Friday 31 January 2014

No Ordinary Man

Harold Drasdo these days
I drove out of Sheffield, absently noting the supplicatory paw marks on West Side Story and a lone sentinel perched atop Buttonhook. The serried buttresses of Stanage were drenched with shadow. So many shared images linking us to the core of things. My thoughts wandered across the Donegal and Connemara highlands of 40 years ago, a time that, but for a few, is time out of mind. And thus to the man whom I was driving to meet, an enigmatic figure who has always intrigued me, a man, heaven help us, almost old enough to be my father.

Harold Drasdo was born in 1930. He has climbed for over 50 years. A former Bradford Boy and habitué of Wall End Barn, he is of the Brown-Whillans generation. His route, North Crag Eliminate, is one of the great Lake District Extremes. With Bob Downes, he made the second ascent of Spillikin Ridge, then the hardest and most famous route in Ireland. In the Lakes, he wrote the 1959 Eastern Crags guide and in Wales the guide to Lliwedd. His monograph Education and the Mountain Centres was an early and important critique of the Outdoor Education movement. With Michael Tobias, he co-edited The Mountain Spirit, an eclectic array of essays on aesthetic, cultural and spiritual responses to mountains. Now he has produced The Ordinary Route, part autobiography, part polemic. What are we to make of him, of it?

The first thing that must be said is that The Ordinary Route is very, very good indeed. Drasdo is a wordsmith who takes his craft seriously. Not for him the verbal pyrotechnic, the slipshod metaphor, the populist sentiment. Keep at it for 50 years and you too may learn to write like this. And yet Drasdo has previously been panned by the critics and resolutely condemned to literary extinction. Remain part of the awkward brigade and you too will merit the throwaway verdict of history!

Harold Drasdo leading the first ascent of Left Aisle on Arenig Fawr-14/5/96.

Time and time again The Ordinary Route reveals Drasdo as a consummate master of the felicitous phrase. Traditional guidebooks are sacred books, linking armchair and crag. Maps induce a dreamlike pleasure, are a poem without beginning or end. The remote fastness of Ogden Clough, archetypal grit outcrop, is a neat little arrangement of rocks, rimming its tight ravine. The cascades of Sour Milk Gill thunder powerfully and creamily down the slabs opposite Seathwaite Farm. The sing-songs of his post-war travelling companions are the poetry of the poor. Girls a little older than himself and tantalisingly inaccessible, defeat the austerity of rationing to make style out of rags.

At Gorphwysfa, the resting place, he has his conversion. Beneath him, the Llanberis Pass is shafted through with evening light and drenched with astonishing colours: golds, greens, purples, black. Three men stride abreast, sturdy booted figures in worn clothes, two carrying coiled ropes over their shoulders. He senses the justice of their claim to this place. All around him, the hills recline in sensuous invitation. He is 17 and he has wasted his life. For the next half-century, climbing will be a consuming passion.

Characteristically Drasdo is diffident, indeed almost dismissive, about what must have been a precocious climbing ability. The then highly serious North Crag Eliminate, done with an underfed, streetwise 14-year-old called Dennis Gray, is seemingly flawed by the necessary abseil removal of a loose block. A slip from the sloping finishing hold of Short Circuit at Ilkley costs him the first ascent of arguably the most technical route in the country. A casual exploration on Dove Crag anticipates the sustained seriousness of Mordor. At Kilnsey, with the swell of field surging against the cliff, he makes a futuristic ascent. Gallows Route is very nearly aptly named. Yet only with his gargantuan routes in the Poisoned Glen is there a sense of enduring satisfaction.

 Jac Codi Baw, The Amphitheatre, Arenig Fawr -1st ascent 29/7/97
 The rite of passage of the ferry crossing returns him to a land impregnated with Yeatsian lyricism and the beautifully cadenced speech of the far west, an empty, depopulated land where the hills are robed with mystery. Drasdo and his companions fall deeply, blindly, helplessly under the spell of Donegal. Forever afterwards, the valley of his dreams will bear a confused resemblance to the Poisoned Glen, redolent with a haunting sense of unrealised possibilities. 

The concomitant to mountaineering is companionship upon the hills. Such companionship may be real or vicarious. The famous, the unknown and the half-forgotten flit wraithlike through Drasdo’s pages. Abraham, Westmorland, Kelly, Dolphin, Greenwood, Marshall, Austin, Brown, Harris, Anthoine, make a curve like an arrowflight, spanning a century and more. To Irish climbers, the names of AndrĂ© Kopczynski, Ruth Ohrtmann, Peter Kenny, Frank Winder and Betty Healy are no whit less hallowed.

