Friday 30 November 2012

John Redhead's Colonists

John Redhead and photographer Tony Loxton:

‘Colonists out’ is the title of the latest book by rugged individualist John Redhead. I use that descriptor deliberately, rather than overplayed clichés such as ‘enfant terrible’ or ‘the controversial artist/climber’, because one of the main thrusts of the book (and it thrusts vigorously in many directions) is the author’s desire, nay insistence that the rest of the world accept him just as he is, and accommodate him without imposing upon him a need to conform, to adapt or to change in any way whatsoever in order to ‘fit in’.

At the beginning of the book, we meet Ochre, a lurcher pup adopted by the author. Ochre lives, wolf-like, in a feral state on the hills, feeding himself at the expense of the local wildlife. No tame hound he, Ochre refuses to do what is required to become that, to the extent that John sleeps out in the barn with this kindred free spirit in order to bond. One imagines they could be hard to tell apart.
Ochre makes other appearances in the book, not least on one occasion where he chases, kills and eats a new neighbour’s cat, an act which Redhead finds “beautiful to behold”. He almost comes unstuck though when the cat’s owners appear, searching for their lost pet, necessitating a hasty cover-up of the grisly evidence.

I found this particular anecdote not easy to swallow, being the keeper of several much-loved cats, whom I regard as friends and companions. I would feel some considerable degree of antipathy towards anyone who stood by and watched one of my furry friends be torn apart. His reaction when his young son is rudely snubbed, elsewhere in the book, illustrates Redhead’s empathic nature, but such empathy deserts him here, even though I’m sure he realises that a loved pet is (to many) as much a family member as a child, and no mere prey animal. But then John, like most of us, is a bag of contradictions.

His refusal to compromise even extends to a resistance towards actively learning the language of his host community, be it in the rain-washed valleys of North Wales or the sun-baked mountains of the French Pyrenees.

Ah yes, community. Another target of Redhead’s thrusts. In ‘Colonists…’ he examines and dissects the notion of ‘community’, questioning and even attacking what he sees as the wholly spurious need of people to be part of a wider whole, and their hiding of their true selves amidst a clique, a group, a tribe, a religion or even the concept of a nation, by willingly conforming to its ideals and codes.
Conformity, such a necessity for acceptance in a tribal context, enrages him, and early in the book he rails loudly against ‘Rehoboth’, the name of the squat monolithic Christian temple to an absentee god, which sits adjacent to his sometime home in Nant Peris, and which so directed and corralled the lives of the local people, people who, the author suggests, were already cowed and partly broken by the dank chasm within which they dwelt, and by the harshness of their working lives, making them easy prey for the church.

JR with an installation piece for The Caban, Bryn Refail, Llanberis, N Wales.

He views the more closed-minded elements of the local community through an unsympathetic lens, with no hint of rose-tint, and is contemptuous of their insularity, their inward-looking rejection and resentment of those who are not of their tribe. The nationalist mindset is nowhere as ingrained as here in these shadowed valleys, where the language is the hook upon which their hats are hung.
The language, ah yes, the target of yet another thrust from the thrusting pen of the author, who holds it up here as almost an anachronism, an affectation, a historical curiosity dressed as a cultural necessity, which is misused as a means to exclude outsiders, and as a secret handshake for those who are members of the club.

And yet he adds that, was he Welsh himself, he would speak the language, and be proud of it. Redhead relates an anecdote in which his six-year old son, Ryley, attempts to converse with two local men outside his front gate, only to be pointedly ignored. The implication is that Ryley is ignored for being English, or rather, for not being Welsh, as well, one assumes, as for being a scion of the bohemian Englishman living (the bloody cheek!) in their old schoolhouse!

He ponders somewhat on the great romantic vision, projected by the tourist industry, of noble struggle (largely against the English) in the early history of Wales and finds in the reality, as with similar Scottish strivings for nationhood, as many foreign protagonists as natives, playing walk-on parts in a now re-written story which is selective and overlooks many less admirable facets of that history. He points out that Wales, as such, did not truly exist until long after the squabbling minor kingdoms which occupied the land post Norman conquest, which are oft-times held up as heroic founders of the nation, had turned to dust. In a land filled with mythology, not least is the official myth of the nation’s founding, fed to those too lazy to dig out the truth.

John (I feel able to use first name terms, having once enjoyed his tremendous hospitality) reserves particular ire, bile and vitriol - as he did when I met him ten years ago - for the despised hill-farmers.
These people, sepia-tinted and widely romanticized by the tourist board as hardy characters eking a hard living from the moors and mountains, keeping ancient traditions alive, are (he says) nothing of the sort. They care nothing for the mountains, whose slopes are nibbled bald by their “vermin” sheep, and they understand and appreciate those mountains less than do the weekend walkers and climbers, who come from outside the region. They care nothing for them, says John, yet claim custodianship over them, and resent those who venture onto their slopes for leisure and adventure, a point he illustrates with anecdotes of bug-eyed confrontations and the destruction of a grounded parapente by an enraged little man who claims he owns the mountain. Lunacy!

He recounts such unnecessary aggression as a commonplace thing, sometimes involving bulging veins, Welsh curses and loaded shotguns. Despite this, he is often amused by the farmers, finding likeability even amongst this antagonistic rabble, perhaps sensing the person that might have been, beneath the materialism and behind the nationalism.

