Friday 29 November 2013

He who fell to earth ........A Climber's tale

In a time long ago, during the reign of Thatcher- the she-man- there lived a tribe of men whose sole purpose was to climb rocks. In this time, known in legend as The Golden Age, a being of such superior qualities and prowess existed and was known to all simply as Him. Brought forth from Gaia herself, Him understood the essence of climbing and practiced the fine art of abseiling, spreading doubt, using innuendo and creating naughty names. His hands were never idle and when not invoking forearm endurance, he strove to create masterpieces on rock that set him apart from his brother men. And despite much interest from would be suitors, he bore no mark of the corporate Devil; nay branded cloth did swathe him.  For he was no clown, his track record was formidable. One only had to look to the North Wall of the great sea kingdom, where a mixture of Him, spunk, metal and abseil had given birth to truly extraordinary things.

Abseiling down one of the great mountain kingdoms the Rock said unto Him: “Oh thee of great greatness, penetrate me with thy channel of steel and I shall give thee a climb of great significance and a grade to match.  For thou art of the true spirit and knoweth I hate top roping, but abseiling nay tis the proudest of arts”

He did as the rock told him and through earth, fire, and much cursing at his disciple Dave, Margin was born.  And indeed Margin was a pristine manifestation of his mind for all to see,  but few paid much attention. Bells did peel in triumph, but nobody except Him could hear them. Although, one mortal, fond of high places and chapattis, was party to the occasion and looked down upon the scene and knew the world would never be the same again.

Although the rock had given him Margin and big numbers of such cosmic significance as E7 and E8 no less, and although Him climbed not for big numbers, adoration or the devil, but for peace, nature,and divine worship, he was un-sated. His eyes scanned his vast Black Kingdom and the expanses of rock yielded a vision of such divine beauty he began to cry. Only He in his greatness could see this and behold the central challenge of the world lay itself there naked before him; prostrate and beckoning.  So, after much worship by abseil inspection, wire brushing and many prayers, Him heard the voice from the rock say:

“Give me a go and I will yield to you the greatest prizes. And, if Andy your publicist, abseils  to the right, he will capture some lovely pictures of you erect in all your lycra glory amongst my folds”  Bravely he set off onto the well cleaned and inspected wall. Pulling above the overlap he climbed to halfway up the climb, where he encountered the first hard moves. At this point, he realised that the relationship he had with the rock was at best tenuous and was not wholly formed.  As fear crept into his veins he heard laughter and a voice that at first was unfamiliar to him. But then he realised its source; it was not the divine rock speaking, but the Dark One and the darkness said unto him;
 “Thy routes to the North in the Great Sea Kingdom are considerably easier than this. You have no pink Anasazi’s and tis nothing like your training board in Nant. My soon to be son, you are in way over your head. Enjoy the ride…ha, ha, ha”

Him felt much terror as the friction did fail him, his intimacy with the rock ceased and he took flight. Thankfully, he came to a halt before the Netherworld engulfed him. He was alive and the only mortal to test that fall. He breathed deeply and savoured the moment and thought that he alone had experienced the greatest spiritual journey known to mankind. Returning to the Black Kingdom soon after his near end, he marked his monumental high point with a metal ‘flag’ and painted a tormented scene on the rock in remembrance of his super human effort.

Alas, the times they were a changing and a brave and extremely bouncy dwarf came forth. The Dwarf embraced techniques beyond normal abseil, but which were logically an extension thereof. Having rehearsed and memorized the route to be, the Dwarf set off up the prize face and succeeded where Him had failed.  By climbing the tormenting wall the Dwarf established the first definitive E9 and popularized the cult of the headpoint. This all greatly maddened Him and caused him to utter: “ Doth the dwarf not knoweth that checking moves by abseil is noble and braver than the dark arts he practises?”

What ensued became entrenched in folklore and from that day forth Him disliked much about the emerging fashions and practises in climbing. In particularly he abhorred climbers of short stature and questionable upbringing, and he set a trap in an attempt to impale the Dwarf and his followers at the base of a reachy and dangerous route on a slab nearby in the fiefdom of Mordor. But the Dwarf took it all in his stride and went on to establish many more phenomenal climbs of great beauty.

It came to pass that Him did leave these fair shores destined for crusades anew in a land far away. For many years he did wander, spreading the gospel of abseil and naughty names. But, he grew home sick and did return to take stock of his homeland kingdom and to promote his writings. Alas, the supreme being looked down upon modern British climbing and sighed in despair. Much badness had transpired during his absence; there were women climbing, tribes who only bouldered, open competitions, people being paid to wear the marks of the devil, outdoor centres promoting climbing, evil clip sticks, Britain’s Got Talent and designer Patagonia.

His eye rove and found ill everywhere. Him looked upon the modern stage extremely ill contented for these women folk, with exposed flesh in climbing magazines knew little of his dangerous routes. How disrespectful that they warm up on his hardest boulder problems?  Do they not know how much he had trained to bring them forth? Looking through his Samsung Nexus smart phone Him smote and wrote his thoughts on competitions as if waging a Holy war.

Flicking through a climbing magazine he came across an article that mentioned some of his routes from the Golden Age, and although not driven by grades and difficulty but by divine love and was angered that they didn’t mention how significant he was in establishing the first E7 and E8. Did they not realize of the greatness of his achievements? All were abseil inspected, but they still involved a huge amount of spunk and soul? And to top it all, the great prize that had escaped him, had just been climbed by three lads albeit using very flawed means.

