Friday 28 September 2012

Twelve Julys

David Craig leads Dexter Wall with creator Bill Peascod on belay.

June ceases to flame and shine with its precise sting like a burning-glass. The huge dry wind that rushed up Wasdale and blew grit into our eyes as we dropped down Broad Stand after balancing up Birkett's immaculate slab, then moved round to the loom of the East Buttress to weave our ways up Phoenix, has died back into the doldrum of July. The exact apex of the watershed between the months occurs at the top of Bill Peascod's Long Tom on Grey Crag, Birkness Combe.

On a rasping April day I had sat by the fire in the Fell and Rock hut on the eastern slope of Buttermere and scanned the route book line by line. Work on the Buttermere guide was just getting under way and who knew what neglected crannies might come to light in the ballpen jottings — some facetious, some jubilant, some plain factual — by the generations of members? On page 15 I read that on 19 March 1953 A. J. J. Moulam and J. M. Barr had added a new second pitch to Long Tom: 'Take the steep crack up the L wall, awkward exit. Then step L onto face again to finish on easy ridge.' When I mention this to Bill, he agrees that the route 'needed straightening out' — a rare concession for one fiercely proud, and rightly so, of his lines.

As June expires and July begins to brood, I hike up into the Combe with Cameron Self, an excellent young poet from Norwich, who had tried to break upwards out of the flatlands as a student at Hull by joining the climbing club, but had rarely, he says, done more than 'stand about in Langdale, looking up at Raven Crag in the rain'. Now he is gazing all around him at the massive shoulders of the Buttermere Fells, the lake shrinking to a large-scale map below us, the vistas up Honister and down Crummock Water. The scene is a little greyed and blurred by a moistening air-stream which the corrie seems to be sucking in and exhaling in great breaths. Before we move round to reconnoitre the 'new' finish to Long Tom, an imposing VS detains us — not a common thing on Grey, which Wilfred Noyce truly described as 'sunsplashed and restful' with 'fine possibilities of gymshoe wandering'.

That was in 1940. Soon Dexter Wall and Fortiter had announced a bolder approach to Grey. Just after the War two climbers mentioned in no other List of First Ascents found this handsome pitch at the very corner of Mitre Buttress. To the left of the comfortable, slabby tracts explored by A. C. Pigou and his Cambridge young men during the Great War, a dark wall leans over the scree chute. You step left on to it and at once your centre of gravity trembles uncomfortably; balancing demands a concentration of the will. A staircase of ledges rears abruptly towards the skyline. The edges are good and positive but each riser is steep enough to ease you remorselessly outwards until you mantel on to the next tread. At the top I take off my new JB helmet, bought to replace the trusty item which the past decade has crunched and cracked beyond usefulness, and perch it on the stance beside me to let my head cool off. As I bring up Cameron, a gust lifts through the gully, snatches up my Helmet and lobs it down the 100 ft drop into the scree, which it hits with a clunk like the tortoise hitting Aeschylus on the skull (it killed him). When I retrieve it, the shattered white blaze on the scarlet paint is as big as a boiled egg and I rarely wear it again.

By the time we reach Long Tom, via Harrow Wall and the lovely stretching delicacies of Suaviter, not only the crag but also everything else is grey — the scree fans, the lowering clouds, the metallic surfaces of the twin lakes, which dim and vanish and reappear through hill fog like dry steam. Four hundred feet of climbing has set off that lovely flow when you feel you could climb through sunset and midnight to next day's dawning. I climb Long Tom's lower parts a little faster than the fog, which is now filling tidally. Subtle holds entice the fingers upwards; it would all be rated excellent if a mucky gully did not lour in from the right, leaking and oozing. It is Tom's fault: he turns out to be a surly stone gnome who pees his bed continually — uncomfortable for him but he does not mind as long as he spites us. He stands at the back of a square stance close-carpeted with turf. Above his head is a dirty vault, its stones jammed unconvincingly together. Cameron comes up and we speculate about how much help the gnome will be if we stand on his head (as Bill recommends in the guidebook) and 'ascend the bulge above, treating some doubtful blocks with care.' It looks like a bad joke — a malign gnomic wheeze, much harder than 'Severe (hard)' and much more rickety than it must have been when Bill and G. G. MacPhee (pioneer of Gimmer Crack and Deer Bield Crack) explored it 30 years ago.

I hug the gnome, paw at the blackened flanges, back down and wipe my hands on my trousers. Just below us the image of the combe has wiped as blank as a switched-off television. Greyish tendrils blow upwards past us. Cameron's long face (he is a professional pessimist) has taken on the look of one who does not expect to see Norfolk again in this life. We seem to be standing like the last two people in the world, marooned on the top of a skyscraper as the waters rise.

I edge along the wall above the stance and feel round the arete. Is this what Moulam meant? My fingers curl round a knobby jug. Here is the acme of commitment — a move into the unseen and unknown. But Moulam and Barr left their frail clue and Moulam's rock-sense was, on his record, as fine as anyone's. I step up, grip, swing round. It is technically comfortable, only the swimming white blindness of everything makes it awesome. It is not hard to perch in balance and spy out the next moves upwards, and they are imposing. A clean-cut crack splits the wall, homing on a niche, cleaving on into the cloudy upper reaches. I jam with both my hands and they lodge like dovetails. Pull up, smear with the feet, pull up, jam a toe. It feels more like gritstone climbing, but the hands suffer less. A faintly precarious half-mantel gets me into the niche; step up and jam and lay-away with growing ease until the crag lies back into a rickle of boulders.

Tied on, I look out into an ocean of wool. Cameron's voice reaches me like the last faint calls of a castaway as his ship recedes. When he calls up, 'What do you do?' and I shout back, 'Jam it — it's really solid —easier than it looks', his reply floats up, 'I've never jammed!' For some minutes I play himlike a fish, gauging his progress or resistance by the tension of the rope. But it is no good: he is perceiving the wall as impassable. After a shouted conference I set up an abseil and swing down the gully, pendule out on to the face to retrieve my gear, and in half an hour we are crunching downwards to Gatesgarth under the sombre overcast.

From now on it is no good expecting the radiance of high summer. The sycamore and hawthorn leaves are darkening from the luminous lettuce-green of their youth last month; the verges of the tracks, and the canal towpath near home, are filling up with the surly leafage of nettles; thickets of rose-bay willow herb have replaced the white lacework of cow-parsley and may-blossom; the fell-sides have grown a scaly hide of bracken. Advancing middle-age and natural melancholia alert me slightly prematurely to the signs that the British summer is levelling out, beginning to fray and sag, too heartbreakingly soon after its. prime. But Bill and I defy all this on a clammy 6th July at Shepherd's when the sky is more white than blue, the sweat won't evaporate, and we climb all day coated in it as though buttered ready for grilling. 510 ft of rock, scarcely a move below 4B, our combined ages 114: by the end we are wearied by the continual coiling and uncoiling and downward clattering on slatey paths but utterly attuned and content.

We start up North Crag Buttress, which has intrigued Bill for 30 years, since he put up Eve. His climbing diary for 11 August 1951 claims proudly for that route: 'This is the first ascent of North Buttress', boldly underlined in ink. He never attempted the awkward, chunky, frontal line of the Buttress itself, which took the best efforts of the next wave, three years later. It has been daunting me for years, the fault of the old guide from the far-off days when you were allowed to describe climbs and use words like `green' and 'dubious-looking' to evoke the rock itself. The Buttress has not quite become one of my pet challenges, grimacing at me in the small hours of the morning (like Sword of Damocles and Perhaps Not and Deer Bield Buttress and Cenotaph Corner and The Link on Lochnagar and...). But I have always known it is there, demanding to be tackled, as I slink past to easier things. As I work my way up the long first pitch, it is like learning to climb again — how steep a facet will support the feet by friction alone, how cramped a hold (three fingers' breadth? Two?) will be enough to pull up on? Little blackened saw-edges have to be trusted, the occasional small hex lodged none too securely. I'm never at ease, never enjoying myself, until the crucial traverse back right faces me with a long stride supported by nothing better than a finger or two stuck into a hole with broken lips.

Now I have played myself in, the previous 80 ft have charged me up and reminded me vividly what good traction can be got on little features. Confidence wells as palpably as the tide filling up an inlet, and I step and pull, step and pull with. the good feeling of singing in tune until I am perched on the eyrie of the stance and I can look out with cleansed, rejuvenated vision across the reaches of Derwentwater, oyster-grey and silky under an opaque sky.

Bill has called up more often than usual `What's it like?', and I've been answering, less sunnily than usual, 'Not easy... quite awkward... sharp but thin,' and other breathless ambiguities. On vertical moves he is liable to call up 'Take my weight!', and I never do, and he never needs it, but today the familiar shout makes me fear more keenly than usual that this might be a route when his heart, damaged by a massive coronary ten years before, suddenly gives way and leaves him dangling from my Sticht-plate. But all goes happily and he joins me on the stance in high good-humour at following the redoubtable line at last. The first 100 ft of it, anyway. Now `Step left and ascend the overhanging groove.' How quickly said, barely a line of print. I have been craning doubtingly up at it, I know it will put a brake on me, and it does. You stand under the mouth of a passage like a leaded valley in a slate roof. It is defended by an eave. Move the feet up, sway back, eel over, reach up, pull up (all this in fantasy, you understand) — on what? The valley sides are smooth as the hull of a foundering ship must look to those cast overboard.

