Friday 28 January 2011

The first ascent of the Matterhorn's Zmutt Ridge

Albert Mummery

AT the age of fifteen the crags of the Via Mala and the snows of the Theodule roused a passion within me that has grown with years, and has to no small extent moulded my life and thought. It has led me into regions of such fairy beauty that the fabled wonders of Xanadu seem commonplace beside them; it has brought me friends who may be relied on in fair weather and in foul; and it has stored my mind with memories that are treasures, corruptible neither by moth nor rust- sickness nor old age. My boyish delight in the great white peaks towering above the gloom of pines is still awakened when the lumber­ing rolls through the gorge of the Diosaz or when the Matterhorn rises from out the foliage of the Val Tournanohe. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my first sight of the great mountain. It was shining in all the calm majesty of a Sep­tember moon, and in the stillness of an autumn night, it seemed the very embodiment of mystery and a fitting dwelling-place for the spirits with which old legends, people its stone swept slopes. From that moment I have been one of the great peak's most reverent worshippers and whenever the mighty rock appears above the distant horizon, I hail its advent with devoutest joy. Even the vulgarisation of Zermatt- the cheap trippers and their trumpery fashions- cannot wholly drive me from the lower slopes and I still love to gaze at it from amongst the pines of the Riffelberg, or to watch its huge mass soaring above the flowery meadows of the Staffel Alp.

In those distant days (1871), however, it was still shrouded with a halo of but half banished inaccessibility and as I looked at it through the tangle of the pines or from the breezy alps, I scarcely dared to hope that one day I might be numbered among the glorious few who had scaled its frozen cliffs. Three years later, however, the ascent had become fashionable, the deluge had begun, and with its earlier waves I was swept on to the long desired summit.
I am aware that from that moment my interest in the peak should have ceased, that the well conducted climber never repeats an ascent; that his object is to reach the summit and that object once attained, his work is over and he should rest in ignoble ease. The true faith on this subject is crystallised and resplendent in a remark made to me last year by a bandbox inmate of the Monte Rosa, Hotel: " I had to go to Grindelwald to ascend the Eiger; it was a beastly nuisance, but wanted to finish off the Oberland: shall never go there again."
For myself I am fain to confess a deplorable weakness in my character. No sooner have I ascended a peak than it becomes a friend and delightful as it may be to seek " fresh woods and Pastures new," in my heart of hearts I long for the slopes of which I know every wrinkle and on which each crag awakens memories of mirth and laughter and of the friends of long ago. As a consequence of this terrible weakness, I have been no less than seven times on the top of the Matterhorn. I have sat on the summit with my wife when a lighted match would not flicker in the windless air, and I have been chased from its shattered crest and down the Italian ridge by the mad fury of thunder, lightning, and whirling snow. Yet each memory has its own peculiar charm, and the wild music of the hurricane is hardly a less delight than the glories of a perfect day. The idea which cleaves unto the orthodox mountaineer that a single ascent, on one day, in one year, enables that same moun­taineer to know and realise how that peak looks on all other days, in all other years, suggests that he is still wallowing in the lowest bogs of Philis­tinism. It is true the crags and pinnacles are the same, but their charm and beauty lies in the ever changing light and shade, in the mists which wreath around them, in the huge cornices and pendent icicles, in all the varying circumstance of weather, season, and hour. Moreover, it is not merely that the actual vision impressed on the retina reflects every mood and change of summer storm and sunshine ; but the observer himself is hardly less inconsistent.

The Zmutt Ridge

On one day he is domi­nated by the tingling horror of the precipice, the  gaunt bareness of the stupendous cliffs - or the deadly rush of the rocks when some huge block breaks from its moorings and hurtles through the air- a fit emblem of resistless wrath. On yet another day he notices none of these things; lulled by the delicate tints of opal and azure, he revels in the vaporous softness of the Italian valleys, in the graceful sweep of the wind drifted snow, or even in the tiny flowers wedged in the joints of the granite. While the mountain  may sometimes impress its mood on the spectator, as often the spectator only sees that which harmonises with his own. A man may doubtless be so constructed that "a primrose by the river's brim, A yellow primrose is to him ." and in no conceivable circumstance or time could it ever be aught else but others more happily constituted, who can rejoice in the beauty of the external world, are scarcely likely to feel the "taint of staleness," no matter how thoroughly they may know the substantial basis of rock and ice on which the sun and cloud, mist, air, and sky are ever weaving the glory of the view.

It was, then, with an interest in the great moun­tain only intensified by my first ascent, that I crossed the Tiefenmatten Joch in 1879. Whilst descending the glacier, I gazed long and earnestly at the great Zmutt ridge towering above the long slopes of rock and stone swept couloirs of the western face. I was by no means the first who had so gazed amongst others, Mr. Whymper with his guides Michel Croz and Christian Almer, had studied it carefully from the crags of the Dent Blanche. The conclusions they came to may be gathered from the following paragraph : " My old enemy—the Matterhorn—seen across the basin of the Z'Muttgletscher, looked totally unassailable. " Do you think,' the men asked, I that you, or any one else, will ever get up that mountain ? ' And when, undismayed by their ridicule, I stoutly answered, " Yes, but not upon that side," they burst into derisive chuckles. I must confess that my hopes sank  for nothing can look or be, more completely inaccessible than the Matterhorn on its northern and north-west sides."  It did not appear, however, that this judgment was wholly warranted. The snow ridge and the jagged rocks by which it is continued for some distance further, offered an obtrusively easy route to a height of about 18,000 feet and on the final ridge, from about 14,000 feet to the summit, the climber had little to fear. Serious difficulty was limited to the short section of the route by which these two highways would have to be connected. From observations on this and previous occasions, it was evident that where the Zmutt ridge first steepens till it verges on the perpendicular, it would be necessary to bear to the left into a deeply out couloir, which falls in appal­ling Precipices to the Matterhorn glacier. The upper part of this couloir where alone we should have to deal with it, did not, however, look altogether hopeless and provided it could be ascended, the ridge would be regained above the first in­accessible step.

A short distance further, where it again becomes perpendicular, or rather actually overhangs, it was apparently possible to swerve to the right on to the long slopes of the western face, and after a considerable ascent, to regain the Zmutt ridge above all serious difficulty. Having decided upon this somewhat ambitious programme, I went down to Zermatt to find a suitable guide to carry it out.
In front of the Monte Rosa, Hotel I met an old companion, Alois Burgener, who gave me the joyful news that his brother Alexander might possibly be able to join me for a few days. The broad-shouldered Alexander, his face half hidden in beard, was then interviewed, he bluntly expressed his opinion that to go on such an expedition with a Herr of whom he knew nothing would be a  verfluchte Dummheit. I was much taken by this bold expression of opinion which appeared to me not merely indicative of a wise distrust of an untried climber, but also of a determination to drive home the attack, when once begun, to the utmost limits of possibility. My previous experi­ence had been chiefly, if not exclusively, with men who were eager to start on any attempt, no matter how desperate and who were far too polite to inquire whether their employer knew anything about the art of climbing. At an early stage in the proceedings, however, these men had invariably developed a most touching, but none the less most inconvenient, affection for their wives and families and were compelled by these most commendable feelings to discontinue the ascent. The confident carriage of Alexandra and the honest outspoken­ness of his language, seemed to show that he was not of this sort and  presaged well for our future acquaintance. I gladly accepted his suggestions, and agreed that we should make a few preliminary expeditions together.

We accordingly crossed to the Laquin Thal by the Mischabel and Laquin passes, forcing our way back over the Fletschhorn by a new and remarkably difficult route. We then ascended the Portiebeen thus successfully inaugurated, we were ready turn our attention to the Zmutt ridge. We felt, however, that we had fairly earned a day's rest so we spent the last of August lying among a haymakers of the lower slopes. Towards evening we heard that Mr. Penhall, with Ferd Imseng  and L. Zurbrucken, had started that very day to sleep on the mountain and assault the Zmutt ridge the next morning. We had little doubt about their success. The weather looked perfect, the mountain was in exceptionally good condition and the party was of most unusual skill and strength. We determined in consequence to vary our plans and cross the Col Durand. This would enable us to watch their progress and obtain useful information for the future and we hoped that possibly the east ridge or north-east face of the Dent Blanche would afford us consolation for the loss of the Zmutt ridge.