He alleges that most farmers are as blind to the true nature of the environment that surrounds them as they are to the wellbeing of their sheep, which are no more than commodities to them. Not that John has much time for sheep. Farmers should fuck off and let trees take over! Graffiti artists spraying tags on crags do less environmental damage - way less - than farmers. Begone the lot of them, squatters where squatters should not be! Colonists out!

A controversial view? Or a view that many of us, lovers of the mountains, share, whether overtly or otherwise? I suspect the latter prevails more with each passing generation.
Although there is much criticism and denouncement of nationalism, and the attitudes which are fostered by it in some quarters, running through his narrative, I do not want to give the impression that JR has a downer on Wales or the people amongst whom he dwells whilst living there. On the contrary, he is at pains to point out that, as with anywhere, there is the usual quota of “sound people” in Llanberis and the surrounding area, many of whom he counts as his friends. Some of these ‘sound people’ make appearances in the book; ‘Barry Biscuits’, ‘Dangerous Phil’, ‘Goaty John’ and ‘Peter Poetry’ featuring amongst the more memorable names.

He contrasts attitudes in his part of Wales with the Wales of the South, where he sees a thriving culture of change and creativity, inclusive and cosmopolitan rather than exclusive, and which gives the language a true international context, a language offered and explained, rather than held up as a political badge or flag, draped over backs turned to the outside world.
Are such closed minds directed to that state by the closed mountains which hem them in? The influence of the land, where John believes the true spirit of Wales lies, on the people who abuse it, is brought into the light, leading to suggestions that the evisceration of the “sacred mountain” of Elidir Fawr has brought some karmic revenge upon those who wrought such violence, people who have for the most part lost any connection they may have once had with the land. The hill farmers aren’t the only ones blind to the bigger picture!

And yet, all is not lost, as John firmly believes that art can remake the lost connections between the land and the people. Art. But not politics. Perhaps therein lies the reason why right-leaning governments continually restrict and cut funding for the arts. Art encourages individualism. Art breeds questioners and rebels, free thinkers. The likes of John Redhead!

Redhead makes the point throughout the book that his true affinity is with the physical reality and inherent spirit of the land itself, rather than any artificial, imposed ‘nationhood’. He senses that the land, the mountains, the very bedrock, are like a living thing, bearing a soul or spirit which is in equal parts ignored and maltreated by the nowadays out of touch humans colonising its surface.
And yet, he finds beauty, terrible and savage maybe, echoing his admiration of Ochre’s cat slaughter, in the “great grey holes” of the deserted quarries: beauty to his eye and ear, and not least to those elusive senses which served him as a climber, stealing up the Rainbow Slab, on the margins of his mind.

A note here: anyone expecting gripping tales of his exploits on rock may be disappointed. Better to seek out a copy of his earlier book ‘and one for the crow’ which is a climber’s wet nightmare, complete with lots of epic photos (there are none here) and made ‘controversial’ (i.e. unstockable by some booksellers) by the cover-art; a photo of John as a grotesque figure with a giant papier maché cock (which also pops up - snigger - in ‘Colonists…’).

No, this book is about belonging and alienation, roots and rootlessness, and perhaps because of that, it speaks far more clearly about the author than anything else I’ve read about or by him.One of the surprising aspects of the book, given Redhead’s previous tendency towards the oblique and the abstract, is the straightforward autobiographical narrative. We learn much about the author, from his unhappy childhood, punished harshly for failing to memorise his times tables, through to the beginning of his climbing interest in the chalk quarries of ‘Little Switzerland’ near Hull, where he spent more time looking down than up, as his eyes followed the plummets of snapped holds into the trees below.

The evolution of the man from the boy provides us with a fleshed-out timeline of his various migrations and the phases in his creative outpourings, be it climbing, painting or, more latterly, soundscapes.                                                                                      

And in this timeline perhaps, we have a sense of what drives him; the magma chamber, hot wellspring of John Redhead’s volcanic spurtings. He seems permanently driven to let out that which he finds within himself, opening himself up, quarrying his soul like the ruined flank of the mountain he loved, ripped asunder above the gloomy defile of Nant Peris.

He claims to have served neither climbing nor art particularly well, and sees his climbs as ‘a contained aesthetic’, akin to a caged animal, which ran wild only at conception and first ascent. Once can still enter the cage, for sure, and still with uncertain outcome, but the hunt is long since over.
This finds echoes in his attitudes to art, and even to such prosaic activity as building, where the real excitement lies in the creation, rather than the finished object or structure. He says he finds building sites, where there is a constant progression and evolution, far more interesting than art galleries. He has a constant need for change and flux, which gnaws at him and spurs him on. It is hard to imagine him ever staying still for long.

Incidentally, he still climbs, it seems, though now more for the sake of it, for the craic, than for the baring of souls.
Perhaps this personal need for change, for movement, for release, and thereby, for self-expression, is what makes him so angry when he sees people compromising their ‘selves’ in order to be a member of the gang, to be anonymous, allowing the purity of their souls to be colonised by convention, by religion, by the expectations of others, rather than exposing themselves to the world. He is frustrated by people’s failure to exorcise those devils which posses them. Colonists OUT!

In John’s world, we are all hamstrung to a degree and, at worst, we are blind to the realities of the universe, inarticulate of the soul, and we fucking well allow ourselves to be that way! He himself forcibly shuns that, resists the colonisation of his soul by exploiters and puppet-masters, opens himself up and drinks in everything around him, exulting, as the seed of his creativity sprays wildly. Mind you, he also loves a chip butty, so he can be lured, with the right bait.