His anger was all consuming and his response was swift: “Blow up DMM for encouraging such behaviour, despite the fact that they are a good natured small company employing friendly locals, have a low carbon footprint and make quality products”. Then again, he thought, it would be a bit of a shame to also blow up the photographer who worked at DMM, given that it was he who took the photographs of Him abseiled into place on his routes to get good pictures to help spread the word about his new book. Just in press and available from a good book store near you. That’s if you can manage to find one that is still in business.

Him sighed, declared Holy Jihad on contemporary climbing and proclaimed that all was lost for the Golden Age was a fading memory. But then a flash of divine light struck and a saviour stepped forth. It was no other than the brave knight Pitchfork. Previously, Him had singled Pitchfork out as a possible disciple and was hoping to use Pitchfork to help spread the gospel. But Pitchfork had grown uneasy about Him’s views and how they might upset advertisers, disrupt revenue and offend female readers. Thus, ensued an electronic battle between Him and Pitchfork consisting of a million emails combined with a social networking shit storm that ended something like this:

Him... “Thy magazine is brazen, bland and reeks of the Daily Mail....”

Pitchfork... “Thou knoweth not of competitions, publishing, nor even of fine English. Thou reminduth me of Ackmed”

So it came to pass that Him fondly remembered Lord Dougloss, Lady Kant and OTE. And he conveniently forgot about just how extremely lucky he had been to have such amazing opportunities during the Golden age. As for the folk who practice and love climbing today, they smiled from the warmth of their designer fleeces and sort comfort in the fact that Him was now just an old man from a time long ago. Ignorant to what climbing is about today. This and the fact that he was from Yorkshire so should have never been trusted in the first place.

Caff and The Cosmic Moondog:2013
Cragrat Image:JA

Friday 22 November 2013

Army Dreamer....... A Portrait of Tony Streather

Dead Man walking: Jillott and Amery before the fateful avalanche on Haramosh.

For those who are interested in compiling it, the list of postwar British mountaineers who have achieved major success in the Himalaya would be predictable: Brown, Bonington, Scott, Rouse Haston,Whillans,Boardman, Tasker,Fowler,Saunders... The chances of Harry Reginald Antony Streather being included would be remote. Yet in the 1950s, Tony Streather's track record was second to none. The first ascent of Tirich Mir; a pivotal role in the K2 tragedy of 1953; the sec­ond ascent of Kangchenjunga (only a day after Joe Brown and George Band); a terrific epic on Haramosh; the first ascent of Malubitang East..

I assumed, quite wrongly, that he came from a long-standing army family, not so: "My father was a builder and before the war we lived in various parts of North London and Hertford­shire. Towards the end of the war I went straight to India because someone came to my school to give a talk about the Indian Army. This set off an accidental train of events that led to my climb­ing because we trained for Burma in the jungle.

Then the bomb was dropped and that was that. So the regiment was sent to the North West Frontier which I found fascinating — Kipling and the Great Game, that sort of thing." Streather stayed on after the Partition of In­dia and Pakistan and joined the Chitral Scouts. By 1950 he was the last British Officer, serving under a Pakistani CO, when a Norwegian Expe­dition came to attempt Tirich Mir, 7,700m: "I joined the expedition and was appointed Trans­port Officer. I'd literally never tied on a rope before but of course I'd spent months crossing passes, living in the mountains at reasonable alti­tudes — I was very fit indeed. I had no major ambitions initially, I was there to organize the porters. I think the Norwegians had this idea of 4e British Colonial exploiting the porters and expected me to go round beating the locals. They couldn't understand why when they would ask them to do something, they would take abso­lutely no notice at all and I would chat to them and say 'now come on' and it worked."

Speaking fluent Urdu, Streather managed to persuade the porters ever higher but only by accompanying them himself. Rather to his sur­prise — "it really was a pure accident" — he ended up on top. The ascent of Tirich Mir would have made a far greater impact had not Annapurna been climbed by the French the same year, the first 8,000m peak to fall and under epic circumstances: "all those toes being cut off in the train" as Streather succinctly put it.

But his ascent had not gone unnoticed and on his return to Britain he was first invited to join the Alpine Club ("I thought it was some sort of Social Club"), and then selected for trials in Switzerland for the Everest team in 1953.

Despite being by far the best acclimatized and in the view of the expedition doctor, Michael Ward: "he should really have been a member of our Everest team." his lack of Alpine climbing and tech­nical experience counted against him and he was rejected. It is one of the more delicious ironies in the annals of Himalayan climbing that at the same time as the let­ter giving the bad news arrived, so did another from Dr Charles Houston inviting him to join the 1953 American K2 Expedition. He had been turned down for the South Col route of Everest while simultaneously being included in the team to attempt the far harder and steeper mixed ground of the Abruzzi Spur.

The expedition still remains a highpoint of Himalayan expeditioning despite its tragic outcome when Art Gilkey was stricken with phlebitis in a pro­longed storm high on the moun­tain just below the infamous Shoulder of K2. With a unity of spirit and purpose, an heroic attempt was made to rescue Gilkey, an attempt that ended with a multiple fall and, soon afterwards, the death of Gilkey who was swept away in an avalanche. Streather, who had integrated well with the Americans, has no illu­sions about the futility of the task they set them­selves but thinks it was out of the question not to do their utmost to save Art's life. Though di­rect comparisons are unfair and the circum­stances similar but not exactly the same, Streather remains unimpressed by some of the actions during the 1986 tragedy on the Shoulder of K2 when five out of seven climbers from three separate expeditions died, including All Rouse and Julie Tullis, in a similarly prolonged storm: "We were extremely close, working together as a team, and here we are 40 years later, still alive and having done all sorts of things since. They (referring to 1986) were a hotchpotch of indi­viduals some of them you might say prima donnas, thinking only of getting to the top at all costs. We were trapped up there for 10 days and it must have been very close to where Julie and Alan both died."

