Friday 28 March 2014

Mo Anthoine Remembered

Original Photo-Jim Curran
Mo Anthoine was just 50 years when he died at home in Nant Peris on August 12th in 1989. Words I never imagined would ever have to be written, by me or anyone else.

To write about a close friend is not easy at the best of times. To do justice to Mo is impossible. For those who knew him these words will be no more than a shallow substitute, or will fail to strike the same chords. For those who didn't it is far beyond my skill to paint more than a shadowy outline of a figure so much larger than life. But I must try and pay some sort of tribute to the man I was so lucky to know and whose friendship, loyalty and generosity I valued so highly for 15 years.

  Who was Mo Anthoine? Well, he was a mountaineer, equipment designer and manufacturer, especially a raconteur, an adventurer, film maker, builder, husband and father, and much much more. He was also the funniest person I have ever known, whose sharp tongue and devastating brilliance with the spoken word could charm anyone, from diplomats to dustmen, from dowagers to dinner ladies.

On occasion his biting wit and Rabelaisian behaviour could sound horrendous when reported second-hand. Live and in person Mo rarely caused offence and over the years many pub-fulls of complete strangers walked off into the night, sides aching with laughter at the stories and antics of the short, broad shouldered, bandy-legged man with the Kidderminster accent, who had burst upon them. Mo could, and did, get away with it again and again as he unleashed his stream of stories, black humour and devastating analogies to captivated audiences.

 He lived the life of which most climbers can only dream, centred entirely around mountains, expeditions and equipment. Apart from a mild flirtation with teaching in the 1960s. Mo's entire adult life was based in North Wales. In 1959 he became an instructor at Ogwen Cottage; two brief years in which enduring friendship were formed. One such was Cam (Ian Campbell), who accompanied Mo on his best new route, The Groove on Llech Ddu in 1961, which became a classic. Mo's uncompromising honesty about the amount of aid used on the first ascent caused a few hypocritically raised eyebrows at the time After Ogwen Mo took off with another instructor and close friend, Fox (Ian Cartledge) and together they hitched round the world in a series of improbable and hilarious adventures that Mo still relished 25 years later. One of the best, in Australia, involved Mo's short-lived debut as a jazz drummer at a party he had gate-crashed under false musical pretence; a career which lasted less than a minute. The ensuing fracas involved the demolition of a Welsh dresser along with all its china, a double bass that Mo put his foot through, and a neighbour who had a heart attack.

He returned to Wales in 1966, and bought a derelict cottage and married Jackie in 1969. He set up Snowdon Mouldings with Joe Brown who was to become his closest friend and with whom Mo shared the vast majority of his expeditions. Initially they made the famous Joe Brown helmets but over the years Mo designed and manufactured several brilliant items of gear, including the Curver ice-axe and the Limpet tents, both of which have proved their true value on innumerable expeditions.
Their concepts came from Mo's own hard won experience and were tested in precisely the conditions for which they were designed. The Limpet is the strongest tent I have ever owned and it is almost impossible to break the fibreglass poles. It has a tent bag that is actually made too big. "I got really pissed off trying to pack a great frozen mass of tent, flysheet and poles into one of those glorified paper-bags that manufacturers try and kid you are the right size" Mo explained. "It might be a bit bigger than it needs to be, but when your striking camp in a storm at 20,000ft the last thing you want to do is fart about trying to put a contraceptive on an elephant"

 Mo's expeditioning started in the early '70s. A near miss on El Toro, in Peru in 1970, an early ascent of Fitzroy in Patagonia in '72 and a small expedition to Langtang Himal with Jackie, Cam and Malcolm Howells, were the precursors of 18 years constant expeditioning. After the ascent of the Prow of Roraima in the South American Jungle in 1973, with its stories of tarantulas, centipedes and horrific antics abseiling and jumaring on fixed ropes high above the jungle, Mo became captivated, then obsessed, with the Karakoram.