Inward looking as much as outward, Redhead also recognises in himself an innate need to migrate, coupled with antagonism towards settled domesticity. All part of his thirst for flux and entropy. No wonder he bonded with wolf-dog Ochre.

He finds that the comfort and materialism of an established home eventually becomes an obstacle to necessary change. His newly completed sound studio in Nant Peris almost prevents him leaving for the Pyrenees, and it is with difficulty that his inner voice, “The Trickster”, persuades him to pull up those deepening roots and leave, although the argument is persuasive:
"It rains all the time, the people are miserable, you hate the hill-farmers, you can't paint here, you can't go outside without getting into an argument or fight, there is no money, airy spirits and deformed slaves, the bloody sheep shit in the playground, the neighbours are snoops and keep checking the car tax discs and tyres, the, the, the, the hill is a shit factory, there's no golden plover, shot foxes, dead ravens, moles pinned on barbed wire, you talk to yourself…you're fucked here!"

Fed up with the gloomy and oppressive valley and the mentality of some of those around him, he ups sticks and departs for the light and space of the Pyrenees, which really puts a zap on his head, perhaps thinking that he will find a people still spiritually connected with the land and the mountains. And so he does, or at least partly so, and he finds the Pyrenees less mutilated and subjugated than their smaller Welsh counterparts. He also encounters as much nationalism, tribal parochialism, small-mindedness, cruelty and maddening bureaucracy as he left behind. But at least the Sun shines.
In another anecdote, almost an aside, he tells of an incident which should perhaps have forewarned him that closed minds and intolerance are not the preserve of the sun-starved.

He encounters a group of friendly young Berbers on a train in Morocco. Curious about John and keen to practice their English, they quiz him about Britain and the conversation gradually turns to religion. Asked what his church is like, he replies that he doesn't have one, and is met by blank stares, followed by assumptions that he must be a Buddhist! No. Hindu? No. Communist then at least, surely? No!

Unable to accept a complete lack of adherence to a faith, or at least a political ideology, they become angry, calling him "a dog", finding it inconceivable that he doesn't 'belong'. The very idea undermines their own convictions, their own faith. How can a man be just…a man?! A man cannot be his own master! But John loathes 'God', their god, anyone’s god, and the damage such gods do to the human mind and, through the human mind, to the land itself. God has replaced nature, and god represents a dead end, leading nowhere, connecting to nothing.

The Moroccan encounter is echoed in North Wales, where a friendly local farmer, seeking a democratic consensus on ideas for new community projects, approaches Redhead with a questionnaire. Asked his religion, John gives the same reply he gave the Berbers and, once again, the questioner is unable to accept 'None' so he ticks 'Buddhist', reasoning (reasonably enough I suppose) that it is the nearest thing on the list to ‘tree-hugging hippy’.

There are many funny anecdotes and observations in the book, some of them drawing from a dark well indeed. The narrative is shot through with a fizzing streak of his cutting humour, rarely descending to sarcasm but always, always focused and shot through with barbs of wit. He draws laughter even from those things he rails against and which grind his gears. He is not the serious frowner some may believe him to be. Serious clowner, yes.

Who among us could fail to snort tea and crumbs all over the pages at his attempt to purchase a soothing unguent for his itchy anus, an occasion when his resistance to learning the French language truly does backfire! I’ll leave the full details for your delectation.
Anti-establishment to a fault, the car-wrecks of John’s encounters with officialdom litter the highway of his narrative. Is it any wonder, given his world-view and his open resistance to rules and regulations, to being directed?

There is his exhibition at Electric Mountain in Llanberis, which provokes outrage amongst local councillors over a perceived slight to the virtues of the local womenfolk, and which leads to a torchlit Frankenstein-esque procession of angry mums, wielding billhook and rake, beating a path to his door to confront the monster.

John, of course - the charmer! - cuts off their outrage at the knees by taking the overheated ladies, none of whom have actually seen his work, to see it for themselves and make up their own minds (ahaa!), and their anger dissipates as they find truth and humour in his words and images. Crafty bugger. In this action, he impregnates the lot of them, in one go, with the sticky seed of independent thought and action, with a little bit of himself, in other words. No wonder he had to leave town! What offspring might he have fathered there, I wonder?

His initial flight from Wales actually takes him initially to the Basque country on the Spanish side of the border, to Catalunya. Here, he enlists the help of a motley crew of hippies, eccentrics and nut-cases, to help him find a suitable house. He mentions the sunshine frequently, in case you forget that this is not Llanberis.

 Twa Johns:Photo Tony Loxton

Endless visits to Catalan estate agents lead him to few suitable (or affordable) houses. However he keeps searching, perhaps largely due to the impossibly glamorous, perfumed, leggy young women who inevitably deal with the unwashed and slightly salivating Englishman who comes to them, looking for a run-down farmhouse in the mountains. 

Eventually, finding the Spanish side of the mountains to be too heavily farmed, and discovering streaks of nationalism there as hard and xenophobic as anything back in Cymru, he hops over the border to French Catalonia, which is also Basque and fiercely independent, yet with people somehow more open than their Spanish cousins. The mountains here are less tamed, wilder, and he senses that here at last is somewhere that will suit him.

Even there though, he finds unexpected and maddeningly familiar problems.
Petty French bureaucracy rears its frustrating head in the form of the cartoonish Didier, a humourless local Mairie official, who objects to the unsuitable parking of John’s truck. Didier makes it clear to John that he must conform and obey the rules, or he will not be welcome. Oh dear.