Despite the emotional trauma of K2, Tony Streather had no qualms two years later when he was invited out of the blue by Charles Evans to go to Kangchenjunga: "Charles was a terrific leader in a very quiet sort of way and, like K2, we all became great chums and a close team.) was going better higher than almost anybody, though of course I lacked the technical skill of Joe. I often tried not to use oxygen because I found the extra weight of carrying the stuff off­set any good it was doing me. I was selected for the second summit bid with Norman Hardie af­ter Joe Brown and George Band. We went to the top camp and as it was getting dark they returned very tired. They explained that at the very last there was this bit of climbing up a chim­ney. Up until then Joe had found the whole thing a bore, plodding about in the snow, but now he used a sling and hand jams. Joe said 'have a go but you probably won't get up the final bit' be­cause he knew that neither of us were great rock-climbers.

Tony at K2 base camp in 1953

Well, off we went, and we had a drama on the way up. Norman who was leading had the misfortune of seeing one of his oxygen cylinders slip out of the carrying frame. I gave him one of mine and followed using the remaining one very sparingly, about a litre a minute. Anyway we got to the famous place that Joe talked about, still had crampons on, didn't like the look of it so just went round a bit and there was a nice little snow gully going straight to the top. It was a lovely, very clear day and we hung around just below the summit for some time. (The team had undertaken not to tread the summit snows out of respect for local beliefs who believed that the summit of Kangchenjunga was the home of the mountain gods.) On the way down the little oxy­gen I had ran out. Coming down was a very te­dious business."

The first ascent of Kangchenjunga by a long and complex route that had only been briefly recced was a major achievement though, per­haps naturally, unlike the first ascent of Everest two years previously it remained a low key af­fair. None of the expedition members became public figures except Joe Brown, for very differ­ent reasons.It was whilst lecturing about K2 at Oxford University that Tony Streather became involved in what would prove to be one of the most har­rowing epics of all time. Had it happened today in a far more media conscious world it would have rivalled both the K2 dramas in 1986 and the self-rescue epic of Joe Simpson on Siula Grande.

In 1957 Streather was persuaded to lead a small team from Oxford to reconnoitre the unclimbed Haramosh, a complex 7,400m peak overlooking Gilgit. The University Club desper­ately needed someone of Tony Streather's stand­ing to give the expedition the clout to justify a Mount Everest Foundation Grant, then, as now,- seen as a considerable boost to expedition fi­nances. At the time Streather was an instructor at Sandhurst and working for a Staff College exam. He was also newly married with a young child. It was, he said: "absolute nonsense from my military career point of view to go" but Ber­nard Jillott, the organizer and driving force be­hind the expedition, persuaded him.

What happened on Haramosh is the subject of one of the great climbing books The Lost Blue Mountain which though written by Ralph Barker, a non-climber, gives a vivid, accurate and per­ceptive picture of the complete series of 'knock-on' events leading to the final tragedy. What fol­lows here is, of necessity, largely simplified. After several weeks on the mountain, mak­ing slow progress in indifferent weather, the small team reached a vantage point where the whole of the final pyramid with still 100m of height to be gained, was laid out before them. There was no realistic chance of reaching the top but the prime aim of the expedition, to reconnoitre a feasible route, had been achieved. Just along the ridge stood a minor summit which they named `The Cardinal's Hat'. Jillott wanted to climb it as a consolation prize. Streather, one suspects not wholeheartedly, agreed that Jillott and John Em­ery should go for it Streather was worried about cornice danger and warned them to keep well back from the break line. But it was the slopes that Jillott and Emery were climbing that sud­denly avalanched. Streather and Rae Culbert watched in horror and incomprehension as the two figures jerked about like puppets before being swept past them, apparently to oblivion.

As the cloud of snow settled, Streather peered down into a snow basin over 300m be­low. To his relief and amazement he saw a figure moving, apparently uninjured. Then the other appeared. Both climbers had survived the ava­lanche but both had lost their ice-axes and worse still Emery had dislocated his hip and lost both his pairs of gloves. The fall had taken them clean over some ice cliffs and, without axes, it looked impossible to climb back up to the ridge. By a stroke of good fortune Emery involuntarily man­aged to get his hip relocated and the two tried to traverse across to a point where they could avoid the ice cliffs. But without axes they both slipped and narrowly avoided falling into a cre­vasse. Late in the day they faced up to a cold bivouac. In the middle of the night they saw a bright light above them and decided to try again to climb up but almost immediately Emery fell over a small ice cliff and the two resigned them­selves to spending the rest of the night in the basin.

On the ridge above, Streather and Culbert had already tried to alleviate their plight. They had deliberately dropped a rucksack containing spare gloves, a bottle of water and some sweets and chocolate, but to their horror the 'sack veered off and disappeared down a crevasse. They decided to descend to their camp (Camp IV) and organize a proper rescue.