A young HD on Eagle Crag in Grisedale
Drasdo’s Lliwedd travails compel him to follow in the nail marks of Archer Thompson and Menlove Edwards, both of whom terminated sad, desperate lives through self-poisoning. He knows well that man’s days are as grass; for many, climbing is a fire which will burn out; the futility of retracing the past inexorably impales one upon a spear of grief.

And yet ultimately all of this is as nothing when set against mountaineering’s epiphanies. Middlefell Buttress is frescoed with rondels of bright green lichen. Empty, mysterious foothills bar the way to Arcadia. The sacred monastery of Saint Catherine, with one of the most eminent collections of ancient manuscripts on earth, stares out across a great and terrible wilderness, the land-bridge between Africa and Asia. Montserrat yields a perfect echo, an ineffable melody, Donegal a double moonbow, its immaculate white arches high and complete. By Gibraltar, a tangle of jet black snakes basks in the sun. At Corrour Bothy, after struggling through seemingly endless snowdrifts in the Lairig Ghru, exhausted mountaineers sink into deep dry beds of soft heather. In the Rifugio Lavaredo there is supper by candlelight, with sheet lightning flashing outside. An unruffled sea stretches across to Wicklow Head, while behind, the tiny but shapely hills of Lleyn lead up to the Rivals and above and beyond them to the mysterious heights of Eryri. The remote and uninhabited head of Glen Barra calls to us across space and time. There is a day on the Ordinary Route on the Idwal Slabs when, magnificently, huge soft snowflakes fall vertically in an absolute stillness and one is unexpectedly swept with happiness.

In her evocative Western Interlude, written about Glen Inagh in Connemara, published in the Ronnie Wathen edited Irish Mountaineering 1958/59 and quoted by Drasdo, Brighid Hardiman glimpsed a psychic frontier:
‘The mountains were quiet and unchanged, affected neither by our coming nor our going and I wished that there was some part of them that would miss us as we would miss them. But they were the ones who laid claim and remained untouched...’

With The Ordinary Route, Drasdo reveals the quotidian as strange and numinous. He spirits us across Brighid Hardiman’s psychic frontier. One of the Wild Geese has finally come home. 
HD and JA after climbing Tony Moulam's Widdershins above Ogwen Cottage.
©  Mick Ward, 1997
Previously published in Climber, August 1997 and Irish Mountaineering Club Newsletter Number 3, Autumn 1998

Friday 24 January 2014

Solo on Cloggy

It must have been that fascination, overmastering and fatal as was ever the blindness that took Pentheus to his doom among the Bacchae, which led me once to the steepest cliff in Wales. The sense of intimacy that possesses the solitary had become, it may be, an infatuation; more and more I had thought that I might presume, if my love be kind, until it seemed that there was no liberty that I could not take. It was a May morning of 1942, and I was under the precipice of Clogwyn du'r Arddu. I had stepped from bright sun into the slanting shadow of the eastern buttress. I blinked up at it, at the row of vertical cracks that split it.

On the right I could see the Curving Crack that Colin Kirkus, I knew, had climbed with Alf Bridge. The day was warm, the rocks dry, and the moss peeled from them under a rubber shoe. I started up the first layback crack; why, I could not tell. There was no sense in trying such a climb. I was tasting simply a physical pleasure — why does the small boy buy an ice cream when he has pennies about him? My legs were arched, feet pressed against the back wall. The rubbers slipped occasion­ally, ever so slightly. My fingers hooked around the upright crack edge. I was gaining height, slowly. At the top of the first section, 30ft, above the turf, I surveyed future and past: the vertical walls of the buttress and the little ledge on which I stood.

A comforting crack split the cliff above me, shaped exactly for the wedging of a human body. But it must be hard; if I could not go on, could I go back? The climber has his lesser Rubicons. I knew that infatuation was upon me; that I could not break this spell of movement,of tense wonder at my physical doing. I must go on, to watch body and mind working in their own right together. Now in self-defence, I must give of the best: a poor kind of best, perhaps, if you could catalogue 'bests', but one that would satisfy me for a day. The crack ahead must be a struggle; again, could I get down, was I doomed to crouch like a sheep stranded on its tuft, waiting till I starve or fall? And would it not be a pity so to fall, to end in a moment this bundle of nerve and muscle, of action begun and hope for things incomplete?