 In the joint up there a thick old hand-forged peg, or so it looks, offers its eye, big enough for a finger, asking for a krab and a sling, round which the desperate hand could clench... I must not do that — I will not do that — I will free-climb this classic. I just can't. I glare at it for quarter of a useless hour, fidgeting upwards, groping at the sides of the valley, getting nowhere, explaining away the impasse to Bill, who can see it all anyway. Finally I swallow my pride — a bitter gulp —and quest off rightwards to escape. Still the climb is not over and I sketch incredibly steep moves up what I later find to be (El 5b) until at last I give the buttress best and monkey across a slab to the sanctuary of an oak.

As we eat mint cake and butties, the book tells us that the Slab Finish was the original line, done by Peter Greenwood and E. Mallinson. To finish directly, Peter had to come back a few weeks later with his `bodyguard' Pete Whitwell (as Mike Thompson calls him in Paul Ross's 1965 guide) and Don Whillans. Even that spearhead team needed two pegs for aid to surmount the overhang and the groove above, so who am I to scourge myself for failing? We are in top gear now, if not overdrive, and I point Bill at Paul Ross's companion to Eve, Adam, whose handsome swarthy front I first climbed on an early visit to Shepherd's with my eldest son, Pete. The black faces marbled with Stilton green have the beauty of barbarous jewellery, jet and turquoise combined in jagged patterns. Chunks have acute edges, like hardwood logs that have surrendered more to the hammering of the axe than its splitting.

Thick canines stick up, black yet undecayed, good for decades yet. Puckered surfaces, wizened like leather turned to stone, offer wrinkles perfect for edging. Trees here are bonsai — 7 ft hollies, 12 ft oaks, with the squat trunks and muscled limbs of dwarfs. The holly in the middle of Adam is unforgettable, stability incarnate amongst all these verticals. Its satin-grey bole welcomes fingers, arms, slings, a harbour where it would be delightful to spend a day, contented as a full-fed buzzard, though the guidebooks invite you to steam past it on a 90 ft run-out and Roper, Eilbeck and Cram point you straight up the wall above it, as though directness was a virtue. Paul Ross had noticed this and objected to it: 'It goes out right, doesn't it?' he asked me, annoyed, and so it does, moving towards an arete which drops its great blade darkly against the gleam of the southern sky.

The magnetism of that profile draws you irresistibly into an area which seems improbably steep, as does the wall above it, but- both these passages offer finger-jugs so angled and so spaced that you swing up them in ecstasy untainted by desperation, each surge so free and dynamic you wish it would never end. Bill, proud father of Eve, wonders jealously if the upstart Adam, was any harder at the finish and it has to be said that the slanting cleft on Eve pitch 3 makes a handrail more secure than Adam's mini-flakes. But the contrast, such as it is, is minor beside the fact that both routes soar to their very finishes on the solid turf belvedere where the Borrowdale woodlands end in mid­air and a gulf of pure space hollows northwards towards Bassenthwaite.

By now we had embarked on a tour of the VS classics that had been found while Bill was overseas. Among the tall trees at the north end, where midges are gathering as though the lake was a loch, we climb Vesper — traversing at its best, more or less unprotectable after the bulge, so that both leader and second can savour the naked daring of the pioneers Greenwood and Ross as they spy out ledges no broader than the spine of a guidebook or hook fingerends into ragged sockets to sustain strides at the full reach of the legs. I climb quickly, either because Bill is holding the rope one-handed while he swats midges or because I do not have the strength to hang about on so steep a wall. He climbs with the nimbleness of the man who was first along the traverses on Cleopatra (Buckstone How), Delilah (High Crag), and Jezebel (Newlands). Surely we are finished for the day? The fells are featureless in the haze and the last walkers have gone from the water-meadows between Grange and the lake. But we have to contour back the length of the crag to reach the car and as we pause in the stony bay at the left of the Chamonix area, the narrow mouth of Kranzic Crack says `Climb me'.

I have been wondering for years how good the jams are, so up we go, revelling in the narrowness of the flake top, finding the moves off it on to and along the wall to be at the most taxing and finely-whetted end of VS/4c. It takes the exact placing of a toe or finger to unlock each problem and we are reminded of last month's climb along the more delicate edgings on pitches 6, 9, and 13 of the Pillar Girdle, the longest climb in England. Back at the foot we unbuckle harnesses and unlace PA's in a happy trance, looking at each other and laughing in wonderment at the desire for rock that has prolonged the day so far into the phase of hunger and fatigue (and so long past opening time).
From now on the month is steeped in moisture — drunk, perspired, exuded by the crags and teemed down out of the clouds. On the 7th the sky lours, blurring the summits of High Pike and Red Stile. The mosses in Birkness Combe are gemmed with droplets, the stains of seepage are as dark as Guinness.

On a reconnaissance for the guidebook, Rick Graham shepherds me firmly across the boundary between my half of the territory (up to HVS) and his. On Eagle Crag this occupies the rock around the impending cracks of Carnival and Hugh Banner's Direct Finish to Bill Peascod's Fifth Avenue. The start of the Avenue should be mine but the difficult move on to the wall of pitch 2 (old pitch 4) flummoxes me. I cannot believe a wet PA would stay put on so rounded a knob, Rick takes over, and from then on I have to wait patiently, staring at the mortifying feature, while he rains down clots of sodden earth as he digs out slots for wires. (It is the only Peascod move I have ever failed to make.)

At least I can see him and enjoy the work of A master-climber at close quarters when we move on up to have a look at the Direct Finish. This cleft through a beetling overhang looks impossibly steep and it is a sight to see Rick hanging by one hand, probing holes for runners, leaning back onto the air as though it is a deck-chair, minute after minute. When I try to follow, my arms feel as weak as a child's and I simply ask him to winch me up. It is a comfort when he upgrades it to El/5b, which is more or less my limit — although the 5b crack on Carnival incites me to a burst of unaided climbing and I lay-away from its knife-edge so vigorously that the pads of my fingers ache afterwards as we zig leftwards towards the great gut of Central Chimney, then zag, back across a wall barely equipped with fingerholds.

As we coil and review the routes, we hear the dreadful flutter of wind ruffling fast round a falling body. It sounds like a climber's clothes flapping as he falls. I look round: nothing. It comes again and two peregrines, close together, are in semi-free fall, a few feet out from the stance, letting gravity rule for a second, wrenching out of it with incredible athletic tensioning of the wings to cut widely off and up and over the summit ridge, streaks of brown and white fire flaming against the damp shade of the north face and the colourless sky.

The summer is set in its ways now, no longer a revelation, as I find when I next walk up for a work-out on 'my' crag — my 'secret' crag — a mile from home. It is a ragged limestone edge, no classic battlement like Twistleton or Giggleswick or Malham Right Wing, more an assortment of low, ruined towers like chunks of abandoned concrete, but seamed with fierce problems and wholly to my taste as a practice ground because it was not built, it evolved, rowans and ashes spring from its deeper clefts, and as you rest on top looking northwest to Coniston Old Man and Bow Fell across a tussocky plateau, you may see a roedeer, head up, ears pricked, in silhouette against the mountains. One limestone forehead bulges into a split overhang and this is my 5b problem.

Pull up on shallow mouths (one of them liable to drool), bridge widely and go for the split with the right hand. It closes on your flesh like pliers, it hurts and it will not work unless it does — resist the temptation to hang off for a rest, pull on up, go for the boss on the left with your other hand, extract your right and entrust yourself to the air in one sheer swing, rock over on to the skull and mantel up... All right, 5a perhaps, but I never manage it at the first shot, or the second.
This evening the problems feel like work or sleep-walking, because the verve seems to have drained out of nature. Summer's first flush has dulled. When I get home, Anne is amazed by my hangdog' face and thinks I have had bad news or seen an accident. Next day I write out as a poem this vision of the season's change:

In less than a month our fastness, The hidden vale on the fell's flank, Has wasted under Saturn.
Dust from the planet of age
Has dowsed the sycamore's flourish, Withered the whin-flowers,
Emptied the larks from the air, Choked the throat of the curlew. It has petrified the bracken.
The bracken bides its time,
Scaly and uniform, tough green pelt Of a single pack, the rat-plant Consuming the upland. Beyond,
The mountains in June were oven-stones Swollen with secret fires.
Now they are pale-blue dreams, Barely-remembered pasts. A ban Has fallen upon the hill.
The leveret and the roe
Absorb to brown shadows. The carrion crow is a branch On a ring-barked tree.
The pipit's nest is a wisp
Of last year's wind-gleanings.Now my brain's screen blanks, Every silvery image dulled,

As the fell dwindles to an islet Becalmed in faceless haze, Helplessly waiting for the ebb
At the year's slack water.

