, scrawling graffiti within their inner rooms etc. This struck a chord with me, for I knew some of those involved in setting up the Mountain Bothies Association in 1965.

Bothying in the recreational sense is almost a modern tradition dating from the post world war two era-however some of these shelters do date from the Highland Clearances and the Highland potato famine years, in remote areas where the population declined over a period of two centuries moving away to the cities to work in their industrialisation and abroad.

Many such are perforce located in Scotland, but there are some in the Lake District, Northumberland, Snowdonia, The Black Mountains and the Cambrians. Over 100 are listed by the MBA, and the ones in Scotland appear in a recent book by Geoff Allan ‘The Scottish Bothy Bible 2017’. I wonder if Bernard Heath and his friends who turned the ruins of an old farmhouse in Galloway into a bothy shelter, which led onto the establishment of the MBA ever thought it would become such a feature of the hill walking and climbing experience in these Islands, basic howffs free for anyone or everyone to make use of. A distant friend of mine from his early mountain days was Irvine Butterfield (1936-2009) he hailed from West Yorkshire, but a posting to Perth as an excise and customs officer led on to his playing a major role in the MBA and popularising their use and hill walking. His book, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland became a classic publication selling over 50,000 copies in a hard back format. 
Writing a novel is a real challenge, dialogue is so hard to put down onto paper and achieve a realistic result, climbers and hill walkers are not wilting flowers, so unless it is hard edged it can lose some of its bite, a case in point Rory in Sky Dance comes out against ‘lists’ believing they demean mountain activities. Angus not so, but their reaction to one of their club members completing the Munros , the round of the 284 peaks over 3,000 feet in Scotland is restrained. However both join in a celebratory weekend at the bothy on the Isle of Morvan attended by their club members. The novel becomes ever more action packed and there are so many asides it keeps on giving, and the way its author has planned it to illustrate a whole year of mountain activities, winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter is a positive device.

I will deal with only one other subject arising from the pages of Sky Dance; that is the one that the author obviously feels so strongly about, namely landowning! On several occasions he notes that a few hundreds of families own most of the land in Scotland. When I looked at the history of trespass and the life story of Benny Rothman this was a key to the fate that overtook him and his young friends, they had deliberately publicised the unfairness of the access situation by organising a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, and paid for this with jail sentences. John Burns cites this event in Sky Dance, and rightly feels that Benny was some kind of hero, in support of the outdoor fraternities demand for easier and more open access. In researching the trespass movement, it is so obvious that landowning in the UK is a source of great and ongoing wealth. Be it a shooting estate or land where minerals are discovered, with the spread of wind farms and mobile connectors, or that which can be developed for real estate development etc. And until poor people and those not quite so stop voting the rich and privileged into power this will continue to be the case. 

I recall here how the senior members of the climbing fraternity during my tenure at the BMC would insist that we had to be careful, not to upset the landowners. Most of whom were actually reasonable to deal with and allowed climbing /hill walking to take place freely on their land, but a few were not and on occasion such as the landowner who dynamited an outcrop on Bleaklow, Yellowslacks to stop climbing taking place, he was not and should have felt the same kind of censure and even more so from the law that was handed out to Benny Rothman and his pals!
Sky Dance is not War and Peace but it is a real page turner, and I will not spoil the reader’s possible enjoyment at the novels conclusion, and the come-uppance near its end of Lord Purdey. It is a good story which however includes the most important issues now facing the environment in which we follow our activities. I enjoyed reading Sky Dance and I am sure anyone who has climbed, hill walked, Munro bashed, bothied, and trekked in Scotland’s wild lands will feel the same about this, John Burns first novel.

Dennis Gray: 2019