The next morning, on our way to the Staffel Alp we found that so fierce a wind was raging on the higher peaks that it seemed hardly possible any serious ascent could be effected. Our thoughts and aspirations consequently veered back to the Zmutt ridge, and when we met Penhall's party returning, and heard that they had definitely abandoned the ridge route, we determined to spend the day at the Stockje and see whether the wind and clouds really meant mischief On our arrival there the men soon came to the conclusion that the weather was hopeless. I was, however, much too young and too eager to dream of returning, and being wholly ignorant of all meteorological lore, I was able to prophesy fair things with such an appearance of well-founded knowledge that Burgener was half convinced. A second difficulty then arose. Our provisions were calculated on the basis of a ten hours' walk and were obviously insufficient for a two day campaign. Gentinetta's feelings, stimulated doubtless by the contemplation of these limited supplies, at length overcame his usual taciturnity and unabashed by " the dignity that doth hedge"  a Herr, he expressed his opinion of my prophecies. He backed this up by stating his conviction that at no period since the creation of the world, nor for that matter anterior to it, had such wind and such clouds resulted in aught but the most desperate and lasting bad weather. We felt that exercise would be good for his spirits and that in any case his company would be depressing, so he was sent back to Zermatt for extra supplies and the best man he could find and to help carry them. We pointed  out the place where we should camp, and undertook to intercept him on his way back should the weather appear to us too evil for sleeping out.

Ever darkening clouds rolled over the Col and the roar of the wind through the crags of the Matterhorn became distinctly audible, telling of the furious hurricane that was raging round its mighty ridges. Burgeners confidence began to waver and he again suggested retiring to the Capuan luxuries of the Monte Rosa Hotel. I felt more than a tremor of doubt myself, but the die was cast, so I trusted to luck, kept a cheerful countenance and declared that, come what might, we should have fair play from the weather. Burgener was impressed. The constant blotting out of the distant ridges, the ever gathering mass of cloud round the Matterhorn and more than a suspicion of dampness in the fierce squalls of wind that smote us at short intervals were signs, so distinct and unmistakable that he thought even a Herr must recognise, them. My persistence, therefore, suggested occult knowledge. I was, perhaps, a Mahatma (or its Saas Thal equivalent), and he settled himself in a sheltered comer and charmed by the caresses of my Lady Nicotine, told me weird tales of the ghosts and goblins which still haunt the great circle of cliffs towering above the Val Anzasca. As the day wore on, the burden of a cheerful countenance became too much for me so I retired to a quiet nook and, wrapped in numerous rugs sought to drown my anxieties in sleep. 

Late in the afternoon Burgener awoke me with a great thump and bid me look at the weather. My first impression was that he had come to upbraid me as an impostor, and hold up my prophecies to scorn and derision. His jubilant air and a look of thin­ness about the lingering clouds, however, negated these painful thoughts, and I found that the thump was intended to convey devout appreciation of my astounding wisdom ! I shook myself free from the damp rugs, and a gleam of sunshine breaking through the mists, we welcomed the returning orb of day with ear-splitting yells and a "break down " as vigorous as hobnailed boots would permit. Our conduct would doubtless have sug­gested to competent critics that we were pious followers of Zoroaster (or escaped lunatics ?). These ebullition's of joy having exhausted themselves and us, we packed the knapsacks and appro­priating the store of rugs belonging to the hut, made for the rendezvous appointed with Gentinetta.
At the extreme north-western corner of the great buttress or shelf on which rests the Matterhorn glacier is a stony plateau from which the ice has long since retreated. We hoped to discover a sheltered hollow amongst the debris with which it is strewn and thither ward we slowly wended our way. On our arrival we  found a total absence of convenient hollows and we were fain to content ourselves with such protection as the side of a big rock affords.

Above us frowned the great ice cliffs of the glacier, cutting off nearly all view of the mountain. To their right, and out of reach of any fragments that might fall from them was a long ridge of rock leading to the foot of the snow arete. Having lit our fire and set the pot to boil, we sat down at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Zmutt glacier, and soon discovered Gentinetta and another man making their way rapidly through the crevasses. Meanwhile the sun had set, and with the gathering darkness the last lingering clouds dispersed as by magic. About eight o'clock the men arrived, and we found that our new recruit was Johann Petrus. We were both delighted for no bolder climber or more resolute man has ever delighted the heart of an eager Herr.
Gentinetta's commissariat arrangements had taken a very fluid form. Our dinner consisted chiefly of the remains of our original provisions and an heterogeneous mixture of red wine and marsala, bottled beer and cognac.

During the continuance of this festivity, Burgener and Gentinetta vied with each other in extolling the weather wisdom of their Herr. Petrus was called upon to bear witness to its utterly uncompromising appearance in the morning and, not content with his testimony, the absent Imseng was added to my triumph : for had he not also given it up as hopeless ? " Yet their Herr had never faltered in his confidence little did they guess my feeling during the afternoon- " and had consistently borne true witness in the face of an adverse host." 

Subsequent experience has been quite thrown away on Burgener ; he still regards me as of transcendent merit in this branch of the climber's craft. When, as usually happens, facts do not agree with my forecast, he, like the celebrated French scientist, is inclined  to exclaim
"Tant pis pour les fait"
The night proved intensely cold. The clouds had prevented any sunshine reaching the plateau, and the small pools of water and patches of snow, even when we first reached it, were still hard frozen from the previous night's frost. These icy rocks below and a keen north wind above seemed to freeze us to the very marrow, and we shivered with the pain of cold under our scanty rugs. We were all glad when it was time to be moving, and at the first hint of dawn (4-15 a.m.) we began to scramble up the rocks and along the ridge leading towards the snow arete. At 5.20am, we reached its foot and an a sheltered ledge found the debris of Penhall's camp. Here we halted for breakfast and deposited the blankets which, thinking it just possible we might have to spend another night on the moun­tain, we had brought with us to this point. After half an hour's halt we put on the rope and began to ascend the snow ridge. Reaching the rocky teeth, which, when seen from Zermatt, stand out conspicuously against the sky, we scrambled over the rickety piles of frost-riven rock. Beyond the third tooth we were pulled up by a deep cleft. Burgener and Petrus, soon scrambled down the face of the rocks to our right and succeeded in getting into it. Further direct progress was, how­ever, impossible, as the ridge rose perpendicularly above them and a great rib supporting it bulged out in front and precluded all chance of traversing.

Of itself this would not have stopped either of the men, as a narrow gully between this rib and the fangs of the tooth on which Gentinetta and I were sitting, offered an obvious means of descending below the obstruction; further in front and to the left however, rose a slope with the unpleasant look that tells of a basis of rotten rock, glazed with ice and marked with powdery snow. Higher up it steepened till it seemed almost perpendicular. Up this slope we knew we must go or abandon the ascent, and startled by its appearence,the men recoiled to the rocks where I was still posted.
For another three-quarters of an hour we examined it without being able to see a satisfactory way across and doubts were being freely expressed when a distant jodel attracted our attention. Far away down the mountain we spied three dots whom we at once and rightly guessed to be Penhall and his guides. We wasted the next half-hour in alter­nately watching their progress and studying our slope. At length they disappeared behind a pro­jecting buttress and this excuse, for delay having disappeared, it was decided that we should pass the cleft in front and examine the slope more clearly. We descended into the gap. Burgener and Petrus then scrambled down the gully and soon found a way on to the face. On reaching this point, a few minutes later I found Burgener and Petrus already working upwards and in a few minutes we were again on the arete. After following it a short distance, we reached the point at which it was necessary to take to the evil slope and the discussion was once more renewed. Burgener was distinctly averse to attempting it but as there was no other way, Petrus went forward to explore.