Before midnight they returned to the ava­lanche site and helping each other carefully they started down. By dawn they were above the ice cliffs that they hadn't been aware of in the dark and had to start cutting steps along the top slopes to try and circumvent them. It took hours. Be­low, the tired and apathetic Jillott and Emery watched as their rescuers inched their way to­wards them. It took the whole day before all four were reunited. One of two Thermos flasks of soup had broken, the other barely started to revive the two. Darkness and the second night out approached. Streather roped everyone to­gether and hoped that even without axes Jillott and Emery would be able to climb the line of steps.

Somehow Culbert had lost a crampon on the descent and after a good start he slipped and pulled the other three off. All four slid in a tan­gled mass back into the basin. Streather losing his axe in the process. He borrowed Culbert's and they started again. This time they madesteady progress and had nearly reached a ledge that he and Culbert had stamped out earlier in the day. Then far below, Jillott, exhausted fell asleep and pulled off the other three and down 80m back into the snow basin again. During the fall Streather lost the remaining ice-axe.

The four spent a miserable night in a cre­vasse, Culbert already troubled by a frostbitten foot, Emery's hands giving trouble and Jillott be­ginning to ramble incoherently. Streather seemed to be the only one relatively unaffected. He knew all too clearly that the next attempt to escape had to succeed. 

But now they had no ice-axes and in the circumstances he decided that the rope was more of a hindrance than a help. Just short of the stamped out platform they had a major stroke of luck and found an ice-axe stick­ing out of the snow. Slowly, painfully slowly, Streather cleared and enlarged the step and the others followed. But Rae Culbert was desper­ately handicapped by the loss of his crampon and called for a rope to help him over a particularly awkward section. Streather dropped him one and made an ice-axe belay. But when Culbert slipped the strain was too great and Streather was cata­pulted down the slope. Yet again they both ended up in the snow basin.

With dreadful irony their desperate situation was now reversed. High above, Jillott and Emerson were on their way to escape while their rescuers faced yet another grim night in the open. Above them, Jillott and Emery finally managed to extricate themselves and emerged on to the ridge where Emery promptly fell through the cornice on the other side. Mercifully he only fell 10m and though his hip jarred out again once more he managed to get it back. Jillott went ahead now obsessed with the need to get back to Camp IV and strengthen themselves with food and drink so that they could return and help Streather and Culbert.

Emery followed him slowly down into the darkness. Surely now their troubles would ease. But suddenly he found himself falling again, this time into a crevasse, and knocked himself out. When he awoke it was night and dragging him­self back to consciousness he managed to find a way out. Then he fell asleep again. When he'awoke it was about midday. Emery followed Jillott's track, more dead than alive, until just above Camp IV they disappeared over the edge of a colossal drop. Uncomprehending, Emery peered over. There was no doubt about it. Bernard Jillott had walked over the edge to his death. Shocked and exhausted Emery regained Camp IV at last after three days, lit a Primus stove and made himself a drink. He was terribly frostbitten and later lost all his fingers.

Meanwhile back in the snow basin Culbert and Streather had survived the night. Culbert though was nearing total collapse. In the end he fell off twice more, but by now he was unroped and Streather knew his only hope was to get out on his own and alert the others. With his strength ebbing Streather managed at last to regain the Ridge and by now frostbitten and ex­hausted he descended to Camp IV where he found Emery who broke the news of Jillott's death to him. They knew in their hearts that by now there was no way they could possibly rescue Culbert, who would be most unlikely to survive the night, and next day with heavy hearts and appalling injuries they managed to get off the mountain.

Joe Brown-with his head in the clouds- and Tony Streather at a Community Action Nepal Kangchenjunga anniversary gathering. Photo CAN

Based on an interview conducted by the author in the mid nineties and published in High-July 96.

Jim Curran 

Friday 15 November 2013

Galligan's Travels: Climbing

Approaching unclimbed Konchok

I wasn’t familiar with Gerry Galligan before I’d read this book but I gather the author is a well respected member of the Irish mountaineering community.  A community which although smaller than most European climbing constituencies, has nevertheless provided a healthy contingent of activists who have established some important ascents in mountaineering history. At first glance, Climbing Ramabang promised to be an intriguing mix of mountain adventure and travelogue. Tackling a Himalayan giant and then ‘doing a Whillans’ and riding home across Asia and Europe on a motor bike.... Sounds great!  However, things are not always as they first appear. You see, not being an anorak when it comes to being conversant with the league table of Himalayan mountains, I had presumed that Ramabang must be a major peak?  If not in the 8000 metre group then close. It turned out that the mountain was in fact an unclimbed and unnamed 6135 peak in the in the  Spiti District of Imachal Pradesh in Northern India.

Gerry and his cohorts, Paul Mitchell, Craig Scarlett and Darach Ó Murchú had chosen the peak for its relative ease of access and suitability for a small team looking to make a first ascent. In the event, the actual ascent of the mountain passes off very early in the book without major incident. No one gets avalanched or screams down an crevasse; no one has to effect an ice axe brake just inches away from a 1000’ drop. No one takes a big fall onto a wobbly blade. In fact, whether through classic understatement or reality, Gerry makes the AD graded climb sound like a Sunday stroll up Catbells!