On the 9th I go to Swindale with Rob Crawshaw to do one or two of its harder and more recent routes, post Charlie Wilson and post Harold Drasdo. The Nymph is as good as we hoped — a rising traverse leading to a bulging crack which demands quick combinings of lay-away and mantel — but Garm is a revelation. For some reason Rob believes me to be a connoisseur of obscure grot and he is not surprised that I am intent on finding an 'excavated slab'. 'Excavated' makes us look for a dug-out start or base. It turns out to be a sweep of rock as pale (after its stripping in 1966) as the newly-shaven cheeks of a once-bearded face. I pad up it from ledge to tree root to half-way terrace and shout down warm words to which Rob responds in a tone both cynical and humouring.

In this semi-artificial environment I feel like a bear on a Mappin terrace and he is my tolerant keeper. But he warms to the route, leads the taxing wall above the terrace in his `super-cool' and unerring style, and does seem to concede afterwards that there are excellences to be found in byways of the Lakes. From the 11th to the 14th I am in Sheffield, my annual venture around the fringes of that hot-bed with its latest news of Paul Nunn's sayings and Ron Fawcett's or Jerry Moffatt's doings, Birtles's disenchanted move over to the new mania, parapenting, the intrigues etc..

Although an ocean of moorland lies just over the rim of Stanage, Sheffield climbing, to someone from Wordsworth country, feels wholly urban. When I stop off en route to work out at Millstone Edge, I see a perfect subject for a Hogarth of the climbing scene. Beneath the blunt prow of Master's Edge which Fawcett has recently whitened with his great chalked paws, this fashion-plate is standing with turquoise singlet, wasp-striped Italian nylon tights, red-laced Fires and gaping chalk-bag. He inspects his soles, has a dip and looks round to see who is watching. He sets hands to rock, moves up three feet, paralysis sets in, he grunts, drops off, shakes out, looks round, clambers a little more... As I move on to the Scoop (described by Nunn with amiable pedantry as 'D 2b'), he is still deep in his narcissistic rite, and probably still is.

Sheer towers of grit and castles of limestone are waiting a little further on, and so are grizzled friends who first climbed here before hexes were invented and still have a handful of fine items on their agendas (and always will). `Let's start at Willersley,' they say, 'then drive round to High Tor if we're going well.' Left to myself I might never have tried Willersley. `The crag is approached via iron gates near the Cromford junction' sounds grimly urban. `Access is strictly forbidden, for obscure religious and other reasons' might have incited me, as Nunn doubtless meant it to. The crag is excellent, towering parallel with mature trees. The Great Corner offers the reasonably-angled start that I need to adjust my early morning nerves and then I please myself, leading the first pitch of Porthole Wall.

It is steep enough to press its broad stone hand against your chest, forcing you to move with the chary deliberateness of a bomb-disposal squad. After 70 ft of that I am happy to follow Norman Elliott past the pothole to a dizzy perch and a finish amongst jungle threaded with sinuous paths, an unkempt Avon Gorge without the prams or ice-cream vans. In the shade the earth is still darkened by dew. Two hours later, High Tor glares like a threshing floor tilted to the vertical above the chimney pots of Matlock. The temperature must have peaked near 80' and the honeyed air seems to run down our skins. When I lead the jamming pitch of Skylight, my hands slither as though I have been handling fresh fish — two steps upwards, one downwards. The sun roasts the back of my neck, a Mediterranean dazzle all around, the horrendous battlement of Castellan jutting on my right.

Here is a great beauty of climbing, that ordinary climbers can enjoy themselves on the very verge of an area, can see close up the minutest features of a route, that represents the summit of the sport.
The shade of the upper chimney on Skylight is actually welcome: strange after years of huddling into shelter from chilling winds. It makes High Tor feel like Buis les Baronnies. Up above, Terry, Norman and I walk about dazed, in a lush beauty-spot equipped with a cafe. With local knowledge they have carried up small change to buy mugs of tea but now, at the very end of a sweltering Saturday, we feast for almost nothing. They offer us, free, slice after slice of bedraggled strawberry cake whose fruit and cream will not last another day and we gobble it up and wash it down with scalding draughts until the plate is empty. It makes, me feel I have stepped through the looking-glass: there is nothing like this to assuage you as you haul out on to the top of Gimmer!

I am in Sheffield partly to climb as many pinnacles as possible with Terry, photographed by Ian Smith, for a section of a book (Native Stones). An impure experience, you may say, but good climbing shots are almost impossible to get on the spur of the moment; they have to be set up. So we burrow into the steamy woods at Wharncliffe and monkey about happily on the rocks that look blackened by industrial smoke, too little visited to be rubbed through again to their native red. We spiral up the Prow and leap across to the mainland from its top, then move along to sample the blocky natural masonry where J. W. Puttrell launched gritstone climbing a century ago and gave his lines stately names like Puttrell's Progress.

But the hard core of our project centres on Rivelin Needle. It was once called Rivelin Steeple and this change pleases me because I believe that these quarried pinnacles (at Tegness, Wharncliffe, Mow Cop, Wilton) are totems, therefore the phallic sense of 'needle' is more apt than the churchy 'steeple'. This tower rising out of the bracken jungle is blunt and bald, with few weaknesses. The nearer we get, the more it repulses me.

We go for Croton Oil, though 'go for' is too dynamic for my nervy gropes and fumbles. Terry is all patience as I move up to the last substantial feature, a rounded 2 in ledge, where I stand for what seems days like the Frog Footman, immobile with my feet turned outwards. I eye the next cluster of chalk marks, a poor straight—up edge, a slightly better one above it, both apparently the keysto the passage up and left to a coign of vantage profiled against the pale blue hazy sky. I inch upwards, stretch fingers for edge 1, sketch a sideways pull, my sweaty extremities slipping. This farce is repeated three times until my will turns soft as a rotten apple and I back down wishing that I was Whillans, that I had started climbing at fifteen — anything other than I really am.

Self-yeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see The lost are like this and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

But as Hopkins also says,
Soul, self, come, poor Jackself, I do advise You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room...

Next morning we are back. Ian has arrived, slung about with cameras. Now it must be done. But this is not all that is going for me: yesterday's failure turned the Needle from a bogey into a material challenge. Now at least it will not be aura that beats me but only (only!) the stature of the rock. Terry stands on the plinth. I move up briskly to the ledge, carrying his chalk-bag. Was this huge ethical concession the key? I leave the last sure footing and friction up to edge 1, try the leverage, feel how slight it is, and retreat — tactically —wailing to Terry, 'It's no use — this place is for good climbers.' The faithful lad shouts up, `You are a good climber.' What Ibsen calls 'the saving lie'. Next time I feel together, unified; I can think what to do and do what I think of. Toes stick on the merest worn layer-ends in the sandstone, edge 1 eases me readily upwards to edge 2, my floury fingers grapple firmly on to it and I am. toeing leftwards towards that perch, all tremor gone, my muscles flexing smoothly. The knowledge that I am at my optimum has me whooping wordlessly, hardly pausing on the bracket, jamming on upwards between the rickety final flakes with a fierce pleasure, almost, as they sandpaper the backs of my tingling hands.

It had taken my utmost in nerve, balance, finger strength, technique, and really I do not want to separate these 'faculties'. The nerve to balance up, trusting the feet, then lay­away leftwards with right arm tensed to hold weight on the assumption that as the fingers took full load the traction would get good before the toes slid backwards off — this was all one conception and one movement —conceived of too much since yesterday, but at least it won through to actual experience today.
On the way home across the Snake Pass the car rides on an air-cushion of happy retrospect while the sky bruises over and practises a few warning drops. July has some sweets left of a dampish kind. In the newly defoliated Car-park Crags in Borrowdale with Bill Peascod. we climb Green Fingers on Nagg's Slab and dig out a new route, Stingray, on Beth's Crab. then an epic voyage up Y Gully on Haystacks, Buttermere, where moisture never ceases to irrigate the lady's mantle an saxifrage even in the middle of an anti-cycle (22 July). On the 17th we had outsmarted the water by arranging to climb Cleopatra for the photographer at noon, no earlier, so that her tawny front ('with Phoebus' amorous kisses black, And wrinkled deep in time') was already being sunned, drying out the seep and sharpening the image. And that was a highlight, Bill girding himself up to lead the pocketed traverse 31 years after he was the first to cross it.

 Bill Peascod's Honister Wall:Buckstone How

A few miles down the dale from Buckstone How, the month glided coolly to its end as Anne and I rowed over Crummock Water. I to have found a perfect bed-and-breakfast place at Rannerdale. We had to suss Ling Crag for the guidebook. It is a landmark — one lone hummock of Skiddaw slate whose forepaw stretches out into water pure as liquid rock. We climb the Slabs, where the glacier has graved an old volcanic rib to a gradual angle, corrugated now and again by rounded sills where you must reach up, find nothing, and pad upwards with faith in friction. This is awkward because I have brought two left-footed EBs for Anne and have to lend her one of my Fires, so she climbs in odd PA's and I in one Fire and one Walsh fell-trainer. Then she gives me a top-rope down the precipitous northern side where some force has torn out rock in jagged masses, creating VS and harder pitches. The wind is planing across the water now with almost an autumnal edge, tinged with the firmness of apples and the rustiness of tarnishing bracken.