I have not the slightest doubt that Burgenees objection to this slope was exclusively due to the fact that we had never previously been together on this sort of work. It was obviously practic­able but it was equally obvious that the slip of one meant the destruction of all who were roped to him. Subsequent experience enables me to sympathise with his feelings. The knowledge that you can do nothing to arrest a slip combined with a lively fear that one may occur, creates as unpleasant a situation as it is easy to imagine. The fear of slipping oneself is almost a delight when compared with the trap-like feeling induced by the rope with an " unknown quantity " at the and of it.
Our halts at this point and on the third tooth had exceeded two hours and we had no more time to lose. Petrus seemed to be getting on all right so Burgener made ready for the traverse. Though by no means a big man in the valley, on an ice glazed slope he seems to visibly dilate, and looks like a veritable giant when wielding his resistless axe. For some reason, probably to get a decent excuse for unroping Gentinetta and saving him from the risk of the " unknown quantity,"  Burgener told us to pay him out till he should be "gans fest." 

We paid out a hundred feet of rope, and as there was no immediate prospect of his being " ganz fest," and as in the event of a slip it was tolerably certain that it would make no difference whether he were or no, I cautiously followed his track ; Gentinetta bringing up the rear, free from the dangerous entanglement of the rope. Having traversed in all about a hundred and fifty feet we were able to turn up the slope, and soon reached firm rock, which, though very steep, offered good hold and plenty of it. Burgener dashed up at a furious pace. Suddenly a splinter of rock caught' his coat, and an agonised yell told us that his pipe, his faithful companion in many a hard-fought climb, and the gift of his most trusted Herr, had been jerked out of his pocket and had plunged down to the Matterhorn glacier.

Soon afterwards we regained the ridge and, without halting, followed it to the point where it not merely becomes perpendicular, but actually overhangs. We had now to traverse to our right on to the great western face of the mountain. Burgener anxiously scanned the huge cliff and then gripped my hand and exclaimed, " The pipe is avenged, we are on the summit," which I took to mean that we should be there sometime.
The men began the construction of a stone  man whilst I utilised the halt in a diligent search for a diminutive chicken which Burgener averred was concealed in the knapsack. We then prepared one of our numerous bottles for the due reception of our names and it was sub­sequently carefully built into the cairn. These duties having been performed and Burgener having borrowed Gentinetta's pipe—which, by the way, he did not return till we got back to Zer­matt—we began the ascent of the western face. We traversed a short distance and then turned straight up over slabby, icy and somewhat loose rocks. They were not however, difficult, and we made rapid progress. Probably we should have done better still farther to the right, but Burgener was very properly averse to this course as he thought it might bring us too directly above the other party. Even where we were he insisted on the utmost care to avoid upsetting stones. I subsequently learnt from Penhall that his party was too far to the right to be affected by anything we sent down and the one or two fragments we did dislodge never came within sight or hearing.

After some steady climbing, we reached a point from which it appeared possible to work back on to the Zmutt ridge, but Burgener was not quite certain, and on hearing that Carrel had traversed by a ledge higher up, he preferred to take that course. We soon gained this ledge the well known " corridor " of the early Broeil ascents-and found no difficulty in following it to the fault that bars access to the ridge. Petrus was promptly swung over to see if the last man could get down unaided. This being pronounced impossible, our second rope was got out. A good deal of time was spent before it could be fixed, the only available knob of rock being too round to admit of its being easily attached. Meanwhile,we had time to look' along the ledge which winds like a pathway, round all the irregularities of the mountain, to the southern ridge. It was quite free from ice and snow and in its then condition could have been traversed with ease. I also came upon a deeply rusted hook driven into the rock, a relic, I suppose, of Mr. Grove's ascent in 1867. Having slid down the rope we found the remainder of the ledge was very different. Instead of offering firm foothold on the rock, it was loaded with incoherent snow, and the few nobs which protruded through this were glazed with ice and for the most part rotten.

It was, however, of no great extent, and we were soon able to plunge through the snow on to the ridge 12.50 p.m.). Petrus, who had been more or less erratic in his movements all day, had disappeared. We followed his traces, occasionally on the arete, but more often on the steep slope to the left and in three-quarters of an hour found him on he summit (1-45 p.m.).
The day was perfectly calm and the view cloudless. Time fled swifly and when Burgener came up to me with the rope at 2.30 p.m. I could hardly believe we had been three-quarters of an hour on the summit.

Then we descended the chain-clad north-eastern arete to the elbow where we waited a few minutes to watch Penhall's party, which had just come in sight on the Zmutt ridge. With a parting jodel to our friends we plunged down the slopes to the cabana. Great care, however, was required to avoid the broken glass and sardine boxes which had accumulated in large quantities. After a short halt we ran down to the Furggen glacier and at 5.30 p.m. were unbuckling our gaiters on the moraine under the Hornli. An hour and a half later we tramped down the high street of Zermatt and were soon enjoying the rewards of the faithful.

Note.—So far as I can learn, the ascent had till 1894 been only once repeated. On the 27th of August of that year,however,S.A.R it Duca degli Abruzzi,with Dr. Norman Collie and myself,left a gite, rather below my previous quarters.Under the lead of young Pollinger, who was the only professional member of the party, we kept to the right of my old route,and,reaching the Tiefenmatten glacier,skirted it where it abuts against the cliffs of the Matterhorn. Then turning straight up,we climbed to the snow ridge just where it merges into the rocky teeth.
We found the mountain almost completely free from snow and ice, and were able to climb without serious difficulty on the face to the left of the ridge—in the gully falling away to the Matterhorn glacier—which,when I was there previously,had been excessively dangerous.Similar good luck followed us when we emerged on the western face and we found Places which in 1879 had been very formidable, comparatively easy and simple. By 9.10am we gained the upper Zmutt ridge. This, owing to the absence of snow, was quite easy and a little before 10am we reached the summit. The fear of approaching bad weather had, how­ever, driven us ever forward at our best pace, and it is not likely the ascent will often be made as rapidly.

Four days later, three parties were on this face of the mountain together. Miss Bristow, with young Pollinger and Zurbriggen (ascended by the Hornli route and descended by the Zmutt ridge—the first descent effected on this side of the mountain); Dr. Gussfeldt with Rey and Mr. Farrar with D. Maquignaz (both ascended by the Zmutt ridge; Dr Gussfelldt descending by the Hornli route and Mr. Farrar returning by the Zmutt).

Albert Frederick Mummery:My climbs in the Alps and Caucases:1895.
Published TF Unwin London

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Coming up: Albert Mummery- A first ascent on the Matterhorn

"The night proved intensely cold. The clouds had prevented any sunshine reaching the plateau, and the small pools of water and patches of snow, even when we first reached it, were still hard frozen from the previous night's frost. These icy rocks below and a keen north wind above seemed to freeze us to the very marrow, and we shivered with the pain of cold under our scanty rugs. We were all glad when it was time to be moving, and at the first hint of dawn (4-15 a.m.) we began to scramble up the rocks and along the ridge leading towards the snow arete. At 5.20 &m. we reached its foot, and an a sheltered ledge found the debris of Penhall's camp. Here we halted for breakfast and deposited the blankets which, thinking it just possible we might have to spend another night on the moun­tain, we had brought with us to this point. After half an hour's halt we put on the rope and began to ascend the snow ridge. Reaching the rocky teeth, which, when seen from Zermatt, stand out conspicuously against the sky, we scrambled over the rickety piles of frost-riven rock. Beyond the third tooth we were pulled up by a deep cleft. Burgener and Petrus, soon scrambled down the face of the rocks to our right and succeeded in getting into it. Further direct progress was, how­ever, impossible, as the ridge rose perpendicularly above them and a great rib supporting it bulged out in front and precluded all chance of traversing."