And it’s not just ‘official’ officialdom! In rural France, some traditions and attitudes linger sadly in the medieval, relative to Britain, and he almost starts a blood feud with the local Romany gangsters when he quite rightly points out the unacceptable cruelty of their caged circus lion. A caged fucking lion! In the 21st century! Unbelievable!

Unacceptable it undoubtedly is and JR, engorged with wrath, just arrived, speaking no French, has the audacity to attack and berate these gypsies, of whom the locals are openly fearful, and who (he discovers) have a propensity for violence and revenge. But it wasn’t just archaic attitudes to animal welfare, or clip-board Nazis from the mayor’s office which shot down John’s utopian balloon.
There was no “breakfast scene”!

No Full English - with extra banter - in a steamy café, just pastis, cigarettes and croissants, and at set hours only! The local way of life is hide-bound by custom and convention to the point of being regimented, and the lack of choice and availability staggers John. Croissants? Fucking croissants?‼ He can buy shit like that, he froths, at any time of day back in the UK, even in a backwater like Llanberis, which is a veritable melting pot of cuisines by comparison.  And the rigidity of the timings! Breakfast at 8 o’clock sharp! Like old English seaside landladies, the unwritten word is law.
'Zis eez not ze way we do eet, Rosbif! Not 'ere! Non!'

You conform or you starve. Not so much 'colonists out’, as colonists out of food.
It is at this point, one senses, that Redhead begins to realise that you can run, but you can't hide.
In growing frustration, and realising he can't get what he wants in either place, John ends up flying back and forth between France and Wales (must be bloody made of money); for fry-ups and good-natured insults with old friends in the greasy condensation of Pete's Eats, and sunshine and proper wild mountain country in the Pyrenees. He becomes a jack of all places, a manic figure straddling Europe, waving his giant fake cock, complaining and laughing at everything, fountaining his creative juices from whatever orifice is open at the time, incessantly in motion, goaded and coaxed and tempted by The Trickster towards his next move.

'It's a reet grand read' claims Northern author:Photo Redhead Collection

Brian Trevelyan 2012
Photographs:John Appleby(Unless Stated)

To order Colonists Out click here

Friday 23 November 2012

All the Young Dudes: Odyssey a climbing road movie review

Photo: Hot Aches

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

 William Wordsworth:French Revolution.

I've an idea, lets get a climbing crew together,comprising of some of our brightest young stars and make a climbing road movie! creative ideas go this one,it has to be said comes off pretty well in one of Hot Aches latest flics-  Odyssey-a climbing road movie. Although somewhat contrived in conception compared to recent Hot Aches films such as The Pinnacle and The Long Hope which had a overall historic coherence, Odyssey is just a fun film but no less entertaining for that.

Featuring UK climbing's favourite poster girl, Hazel Findlay with fellow Brit James Pearson, Austria's Hansjorg Auer and French mademoiselle Caroline Ciavaldini, the shiny happy twentysomethings accompanied by the Hot Aches crew take to the road over summer and strut their stuff on some of our most iconic crags and routes. Kicking off oop north, the 1987 Merc truck trundles up to the Northumbrian outcrops where the team sport themselves in the sun on a range of short hard climbs while interviews break into the action.

The fab four are honest and engaging in these short inserts. Hansjorg Auer and Caroline Ciavaldini skillfully massage UK sensibilities by paying homage to our strict trad ethic which for a sports climber like Caroline appears eccentric but admirable. Hazel Findlay by contrast at one point appears to regret our strict adherence to our trad ethic which in her eyes has held UK climbing back technically before coming to her senses and sighing, 'but that's what makes UK climbing special'  Furthering her appeal to the Ken Wilson fundamentalists is secured when, after cruising Ron Fawcett's Gogarth E6-The Cad- she declares she would never bother climbing it if it had four bolts...why four?...because it would be 'too easy'. Feel free at this point to exclaim..'What the !!!.

Paul Diffley and Hazel Findlay doing what they do:Hot Aches

Despite sharing the screen time,there is no doubt that Hazel is the star of the show. Taking monster lobs and dissolving in a fit of giggles as her traumatized second bounces around staring at the soles of her rock shoes. Soloing up Soap on a rope-E4- on the Llanberis slate with the dark, fathomless cold waters of the flooded quarry pit just a toes' width away. Cruising up Nescliffe's Tombola-E7 and what looks like a pretty vegetated Pavey Ark -E6 which she declares one of the best routes she has ever done.

That's not to say that the rest of the team don't impress with their contributions. James Pearson who at the start of the film,sits in a Langdale camp site and tells us he is too weak to be a top sports climber and perhaps his days of pushing the envelope are behind him but then takes on two Nescliffe test pieces defined by their technicality and lack of protection-My Piano E8 and A thousand setting suns-E9 and then declares at the top.....'it was quite easy actually'!

Genial Austrian Hansjorg Auer impresses by making a ground up ascent of another Fawcett 80's test piece-Tremadog's Strawberries E7 and isn't he chuffed when he tops out! Deferentially doffing his cap to the routes creator and offering his amazement that such a bold line should be created back in the mists of time...1982!

James Pearson walking up Strawberries: Hot Aches

Caroline Ciavaldini-'one of the balliest climbers around' apparently gets stuck into Strawberries, Comes the Dervish and a Pemboke E8 and impresses with her tenacity. Strawberries proves a bridge too far but everything else falls under her Gallic spell.

It's interesting that North Wales is at the centre of the action. Apart from the Northumbian and Langdale sections,the action is centred on Tremadog,The Slate, Gogarth and Nescliffe just across the border.