Twelve July's have been packed into the above passage though this month has been stretched to an entire year, and in all these twelve years, according to my records, I have spent only one memorable day on rock between 22 July and 31 July. It is a shame and a crime that English holidays are distorted so that the House of Lords (and a few hangers-on in the Commons) can shoot grouse from 12 August, partridges from I September, and pheasants from 1 October. By mid-July rainfall is markedly increasing, the nights are cooler, gales arrive, rending tents and setting fishing boats adrift — and at last the children are given their holidays. Late May to late July is our prime season and it is then that the schools and colleges should be on vacation so that the families can go into the mountains when the sun is at its height and the days, are longest.

Pillar Rock: Oil on Canvas: John Appleby

David Craig: First Published in 'The Book of the Climbing Year'-Patrick Stephens publishing.

Friday 21 September 2012

Rawalpindi to Rawtenstall

On September 24, 1961 I was ready to start the 7,000 mile journey by motor-bike from Rawalpindi to the UK (After the Trivor expedi­tion). After ten days' preparation I had got the necessary visa for Iran, and what was even more vital, some money. I was at last ready to leave the peace and quiet of Colonel Goodwin's house, and face six weeks of hard, hot and dusty driving through eight different countries. I said farewell to the Goodwins, and to the one remaining expedition member, Geoff Smith, and with good luck wishes ringing in my ears drove out on to the road to Peshawar, my first objective, 105 miles away.

I have first to make a call on an RAF pilot I had met on the journey out by boat. He was stationed at Risalpar, a place just short of Peshawar. After three hours' drive, a signpost indicated a right turn, four miles to Risalpar. I soon found the camp and was directed to his quarters. Unable to attract any attention, I went to the bungalow next door, and an extremely attractive Pakistani girl informed me he had left for the weekend, and gone to Rawalpindi. After talking for some time she said that if I did not want to continue that day to Peshawar I would be quite welcome to stay the night with them. I did not take long to make up my mind. If I continued, I should probably end up at the Afghan border after dark and have no place to sleep. Later in the afternoon, her husband, a squadron leader in the Pakistan Air Force, returned, and fitted me out in more suitable dress for a drink in the mess.

In the evening conversation drifted to my plans for the journey home. I received many pitying glances from the company, as they began to fill me up with stories of murder and robbery in Afghan­istan. The appearance of a missionary, much to my relief, put an end to the topic and it came as no surprise to me later, as I had already discovered what a small world it is, to find that he lived only eight miles from my own home. I retired to bed slightly uneasy, already imagining myself going flat out up the Khyber Pass, with bullets singing past my ears. Next morning after a good breakfast, I loaded my belongings on the bike, and said good-bye to my hosts.

I was determined to spend the next night on Afghan soil. After I left Peshawar, the hills, through which the Khyber Pass goes, soon appeared through the heat-haze of midday. As I approached the Pass, I thought of all the violence this place had seen, though it seemed fairly peaceable today. It wasn't long before I was stopped at a road block, with a couple of guards loaded down with bando­liers of bullets, to discourage any awkward customers from forcing a way through. I was directed to a small hut at the side of the road and produced my passport.

"You have no frontier stamp," I was informed. It seemed one had to report to the police at the last town and obtain a stamp on the passport in order to cross the frontier.
I drove back to Peshawar, and soon found the police station, closed! This seemed to be unusual, the police station closed, so after a careful search round the building, I discovered a side door open and a miserable-looking fellow seated behind a desk. I produced the passport, and he disappeared into the chief office. One hour later I was heading back to the Khyber, a friendly nod at the road block, and I was entering the Pass on a good asphalt road, a thing I had hardly expected. Keeping a wary eye for snipers I stopped to take photographs and look at the badges of the many regiments cut into the rock. After passing several tribesmen with rifles walking along the road and not being shot at, I soon felt quite happy.

On arrival at the far end of the Pass I was halted at the Pakistan border. After a long business with papers I rolled up to the Afghan border 100 yards away. First they wanted the certificate of inoculation against cholera, as it seemed there was an epidemic on. After this the passport, carnet etc. Everything seemed to have gone off all right, when I noticed a clerk looking very intently at my visa stamp. I guessed what was wrong: it had expired. A few minutes later I was back on my way to Peshawar to book in at a hotel and wait for the Afghan Consulate to open office in the morning. By 9.30 next morning I had completed my calls on the Consulate and C.I.D. and was once more driving through the Pass, which by now seemed almost as familiar as the Llanberis Pass in Wales.

This time everything went smoothly and in no time I was humming down the road towards Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan 180 miles away, very confident of reaching it before nightfall. For the first fifty miles to Jalalabad there is a super highway, and stories of Russian and American roads being built all over the country came to mind. Then came the rude awakening; this super highway was replaced by what I would call a farm track. What I did not know, as I began picking my way through the pot-holes and boulders, was that it was going to take me something like three and a half weeks' tough driving to reach the 'farm'. By 5 o'clock I had crashed the bike once, bent the footrest, and toppled it down a sand bank trying to avoid a lorry. I looked like someone out of a flour mill, and had a terrific thirst. I unpacked the primus stove and made two huge brews of tea, then fell asleep on the ground sheet.

I woke early, and continued towards Kabul through a very impressive gorge, through which the engineers were building a reasonable road, but unfortunately they hadn't made a lot of progress to date. I arrived in Kabul around 9.30, and stopped to watch the traders in the market. The best thing to do seemed to be to go to the British Embassy, where I would be able to get the information I required.
The Consul proved to be an extremely nice chap, and his assistant immediately offered me some breakfast, a wash, and a couple of bottles of beer to set me in the right spirits.

After breakfast I inquired about road conditions and it seemed that I had arrived at the right time. The road I wished to travel on to Kandahar had just been opened that day- it had been closed because of the cholera epidemic. After the routine report to the police, I cashed some cheques in the bazaar and booked in at a reasonable hotel. By the time I had cleaned up in the shower, had a meal and the customary sleep in the afternoon, I discovered that I should be reporting to the Embassy for some more beer with the nice Consul.

After a very pleasant evening drinking and talking, I left the Embassy and discovered that the lights on the bike had failed. Having decided to accept the penalty for drunken driving without lights, I jumped on the machine and wove a course through the city back to my hotel and a clean bed.
After completing all necessary matters, like filling up with petrol and also the gallon can that I carried, I left Kabul wishing that I could have stayed longer. As the road might have closed again it was imperative  to leave at the earliest opportunity. This was the first really long stage of the journey, being 340 miles with no cities in between. I drove all day, being stopped at several road blocks and asked for my cholera certificate. The tightness of the regula­tions regarding travel during an epidemic was beginning to cause me a little worry, for several reasons. First, cholera inoculation needed two jabs and I had had only one; then, the certificate had almost expired; and lastly, I might catch cholera. Anyway luck held and by nightfall I had reached the halfway stage. After a cup of tea and half a melon, a gift from a wagon driver, I bedded down on the sand just off the roadside, only to be awakened by the intense cold during the night.

The next day I expected to reach Kandahar, though I knew I would be in for an extremely hard day. I was not disappointed; for a solid ten hours I bounced along the track trying to stay upright, sometimes in sand, at others in rocks or gravel. Just before dark­ness I had only eight miles to go when I had the feeling something had happened to the steering. A quick look revealed a broken rear mudguard. Far too much weight, something would have to go. It was too late to- start to rearrange the packing, so another night was spent in a dry river bed, the only disturbance being caused by some animal rushing past my head just after I turned in. The glimpse I had made me think it was a dog, or could it have been a wolf? Not being sure if there were wolves in Afghanistan I fell asleep still wondering.

After cocoa and a juggle with the kit I wobbled into Kandahar in the early hours. Several essential jobs required attention, so I decided to spend a couple of days in this city. After a clean-up in the hotel I took the bike downto a welder in the bazaar and had the mudguard repaired, then bought oil for the oil change now due, and returned to the hotel. In the meantime, two girls had arrived at the hotel, one from Oldham, some ten miles from where I live, and a girl from New Zealand, travelling together back to England. We combined cooking arrangements and I enjoyed several good meals. Hotels in these countries do not object to cooking in the bedroom. Two bottles of beer arrived, one each for the girls from a chap down the corridor who appeared concerned for them, though I think he became even more concerned when I downed both bottles before he could say knife.

The following day I spent on routine maintenance of the bike and visits to various offices for stamps in the passport or on the certificate. During the evening several motor-cycle dealers arrived, and began offering to buy the bike. Unfortunately there were too many technical snags, otherwise I would have sold the machine, their offers were very high and would have bought me a new machine with some to spare.

The next stage of 235 miles was reputedly the toughest, and so it proved to be, not that the road became any worse, but extremely hot and desolate; only towards evening, when nearing Farrah, did I see the odd village. There is one stopping place called Dilaram where one can buy petrol in tins if one is running short. Just as the sun began setting I pulled off the road and made camp for the night some ten miles from Farrah.

A call in the bank next day proved unfruitful, they refused to cash a travellers' cheque. Stopping only long enough to buy a packet of cigarettes I pressed on to Herat, arriving around 4.30 I searched out a hotel and within minutes of my arrival had been invited to dine with a Swiss couple in the evening. He, it seemed, was a geologist, and had been in Afghanistan for several years. He asked if I had come through Dilaram, and told me he met the famous Peter Townsend there, while he was making his round-the­ world trip. Also in the hotel were two English lads travelling back from Calcutta and later my two ex-girlfriends from Kandahar arrived by bus.