This Friday, Victorian gentleman climber Albert Mummery's account of an impressive first ascent on the iconic Matterhorn.

London Tannery owner Fred Mummery is the man most often credited with inventing modern alpinism, possibly as a result of physical deformity which meant he could not carry heavy loads – he simply had to go fast and light. He was also intensely myopic – an attribute which probably accounted for his legendary hopelessness at route finding. This seems to have caused him to blunder into ground-breaking technical situations from which he then had to climb his way out. ‘Mummery was not good in knowing what was the best way up a mountain’, fellow Alpine Club member Norman Collie declared in no uncertain terms. Despite this disadvantage, Mummery was one of the first to break with the tradition of guided climbing and pointed the way forward for the sport to develop. Mummery’s magnetic personality attracted about him a talented group of climbers, amongst them the redoubtable female alpinist Lily Bristow, leading to his famous joke that ‘All mountains appear doomed to pass through three stages: An inaccessible peak – The most difficult ascent in the Alps – An easy day for a lady.’ This was merely an ironic tribute to the ability of the amazing Bristow who led many of the pitches of their climbs and who probably had more climbing experience than any other woman up to that point. Unfortunately her partnership with Mummery was cut short after 1893, possibly after the intervention of Mrs Mummery. Mummery was also one of the first pioneers to take alpine skills to the Himalaya, when he attempted Nanga Parbat in 1895. Unfortunately, he disappeared on the slopes along with his Gurkha colleague, probably victim to an avalanche, and no more was heard of him until the 1990s when an expedition found one of his boots with his foot still in it. 

Biographical information courtesy of Colin Wells/Mountain Heritage Trust

Friday 21 January 2011

The brief mountaineering career of Aleister Crowley- the Great Beast 666

Edward Alexander Crowley, son of a Plymouth-Brethren brewer and lay-preacher, was a man of many parts. A poet and mountaineer, he was best known as Aleister Crowley, the fabulous Beast of the Book of Revelation. He claimed to be the latest to emerge in a fantastic reincarnology which included Pope Alexander VI and the gypsy mage Cagliostro; for a time too, he was a Highland Laird – Lord Boleskine of Foyers (another Loch Ness Monster) – and many other things besides.Crowley was born in 1875. His early years were dominated by his interests in poetry and mountaineering. Until 1893, or thereabouts, his mountaineering development was fairly conventional, but he then struck up a friendship with Oscar Eckenstein (a very able climber who, along with Crowley, did much to develop and promote the crampon) and at the same time began to dabble in magic (the purchase of the estate at Foyers was made with this end in view – its solitude made it eminently suitable for such practices). Eckenstein tolerated Crowley's aberrations and even encouraged him in some of them. Under his influence, Crowley's mountaineering horizons expanded. He went to the high Mexican volcanoes with Eckenstein, and in 1902 they made an unsuccessful expedition to K2. In 1905 Crowley led an expedition to Kanchenjunga. The attempt ended disastrously. It was possibly because of the ensuing storm of criticism that Crowley took no further part in active mountaineering after 1905, although he continued to comment on mountaineering affairs. Instead, he turned to a life in which he is said to have explored every avenue of debauchery and vice as a means of increasing his magical powers and advancing his status in the satanic hierarchy.
Unnatural practices, such as eating human excrement and flesh and enjoying sexual communion with freaks of all shapes and sizes, drew from the public the opinion that he was “the wickedest man in the world”. Nevertheless, his crimes were few and undetected, and indeed his ‘wickedness’ seems somewhat pallid beside that of more conventional villains bent on material rather than spiritual plunder. Perhaps the worst that can be said of Crowley is that he took seriously the profusion of dilettante interests in the occult so common in fin-de-siècle London salons. It seems that the mainspring of his effort was a desire to discover the limits of his own nature and potentialities, rather than a desire for public notoriety or self-aggrandisement. It is possible that his mountaineering was similarly motivated.

Mountaineering, of course, is not a normal pursuit and we should not be too surprised to find its adepts showing odd behaviour in other spheres of life. I have no doubt that, taken singly, Crowley's worst excesses could be matched by some of those in our current folklore. For instance, it is said that the game of Hungarian Hamstring (a form of tug-of-war in which each contestant attaches a running noose to his penis) recently enjoyed some popularity in Glencoe, along with versions of darts in which pin-ups substituted for the board and various bodily fluids for the missiles. One imagines that even Crowley might have blanched at some of these! There has been a mountaineering Pope – the Abbé Achille Ratti – why not a mountaineering Antichrist? The most interesting account of Crowley's mountaineering is his own, given in his copious Confessions [note 2]. This extraordinary book makes it perfectly clear that, whatever else Crowley may have been, he was a masterly writer of prose. The sections dealing with his climbs are continuously entertaining and often extremely humorous.
Some may find that his extreme views make the book unreadable but, strangely for the “wickedest man in the world”, his actions seem quite moderate and some of his opinions have a distinctly modern ring. For example, about Nepal he contends:–
‘Where the white man sets his foot, the grass of freedom and the flower of good faith are trampled into the mire of vice and commercialism’.
Again, deploring the destruction of the Falls of Foyers by the British Aluminium Company, he says:–
‘The Falls of Foyers are one of the few natural glories of the British lsles; why not use them to turn an honest penny? Money-grubbing does its best to blaspheme and destroy nature. It is useless to oppose the baseness of humanity; if one touches pitch, one runs the risk of being defiled.’
Hardly the opinions you’d expect from a Devil's Advocate! On the other hand, his view of women is starkly primitive:–
‘No man who allows a woman to take any place in his life is capable of doing good work ... A man who is strong enough to use women as slaves and playthings is all right.. A woman is a creature of habit, that is, of solidified impulses. She has no individuality.’
One of Crowley's favourite targets for criticism was the Alpine Club, which suffered enormous abuse at his hands. When chronicling the formation of an expedition to Kanchenjunga, he wrote:–
‘Thanks to the Alpine Club, there was no Englishman of mountaineering ability and experience available.’
Elsewhere, he said:–
‘The policy of boycotting Eckenstein and his school, of deliberately ignoring the achievements of Continental climbers, to say nothing of my own expeditions, has preserved the privilege and prestige of the English Alpine Club. lgnorance and incompetence are unassailable. Ridicule does not reach the realms of secure snobbery. The mountains themselves vainly maim and murder the meddlers; they merely clamour all the more conceitedly to be considered heroes. It is one of the most curious characteristics of the English that they set such store by courage as to esteem a man the more highly the more blindly he blunders into disaster.’

Such condescension implies that Crowley himself was an exceptionally competent mountaineer, and indeed there seems little reason to doubt this. He joined the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1894. His application shows that even at that time, when he was only nineteen and had not yet benefited from Eckenstein's instruction, Crowley had a backlog of experience that was formidable for the times.
Between 1894 and 1898 he visited the Alps yearly and, along with Collie, Mummery and Hastings, did much to further the cause of guide less climbing. Although he made no major new ascents, some of his efforts sound somewhat nerve-racking even today. His description of an ascent of the Vuibez ice-fall in the Arolla district runs:–
‘Our way was barred by an undercut ice-cliff, which at its only assailable point rose some 14 - 20ft. above the detached serac on which we were standing. Leaning over the intervening crevasse, the second man was able to support the leader who, standing on his shoulders (in crampons), cut hand and foot holds in the wall above. With some assistance from behind with an axe the leader arrived at the top of the wall and the rest of the party followed. Above this point, the climbing became diffcult.’
The final bombastic touch is typical of Crowley. At home he made improbable ascents of the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head (see SMCJ., iii, 288ff.), whose looseness might well dismay the hardiest modern sea-cliff climber.
‘One does not climb the cliffs. One hardly even crawls. Trickles or oozes would perhaps be the ideal verbs.’
His first visit there is recorded with characteristic boastfulness:–
‘The general opinion was that no-one had ever climbed it. There was, however, a legend that it had once been done. I settled the point by walking up, smoking a pipe, with my dog (I had no woman available) in nine-and-a-half minutes.’