Like all the Hot Aches climbing films I've seen, the action is beautifully shot and creatively edited. Filmed by Matt Pycroft, Matt Sharman, Dom Bush and Paul Diffley and directed by Dom Bush, Odyssey, running at just over an hour, is fine little film which captures the sheer joie de vivre of young climbers living life to the full and on the edge. As climbing movies go,it sure beats watching bearded middle aged men dragging their beer guts up crumbling Diffs!

John Appleby 

Odyssey-A climbing road movie is available as a DVD or download from Hot Aches

Friday 16 November 2012

The Central Pillar of Freney

Pete Minks preparing to bivi on the Central Pillar: Minks Collection

When I first knew Pete Minks he was finishing his apprenticeship as a plumber at Camell Lairds ship yard in Birkenhead. One Saturday night in the pub in Llanberis, Pete told me about him being turned down for a mortgage. The guy at the Building society had examined Pete's wage slips and told him he did not earn enough money. He then suggested that Pete should go and get a semi skilled job on the production line,making cars at the Ford plant in Halewood.

 I suppose if the guy had looked beyond the wage slips and taken account of the fact that Pete had a very secure trade, life would have taken an entirely different road for Pete and Noreen, his then girl friend. I recently self published a book and after finishing it I found an article that Pete had written in 1973 about our ascent of -the Central Pillar of Freney in 72. In the late sixties and seventies Pete became a very good climber and mountaineer and socially more than a bit wild. His record of major routes is massive. He died this year having lived in America for decades. After seeing Pete in Yosemite in 73 we sadly never met again. I hope the reader enjoys Pete's article as much as I have. Certainly the people who knew him will.

Richard Alan McHardy- 2012.

"Has anyone been for the weather forecast"? Afternoon storms again; just the right weather for swimming. Apart from a few days off, (festering) when I had done the North East Pillar on the Droites with Pancho, this had been the pattern for the last few weeks. I had also managed to pass 'Tut' Braithwaite onto Cliff Phillips.
I arrived back on the campsite one afternoon with 'tiger' Mick, to find Richard McHardy, who had just cycled out from England.

Ows yer arse mate"? It'll be better when I get off it, onto a route," "Well, what dyer fancy then...Central Pillar of Freney?"..."Okay" Christ what have I said!!! "Pete where's your helmet"? "Left it in the tent love!" Sue arrived back on Barbara McHardy's bike with my helmet just in time to catch us at the Telepherique station. "It's a good job Barbara doesn't know that I haven't got mine, or we'll never get away!" said Richard.

On the 'pherique we bumped into Pat and Shea who were on their way to do the Old Brenva route.    One hour later we were walking across the Vallee Blanche with the Walker Spur on the Grand Jorasses in profile; down, underneath Mont Blanc du Tacul; back, up through the crevasses and round past the East face of the Grand Capucin; easy ice onto the fixed ropes up to the hut on the Col du Trident. Half a dozen brews and a jambon sandwich then a couple of hours sleep on the table.

"Pete, wake up, it's gone twelve." "Damn it"s not raining. Okay, I'll get a brew on.."

Two hours, a jambon butty and a few brews later the four of us were descending the slopes down to the Brenva Glacier. Walking in the footsteps of the climbers who had managed to get away before us, within an hour we were underneath the Col Moore. Here we encountered the usual early morning rush hour crowd tackling the steep ice slope. We said goodbye to the two Irish lads who quickly soloed up the ice slope to the foot of the Old Brenva Route.

The way down from the Col Moore was steep and loose. We were about two hundred feet below the Col when a block the size of a table came hurtling past, only missing us by inches. We decided to wait under an overhang until the other parties had gone past-then we carried on down, kicking rubbish on top of them instead! On beneath the Brenva Face and the Eckpheiler Buttress, up the icy Peuterey Couloir onto the Col du Peuterey.
Looking up to the Freney Pillar from the south ridge of the Aiguille Noire: David Tidmarsh

It was now 10am and so far we'd taken nearly eight hours from the hut. We decided to stop for a rest and a brew inside an Igloo on the right of the Col. Within five minutes we were in residence and proceeded to brew up, eat and smoke in rapid succession. An hour later we forced ourselves to move out of the relative comfort of the Igloo and back onto the route. But outside the weather had deteriorated considerably. The Pillar had disappeared in cloud that had come over from the other side of Mont Blanc. We decided to wait and see if the weather would improve.

By 2p.m. the weather was still the same but we decided to go anyway. Retreat from low down on the pillar should be fairly easy if the weather became really bad. After a few rope lengths we came across a good ledge big enough to lie down on and before long we were preparing our bivi.

As with all bivouacs the dawn didn't come too soon. The weather was good- not a cloud in the sky. So after a quick breakfast we were soon back on the rock. At this point we were slightly off route but Rich soon put that right by leading up a superb pitch on steep rough granite to put us back on route.
On up steep exposed slabs, at about grade IV and V, with an overhanging corner, well laced with pegs. More slabs and corners brought us very near to the Chandelle. Here we found some bacon left by a previous party- I put it in my sack for future use.

A few more rock pitches followed by an easy snow are^te led us to the foot of the Chandelle. It was now 3p.m. and climbing conditions were far from perfect. The cloud still hadn't cleared and it was getting colder. A steep wall led round the are^te and up to the start of the crux pitch. This was a steep corner topped by an overhanging chimney-grade VI all the way but with pegs and wedges all the way up. The overhanging chimney proved awkward because my sack kept on catching. The final moves were very exposed but good jugs followed by a jamming crack landed me at the belay. By the time Rich reached the etrier that I'd left it was covered in hoar frost. Two more rope lengths brought us to a small ledge with barely enough room to sit down on. Here we brewed up and fried our bacon before preparing for another uncomfortable bivouac.