The following day I carried out the usual routine of bank and garages in preparation for departure next morning. I left early in anticipation of trouble at the frontier. I had been warned not to take food that had been opened as this would be thrown away by the Iranians at the border because of the cholera. The track became very sandy in places and I had great difficulty in crossing several troughs of sand. Midday saw my arrival at the frontier, the place seemed deserted. I eventually found the officers in charge asleep. They quickly clipped the necessary stamps etc, and returned to their cots. A mile up the road I encountered the Iranian border post. They threw away my water and several bits of food, and checked my cholera slip for the last time, then I was heading for Kalla Islam, the frontier town. Here I encountered a whole host of people from the hotel in Herat.

 Bon and Don off to Rhyl...or is it the Alps?

The last bus for the day had gone, so they were spending the night in a shed which was the town's hotel. I decided to stay the night and have a chat with English-speaking people for a change, and spent the evening drinking Coca Cola with an American who told me about the angry scene on the bus after one of the English girls discovered her camera had been stolen. Just when heads were about to roll a man cycled up and handed the camera over. How he came to have the camera in his possession was still a mystery.

On the journey from Kalla Islam I encountered my first bad `corrugations' which in no time broke the mudguard again. My English friends passed me later in the day on the bus, waving, then disappeared in a cloud of dust, and that was the last I saw of them. I arrived in Meshed mid-afternoon, and after deciding one hotel was too expensive I tried the usual trick of picking on a knowing-looking youngster and repeating "hotel". I was then taken through the town, and finished up at the same hotel. Tired out, I booked in, and after a shower and clean-up I had the mudguard welded; then set off to look round the famous 'Blue Mosque' and the bazaar.

Next day I picked up a student guide and made a tour of the city, buying several souvenirs, and a watch for £1 which I thought might just last the trip. It did, just! At Boulogne it packed up.
From Meshed to Teheran is 576 miles of horrible road; I expected to take three days for this leg of the journey. It did in fact take me four and during these four days in the saddle many incidents occurred, some amusing, some not. At my first stop the entire police force arrived at my hotel in dribs and drabs until finally the chief himself arrived to see this stranger in the town. I was at first rather angry with all the town in my bedroom, particularly as I had the front wheel off the bike trying to repair a puncture. Later it became so comical during my interrogation, that I found it impossible to keep a straight face. Many severe glances were directed at me, which only added to my amusement. Finally with a stiff bow I was handed back my passport and the room was emptied.

The following midday found me seated by the roadside in a particularly deserted stretch with another puncture. Deciding that it was useless to use the same rubber solution again, I thought I
would sit it out until someone arrived. Nightfall saw the wheel back on with the puncture repaired. Exhausted after my struggle all day in the sun, I slept at the scene of the mishap.
Deciding that the spare ferry-can of petrol was no longer necessary I threw it away, a good find for some wanderer. Pulling in at a small town for bread, I was immediately pounced on by the local bobby and while I was being once more interrogated, managed to have the mudguard welded again. At Damghan, my overnight stop in a cheap hotel, I traded a tin trunk for a decent job on my punctured tyre.

Ten solid hours driving brought me to Teheran on the first stretch of tarmac road for weeks. The ride from Meshed had taken its toll of me. I looked a very sorry sight, dirty, unshaven, face badly cracked with weeks of exposure to the sun, and extremely sore. Deciding on a fresh start, I called the inevitable stray over and was guided to an expensive-looking hotel. The apartment was luxurious, own bathroom and telephone and all the trimmings. After a good bath and a huge meal I passed into oblivion between spotless white sheets.
Next morning, feeling much fitter, but around three pounds poorer, I visited the British Consulate to learn the dos and don'ts for leaving Iran. After taking the camera for repair, I visited a park to watch some tennis, quite a change in this part of the world. Nobody seems interested in wasting energy on sports of any kind.

From Teheran 100 miles of tarmac road were a marvellous change after the 'track'. However, all good things come to an end, earlier than usual around these parts, and soon the track reappeared. While I was having a 'Coke' in a transport cafe a GB Land Rover pulled in, the occupants being an Australian and an Englishman heading for England.
I put my kit in the Land Rover and we drove along together until nightfall, then camped in the desert for the night.

Leaving the two lads to repair the three flat tyres they had inherited overnight, I pushed on to the next town to await them and do some shopping. Whilst I was waiting for them, the London-Bombay bus pulled in, spilling a crowd of young people out and filling the village with the sound of Cockney voices. Talking to one fellow I asked him how he came to be going to India. "Well I just got fed up, so I got on the bus at Hampstead Heath." "Got a job out here?" I asked, reminding him there is no dole in India. "No. I'll look around for a couple of weeks before I start work." A few minutes later they were gone, leaving me scratching my head.

Meanwhile, the lads were having the patches vulcanised at the garage down the street. While strolling around, one particular `nosy parker' who spoke a very few words of English began to annoy me. A fight looked like developing from the show I gave him, when I was informed that he was the chief of police, in civvies. After this I decided to leave town and drive slowly to allow the others to catch up. A mile from the town I stopped by a stream to swill the dust off the bike. About an hour later I saw the Land Rover approaching at a fast rate. I asked what the hurry was and they told me they had to make a run for it for refusing to pay the price asked by the garage man.

Later in the evening we arrived in Tabriz. A few inquiries soon had us installed in a reasonable hotel for the night. Next morning I said farewell to the boys, who wished to press on with all speed. The day was spent in collecting exit permits and in changing money, also maintenance of the bike. The rear mudguard needed welding again. On the way to the welder's shop I had a head-on collision with a cyclist. In view of the threatening crowd, and the fact that I had been going up a one-way street, I had to pay up a pound and try to look happy.

The next day I expected to reach the borders of Turkey. I left at seven and drove steadily until midday when I caught up with two more Australians in a van. Over a thick slice of bread and jam we decided to press hard for the border, as we were all rather fed up with Iran and Iranians. The scene at the border post made us think of a hotel in Paris, quite luxurious and full of tourists. The fabulous cars made us think civilisation had arrived.

True to form, trouble arrived in the shape of the passport officer, who went a little too far and began pushing people about. Unfortunately for him, none of us was in any mood, after a hard day, to be pushed about. He found himself in the unusual position of being an Iranian surrounded by a threatening crowd, and as this had never happened before he quickly disappeared into his office. It was too late to cross the frontier, so after a meal in the Tourist Hotel we slept in the yard on camp-beds.

Strangely enough it was our sparring partner from the previous evening who got us away one of the first in the morning. As soon as one entered Turkey there was a magnificent view of Mt. Ararat, 16,900ft. Seeing a snow-capped mountain after so much desert made me feel almost at home again. Although the roads were still unmetalled, there was a very marked improvement; also noticeable at once was the appearance of neat fields, and road signs. The most startling thing of all was that people were working. It was also nice to discover that the children didn't play the game of 'Stone the Motor-cyclist' as in Afghanistan and Iran.

A few miles into Turkey we came across our old friends from Tabriz. Over breakfast the idea of climbing Mt. Ararat was discussed, but after I submitted my estimate as to how long this would take from where we were, the subject was not mentioned again.
Expecting to meet up again at the next town we each departed separately, but it was the last I saw of either of them. That night I slept for the first time on grass by a lovely clear river with enough water in to completely submerge oneself.

During the course of the three-day drive to Ankara I went through the towns of Erzurum, Erzincan, Sivas and Kayseri; the country in parts became mountainous, with good scenery. My first encounter with rain occurred on the way to Kayseri, causing high jinks on the muddy road surface.
Ankara for me meant that I had successfully made the trip home and the rest was just a formality. I had been told by a couple travelling the other way that from Ankara to England one followed a tarmac road all the way. Having decided to spend a couple of days in Istanbul instead of Ankara I was soon using the power so long stifled in the bike. Whilst in Istanbul I went into a shop to change a rather large note into something small to pay a rascal of a hotel-keeper who was trying to cheat me. When the owner of the shop arrived he began to tell me how he had lived in London and for several years in Leeds, where he had attended the university. He took me in hand, and fixed me up in his uncle's hotel, then took me out to dine in a very smart restaurant where I had the best meal I'd eaten for over six months. As I was staying in the fairly rough quarter of the city, a cafe proprietor insisted that I leave my bike in the restaurant which enabled me to sleep easier, although it meant rising at six in time to pull it out before opening time.

After locating the Consulate and obtaining the Yugoslav visa I left Istanbul and headed for Bulgaria wondering what an Iron Curtain country would be like. I arrived at the border in the early morning and was refused entry on account of having no visa. I had been misinformed at the Consulate, and had to return to the border town of Edirne and obtain one from the Consulate there.