Eckenstein enjoyed a reputation almost as mysterious as Crowley's. He was extremely reticent and suffered fools badly. Unlike Crowley, however, his stature as a mountaineer was never called into question. Crowley had the greatest respect for him. In a letter to Harry Doughty, he wrote:–
‘Eckenstein, provided he could get three fingers on something that could be described by a man far advanced in hashish as a ledge, would be smoking his pipe on that ledge a few seconds later and none of us could tell how he had done it.’
After their highly successful Mexican trip, Crowley and Eckenstein resolved to attempt K2 in 1902. They attacked the mountain with a party comprising one Englishman, two Austrians and a Swiss doctor, Jacob Guillarmod. After trying the south-east ridge (favoured by Crowley and followed on most later attempts), they switched their efforts to the north-east ridge and reached a height of about 22,000ft. before retiring. This height record stood until the American attempt of 1938.

Crowley advanced various reasons for their failure, but in retrospect their attempt must be viewed as a considerable achievement. Not only did they reach a great height during this, the first attempt on the mountain, but they also showed what men were capable of at high altitudes in atrocious weather. The expedition lasted the entire summer, and several members, including Crowley, spent almost two months at heights around 20,000ft. The doctor, to whom Crowley refers as Tartarin, was by all accounts a fairly ineffectual character, but at this time Crowley found his antics merely amusing, remarking only that ‘he knew as little of mountains as he did of medicine.’ In view of the fact that it was the antipathy between Guillarmod and Crowley which led to the disastrous result of the 1905 expedition, it is odd that this did not manifest itself during that long cold summer. In any event, in 1904 Tartarin visited Lord Boleskine at his Foyers estate and attempted to persuade him to go to Kanchenjunga. At Boleskine House, Tartarin was the butt of many practical jokes, the most absurd of which was the cleverly-staged haggis hunt. Tartarin foolishly asked the Lord what a haggis was, and was informed that it was a ‘rogue’ ram – one that had run wild. Some days later, Crowley's gillie entered the lounge, “The haggis is on the hill my Lord,” he said, excitedly. Boleskine and Tartarin chose their weapons (the latter's an elephant-piece) and proceeded to pursue a solitary sheep. Eventually Tartarin blew it in half, to everyone's satisfaction.

Encouraged by Tartarin's buffoonery, Crowley agreed to lead an expedition to Kanchenjunga. The following year he attacked the mountain with a party which, in addition to the two principals, comprised two Swiss (Reymond and Pache) with whom Crowley was well pleased, and an Italian hotelier from Darjeeling, de Righi, with whom he was not:–
‘His character was mean and suspicious and his sense of inferiority to white men manifested itself as a mixture of servility and insolence to them and of swaggering and bullying to the natives. These traits did not seem so important in Darjeeling, but I must blame myself for not foreseeing that his pin brain would entirely give way as soon as he got out of the world of waiters.’

Crowley – ‘had reconnoitred Kanchenjunga from England, thanks to the admirable photographs of every side of the mountain taken by Signor Vittorio Sella’, and had chosen to attempt a route up the Yalung glacier and the slopes above it. On the approach all went well. However, once on the mountain, things started to go wrong. Minor difficulties with de Righi and Guillarmod became more frequent and Crowley now thought that – ‘Tartarin's vanity, inexperience, fatuity and folly were certain to land us in disaster.’ Gradually Guillarmod became convinced of the converse proposition. In trying to discover where the fault lay, it is difficult not to agree with Crowley that Guillarmod was consistently in the wrong. One of his major complaints was Crowley's insistence on early starts to avoid avalanches: this, Guillarmod argued, needlessly exposed the porters to cold. However, as events were later to prove, Crowley's advice was sound.
Under the circumstances, Crowley was perhaps foolish to proceed with the attempt. But proceed he did and, having little confidence in his colleagues apart from Reymond, he did what few generals do – he led from the front. Eventually, Pache, Reymond and Crowley reached a point about 21,000ft. where they stuck due to lack of supplies. Meanwhile, in the dissident rearguard, mutiny was planned. Guillarmod and de Righi arrived at the high camp demanding a change of leadership. A furious argument ensued, blows were exchanged and, with nothing settled, Guillarmod, de Righi and Pache decided to return to the lower camps with three porters. Crowley implored them to stay, warning them of the dangers of avalanche (it was late afternoon), but they were adamant. In his Confessions, Crowley reflects:–
‘I ought to have broken the doctor's leg with an axe, but I was too young to take such a responsibility. It would have been hard to prove afterwards that I had saved him by so doing.’
During the descent the party, roped together, was traversing a snow-slope with the doctor and de Righi leading. Two porters slipped and pulled Pache and the other porter off, starting a small avalanche. They were swept down hundreds of feet. De Righi and Guillarmod, riding the avalanche, survived, but the three porters and Pache were crushed. Crowley afterwards admitted to having heard their cries, but claimed that this was nothing unusual as ‘Tartarin and de Righi shouted all the time.’ By now in his sleeping bag, writing his reports, Crowley was reluctant to investigate and sent Reymond and some porters instead. He remained in his tent until morning when he descended with the remaining porters.

It was his apparent heartlessness that earned Crowley the abuse of the mountaineering world, and he did not help matters by writing:–
‘I was not over-anxious under the circumstances to render help. A mountain ‘accident’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever.’
Crowley never publicly relented. In the Confessions, he wrote:–
‘It is noteworthy that 17 coolies without ropes, axes, boots, claws and Tartarin, had crossed the fatal spot quite safely (earlier in the day).’

Crowley clearly regarded the accident as falling beyond the realm of his responsibility, since he had explicitly advised against the descent. The expedition disintegrated after the catastrophe and its members returned variously to Darjeeling to squabble over the division of funds. Crowley rather highhandedly took control of the account at the Darjeeling bank, on the grounds that Guillarmod had, before the mutiny, attempted to do likewise by letter. The affair ended in a public brawl between the principals in the Press, and an attempt by Tartarin to blackmail Crowley into dividing the funds, with the threat that a copy of Crowley's pornographic Snowdrops would otherwise be sent somewhere damaging. What might have been Crowley's fate in the eyes of the mountaineering public had he not written in such strong and unpalatable terms about the incident? His actions had been innocuous enough, given the current prejudices in favour of strong leadership. At most he could be accused of laziness: he did not ignore the accident – Reymond was sent to investigate and told to summon Crowley if help was needed. And it wasn’t – de Righi and Guillarmod were safe, the others impossibly buried. It seems likely that Crowley's acid pen, whose prose output was in my view his best claim to genius, was alone responsible for his fall from mountaineering favour.

1. from Mountain 11, September 1970, pp13-14
2. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. John Symonds and Kenneth Grant. Jonathan Cape.

Robin Campbell: First published in Mountain magazine

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Coming up:Robin Campbell examines Aleister Crowley- mountaineer

Beachy Head.Scene of a Crowley epic!