As mountaineering tradition dictates, the leader of the team which makes the first ascent can name the mountain but Gerry carefully avoids offending local sensibilities by choosing a name which is culturally compatible. ‘Ramabang’. Named after the Hindu God Rama and bang meaning ‘the place of’. With the mountain out of the way, the team disperse and Gerry pursues his idea of getting hold of a classic Royal Enfield motor bike (still made in India) and riding home. A nice idea except  that Indian bureaucracy kills the prospect stone dead. With time on his hands and now flying solo, Gerry decides another first ascent is in order and takes off to Ladakh where he intends to hire a muleteer who will carry his equipment up an as yet unknown base camp, from where he will throw himself at another minor unclimbed peak. That’s not to use ‘minor’ in a pejorative way of course. We’re talking about an individual climbing an unclimbed 5000’+ Himalayan peak without climbing support....fair play to the man.

I was amused that ‘right on’ Gerry spends a few pages moaning about the stubborn donkey herder who wouldn’t budge from his £15 a day hire charge. And they say the Scots and Yorkshire folk are tight! As with Ramabang, Konchock passes off without incident-a debilitating dose of the galloping guts apart-and then it’s home by public transport- bus, train and thumb. If this all sounds a bit mundane and not typical of your average mountaineering book then take heart.  Climbing Ramabang escapes from the clichéd world of mountain literature and succeeds as a extremely well observed travelogue. A  work created by someone who has a genuine interest and curiosity in the people he encounters along the way,and skilfully dissects the cultural complexities which have moulded their characters.

As someone of strong opinions and with a finely tuned bullshit antenna, Gerry’s travels uncover a curious world of stoned shamans and Pakistani Lady-boys; Islamic revolutionary guards and Israeli hippies.  Despite his respect for the different cultures and religions he encounters, he is not afraid to abandon political correctness and pick up and highlight any negative features within these cultures and belief systems, whether he is writing about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism or Sikhism. In fact, he spends an entire chapter dealing with Chinese genocide in Tibet and his conclusions will chime with anyone who is saddened and appalled by China’s violent subjugation of a once proud and free nation. He also looks under the surface of day to day life in Iran and concludes that despite the authoritarianism of the Islamic state, life here is a lot better for the average citizen than in other Islamic states- notably Pakistan. In fact he compares life here favorably with that of its arch enemy the USA, which will surprise a lot of people.
Gerry on the summit of Konchok

In all these areas, Gerry doesn’t shirk from applying his left of centre perspective and offers some really fascinating potted historical points of reference for those who might not be familiar with the recent history of troubled places like Iran or Tibet.Throughout his journey, Gerry finds himself courted, hosted and entertained by a rich and diverse range of characters. Most of whom are generous to a fault despite often living in great poverty, and  his hosts are inevitably as fascinated with the genial Irishman as he is with them.

Climbing Ramabang is a fascinating and illuminating journey which explores beneath the tourist facade, and paints a vivid picture of day to day life for ordinary people living in extraordinary places. Proving once again that the road less travelled is inevitably the most interesting way to go.

John Appleby
All Photos: Gerry Galligan Collection

Climbing Ramabang is available from Vertebrate Publishers


Friday 8 November 2013

XS – The essence of trad : A plea and an introduction to The Range.

I wrote a short piece recently for ‘Footless Crow’ about my new multimedia project in Catalunya Nord, named ‘Perillos, here be dragons’ It is said that the village of Perillos, near Perpinya, became deserted when its folk started having the same dreams. The villagers were afraid to sleep for the dreams were terrifying. What went on here surely went on with the land and then into the soul of man. Using the tools of my trade, words, images and sounds, I explore this breathing expanse, and a possible revealing of itself through myths, legends and folklore. The ancient naming of the region is imbued with strong religio-divine-cosmic influence…packed full of doubt, mysteries, enchantment and an odd sense of danger. Nearby are the slabby, sport cliffs of Vingrau and beyond the dramatic escarpments of Tautavel, where Europe’s oldest human remains were discovered.

Whatever happened, I’d like to think, is recorded in the rocks, like compressed data on a silica chip? The area of Perillos is said to be an energy point signifying the void…where one works through personal baggage and abandonment, letting go of the past and transcending victim-hood.
Man’s interaction with this remote ‘garrigue’ type, rocky landscape seems purgatory in nature and of apocalyptic processes; it also seems a journey for souls in a land prepared for salvation and follows an undeniable feminine principal in man’s quest for an absolute, a truth, a reason – a grail, you could say. Mary Magdalene’s ancient graffiti, ‘I woz ere’ is tattooed on the sacred caves of initiation and re-birth, as the vulva or portal of Mother Earth…with lover and child, through thickets of dense juniper, amongst heady aromas of sage, rosemary and thyme, the story travelled…left messages…and was forgotten.

The article ends with a Twitter interaction when I comment on a Tweet from a women’s climbing group that states ‘muscled women, strength, competitiveness and athleticism are very feminine’. I challenge it by saying ‘muscled women athletes are not at all feminine and are just ‘women competing for death, illness, decline and warring factions - all the fine attributes of the male preserve’. These are the attributes of sport, and sport represses that which is of nature. Should women know better?’  Another women climbers club eventually stated that women climbers are sexy and feminine and men must get confident enough to deal with it. Full stop. Of course, it is impossible to have a debate in 140 characters, and it is left floating in the ether as a flippant and superficial piece of forgotten dialogue.