I wrestled hotly to the top of the Curving Crack, in a fear and a sure vowing that I could never be guilty of the like rashness again. On the grass above, I lay in the sun. I had done — what? I had done something that only I could tell. Something foolish, something that I must not repeat, but something that I felt still to have been worth' the doing. And I could no more simplify the climb into an idiocy than into a conquest; there was more to it than that, as there must be more to any hard effort in which mind and body have combined to give. And yet if it must be set down as the one or the other, idiocy it certainly had been, and conquest never. I had by no fragment, other than the trampled grass or displaced chockstone, altered the life of that cliff.

I had been allowed to scramble, a short and precarious hour, over its bare rock. I had no more conquered it than the Lilliputians conquered Gulliver, when they first walked across his chest.

Wilfred Noyce

Saturday 18 January 2014

The Cave man cometh...... Distilled reviewed.

Most  people involved in UK mountaineering know the Andy Cave story. The gauche young collier from South Yorkshire who found himself ‘learning to breathe’ and discovered that the sweetest, cleanest air of all was to be found in the mountains! With the mining industry on the verge of tipping into catastrophic politically engineered decline, he chose the perfect moment to get out of the industry and pursue the life of the itinerant crag rat. Building up an impressive Alpine CV before cashing in his Coal Board pension to fund three simultaneous Himalayan adventures.

It was a steep and rapid learning curve which propelled the young tyke into the upper echelons of UK mountaineering and cemented his reputation as a cool and solid performer under pressure. Andy’s aforementioned award winning autobiography and his ascent from the pit head to the mountain heights, draws parallels  with another northern coal mining climber, Bill Peascod, whose inspirational story is recountered in his beautiful autobiography, ‘Journey After Dawn’. However, while  Peascod remained a parochial climber,essentially fixed in his north Cumbrian fiefdom, Andy Cave found the challenges of the  Alps and Greater Ranges more to his liking. Establishing cutting edge routes including his famous epic ascent of the north face of Changabang with Brendan Murphy.

In Paul Diffley’s latest film, Distilled, 'Learning to Breathe' has essentially been reprized into a 42 minute film biography of Andy’s climbing life. Using the dramatic backdrop of Scottish Highland cliffs in their finest winter raiment to frame Andy’s narration. Presumably filmed in the 2012-13 winter season, these great vertical snow and ice palaces have never looked more enticing or dramatic. A great monochromatic playground where the only the splash of colour and movement is provided by the climbers.

Kicking off on Waterfall Gully on The Ben, Andy and his partner Gary Kinsey, work their way through various classic winter climbs including The Curtain, Deep Throat and Tower Ridge, with Andy himself narrating his life and times, as lost in a lonely, spindrift, ice tinkling vortex, he effortlessly picks his way through some unlikely looking terrain. Credit to the camera team who must have shivered in their winter apparel filming these scenes. At least Andy and Co could keep moving to keep warm.

Rather incongruously, there is a brief passage showing Andy soloing Fern Hill at Cratliffe Tor in summer conditions. Given that the main meat of the film surrounds Andy in his Scottish winter element then I wondered if perhaps this could have been dropped altogether with the action footage just concentrating on his winter ascents? On the other hand, perhaps the film could have included more pure rock climbing with interviews added to extend the running time ?  There may have been logistical reasons for this however and it doesn’t really detract that much from the end product.

As with all the Hot Aches films I’ve seen so far, the sound and footage is pin sharp; the editing is spot on and all in all it’s a fine piece of work from one of our most creative outdoor film outfits. No surprises then that it won the coveted ‘People’s Choice’ award at the recent Kendal festival.


Photos: Hot Aches

Friday 10 January 2014

The Scottie: How the first climbing nut was created in Wales.

Pitch three of Scottie Dwyer's classic Central Route. Llech Ddu in the Carneddau, North Wales.

History records that 1950’s English climbers were the first to use what we recognize today as the ubiquitous nut as a means of protection when lead climbing.Using drilled machine nuts, northern climbers like Jack Soper, Joe Brown and Don Whillans, had extended and improved the practice of inserting pebbles in cracks to provide a running belay, by carrying a selection of engineering nuts of different sizes threaded on thin hawser cord.