One of Crowley's favourite targets for criticism was the Alpine Club, which suffered enormous abuse at his hands. When chronicling the formation of an expedition to Kanchenjunga, he wrote:–‘Thanks to the Alpine Club, there was no Englishman of mountaineering ability and experience available.’ Elsewhere, he said:–‘The policy of boycotting Eckenstein and his school, of deliberately ignoring the achievements of Continental climbers, to say nothing of my own expeditions, has preserved the privilege and prestige of the English Alpine Club. ignorance and incompetence are unassailable. Ridicule does not reach the realms of secure snobbery. The mountains themselves vainly maim and murder the meddlers; they merely clamour all the more conceitedly to be considered heroes. It is one of the most curious characteristics of the English that they set such store by courage as to esteem a man the more highly the more blindly he blunders into disaster.’
Such condescension implies that Crowley himself was an exceptionally competent mountaineer, and indeed there seems little reason to doubt this. He joined the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1894. His application shows that even at that time, when he was only nineteen and had not yet benefited from Eckenstein's instruction, Crowley had a backlog of experience that was formidable for the times.
Between 1894 and 1898 he visited the Alps yearly and, along with Collie, Mummery and Hastings, did much to further the cause of guide less climbing. Although he made no major new ascents, some of his efforts sound somewhat nerve-racking even today. His description of an ascent of the Vuibez ice-fall in the Arolla district runs:–
‘Our way was barred by an undercut ice-cliff, which at its only assailable point rose some 14 - 20ft. above the detached serac on which we were standing. Leaning over the intervening crevasse, the second man was able to support the leader who, standing on his shoulders (in crampons), cut hand and foot holds in the wall above. With some assistance from behind with an axe the leader arrived at the top of the wall and the rest of the party followed. Above this point, the climbing became difficult.’
The final bombastic touch is typical of Crowley. At home he made improbable ascents of the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head (see SMCJ., iii, 288ff.), whose looseness might well dismay the hardiest modern sea-cliff climber.

This Friday, Scottish mountaineer Robin Campbell's comprehensive account of Aleister Crowley's mountaineering career.

Friday 14 January 2011

Jonah and the Whale

The Truck Studio in the Pyrenees: Redhead Collection

From my exhibition in Bangor, ‘Of Mothers, Angst and the Black Light’, I made contact with Maurice Cooke, art historian, collector and lecturer at Bangor University. He came to see me when I was recovering from a virus and commissioned a work for his collection. He owned a hideout in the woods down from Fachwen that could just be glimpsed from Pete’s Eats across Llyn Padarn. I helped him move out of the house when it became too much to maintain. This final outpost was situated at the end of a descending, winding track that skirted between old quarries, spoil hills, and babbling streams doing their talking amongst ancient oak woodland.

It drove by Steve Andy’s makeshift settlement clinging to the edge of a spoil heap. It looks like a post apocalyptic, survival film set! Congealed onto the hill of slate are scrap vans, machinery, bits of caravans and tarpaulins and corrugated steel and squealing pigs. Steve was found one day stuck and smashed up under a dumper truck on his land after it had overturned. Gabbut, a sidelined creature and namer of The Indian Face on Cloggy, happened to be the angel passing by! Andy was in so much pain he pleaded with Gabbut to smash him over the head with a nearby brick! Gabbut, with brick in hand, said he couldn’t regulate the strength between knocking him out and killing him, so ran up the hill to call emergency services. I don’t think the same Steve emerged from hospital after the intensive care, blood transfusions, rehabilitation and therapy brought him back to fix the dumper! 

I felt that more than his blood had drained out of him. Or perhaps that somebody else’s sketchy blueprint had found a new home in him? He still odd-jobs around the mud trenches, scrap and chickens and mayhem that will still remain a functioning, friendly base-camp when a more ordered society crumples in its wake. This ‘third world’ recycling chaos oozes all kind of unguents that challenge nature and blisters out from the neat, Upper Fachwenian’s enclosures. It sends out a warning vibe, ‘beware, different kinds of creatures lurk here’.

Maurice gave me a triptych of paintings by Michael Cullimore on the theme of Jonah and the Whale, for helping him move his belongings out.

The new owners were friends and immediate neighbours of Talywaenydd. Within a short time they had problems due to the severe isolation. Their promise of a middle class, idyllic location turned sour with the logistical strain associated with this final outpost. I windsurfed one day across Lake Padarn to the far shore beneath their house, knocked on the door and presented Margaret with a box of Milk Tray, because the lady likes…! Within a short time they moved out to more social and pastoral premises at Penmon on Anglesey.

Eric Maddern, the new owner had arrived from Australia. He told me he learnt the didgeridoo from the aboriginals. He was a storyteller and musician and set about creating the Cae Mabon centre. He had a vision of traditional low impact buildings and roundhouses that would create the setting of a post modern, pagan, tribal, Celtic honouring of nature and beauty. Cae Mabon means ‘field of Mabon’ in Welsh, and refers to Mabon a character from Y Mabinogion. On the shores of Lake Padarn, are the shamanistic principals of ancestors and healing once again flourishing in a ceremonial setting? Perhaps. There was a little unrest within the villages when the local paper published a letter that warned of ‘witches’ and pagan rituals up in the hills. This witch-hunt wanted their children protected from this evil unknown! I replied saying the alternative centre was following Celtic traditions in which the local Welsh communities should embrace and be proud of. I said there was more to fear wandering around Tescos on shopping days!

Barry Biscuit lived in a caravan on his land. He was very skeptical on the vision and authenticity of Cae Mabon. He would often become ill through close contact with these alternative city ‘fuckwits’ seeking the way of weird. He would feel the land becoming sick with their problems and illnesses. He blamed Eric and egos and ignorance for a ‘bad energy’ that had descended upon the land. Barry told me of a ‘men’s group’ that had decided to perform a circumcision on a member who had sexual problems. Apparently the deed was done and the foreskin seasoned and cooked and shared out for all to eat as a conclusion to the group’s ritual of transcendence! If there was ever an aboriginal presence at Cae Mabon, it came with custard creams, not seasoned foreskins!

I often thought of Cullimore’s paintings and God’s chosen task for Jonah to preach to the inhabitants of Nineveh to get their ‘evil’ act together. I am always interested, and sceptical of a man’s chosen task of offering meaning and hope to mankind. Is it an inspiring gift or a money-spinning hoax that preys on the sidelines of the modern world’s problems? But it is difficult to fault a man bringing the Mabinogi legends are prose stories back into the damaged earth of nether Fachwen. Difficult to criticise the storytelling drifting over the forest fires that draws upon pre-Christian Celtic mythology, folklore, culture and language of Wales. The tales of Arthur! Tales of the Grail! It is interesting to connect these twelve century tales of a highly developed oral and written Welsh narrative tradition to problems of the day. Contemplation and the nourishment of the imagination are important for self-understanding and tolerance.

As regards the three Jonah paintings, I gave one to George Smith to somehow lose and one to Martin Crook. Martin over painted his when he couldn’t afford a new canvas! The third blocked a hole in a doorway and disintegrated. Michael has since become recognized as one of Britain’s most significant contemporary artists, seeing occult correspondences between landscape and people. His shape-shifting experiments dwell on growth and decay, death and re-birth. And such is the state of play as regards ‘art’ in the hills around Llanberis!

My work has always been hanging on a precarious perch. I don’t think that art can ever replace life and I keep my scalpel sharp for the day to day probing. So living here my work reflected and drew inspiration from not only interacting with the hills but their very culture. Lately, my work was more concerned with confronting and provoking over issues of this very identity. Digging a bit deeper than the sublime, picture postcard landscape. A bit more than paying to see a museum remnant from corporate oppression donning his dusty flat-cap and cutting slates into heart shapes for tourists! Again, ice creams and a range of souvenirs.

The Devil Seeks a Shoulder: Redhead Collection

My last publication Soft Explosive hard Embrace is community and culture based. The multimedia exhibition of the same name premiered at the Electric Mountain, Llanberis. Never had the community witnessed a portrayal of its history in anything but a patronizing and historical way. Here was music gleaned and scraped from the industrial nightmare on their doorstep. Here were sketches of quarrymen, not proud with their daily ‘bargain’ but proud of their fat cocks during tea ceremonies! Here were symbols and Gods from a global perspective.

The local councillors wanted the exhibition removed as it caused offence. A councillor had reported in the press that a paragraph from the poem was offensive to the girls of Deiniolen and the sketches obscene! I don’t think he liked the fact that Deiniolen was where the quarrymen’s prostitutes buttered and ‘jammed’ their bread - even though there is no mention of such. A nerve had been struck! Deliver us! Ebenezer Chapel and slate, the chosen ‘stone of love’ a constant reminder of God’s presence in the brothels!