We move on to the next glib comment for a few minutes until bored or not having the time or inclination to engage. It wasn’t a throw-away to me; how an informed opinion can be challenged by an aggressive demand, but social media soon diminishes it as Twitterspeak and moves on to another topic like ‘…having cornflakes for breakfast…’ – Facebook style, ‘smiley face’, climbing wall mentality. I found this exchange interesting in the light of my ‘Perillos’ research into ancient esoteric wisdom, the divine feminine, latent powers within humanity, Gnostic texts and cosmic influences. Between my Twitter feud and the passage of the sacred ‘whore’ exiting from Palestine through what is now the Corbieres region of Languedoc in southern France, I cannot decide which is the most surreal. 

 Do not humans thrive with cooperation and decline with competition?

We sit on the shoulders of giants, remembering nothing. From the ancient texts hidden on the Perillos map to the sacred passage of the Magdalene troop, I am brought ‘sexy’, ‘competition’ and ‘athleticism’ into my climbing psyche. Aghhh. My Trickster tells me to be ‘confident’ and not rant about libidinous strumming of clitori on the Vector stance. Enough! I live at one with the strong ‘feminine principal’ and the sacred feminine informs my work, so I find such a defensive war cry from the hurting-trenches a destructive anathema to the natural world. Perillos!

Anyway, for me, the idea of climbing as a sport seems bizarre. I always thought the language of climbing would be safe from its organised, clinical clutches – I always thought the very opposite as a rationale to climb. The process was always a mystical venture. But no, this is climbing brought up to date as society’s competitive, athletic, achievable, media controlled and clean requirements dictate. Okay, it is interesting for me to comprehend the wider influx attracted to today's growing climbing community, and the force-feeding from climbing wall nurseries. Why is no one laughing...or rather crying?

What wakes the few then
And draws them
To that brave stepping out,
To walk with lonely purpose?
And having passed through the chimera,
Having tasted emptiness,
Become addicted to its freedom,
Where then?

Gretel Leeb

I detest the psychic-tyranny in all groups and associations, especially regarding climbing, which in my mind is ‘free’. Free in the sense of innate expression, free beyond the restraints of everyday living, free to explore what it is to be a human animal, free to commune with the natural world, free to push beyond into other worlds, dimensions, whatever enters, free to blow it all away…free to face your own soul. This is tied into wilderness and feeling the Earth and our bond with the rock telling its story, not yours; not about grades or numbers or style or gender, but about entering a dialogue, connecting with the substance you move through, and the re-wilding of the soul. Yes, re-wilding of the soul! Sport can never be free in this way, can never be ‘wild’ for it is sanitized, ruled and quantified. Sport climbing is farmed climbing; without the ‘fertilizer’ of establishment support, alienated from the human biomass and more to do with yield than experience, it is weak and friable. And yet it is popular. Indoor walls are like drug factories with a blaze of colours and unnatural straight lines, breeding a climber’s habits in a world of resin holds and neon lamps. The crucial element of doubt has been eliminated by force here. All lines are climbable eventually. Success is spoon-fed. Is this robotic? My plea is for a perspective, because I feel something has been forgotten.

‘Were I possessed of the least knowledge, I would, when walking on the great way, fear only paths that lead astray.
The great way is easy, yet people prefer by-paths.
The court is corrupt;
The fields are overgrown with weeds;
The granaries are empty;
And yet there are those dressed in fineries;
With swords at their sides;

Lao Tzu.

Redhead,Loxton and Crook:Mad bad and dangerous to know

So, what part does ‘sexy’ play in all this? I have various choices to account for myself and the first would be, “Fall off and die in your most sexy way possible!” But that would be unkind, a joke and emotive! Another choice would be, so what, where’s the harm? I could just chill the fuck out and rejoice in the multi-faceted world of climbing. And I do, believe me. Or I could question what part does ‘sexy’ play in sound social change regarding gender awareness? Or, is it important for a female climber to be seen as sexy? Sex as ever, sells and the more marketable you become the more you are owned and controlled. You can never be free when used as a corporate tool. Using climbing as a competitive sport, a sexy sport, a uni-sex sport, regardless of gender is just so career, corporate, media-business-banal. All sport and athletics are corporate. They are also so fucking politic, so urban, so of ‘polis’ – of the city. Sport supports industry and psychologists - they feed off you. You buy membership!

Derek Jarman coined the phrase ‘techno-cruelty’ relating to the sterility of being a ‘technical’ expert gardener. Training ‘this’ and forcing ‘that’ ironically reinforces the seed of the ‘nature deficit disorder’ that I associate with sport. Sport is anti nature. Of course, I am referring more to an approach here, and the essence of fitness and health.

Divisions of ‘us and them’ belong in the city. Fair play. I don’t believe agendas belong in the mountains. Do you think Cloggy gives a ‘falling fuck’ if you are sexy or not? Isn’t a second-off here or an extra-metre there a futile attempt to evade the flow of time and death? Such feats do not push the boundaries of humanity but still its growth. I suggest getting on a proper ‘messy’ route out of control, scratch and scrape, engage with vital social-change, feel, die a bit, and most importantly engage with something real! There is energy and spirit in the substance you move through. Being in a group, being sexy, athletic or sporty are illusions and distractions away from the bigger picture. They have no part to play in this endeavor. My plea is to ‘dirty up’ and rejoice with the Earth.