On entering Bulgaria I noticed at once how neat and orderly everything was, tree-lined roads with all the stones along the roadside painted white, all dead leaves swept into piles, an absence of advertisements. In fact it was like an army camp. People with whom I had contact were very polite and efficient, they almost seemed afraid to be anything else. Driving along these roads was in fact quite pleasant, mostly farming country on each side. One of the large towns, Plovdiv, seemed very plain; I can barely remember it at all. Unfortunately before I arrived at my hoped-for destination, Sofia, I had a back-wheel puncture: a nail which I had noticed embedded in the tyre in Iran eventually burst it. With the help of a passing motor-cyclist I was soon on my way to Sofia. This town I liked very much, clean with several very nice buildings, one in particular with a gold-coloured roof. An obvious foreigner walking around with a camera seems to give every policeman the idea that he's just found himself a spy. After several hours wandering and a meal I drove off to the Yugoslav frontier some thirty miles away.

This frontier crossing proved to be the stormiest of the whole trip. A huge fat Italian, obviously very wealthy, had all his money spread on the table, Canadian dollars, American dollars, and several heaps of other currency, all being meticulously counted by the officer. Unable to understand a word of what was being said, I guessed that there was a great danger of his losing the money, as he seemed about to blubber any second. Standing by the gate the customs officer gave me back my carnet and passport, then asked if I had any money. Thinking he intended to change my money, as did the fellow on my entry, I handed him about £3 10s. in leva. When no money came forth I asked him about it. All he said was "Confiscate" and as far as I could see, to him that was the end of the business. Roused to fighting fury by this cool cheek, I started a riot which finished with the guard running from the gate with fixed bayonet and myself cursing the officer and telling him if he touched me with it, I'd shove it up his waistcoat. Quite surprised that anyone should dare to say anything at all in this country, he wrote out an official form for me to draw the money from the Banc de Bulgarie in Erchard. Sure that no such bank existed, I drove into Yugoslavia still seething with rage. Ten minutes later a passing car flung a stone straight through my headlamp.

My first experience of a town in Yugoslavia put me on my guard against policemen. I was fined 10/- on the spot for a miserable parking offence. Determined the 'Big Brother' should get no more money for his next rocket from me, I drove very warily. The ride to Belgrade, some of the way on the 'Autoput', was quite pleasant, though not of any particular interest. Along the `Autoput' which connects Belgrade and Zagreb, I was travelling fairly slowly, looking for a good spot to sleep the night. I was surprised by a man in uniform waving me down. Thinking quickly, I knew that I was breaking no laws, so I stopped, with the engine ticking over. It was a policeman. "You are travelling too fast, comrade," he said in bad English. I shook my head and said "Autoput." He then made a sign which I knew at once: money. Shoving the bike into gear, I let out the clutch and drove off with him grabbing at my shoulders. With a good hefty hand-off I was rid of him, and motored down the road for a couple of hours at a steady 75 m.p.h.

A second 'Autoput' from Zagreb goes to Liubliana and here the countryside takes an almost Swiss look, small chalets and churches on the mountainside. Within a short time after leaving Liubliana I arrived at the Italian border, expecting both trouble from the customs and sunshine. I got neither. Almost casually I passed through the formalities, to be greeted by torrential rain which continued almost all the way from Trieste to Manchester. Three days later, after terrible weather and damp nights in hayricks, I landed in Dover after a very rough Channel crossing to be greeted by the report: 'Floods all over the country.'

A night in a transport cafe, a puncture on the M 1, and at midnight in teeming rain I stood outside the house I had left six months ago. A few pebbles at the bedroom window soon had Audrey, my wife, down to greet me with a pint of tea and a big fire. The date was Friday, November 4.

Don Whillans


Monday 17 September 2012

Gamekeeper turned poacher: Nick Bullock's Echoes review

Original photos: Nick Bullock/Vertebrate/Mountain Equipment
It seems standard practice these days,for climbing autobiographies to kick off proceedings with an exciting prologue chapter. A device I presume,designed to grab the reader by the short and curlies straight from the off and keep them 'on message'. The message in Nick Bullock's case being...'I have seen things you people wouldn't believe'. Nick Bullock's Echoes employs this device in Sam Peckinpah proportions and by the time you have waded through the snot, blood and cerebral fluid, liberally splattered across a prison gymnasium and a Welsh crag in the opening chapter, it's a relief to arrive at Chapter One 'Brick' -exhale, and relax in a bit of domestic mundanity.

Echoes follows very much in Andy Cave's 'learning  to Breathe tradition. The working class wage slave who discovers himself through climbing and with one bound- well lots of small bounds- breaks free and finds true fulfillment and happiness in the great outdoors.  Except that Bill Peascod got there, if not first ,than a few decades before, in his superb autobiography, 'Journey after dawn'. Some might also point to the Joe Brown and Don Whillans 'autobiographies' except they were ghost written and a bit rubbish so we won't go there.

Like the aforementioned Yorkshireman, Nick Bullock's roots were fairly humble by the middle class standards of climbing activism in the UK. Born in the north Midlands to parents who were solidly Conservative and of the 'good old Enoch' tradition. Nick followed for a while in his parents reactionary footsteps, became a young gamekeeper and nurtured a special disdain for coal miners. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at a meeting between a young Bullock and the young NUM activist, Andy Cave! However, like the repentant sinner, Nick bends over backwards to distance himself from this side of his former self and throughout the rest of the book, he successfully massages liberal sensibilities and drops in 'right on' observations on queue.

The first quarter of the book revolves around his experiences in the prison service. In many ways this is the strongest section of the book for me. Nick paints an often harrowing picture of life behind bars. A spiritually withering experience for both prisoner and warden alike.An episode which can seen to mentally and physically diminish  both parties in it's dehumanizing structure and deathly routine. For the prisoner, freedom can be weeks away; for the warden it is usually a life sentence. The seeds for his escape are planted when he pursues a training course as a Prison PE instructor.He discovers climbing  when he attends an outdoor activities course at Plas y Brenin, and the rest as they say.....

The steep learning curve which the writer goes through as he learns the ropes in the Welsh mountains is convincingly related as the gauche young beginner throws himself at rock and ice like a man possessed. Soloing everything on site and quickly building up his strength and experience to the extent that within a few months he has packed so much into his nascent career that already his Colin ' I'm mad me' Hunt side is starting to break through. As climbing partners are roped in ,Nick ratchets up his CV by throwing himself at harder and harder climbs but not without mishap. A cack handed effort at a Joe Brown jamming crack at The Roaches and a peeler at Tremadog which saw him bouncing down Belshazzar Gully like silver ball in a pinball machine, could well have seen him measured up for a wooden overcoat rather than a visit to the local infirmary. But like the man who falls off his bike and gets straight back on, Nick cut off his plaster cast and flicks through the guidebooks and plans even harder campaigns.

As far as the climbing sequences go, I found the UK sections more illuminating and entertaining than the Alpine and Greater Ranges stuff. This is just a personal preference and probably age related. In another review I commented just how hard it is to creatively re-work such an overworked genre which from here on in I shall categorize as 'sub zero suffering and derring-do'. It's not so much that I've been there and bought the T shirt. The T shirt has been through the washer so many times it's worn out, full of holes and is now being used as a rag to wipe oil paints off a palette knife!

It's certainly entertaining though, reading his descriptions of cruising Dinas Cromlech at great speed suspended by a sky hook in a shallow pocket or taking a whipper off John Redheads Gogarth test piece The Bells-The Bells. A route which runs through the book like an distant rite of passage although I couldn't make out if he ever actually nails it?

All this action is set against his prison life. In fact, in one late chapter the author comes over all Ed Drummond, by juxtaposing paragraphs set in HM Prison with passages detailing his struggles on a hard new route in Peru.  He also goes for a curiously dated Shipton/Tilman approach by referring to partners,even close friends like Jules Cartwright,by their surnames. Nick does drop in at intervals the fact that he is very driven and competitive. That's OK...nothing wrong with being driven and competitive ... so long as you're not entering a modesty competition!

Overall, Echoes is very entertaining and credit should be given for the authors vivid portrayal of prison life.The writing in the main is spare and matter of fact. A style which suits the rather dark subject matter. Prison life does not really lend itself to romantic prose!  I believe that Echoes came too late for the latest Boardman Tasker award but I'm sure the author and publisher can rest assured that Echoes will be a shoe in for the 2013 Boardman Tasker short list. The good folk at Boardman Tasker cannot,it seems, get enough of works like Echoes which fit into a tried and tested structure and follow a formula which undoubtedly appeals to readers and reviewers alike. Echoes works as a piece of mountain writing entertainment. It might be more Blues Brothers than Citizen Kane but then again, more people would want to see John Belushi gyrating to James Brown in technicolor than see a crystal ball roll across a mansion floor in black and white.

In the mean time, away from his laptop, Nick Bullock is well on his way to disproving that old climbing adage about there being 'old climbers and bold climbers but not many old bold climbers'   He might have sacrificed an Argos carriage clock from the Prison Service but he's going to have a fathomless seam of mountain memories to look back on when that time comes when the only thing to look forward to is the past.

John Appleby

Echoes is published by Vertebrate Publishing.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Ben Nicholson's Cornwall

BBC4′s documentary, The Art of Cornwall, explored how the small colony of artists in St Ives became as important as Paris or London during a golden creative period between the 1920s and 1960s. The central focus of the film was on Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – the latter first visited St Ives in 1928 when he discovered the mariner and primitive painter, Alfred Wallis.  The programme also examined how a younger generation of artists, such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, were also influenced by the Cornish landscape.