By the early 60’s, climbers like John Brailsford saw the commercial potential and developed ‘The Acorn’; the first climbing nut that was produced and marketed as climbing protection.Brailsford very soon had improved the design and gave the climbing world, the legendary Moac. However,evidence unearthed several years ago by north Wales climber Ken Latham, suggests that the modern climbing nut- as we know it- was developed in North Wales as far back as 1946. Its inventor being one Scotty/ie Dwyer. A minor figure in the world of North Wales climbing but someone who was responsible for several classic first ascents including one of the regions great VS climbs;the superb 400’ mountaineering route, Central Route on Llech Ddu in the Carneddau.

Put up in the same year(1946)as his remarkably modernistic sliding nut was developed. Another Dwyer route is Excalibur, a two star esoteric outing above the beautiful lake of Llyn Gwynant.In the 90’s I named and claimed it as a first ascent,only to discover that Scotty Dwyer had climbed it back in 1965. The little crags hereabouts abound with unclaimed SD routes which he had put up while working as an instructor in a local outdoor education centre. The link at the foot of the page detailing the history of the climbing nut, mentions ‘the Scottie’ but let Ken Latham himself explain how the climbing nut was first created in North Wales.

During the summer of 1972, I was managing the Ellis Brigham shop in Capel Curig. On the staff at that time was George 'Scottie' Dwyer. I can't remember now if he was just helping out as a favour, or working there on a regular basis; but from what I recall, he was retired from guiding and just came in to sort out the hire equipment. He hadn't climbed for many years. Indeed, a hip replacement had curtailed his mountaineering activities some­what (remember in those days, hip jobs really were a bit of a nut and bolt affair).
It was during a quiet day that we got talking. Generally, he kept him­self to himself most of the time, so it was a real bonus when he came through to the rear of the shop, carrying a couple of brews and began telling stories of his exploits. Some of the expeditions in the forties and fifties, driving overland to the Himalaya, seemed fantastical: encounters with hoods and bandits were commonplace. He also talked about his climbing in this coun­try and of course, his first ascent of Central Route on Llech Ddu.

As the day wore on and Scottie became more forthright, he handed me a metal wedge on a thin piece of line. He seemed to hold back as I examined this crude bit of gear, but asked me for my thoughts about it. I was used to Moac and Clog wedges that were then on the market and I remember being fairly unimpressed at first. It was only a while later that this encounter took on a special significance. Scottie told me he had been working on some ideas for protection devices for rock-climbing, but did not have the means to get them made up. The nut he showed me was a rough mock-up of one he had made in 1946. I was astounded.. He said that he had never used it on a climb and was unsure of its holding properties. The line available then was hemp and would in all probability not have withstood the stress of a leader fall. Scottie told me he had re-discovered the nut as he was clearing out some old equipment and had promptly forgotten about it. He asked me to keep it as he had no use for it anymore. I returned to Liverpool and sadly, Scottie died soon after, while still only in his sixties.

The remarkably modernistic 'Scottie' from 1946.Photo Ken Latham

Almost twenty five years later I was having what everyone will recog­nise as one of those loft-cleaning sessions in which everything must go, when I came across a long forgotten 'sack. Rummaging through the gear it contained — Moacs, Leeper pegs and Peck runners — I found the 'Scottie' nut.. I considered what to do with it. Reluctant to show it around at first, though interested to find if anyone could shed light on other bits of its history, I took it to the CC Centenary Dinner. Many eminent members looked at it, and when they heard its story, commented that it seemed entirely possible it did indeed originate in the year Scottie claimed. It may well be that Scottie couldn't countenance introducing such a piece of equipment in the 1940s; it would no doubt have been seen as unethical. Then he mislaid or forgot about it for years until he told me about it.

If Scottie had found a maker for his nut in the 40s and launched it on the growing market, who could say how the history of British rock- climb­ing would read today? The design — combining variable, sliding camming and multi-faceted placement — was at least fifteen years ahead of its time. I showed it to Joe Brown recently and he was convinced of its authenticity; he also commented that he hadn't used any machined nuts himself until about 1961, as he thought they were unethical. Slings on pebbles were still In widespread use.

If anyone can throw more light on this unique nut — which I'll continue to call the 'Scottie'--- I'd be delighted to hear from you.

Liam Appleby on pitch one of Scottie Dwyer's esoteric minor classic-Excalibur

Ken Latham: First published in the CC Journal 1998