The night dragged on for an eternity. We were both cold, damp and uncomfortable. Most of the night was spent drinking a foul concoction which was supposed to be coffee! It was warm and wet but was beginning to produce ominous rumblings deep down in my intestines!Morning eventually came with a blaze of glory. Another fine morning. I sprang into action and regretted it immediately. I started by puking up last nights supper followed by an attack of diarrhoea of Himalayan proportions. This continued for some time during which I cursed the coffee and bacon and finally I cursed Richard who seemed to be completely unaffected. We packed up our gear and Richard led off up the final slabs. These were heavily verglassed and proved difficult. I followed behind determined to keep going despite puking every few minutes.

We abseiled to the breche behind the Chandelle and started up the steep snow are^te leading to the Innominata Ridge. The climbing was straight forward over hard ice covered by a layer of soft snow and we climbed together until we reached the ridge. Here I ceremoniously deposited a pair of soiled underpants which were beginning to cause us both offence. I was now feeling much better and was only puking occasionally. We soon completed the climb and finally stood on the summit of Mont Blanc. The weather was superb.

We descended to Chamonix that same day via the Vallot and the Gouter huts. Once back in Chamonix we settled down to some serious, undisturbed festering.

Pete Minks and Richard McHardy on the summit of Mont Blanc after completing the Freney Pillar

Peter Minks 1973: First published in The Vagabonds Journal 1973

Richard McHardy's autobiography 'Echoes of a dream-a crag rats tale' will be reviewed here in the next few weeks. Copies can be ordered by clicking on... Echoes of a Dream

Tuesday 13 November 2012

The Iceman cometh

It is August 2002. Myself and my partner, Jude Calvert-Toulmin, are in The Heights Bar in Llanberis, having been to do an on-line interview with John Redhead. It’s been a long day, but we are relaxing with friends in the pub. The bar is crowded, because it’s the opening of their new bistro extension.
John Redhead has vanished in the throng, chatting to old friends, leaving Jude and I to chat to each other and a few acquaintances we’ve bumped into.

Suddenly, a short tubby bloke in a blue check shirt and glasses appears to my right, looking like Ian McNaught-Davis’ dwarf twin brother.

“Are you a climber?” he asks. I reply in the affirmative.
“Bit chubby to be a climber, aren’t you?” says the short, chubby bloke.
I am about to tell him that he’s a bit short to be a climber, and also a bit cheeky not to be told to piss off, when he tells us: “Look. If you want a subject for your next interview, there’s your man!”

He points to a pinch-faced bloke of about fifty sitting cross-legged on a stool at the end of the room.

“Er, who is that?” I ask.
“That’s MICK POYNTON!!” replies the Time Bandit, seemingly unimpressed by my lack of recognition. “I can introduce you.” He adds.  I glance at Jude, who shrugs. We follow the Hobbit over to where Mr Poynton sits, a small court of admirers lagered around him (hey! Perhaps he IS famous!).

The impudent midget sidles up to his hero: “These two people are from the press, Mick!” he enthuses, indicating us.

We aren’t from the press at all, and have no real interest in any interview with some bloke we’ve not heard of. I open my mouth to correct him but he continues: “They want to interview you!”

I start to explain that no, we aren’t from the press, but Ronnie Corbett is off again: “Mick is the greatest ice climber in the country!” he tells us, excitedly.

 “Means nowt to me luv!” says Jude: “I know fuck all about climbing!”

The greatest ice climber in the country says not a dickie bird throughout this exchange, and fails to look enthused at the presence of the press. I attempt to engage him in conversation. So does Jude. He turns out to be not only the greatest ice climber in the country, but also The Most Miserable Man in Wales. Maybe we caught him on a bad day.

We are wasting our drinking time. I am about to go back to my seat, when the leprechaun says the funniest thing I’ve heard all night:
“How much do you pay then?”
“Er, sorry?” I reply.
“How much do you pay?! For the interview? I’ll want a cut of course!”

I exchange glances with Jude and we laugh: “Nothing! We pay nothing. People do these online interviews for free, out of the goodness of their heart!”

Sensing perhaps that the ice man is unlikely to want to do a free interview and, judging by appearances, doesn’t have much goodness in his heart either, Tom Thumb adopts a disappointed air, as though we’ve let him down.
We rise and leave him to his disappointment, and return to our friends, chuckling.

Footnote: I have since scoured old issues of Mountain and found references to Mr Poynton, so he does exist, and wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Whoever he is, he was having a bad day. Who the disillusioned leprechaun was, I have no idea, but I’d just like to say thank you, whoever you were, for making our day.

Brian Trevelyan

Friday 9 November 2012

Steve Ashton's bumper mountaineering eBook reviewed

The Ages of Ashton: From Alpine virgin to Sheffield underworld hitman.

For those of us who remember the late lamented High magazine,one name which stood out from its cast list of regulars was the one and only Steve Ashton. An outdoor columnist whose monthly pieces became increasingly surreal and left field as the years went by. As a traditional climbing columnist writing about  the merits or otherwise of  a Zebedee Gore Tex Kag,  or whether or not fleece Y fronts would enhance the outdoor experience for the winter activist, Steve began to go a bit mad!