Nicholson and Hepworth were central figures in the thriving modernist art scene in 1930s London. Nicholson had begun his career painting landscapes and still lifes, but inspired by Mondrian, gradually turned to abstract art.  With the outbreak of war in 1939, recently married to Hepworth and with three young children, Nicholson reluctantly decided to leave London for the safety of Cornwall.  As the couple drove to the end of their road in Hampstead, they noticed Mondrian standing on the corner. They pulled over, rolled down the window and begged him to join them. He refused: he hated the countryside and anything green. Nicholson once recounted how Mondrian, noticing the leaves of a chestnut tree just visible through the skylight of Nicholson’s Hampstead studio, shook his head in disapproval and said: ‘Too much nature’.

 Ben Nicholson/Barbara Hepworth

When he first arrived in Cornwall, Nicholson went on with the white reliefs that he had been making in London.  They were made in the spirit of quietness and composure that Nicholson had admired in Mondrian’s studio. In St Ives, however:

    Outside his Cornish studio the world must have seemed exceedingly disorderly: most days the sky going by at a ttremendous pace; the sluicing of waves and exploding of breakers, that endless pitiless tugging at the headlands by the sea; prevailing winds, quoits and stone hedges; the underworld of tin lodes; the hardship of it all, generastion after generation; harbours, like churchyards, bobbing with coffins.  Only very slowly did this have an effect on what he was doing.
    - Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

But the landscape did have an effect, modulated through his abstraction.  In addition, the film suggested, Nicholson turned to landscapes in order to earn a living during the war years. Paintings from the 1940s often show a landscape observed through a window with still-life elements in the foreground (below and top).

Landscape by itself is meaningless, but it works on our feelings in profound ways, arousing in us a sense of ourselves in relation to the outside world. What does it feel like to stare up at the night sky or to confront a mountain?  A picture which mimics the appearance of natural phenomena will miss the point, not just of their essential nature, but of ours too.  Instead, some equivalent has to be found: an equivalent of the way in which they act upon our sensibilities.
- Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

In 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) below, the still life of cups and vessels of the foreground interact with the far-reaching landscape stretching away towards the distant sea.  This work was completed in 1945 with the addition of the union jack as a gesture to celebrate V.E. Day and the end of the war.

These landscapes, with their primitivist style, reflect the influence of Alfred Wallis, whose work Nicholson had first encountered in St Ives in 1928. With fellow-artist Christopher Wood, Nicholson had chanced upon Wallis, seeing him painting through the open door of his cottage. As Nicholson later described it, they:

    passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall… We knocked at the door and inside found Wallis.

Alfred Wallis had spent most of his working life as a fisherman. He claimed to have gone to sea aged nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland in Canada. In 1890 he moved to St Ives where he became a marine scrap merchant. He began painting at the age of 70 ‘for company’ after the death of his wife.  Wood and Nicholson saw in his unconventional paintings an authentic, expressive vision, and a freshness and immediacy they aspired to in their own work.

Wallis regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences – he said he painted ‘what used to be’. His principal subjects were ships at sea, especially the working sail ships that had disappeared during his lifetime, and the St Ives townscape and the countryside immediately surrounding the town.  He didn’t use traditional linear perspective, instead arranging his subjects in terms of relative importance – the main subject of a painting would be the largest object, regardless of where it stood in physical relationship to its surroundings.

Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew was being replaced by steamships. As he put it, his subjects were ‘what use To Bee out of my memery what we may never see again…’ [Wikipedia].   Having little money, Wallis improvised with materials, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes using a limited palette of paint bought from ships’ chandlers.  Two Boats (above) is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid, while The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach (below) was painted on the back of a printed advertisement for an exhibition.  It is a view of St. Ives in which the elements are rearranged so that they depart from strict topographical accuracy. It shows the promontary at St. Ives known as ‘The Island’, part of Porthmeor Beach (one end of which adjoins the Island), and Porthmeor Square.

After the war, though Nicholson returned to abstraction, he continued to paint the Cornish landscape. At the close of the programme the presenter, Dr James Fox descended into the bowels of the Tate where an assistant hauled out from storage the huge Patrick Heron painting, Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian (below) – perhaps the most arresting moment in the documentary.

Patrick Heron was born in Leeds in 1920 into a family of uncompromising nonconformism. His father was an art lover, socialist and pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, while his mother, too, was a pacifist and of fiercely independent spirit, with a passionate eye for the natural world.  Heron was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, a founder member of CND, and an active conservationist. He hated with a passion the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s, and refused a knighthood when it was offered by Margaret Thatcher.

In 1925 the Heron family moved from Leeds to Newlyn, where Patrick’s father ran a textile business. Patrick’s early years in Cornwall were idyllic: he was influenced deeply by the light, colour and landscape of what he called the ‘sacred land’ of his childhood. He never forgot childhood holidays that the family spent at Eagles Nest, the house above Zennor. In 1956, Heron was able to buy Eagles Nest, and moved in with his wife Delia and their young family.  From that time on, the house was the centre of his imaginative existence:

    This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting.

Though his work now became non-figurative, it remained profoundly influenced by the landscape of West Penwith.  Among his first works of the period were the garden paintings, meshes of colour streaked and dribbled vertically on to the canvases.

 Azalea Garden [below] was one of the paintings made in the first months at Eagles Nest… I referred to the series as ‘garden paintings’, since they certainly related in my mind to the extraordinary effervescence of flowering azaleas and camellias which was erupting all over the garden, amongst the granite boulders, at Eagles Nest when we moved down to begin our lives here. …The well-known crisis which confronted many British painters of my generation – I mean the moving over from overt figuration, however abstract, to overt non-figuration – overtook me at about this time.

The wild landscape around Eagles’ Nest inspired the floating boulder shapes and promontories of the large, Matisse-like abstract canvases that followed in the 1960s and 1970s – acrylics and prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes

Patrick Heron designed the huge stained glass window that was installed in the entrance hall of the Tate St Ives gallery when it opened in 1993.Patrick Heron and his wife Delia are buried in the churchyard at Zennor.  This photo was taken when we visited in 2006.
Gerry Cordon:
First published on That's How the Light Gets in (3/12/10)

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Bernat's Horse

Montserrat! The serrated mountain, rises from the plains 40 miles north-west of Barcelona. It is less than 5,000ft. high and three or four miles long. The rock is a very firm conglomerate. Seen from the south the mountain is a maze of pinnacles, many of them some hundreds of feet in height; to the north it presents sheer walls of up-to 1,500ft, almost without weaknesses. All this rock rises from a shrub-forest, everywhere as dense as a privet hedge. The mountain is famous for its monastery, fitted impressively into a cirque of pinnacles. The monks are nothing if not enterprising. They have provided excellent restaurants, cafeterias, food shops, wine shops, bookshops, gift shops, hairdressers' salons and toilets. The monastery has published a handsome rock-climbers' guide book. Vending machines dispense cooled beer and chocolate at all hours of day and night.

We arrived in the early afternoon. In the huge tourist car park an attendant stopped us. On our first visit his predecessor had been helpful. "Could we camp somewhere near here?" we had said. "There is a free camp site, courtesy of the monastery," he said.

"We have come to climb," we said..."The climbing is superb, enquire at the monastery," he replied.This time it was late in the year and the attendant barred the way. "The camp site is closed for the winter." We pointed to a small tent, just visible through the trees."The camp site is closed for the winter," he said.
This exchange repeated itself interminably until an emergency called him aside and we were able to continue to the camp. It is indeed closed and the gate locked but two climbers had persuaded the administration to grant them access. It was a special privilege not to be extended to anyone else, because they were there only climb the mountain, they explained.

"So are we," we said, pitching our tent. Of these two climbers, one was a Swede, working in
Czechoslovakia. The other was a Spaniard, working in Switzerland. I conversed in German. The Spaniard recognized me immediately but did not say so because we had met on our earlier visit when Dave Nicol caught him transferring armloads of food, climbing gear and motor oil from our tents to his own.

I recognized the Spaniard immediately but did not say so because it seemed useful win friends. Retribution still lay some months into the future when Dave Nicol was to find himself a day and a half above the Spaniard on the Nose of El Cap. "Pedro," the men in front would shout as they drank their Coca-Colas. And the Ave Marias drifted up as the Coke cans tinkled down. Pedro finally roped off.

At night the place changes character. The day trippers disappear and the illuminations and the moonlight emphasise the huge clean facades of the buildings. Beautiful to wander around the desert plazas, arcades and flights of stairs at those hours. The monks a nowhere to be seen. Sometimes we wondered what they did with themselves. But often we would hear heavy rock music pouring out from tiny lighted windows five or six floors up, and, on one occasion at least, girls screaming. However, as if to remind the visitor of their essentially solemn purposes the monks bang gongs from time to time and they keep this up for most of the night, backed up at intervals by regular strokes and chimes from assortment of powerful clocks and bells.