This is the passage that caused offence…

“Kokopelli too, parched on the desert rock, another dirty bastard
Playing his flute and spreading his seed.
The hunchback with a patina erection, searching, searching.
On every level, stalking every incline, down every hole.
In Deiniolen every night converting young girls into single young
Mothers with prams.
A busy post office gyrating with giro and parked pram.
cervix's dilating all along the street.
The single street with the cloud on top.
The single mothers with clouds on top.
The dilating cervix.
The opening wound.
The enlarging of the hole.
More machines - more compression.
More contraction - more pipes, more power, more men!

from - soft explosive hard embrace.

I had the single young mums from Deiniolen knocking on my door for an explanation - what right have I got to say such things - what right have I got to put this exhibition on? Outsider! I chose to have the dialogue and took this angry gaggle of mums to the exhibition to show me what they found offensive. They spent hours reading the poetry and looking at the sketches and hearing the soundtrack from recorded sounds in the quarries. They found no offence, only poetry and images and strange but familiar sounds. They laughed and read their way through the exhibition because they don’t have the macho hangups and scars of a life destroying the mountain! The arrogance and audacity of the male councillor to imply that the girls of Deiniolen would be offended! Dickhead!

From the women’s perspective my enquiries proved that the quarries brought them pain, misery and death. It also brought pain and misery to a photographer friend whom I commissioned to take the photographs. I came to see him at my old studio at Talywaenydd where he was living, to see him in floods of tears, smashing his Hasselblad camera against a stone wall. His rage had reduced the camera to a thousand shards of glass and mashed up metal and plastic. His hands were torn and bloodied as he collapsed, a mess of a man gone to a dark place. His sensitivity, his intelligence, his creativity a destructive mix that shone in brilliance upon that rarity of esteem that deemed himself worthy. I understand- I understand the need to destroy the product of one’s vision as if the creativity may be serious enough to be abusively pretentious! When you touch these hills deeply all attempts at expression can seem frivolous and pointless. They are! One is!

The exhibition, based on the book, was in some ways an anti-vision of Snowdonia, a poetic saga. A land split between the hill of Snowdon, tourists and a range of souvenirs and the great, grey holes of Dinorwig slate quarry, which is other side of the valley to the National Park. It explores the fascinating perversity of destruction and the legacy of disassociation with the land. The Welsh heroes, bards and poets are flung into a dark cauldron, a worldly-broth of mythocentricity, religions, cults and symbols - ‘brewing-up’ with the lads in the garret, the demand to cap roofs and the business of a paid job. It attempts to reflect the misery and joy of an indigenous population, the proud brethren, manipulated by the greed and avarice of a few, the English, whose profits plundered the belly of Elidir Fawr. Elidir Fawr, with its flank of slate is one of the mountains holding Nant Peris vice-tight.

Before slate was the copper and other minerals whose extraction poisoned the streams. It used to be sacred land. There are always the needs and wants of a changing society, and the mining, the digging and the groping are linked to the avarice of the age. In the poem, the female form becomes pits and holes and cracks to excavate. But she is not passive! Money exchanges hands, and the dialogue with the land is lost. I think there are clues here and Mammon led the way. As I said, the way the land is changed changes the people.

“...Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowels of thir mother Earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the hill a spacious wound...”

John Milton - Paradise Lost.

My probing seems like an intense thirst, establishing the energy for this forensic investigation...finding more clues along the way?

“...Out of that greed materialized the potential to utterly destroy the mountain during the plague of the industrial revolution...the epic stage that is the great, grey holes of men is universal...” 

The Curse of Religion: Redhead Collection

Nant could be anywhere. But how big can a hole get, and how depressed can a people become? And who pays...? As I said, she is not passive, just a bit fucked up that’s all. These veins in the land lead me on to veins of junk in flesh and heroin addiction.

“I was withdrawing...I was on the streets...I felt rough. I needed the drugs. And this fella came along and said, “Do you do anal sex?” I said, “No, not really, but I will, right.” So I was in the back of the van, like this right, and I bent over and I put it in the ‘normal vagina’, not in ‘that’...and said, “Oh, it’s in.” And i’m pretending that it’s killing me and I was saying, “Oh God, don’t hurt me.” And he really thought he was having anal sex! And he wasn’t! And I said, “Was that nice, was that a lot different?” And he said, “Oh, that was so much different.” I felt like saying, “You dickhead, it was the same hole!” 

from - Bottles in, Bottles Out.

So, I will continue to seek the pulse of this land. I feel it has something to do with the great, grey holes of the quarried mountain on the doorstep of Nant, and a man with a pick sticking into Mother earth. And the mountain was eaten and spat out onto the roofs of the world. And there is a payment! The Feminine Principal!

It is interesting to note that Chris Bonington’s sister resides down the pass! Hardly seen, she is one of the chimney folk. Forgotten and unknown by the established mountain heroes of the world, her survival with mental illness and utterly confused state of mind puts into perspective such facile achievements as climbing mountains. There is a truth in this lady that bares to the bone such idolatry. She attains her summit every second of every day with no logistical help! She stumbles on, muttering, reaching out, reaching out...with no doors to close and no keys to turn and no flag to place...Madness has a truth and it flourishes well here. Llanberis Pass is her ‘ward’ corridor. She had been kissed by a saint, a devil, a monster, the same, for another role entirely…

It was on the crags behind where she lives that lay another female entity, another female form and part of the landscape of Nant. The ghostly, emaciated torso of belly, neck, chin, nose and forehead are prominent in relief, arched, across a steep nubbin of granite hill. I could say she looks uncannily like my Mother looked on her deathbed – or like all Mothers look when turning to dust and stone. The gullies that drop down from her stone-slab are like a torn shroud that the wind has reduced to rags.

I admit I do have an animistic tendency in response to nature and this does affect my relationship to where I live. But do we not all feel a little of this? Feel a little of this when words fail to connect and an internal, more intense poetry creeps in? Is this not the tongue of some other animal, some force, some being, of some other breath? Something flicking its tail in the muddy waters? Some aboriginal presence asserting itself – within sniffing distance – all is not well!

Why do I feel so sick here? This is the rub. It’s not that I feel sick but more like being caged-in with a sick animal. A sick animal that I have introduced myself to, spent time with, allowed in? A sick animal that has found a new drinking partner. The landlord says, “Move on now, you’ve had enough sir!” I know how much I have climbed here but how much have I drunk? I think you can drink too much of the hill and that new land of hope and promise and vision cannot be held? What about stuff like this -

On the first night in the valley, we played on the swings in the playground watching the sunset over Mon Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales. She swooped a scarlet-death blaze across the valley floor and onto the flanking, searing, dark gullies and scree. The florescence was like some Photoshop ‘dark tool’ effect. It was a divine experience. I was aware of a Cosmic unfolding in a true sacred space - the swings and slide positioned like surreal menhirs awaiting the music of the spheres! Prostrate among unseen influences, I thought this the most incredible situation for a playground. Over the years it became a desolate tip of rust and rag and left to the sheep to browse to the bone and shelter from the incessant wind and rain. Instead of a sanctuary it became inhospitable, a sewer in my mind. The earth-charge, the divine, had moved house and was somewhere else!

Can it be held...? Does one have to be nomadic to stay in touch...?

The Eleanors

Just down the road, the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle rears up from a stumpy outcrop on the shore of Llyn Peris. Built by Llewellyn ap Iorwerth as a guard post, it was of strategic importance as it blocked movement into the heart of Snowdonia. There has apparently been a garrison here since the sixth century. It was here that his grandson, Llywelyn ap Grufforth incarcerated his eldest brother Owain after fierce fratricidal fighting over rulership of Gwynedd. His other brother Dafydd became an enemy and joined opposing allegiances. A fourth brother was out of the loop. The Llywelyn’s war with the English concerned only Gwynedd and to this day the echos of conflict are apparent. 