To the chagrin of the earnest readers to whom climbing was a serious business and who really, really wanted to know whether mittens were a better bet than gloves or if in an emergency you could live on Kendal mint cake for a week, Steve began to morph into the SJ Perelman of the writing fraternity. His columns became increasingly funny and irreverent to the extent that by the time High passed on into history, his columns-if I remember correctly-appeared to be shrinking in proportion to the increasing surrealism. It was as if editor Geoff Birtles didn't want to fire him but thought that by contracting his space to half a page,he might just  get the message and bugger off!

One of Steve's features was  a zany mountaineering A to Z which was more Monty Python than Walt Unsworth. Now, umpteen years on, Steve's High pieces have been dug out,in some cases re-worked,added to and put out as an eBook through Blue Lizard Books as 'Diddly Squat's Encyclopedia of Mountaineering'.

An eBook. I can't imagine when Steve started writing his High pieces all those years ago; perched on a sawn off bar stool behind a typewriter; sustained by strong tea and Tippex- that he would ever have imagined his material being read in the future on a luminous Etch-a-Sketch ! All a bit too Flash Gordon for an old hack I imagine.

But here it is. Available now and costing the lucky purchaser peanuts. No..literally! Diddly Squat's Encyclopedia of Mountaineering costs less than a  300g bag of KP dry roasted peanuts although slightly more than Aldi's own brand.

I don't think Steve would be offended if I predicted that his work will probably not make it onto the Boardman-Tasker list next year. But then again, how many BT winners would cause the reader to spray coffee all over their keyboard?

John Appleby

Diddly Squat's Encyclopedia of mountaineering: Further information through Blue Lizard Books


J Dawes
A charismatically cinematic UK climber of lemurian nature (agile, tenacious and a bit of a monkey). No relation to film star Diana Dawes, the busty 1960s sex bomb. Born in 1964, Johnny ‘Dyno’ Dawes was blessed with an acrobat’s physique, a philosopher’s brain, and a warrior’s heart. He also had the good fortune to inherit a surname that could be wittily incorporated into a route name. All these attributes found their greatest expression in the Llanberis slate quarries when he created Dawes of Perception. Expect to see Revolving Dawes, Fire Dawes, and Shut them Dawes, as the inspired pretentiousness of youth gives way to the weary cynicism of middle age.
Notoriously dangerous mountain in Switzerland that has claimed the lives of dozens of mountaineers drawn to attempt its fearsome north face. After many tragic failures by European teams, north-American climber Clint Eastwood finally succeeded on the Nordwand accompanied by disaffected CIA agents and a Hollywood film crew. The townspeople of Grindelwald subsequently elected Eastwood mayor in recognition of his services to tourism.
 Euphemism for cleaning vegetation, lichen and loose rock from a potential new route, usually from abseil. Also, the practice of suspending hanging baskets from unsightly bolt hangers at Malham Cove and other Yorkshire limestone crags popular with tourists. Try a mix of sweet peas for their fragrant flowers, petunias for their long stems, and begonias for their blousy blooms. If planting a winter basket, combine winter pansies, primula and trailing ivy. If you underplant these with dwarf narcissus and tulips, you will have splendid display come springtime when the new climbing season begins
 A lightweight shell that protects the head from falling stones and ice. Helmets coordinate well with colourful alpine clothing so are widely used in that arena. Unfortunately, they clash with the skimpy tops worn during rock climbing magazine shoots and so have never become widely fashionable. To counter this, a recent BMC safety campaign displayed stoved-in heads atop metal spikes at the approaches to popular outcrops, but, unlike the falling rocks, this had a negligable impact.
Outward Bound
An adventure training philosophy that develops character by plunging students into cold mountain streams, dragging them up outcrops, and forcing them to endure celibate nights in sodden sleeping bags. This approach is at odds with the alternative philosophy Inward Bound, which leads to spiritual serenity through soaking in warm bubble baths, levitating up incrops during alcohol induced reveries, and sleeping under a king-size feather duvet with Miss Backlash and her astonishingly inventive sister.
Americanism for the act of making a successful ascent, as in: “You bitchin’ on my leg? Send that muthafucka, yo!”, to which the nearest British equivalent might be: “Are you serious? I’d say you have a jolly good chance of successfully climbing that route.”

Friday 2 November 2012

An ascent of Haskett Gully

IT was getting towards the end of our Easter holiday at Buttermere, and I had still not wormed out of Haskett-Smith the whereabouts of a good new climb which he and Tucker had discovered two years before, and which we were to go, see and conquer, if fortune favoured. Tucker was under orders, and always referred discreetly to going " yonder," and when I asked point blank where this mysterious place was, Haskett-Smith replied : " In an Edinburgh street—no, the climb is not there—a Scottish nobleman and a beggar were once surprised to see a halfpenny lying in the gutter. It was so unusual a sight that they were both held bound, in amazement, for one second, but the next they both simultaneously darted forward. The nobleman, by virtue of his superior agility, secured the prize, and the beggar, arriving a fraction of a second too late, bared his head and held out his hand, hoping to receive the treasure as a gift.

The nobleman, after putting the coin into his pocket, said compassionately, 'Puir maun ! may the Lord help ye to fin a bawbee for yersel !' Now, sir, you are a good hand at finding bawbees—deny it, if you dare—and they are getting too scarce to be scattered about freely—but come, I'll give you an inkling. It's Black Combe way."I hazarded the Steeple, but could not get my guess confirmed or denied.