A memorable incident occurred in the camp that night. The sit perched on terraces above a precipitous slope, looks straight acre at the buildings, a quarter of a mile away. Looking at the view from
the pitch-dark camp site, the note of a trumpet right at my side suddenly shattered the silence. My first sensation was of devastating shock. Then I discerned the Swede, sitting in a camp chair on the terrace. My next reaction was a rush of anxiety as the full cool message poured across towards the monastery. Surely the authorities wouldn't stand for this maniacal attack on their privacy. They'd be up within minutes to turn us all off; then, bewilderment. From the monastery itself, a cool clear voice came back. It was the most impeccably timed, most perfect echo I have ever heard. The squares remained empty and it began to appear that there was to be no immediate hostile response. I relaxed into listening to this extraordinary duet.

With impressive certainty, and authority the Swede played a long and plaintive number and to each phrase, after a dignified pause, the melancholy answer responded, filling the cirque. It seemed to me the most beautiful melody I had ever heard and one that would haunt me for the rest of my life. But with the first notes of the next piece it slid off into memory for ever.  The guide-book to Montserrat is written in Catalan. This is good because Catalan appears to be a sort of Latin attempt at pidgin English, or, perhaps the climber's Esperanto. I quote the description of the first climb I did, on my previous visit, L'Esquelet by the Xemeneia Torras-Nubiola:

Ruta (Route) actualment utilitzada (actually utilised) com a via Normal (as the ordinary route). Aquesta Xemeneia que solca totalment el monolit (this chimney which completely splits the monolith) es una tipica escalade de tecnica de "ramonage" o xemeneia (is a typical chimneying-up a chimney type of chimney-climb!

Now try a bit yourself.
Molt convenient per a Pescalador montserrati per a completer la seva formacio de roquista. Escalada catalogada en 4.t. Al final (sortida) pas de 4. tsup. Escalada molt Segura. Una mica atletica. I hors. Descens en rappel per darrera (via Normal).

Not knowing a word of the language I may have got bits of it wrong but the rock fitted my reading.
I had been thinking about the Cavall Bernat- Montserrat's most famous pinnacle, climbed as long ago as 1935. Constant attempts had preceded this victory. Temptatives constants havien precedit aquesta conquests (I think!). The successful party consisted of Costa, Boix and Balaguer and an iron plaque placed at the start of the climb twenty-five years later remembers them. Compared with English climbing of the period it seemed a notable achievement and one cannot help wondering why we have heard so little of the Montserrati climbers. But, of course, only a year later the Civil War began and for three years Barcelona became the focus of one side's hopes. Until General Yagud marched in on 26 January, 1939.

Costa, Boix and Balaguer, where are you now? Then World War II confined the Barcelona climbers to their own mountain. But perhaps they wanted nothing else? They kept on doing what they'd already learned to do, but harder and longer. Their rock gives very few crack lines and its horizontally-bedded pebble surface can only be used up to steep slab angle. So one by one the great pinnacles and walls were bolted. The bolt was an ordinary Barcelona coach-bolt, sawn-off; the hanger was simply a length of very strong wire, twisted into a loop. On these precarious ladders the Montserrati climbers pushed bravely upwards. And by the end of the fifties they had forced El Paret de L'Aeri, the Wall of the Telfferique. "It's as impressive as Half Dome," Dave Nicol had exclaimed.

Maureen and I walked up to the Cavall Bernat in an hour. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. We scrambled up the easy pitch onto the shoulder and arranged the ropes. The big pitch starts with a 30' traverse graded at 5 sup. It went easily to an ancient peg in a pocket. Then a couple of very thin moves on pebbles, the wall just easing from vertical. Someone had pecked tiny scars on the surface of the key pebble. There was no way to step across on it and I persuaded myself to do so and moved into the scoop at the foot of the big chimney-groove. It was more difficult to stand there than I'd guessed and a few awkward moments passed before I was able to fix protection. Then, slowly up the groove assisted by a dozen pegs, bolts and rotting wedges already in place. At 100ft. something novel and disconcerting occurred. To this point, although we couldn't see each other we were in perfect contact. Then, in the upper bulges, I shouted down. A long wailing echo from the Paret dels Diables, straight opposite, drowned my words.

I tried shouting one word at a time. No way. I tried clipping the syllables. No way. Each one extended into an idiotic howl, ringing like a bell. I continued up the corner hearing at one point the sound of a hammer, no echo, close by. Stretching the 150ft. ropes I reached the small ledge. Two ancient bolts and a peg. I tied on, feeling committed and a bit worried. How would Maureen cope with the traverse? I had protected it with one rope but there'd be enough stretch to let her into space. I remembered that she had never prusiked.

I took in, holding the ropes very tight, and inch by inch she came up. Curiously, a mist had veiled the sun and a cool little breeze began to blow and rapidly grew stronger. At last she came into sight. She looked anxious. "Don't worry," I said, "at least we've got company for the descent." I heard a hammer. I said, "Pedro must be on the Via Puigmal, the big route on the back." She said, "Pegging, no, no, it's that sodding monk!" She hung back on a sling and pointed. On the very edge of the mind-blowing wall of the Parer dels Diables a hooded figure was crouched. The mist swirled around him. He was squaring off blocks for a shrine or meditation cell on the brink of as fearsome a precipice as I have ever seen!

Maureen joined me and we pulled ourselves together.  I arranged myself hastily for the top pitch which consisted of a short wall, easing into a slab, easing into the perfectly rounded dome of the summit. The first steep bit was easy but I came to a halt in the middle of the slab. Reasonable holds but not one of them incut, no protection, great exposure, and suddenly the wind was blowing in powerful cold gusts. Wasn't it oddly dull, too? No, it wasn't dull, it was getting dark, and just this frustrating barrier before easy ground and the summit. There was a little flake and I tapped a tiny peg in. I tested it. It moved. I tapped it again. The crack widened. I adjusted a sling to suspend my foot upon a small pebble and as the wind abated a moment I made three swift moves up to easy ground, and scrambled up in a final scariscurry. I was half-turned round, shouting to Maureen to cast off quickly, when I became aware somehow of a terrifying figure close behind me. I gasped aloud as the corner of my eye picked up this silver apparition. Relax, I told myself, it is the Madonna again. I had never expected to meet her on this off-beat perch. I tied the ropes around her waist while she gazed serenely into the deepening gloom. Maureen came up swiftly.

First British, we said, congratulating ourselves on getting up. I may have been a poor thing but it was our own. What about getting down? I remembered that Maureen had never abseiled. We force ourselves to rest for three or four precious minutes.
It was the perfect teaching set-up for a first abseil: a pitch that graded evenly from horizontal to vertical; a figure-eight descender myself holding the safety rope; the Madonna holding the abseil rope; the imminence of darkness. I outlined the idea and Maureen went smoothly down, no problem. I followed, retrieved the pegs,dropped the hammer which stopped providentially on the edge of the stance, retrieved the hammer, retrieved the abseil rope. Now for the big one. It seemed to take ages to set it up, but at last she set off, straight for the shoulder. I composed myself with difficulty until indistinct shouts signalled that she might be down. I had arranged to protect my own descent, having 600ft. of rope with us and not liking the corroded bolts. I also wanted a peg I had left in the groove. I set off for it but in a moment of carelessness I lost my purchase against the slanting groove and floated out across the wall. I had to forget it. I dropped onto the shoulder. The Cavall leaned over us like the prow of a gigantic liner in obscurity, mist swirled around her. To my delight and pride the ropes came cleanly down. Then down the easy shoulder and in five minutes we were on the ground and stuffing the ropes, which became suddenly and inextricably tangled, into the sacks. A wild exultation was starting to well up in us. But we hadn't quite finished yet.

Deep inside the monastery buildings there is an extraordinary cafeteria. It is the only place open after six and then from eight until nine only. Each evening, from the interstices of the monastery, a strange assortment of night people emerges to assemble there. The counters are laden with delicacies and offer every sort of drink. It presented itself to our thoughts now as the essential conclusion to this expedition.
We had no watch and no torch. Our senses led us along the ridge and into the narrow corridor through the forest. Eventually the faint whitish stones of the path disappeared and we had to admit that we had lost the line, probably 500ft. higher. The concrete pilgrims' stairway to S. Jeromi could be only a few hundred feet down through the thicket. Our impulses were to crash on down and our bodies agreed. But experience recalled the sheer smooth walls terracing the forest at random. We went wearily back up and staggered around, casting about for the path. Eventually we found it and felt our way from branch to branch, the trees so dense now that we were unable to fall out of the tunnel.

A half-hour in this lovely enchanted wood and we stepped abruptly onto the concrete trackway. Then down and down, counting the features we recognised until a pale glow slowly transformed into the effulgence the illuminations cast onto the rocks overhanging the monastery. On and on until the lights and buildings came into view and our way was clearly lit. In five minutes we would be down. A bell crashed out. The cafeteria opens at eight and closes at nine. We froze and counted. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. An agonising pause. The silence lengthened and became rich and profound. We stared at each other weakly and broke into hysterical laughter. Then, in a collapsed and aching walk, we stumbled down for beer and Cinzano, a little food maybe, and a brief but full taste of that rich contentment, ecstasy even, that visits us so infrequently, consequent sometimes on such a day as this.

Harold Drasdo