Their more pastoral neighbours lived in relevant comfort with the Crown and Marcher lords. It was from here on the shores of Llyn Peris that the Dinorwic Power Scheme’s catheter tubing tore through the mountain of Elidir Fawr to its upper reservoir of Machllyn for the production of hydro electricity. Does the mountain also contain the new uba stronghold of corporate power under the guise of The National Grid? It was here that Turner sketched the amalgam aspects for his blockbuster painting of the castle. A collection of sublime elements produce the atmosphere, light and sense of place that saw Owain imprisoned here for twenty two years. It is to this painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 that he first added lines of verse –

“How awful is the silence of the waste,
Where nature lifts her mountains to the sky.
Majestic solitude, behold the tower
Where hopeless Owen, long imprison’d, pin’d,
And wrung his hands for liberty in vain.”

I relate to his famous quote – “If I could find anything blacker than black, I’d use it.” It is from here on the majestic ‘waste’ of slate that are The Rainbow Slabs that one of my first E7’s was climbed, Raped by Affection.

This small corner of the world that is Gwynedd, perhaps little more than a hill between fields, became dotted with markers separating the changing fortunes of ‘yours and mine’. These were the boundaries for opposing aggressors, invaders of the Norman Conquest, The Crown and troops of King Henry the third and The Barons, became the English versus the Welsh. There was no nationalism in the thirteenth century but only Gwynedd at war with itself, its identity, its Welsh neighbours and the quest for more land. The executive government for an independent Wales almost made it! As a few rocks remain on the hill between fields and the hand of ownership slips away from the tools of war does the tongue remain locked in the land and themselves? Is the tongue still locked in war?

It is interesting to note that the Normans were in fact descendants of the Vikings, known as the Northmen, who were allowed to settle and intermarry on the northern coast of France in an exchange for safeguarding against more Viking attacks.

The Baron’s War against Henry the third was led by Simon de Montfort, youngest son of Simon de Montfort, elected captain-general of the French forces in the Albigensian Crusade by his fellow nobles. This younger son played a major role in the reign of Henry. His father was present at the siege of Beziers in 1209 where twenty thousand Cathari and Catholics were massacred. Simon's part in the crusade had the full backing of his liege lord, the King of France, Philip Augustus. He became notorious and feared for his extreme cruelty, treachery and bad faith. He massacred whole towns, and for those who refused to give up their faith had their eyes gouged out and their noses, lips and ears cut off. His son, Simon de Montfort bore some allegiance to Llewellyn ap Gruffudd to whom his daughter, Eleanor married. Because of the Baron’s War and Simon’s leadership, it was the closest that Britain came to losing the monarchy. But we did gain a House of Commons!

Simon de Montfort himself married Eleanor, Henry the Third’s sister after an accusation of seduction! She was first married when she was only nine years old and widowed at sixteen. She was again widowed when Simon fought and died in a Baron’s war against the stronger army of Henry. He was recorded as saying, ‘Let us commend our souls to God, because our bodies are theirs.”

Henry also married an Eleanor, daughter of Raymond, Count of Provence. She is fourteen years old.

Eleanor, Llywelyn’s wife, becomes the first Lady of Snowdon but dies in childbirth giving birth to Gwenllion. She is carried across the Lavan Sands to be buried at Llanfaes on Anglesey opposite their home in Abergwyngregyn. Llewellyn is betrayed and murdered, mutilated, butchered and eventually decapitated. Dafydd is the first man to be savagely hung drawn and quartered! His sons incarcerated in Bristol and never released. Gwenllion is confined for life in a priory and is never allowed her freedom, her heritage or mother or father’s tongue. Wales is ‘cast to the ground’. But Edward the First’s victory over Gwynedd was not a disaster to all Welshmen!

These were once kids singing songs and playing on swings. Becoming older they would play hide and seek and ride on smaller horses. Carving their names in trees and stone, they would eventually hunt ‘twrch’ wild boar and wolves. These animals were hunted out seven hundred years ago, but their names in the hills remain. I can’t help wondering what other creature hides in the minds of some children at school here? From the singing and the playing and a feeling of ‘landlocked’ injustice with a hate in their tongue licked from the hill? The twrch are roaming and breeding again in parts of Britain.

Tongue in cheek.

 Sketch 2: Redhead Collection

As regards difficult communication one can talk of a Welsh tongued, chapel taught mountain people, hard, rugged and reticent and suspicious of ‘outsiders’. I think anyone not actually born here and with traceable ancestors buried in the hill, would be classed as an outsider. You must understand that this is a foreign land, a fact that most incomer’s forget! This has to be respected. Speaking Welsh of course is an issue if you don’t speak it. It’s always in your face. If you live here, it helps to speak the tongue! It is the first means of communication for most - and important in understanding the loss when translating into English. Having lived in the area for the past twenty five years means that I have Welsh friends, the common denominator being that they do not embrace the language as a cultural identity. The language is not an issue. Of interest is that they are all ‘outdoor’ type people. Their culture is the outdoors.

One friend, who was born in Colwyn Bay which is only twenty five miles away, frequented a local golf course for the first time. The attendant at the desk said to him that it was unusual for a non-Welsh person to play golf there. My friend said he was born in Colwyn Bay and went to school there. Does that not make him Welsh? The man returned that, as everyone knew, Colwyn Bay is not in Wales, meaning that a lot of English live there! This of course implies that the only true Welsh county is Gwynedd. This may be true! I understand and appreciate the need to protect this ‘foreign land’, but is it really under threat? If the language is spoken for reasons of threat and fear of incomers then what does that foster in the children? Perhaps Gwynedd is Wales, or rather the remains of an ancient culture that hasn’t grown up and found itself by integrating with a changing world. The Irish understand that speaking English doesn’t subdue their own language of Gaelic. Scotland is also culturally intact. There is still a culture in the hills here that continues to blame and resent. I believe it is cause for concern.

When you understand that actually there is no such thing as ‘indigenous’ here, you understand that we are all colonists! It is everyone’s duty to care for the land.

“Once we have departed from the soil, once the fertility of the imagination has departed from the fertility of the land, once we have plundered the source of nourishment and life and well being - once, in short, we have left what is sacred - our home - can there ever be a return?

from - Soft Explosive Hard Embrace.

My time here has been positive and fruitful and creative and I believe I have done much to reinforce a living bond with the land, surely something that is truly traditionally of Celtic origin. Poetic! I have not imposed myself on the land and the work voiced through climbing, performance, exhibitions and literature are informed from the land. The mountains have sustained me. The culture has not!

It is not surprising. I have never fitted easily under labels of Art and Climbing and feel I have never in reality served either of these bedfellows well or satisfactorily, and yet it seems that my whole life has been intensely preoccupied with the making and mugging of images from the land and the hills and somewhere else as if my life depended on it. Incuts and side-pulls are constants within the ever changing flux and re-invention of my work as an image maker.

Back In the eighties when I was most active as a climber, creating climbs like The Bells, The Bells, Raped by Affection and Margins of the Mind, the studio was as much a rockface and the rockface a studio. I called the commitment to these routes a kind of ‘field of savagery’ and related the ascents to a ceremonial act. I didn’t have to climb much, because of the intense, essential nature of the routes was sufficient to question and provoke and release the images dwelling within. Intent is the key. The climbing wasn’t the intent - the climbing was the action! The intent is the crux part of the formula which manifested itself back in the studio. This is process. The products on the wall always left me disinterested as if the essential energy that informed the work had dissipated and sloped off to find another recipient to work with!  The climbs were climbed and the paintings painted. The process is the wilderness and the product a zoo!

Yumino in Hogiau Pen Garret: Redhead Collection

John Redhead© 2011