‘Climbing is nothing more than a poise from which to explore other worlds, to be tapped into when questions arise. It is not a world in itself and must never be a language to rejoice in or identify with for its own sake. The rock is a sanctuary. Climbing should not be seen as dancing. For those who think they dance bring nothing to the rock but the insult of melody to flatter their personalities…’

…and one for the crow

I arrive back after a two day drive across France to a windy-wet ‘Beris and ‘lo and behold’, no escape, a magazine on the table – Climb Magazine. I initially think it’s a lad’s mag that my mate Jimbo has left out. Of course, there is nothing pornographic on the front cover; it just had that glossy current ‘look’. It featured the ‘leading light of British women’s climbing and rising star of the international competition scene…’. Okay, it goes on, and that’s as far as I go and enough for me because this kind of talk has no place in my life. Competition and climbing for Britain…what the fuck is all that? What the fuck have we done in the name of climbing!? She stares sugary-sweet and starry-eyed ‘Stepford wife-ish’ at some invisible climb. Yes, this is certainly sport! Sexy? I am ‘confident’ in having no time for it. She may be a good climber and a great character, but it’s a popular media ‘genre’ shot that sells…what…condoms? Or, with a little more imagination, it sells national identity and the chalk bag could be an assault rifle aimed at the ‘enemy’. In reality, humanity and spirit are suffering here and it is ‘state-run’ in essence. This is climbing performance as a paid job. It sells stuff and controls stuff and the human biomass is in the bin. It keeps you in your place and stops you challenging the system. Thinking is zeroed by pomp and ceremony. It has absolutely no connection with climbing, as a process, as I know it. In that light she is definitely a potentially sexy corporate climbing model, set up to play the high-heel card. Equality? Can there ever be such a thing? This is not ancient graffiti of the sacred feminine, something that we need to struggle with for meaning. It is just physical, chic-literal and sad. But perhaps I am over-critical and for some, this tinny, ‘cool’ veneer and spectator sport is perhaps the desert that is needed to walk through…? I may seem to be snarling here, but I call it passionate and serious clowning.

Master's Wall
But is this any different, after all, to the muscled action poses of the macho-male heroes that we are used to seeing on front covers? No, there is no difference (apart from the fact that they are climbing). What’s new is that she is climbing for Old Blighty against the clock, has breasts and not a knob packet, that’s all. Is this the way women compete with the men? They don’t need to, they climb differently and often better than the blokes – and they should know better! It all sucks! They are dreaming the corporate dream and totally set up for a double page spread. The FHM ‘top 100 sexiest women’ hall of fame awaits and for some women and the climbing industry, it will be seen as an achievement!

‘She should know better because she is equipped to be constantly reminded of a ‘loop of remembrance’… this loop herds together the affairs of the male tribe, where ‘truth’ is lubricated and pulls in his quest for control and exploitation – into nature’s Belly Ocean of life. There is no equality! Man is surely a spectator, the mere squirter of snot in this ineffable Belly Ocean. His erect penis, like the ropes and quick draws, twitches and twangs to HER natural laws as she articulates the needs of the Ocean. She IS the rock, or something far beyond it.

Margins of the Mind – ‘…and one for the crow’

I read on…I am mentioned as one of the hundred most influential climbers. And my book too! I am amazed, but then notice the erect phallus on the front cover of my book. In the light of all of the above I understand my placement here. I am bound to appear like a circus act because I operated beyond the mainstream. And so I find the comments relating to my entry both comical and misrepresented. Is this a climbing magazine or a sarcastic review of status quo morals? It is not my route names that are significant, or the ‘mind-blowing’ bonkers stuff, as it is said, but the routes themselves and my approach, style and ethics involved – climbing the first E7 and E8 climbs in Britain, surely that is noteworthy. Likewise, the totally shoddy repeats of the Indian Face should also be seen as both comical and misrepresented. These climbers, all great lads, are sponsored in top-trumps style, aided by BluTac, top-roping and pre-placing and offer no improvement since Johnny Dawes’ ascent in 1986. On the contrary, even more spurious sports tactics emerge leaving little for the future brave, if there is anything left after the damage that top-roping inflicts on the rock.

For a perspective, Johnny was never happy with his ascent (in the light of what I was attempting) and said to me, ‘somebody who climbs it from the ground up can re-name it’. This is not trad climbing, this is not re-wilding, it is sport-bollocks! Male or female, totally stillborn, sponsored garbage. It seems to me that this arrangement is now mainstream and we have been media railroaded. Now, to me, this IS bonkers! This IS the circus act that is now accepted and taken root. The joke’s on us. When Plas Y Brenin sports centre encourage top-roping on their courses for ‘egalitarian’ reasons where everyone can succeed and the best ‘adventure’ climbers do the same…what hope ethics for the middle-man in search of ‘trad’? Will we soon hear someone say, “I on-sighted a V Diff today?”

‘…if the trees were trees only, wood only, were simple roots and boles and boughs and leaves, and that only, as the stones should be stones. If the stones were simple stones. This would be safe. All this would be safety.

Ted Hughes

So, as regards true-trad climbing before I forget, I was re-introduced to its vagaries at The Range, Anglesey, recently. Martin Crook had attempted an on-sight new line a few days ago and had been repulsed due to unfavourable conditions. He had stashed his rope under the cliff during the escape.

The day starts in Tony’s studio, as I take in the wonders of his garden collection, ‘the world of tat’. It is full of waste items collected on walks in the area. The counterpoint between flower and waste is a critical aesthetic, challengingly bucolic, a sight to ponder the fragility of life, erosion and displacement of materials we take for granted, the disposable age…a still-life of rot, rust and rag and more. We meet here for a brew and plan a return to ‘The Range’.