We set off on a brilliant morning, in the direction of Scale Force, skirted the hillside above it and then across Gale Fell and down to Gillerthwaite. Then we crossed the Liza and struck up the little ravine of Low Beck. After following the stream up for a mile or more on to the open moorland, a fine crag came into sight at the head of the valley, with a striking gully in the centre, and to the right of it a huge cleft of the kind which usually looks very fierce and turns out to be a walk up. I took a photograph, but as the light was behind the crag I hoped to secure a better one on our way back, when the sun would have got round on to the rock.

" You have great faith in your powers if you hope to be back here from Black Combe before sunset," remarked Haskett-Smith, but I said that I would be content with this bawbee and leave the Black Combe one for him." Well, as Oppenheimer is so struck with this. what do you say, Tucker, just to humour him, shall we take this little thing on the way ? A trifle more or less is nothing to a stout Cornishman like you."

The first hundred feet was just a steep vegetated climb ; then came an awkward ten feet up a greasy slab which led us into a deep cave, and there we gathered together to consider the next pitch, which looked a serious one. There was only one possible way out of the cave, and that was to work upwards and outwards on the left wall, which was singularly destitute of holds. The floor of the cave was very sloping and bad to stand on, so Tucker anchored himself firmly high up in it and held both of us in, while I gave Haskett-Smith a shoulder. He did not find anything much to pull up by, and called for the ice-axe to try what sort of ledges there might be above.

" Give me the 'escarbadientes,' or I suppose I ought to say 'palito,' " for at breakfast-time Craig had been speaking about the coarseness of the English word 'toothpick' and its Spanish equivalent, and enlarging on the superior politeness of the Portuguese language. " ' Palito '—` piolet '—or piolito' would perhaps be a more suggestive portmanteau' word," said Haskett-Smith, but his philological ingenuity did not help him to find the holds, and we had to resort to ingenuity of another kind.

Haskett-Smith 1936

We passed a loop of rope over a chockstone near the mouth of the cave, and by dint of a pretty free use of one another's shoulders, and of the loop, first as a handhold and later on as a stirrup, Haskett­Smith and I got over the pitch. It was a couple of hours before we managed it, and in the middle of the final effort we were suddenly sensible of a change. While we were lunching beside Low Beck, in brilliant sunshine, a curious leaden haze lay over the coast. I thought it must be smoke drifting over from Barrow, but Haskett-Smith feared it meant bad weather, and now it had come. Snowflakes called our attention back to the world outside, from which the semblance of early summer had fled before the whitening breath of the North. Faster and faster the snow came, and meanwhile Tucker was struggling to get out of his sheltered cave.

" I'm afraid I can't manage this without a shoulder."
" Would you like to test the strength of the rope ?"
" Well, I'm in doubt : I would rather not if it can be avoided."
" Do you mean that you would rather not be in doubt, or that you would rather not be in suspense ?" asked Haskett-Smith.
" I wish he would be quick : my hands are getting purple with cold."
" Oh, indeed ! I thought you wore them purple to set off your fine linen."
" Ay, you may well be satirical about my clothes. I apologize for the disgraceful state of my jacket—it has been discarded once, but my other was too wet to put on to-day."
" You must have forgotten what trumps were when you discarded that. Ha ! whom have we here ? Mr. Tucker, I believe. What changes have come over the world since we three last met ! Alas, that we must so soon part," for before Tucker had fully recovered his wind after the exertions of the pitch, Haskett-Smith was backing up a short chimney above our heads, and his chaff ceased for a while. From the top of the chimney he shouted down, " The bawbee is ours, if you lose no time. This is where we got down to a couple of years ago, Tucker."

Above the chimney there was a corner which required careful balance, and both in this pitch and the remainder of the climb the snow, which had to be cleared from handholds, added greatly to the difficulties. There was no cairn building at the top. We plunged down an easy gully, and hurriedly despatched our remaining provisions, including a thermal bottle full of hot soup, which proved more acceptable than we had anticipated when packing the rucksack. Our tramp back to Buttermere was a continuous struggle against the wind and driving snow, which fell all night and produced an elfin world of whiteness for the sun to shine upon next day.

Some discussion arose later on as to the position of the climb. Haskett-Smith said that it was on the north side of Scoat Fell at the end nearest Haycock, but I think this was because Tucker and I had christened the climb Haskett Gully, and he was anxious to make people believe that the name was really nothing more than a euphonised form of " Hay-Scoat." I held that it was at the end of Scoat Fell nearest Steeple, and that the crag was indicated by the striking projection in the 2,500 ft. contour line above the source of Low Beck.

We settled the question the following Whit-Sunday, when Messrs. Haskett-Smith, Eric Greenwood, W. A. Brigg and I made the second ascent, but I was not allowed to take any credit for my guess. After a cairn had been built and the bearings of the crag top inspected, Haskett-Smith struck an attitude, and, addressing me, said : " My dear sir, little as you may imagine it, you have stumbled upon the truth : what you propounded in jest, as the most unlikely place you could think of, turns out to be no other than the actual spot."

The best base for the climb is Wasdale Head, whence it can be reached in a couple of hours by going up Mosedale past the Y boulder and following up the stream which comes down between Red Pike and Scoat Fell until some striking slabs are reached, high up in a wild lonely hollow. Then cross Scoat Fell and make for the narrow neck between it and Steeple, from the lowest point of which a sharp descent leads to the foot of the crag.

Lehmann J Oppenheimer: First Published in Heart of Lakeland-1908