Our first stop is the café at Trearddur Bay. Cafés are like islands, where one is blown in by a favourable wind, offering temporary protection like ‘parlay’. The ‘parlay’ is a free state where the everyday human condition can be accessed and engaged with. It seems to dictate its own agenda, and one can indeed forget the reason for the journey. The climbing becomes a by-product of extreme brewing and engagement with something far stronger and sticky; sometimes a whole days ‘cragging’ can be spent working out in its confines! It is sticky for me because it confirms I understand nothing but the absurdity of life. The RSPB café at South Stack is another, but different. Like trainspotters in their dirty macs and take-aways, there is something similar in the more ‘middle-class, cleaner-mac’ types that view flashes of the feathered world from behind the safety glass. Racks of postcards, jam scones with cream, a range of souvenirs and ‘birds of the day’ blackboards offer nothing to my love of birds. I can only go silly with thoughts of the mutant, heavily genitalised, bald cocktail sparrow let loose in the toilet block.

 This is my first time at The Range area of Anglesey and immediately engage with the XS vibe. I have no idea where we are going but it is an area south of South Stack, known as the esoteric playground of body-gurning, Big George Smith, but has been dismissed by some as invisible, unfindable or worthless. For others, such opinion is the seed of an interest - like Tony’s garbage garden containing true gems. We talk of bringing groups here, starting esoteric courses in the art of ‘finding cliffs’, ‘trad’ climbing, love, life and a gest that may mean we spend most of the day working out in the café!

Tony stalks off to the top of the cliff with stake and lump hammer. Martin and I amble down the track to the shore. I stop on the track approaching the beach and say to Martin, “I am not quite sure of my role here.” Martin stops and laughs, querying the intent of my comment. There was no intent, of course, just the nature of the game and the possibilities of engagement. Climbing days with Martin have never been clear on the possibilities that may present themselves, and it just dawned on me, what are we doing down here? However, as we approached the beach, it was obvious that possibilities had indeed shuffled into a new position, and what the hell were we actually doing down there? The tide was well in and a swell brewing! A Plas Y Brenin group, or more professional climbers would never make that mistake. They would know the tides and itinerary before venturing out. In fact they would have done their activity by now and be back at the centre’s canteen. Job done. Day in. Clock out. And anyway, as if just feeling it suddenly with the passage of time, it’s totally pissing down. We reconvene at the cars as Tony arrives clutching two bags of coloured glass and melted bottles, fused and twisted into humanoid shapes. He is happy with the find. We already know that our activity involves heading back to the café, for Parlay, another brew and more nonsense and social interaction.

We return an hour or so later. Slip-sliding-squishy over carpets of greasy seaweed, pebbles and the usual assorted tat, scraping legs on mollusced boulders, pondering this and that of colours and shapes as if from another planet, which it is, and arrive under the route; interesting character, overhanging, alarmingly-jagged, streaked-biscuit-snappy, all wet and dripping. I notice the coiled rope stuffed in a crack at its base well above the tide line. We empty the sacs and two, new, dry ropes hit the soggy slab. Martin is soon geared up. Psyched as a warrior. I try to remember my role. I can’t work out my harness, borrowed from Jimbo and curse its complicated, tangled, wrong way round, upside down twisted-dyslectic dysfunctional shapes. Tony, the IRATA assessor is unfortunately somewhere at the top of the cliff and can offer no dry-humour or advice. He may be sorting a belay, lump-hammering a stake amongst the loose exit horror of sea-thrift and lichen or equally he could be rummaging through ‘brock’ driftwood and assorted plastic for his ‘world of tat’. The harness is some sort of bondage design nightmare (I was only used to swami-belts in my day), but it nevertheless goes on in haste, Dyson-clumsy, grossly colourful, heavy, definitely all-wrong and weird feeling.

Martin Crook takes off on the FA of The Golden Fan

There is a faint drizzle as Martin leans into the first moves. I ponder the substance of the unfavourable conditions on his previous attempt! His arched body braces the crumbling steepness. It looks awkward. The drizzle turns to lashing rain at which a lesser man would retreat. “What do you reckon youth?” I shout up, thinking of myself shivering. “Started now, so we’ll see,” is the commitment to a cause above and beyond mere climbing. The day has started and the route begun! Resort to memory, I am happy with this man…and feel my role as a warm return. Protection gets lobbed in at a rate that says it is utterly crap. Martin is in-situ climbing a new route of loose, friable rock, on-sight in the rain. We are all happy here, wet and dirty like an old day. 

Thirty feet up his chalk ball makes a leap for freedom, like a statement, bounces twice on the slab below, and sinks into a rock-pool. Two sludgy chalk marks on the slab illustrate its projection into permanent uselessness. “Watch me youth, I need a piss”, follows soon afterwards. Martin is discreet, and empties his bladder into a fissure to one side of him. No sight of a cock! But ten seconds later, this warm river of piss finds its Nile-like way through a lower crack, fans out with the sea breeze and lashing rain, and joins me on the stance below. I reach for the Lucozade to sweeten my mouth and ponder that it has been over twenty years since we have climbed together. It may as well have been two minutes. I remember these scenes. I am back climbing. I am playing - back into what I consider climbing to be all about. My Dyson-harness suddenly falls to my ankles at the top of the cliff.

The Golden Fan XS. 

John Redhead: 2013 
Photos: Tony Loxton/John Redhead

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