 In 1975 and '76, Mo led two contrasting expeditions to the unclimbed Trango Tower, the great vertical granite spire that dominates the Lower Baltoro. The first was a failure, a series of setbacks culminating in Martin Boysen's famous knee-jam epic high on the Tower. The second was a complete success. Mo, Martin, Joe Brown and Malcolm Howells reached the summit with Tony Riley filming just below. I was also a camerman on the expedition. Even allowing for my own one-sided view it was surely Mo's greatest mountaineering achievement. For Martin it was: "The happiest moment of my climbing life"

After the funeral, at Mo's wake Martin fondly remembered: "Just shoving Mo up the last few feet, a great grin spread over his face and he looked around at the great peaks of the Karakoram, the Mustagh Tower, K2 up in the clouds. Masherbrum and the West Face of Gasherbrum IV... just fantastic."
Mo returned for a brave attempt on Gasherbrum in 1978 but the year after Trango he went to The Ogre with Doug Scott, Chris Bonington, Clive Rowland, Nick Estcourt and Tut Braithwaite. The events of the expedition are well-known. Doug broke both his ankles in a pendulum abseiling from the summit, and Mo, Clive and Doug had an epic retreat in a storm. There is little doubt that without Mo and Clive's efforts, Chris and Doug would probably have died. Since then, Mo's annual jaunts have taken him to India (four expeditions to Thalay Sagar) to Ecuador (twice) with Hamish MacInnes, Joe and Jackie to search for Inca gold! and 1986 and '88 to attempt the unclimbed North East Ridge of Everest.
But it was at home in Wales that most people will remember Mo. For many years I have returned from Welsh weekends to be greeted with the same inevitable question "Did you see Mo?" Then I would have to dredge the recesses of a hungover brain and try to remember just a few of the endless one-liners with which Mo had regaled his friends in the Padarn or the Victoria. "You've become the self of your former shadow" he greeted me a few months after I had returned slim, if not sylph-like, from an expedition only to regain the lost weight immediately. "Look at your chins, in serried ranks" Being in his company was like being a member of an exclusive club, or party to a huge unending joke. His mirth was infectious wherever he went. When he was holding court in the pub, at a Trade Fair, in a Base Camp tent, or at a party, he was the catalyst that made everyone else tell better stories or jokes than those of which they were normally capable.

During the eighties, Mo's interest turned to films and television. With Joe he worked on several outside broadcasts including 'Freakout' in Glencoe with Jackie, and 'The Old Man of Hoy' with Zoe Brown. He worked on several feature films particularly 'Five Days One Summer', 'The Mission', 'Live and Let Die' and 'Rambo III'. Mo's roles ranged from assistant cameraman to special effects, doubling, (for Jeremy Irons and Sylvester Stallone) and most important of all, safety officer. In all Mo's expeditions and films there was never a single fatality, a fact Mo put down to his utter cowardice! In January 1988, I heard that Mo had a brain tumour and would be operated on immediately. Distraught and fighting back tears I rang up to wish him well. As usual Mo was his incorrigible, hilarious self. "Village idiot speaking" he greeted me. "Don't worry, there's only three things that can happen. Either they'll remove it and I'll be okay, or they'll turn me into a vegetable." He paused "What's the third?" "If they bugger it up completely I'll have to get a job at Plas y Brenin"

The operation appeared to be a complete success and, undeterred Mo went to Everest with Brummie Stokes, and a huge team including Joe, Bill Barker, Davy Jones, Ian Nicholson and, at the last moment, me as cameraman. Mo,with most of the equipment, got to Base Camp three weeks before the main party and greeted us with delight when we at last caught him up. He looked thin and drawn, though his humour was undiminished and as macabre as ever. "If I get really ill Jim, I want you to film me as I throw myself down the Kangshung Face, doused in paraffin and burning like a Viking warrior" Despite performing well (and, incidentally, doing the lion's share of the filming himself when I was ill) Mo's health had deteriorated by the end of the year. He bore his illness, and another operation, with a courage and humour that was moving beyond words. Many visitors came away from the house still laughing through the tears. Even near the end a small part of me hoped, irrationally, that Mo could somehow manage to find a way out and he would turn up laughing in the pub, but it was not to be.

As long as there are people who knew him, Mo will live on in a rich kaleidoscope of images, words and events. In 50 hectic years Mo lived a complete life that few people could attain in one hundred.The writer, Al Alvarez, wrote a profile of Mo, 'Feeding the Rat' which was completed before the onset of Mo's illness. The book ends with a curiously prophetic soliloquy from Mo himself, the last words being

 ... to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of .... I can't think of anything sadder than that.

Jim Curran: First published in High 84.

Friday 21 March 2014

In at the deep end....Gorge scrambling in north and mid Wales

Gareth in the Coed y Brenin-South Snowdonia
I was alone and halfway up a steep mountain gully in Wales.  Not one of the good kinds of gully; covered in reassuring neve or inviting ice, or consisting of solid and entertaining rock steps.  No, it was late April and the sun was shining (at least, it was shining outside of the claustrophobic confines of the ravine), and the gully was filled with moss and rushes and soil.  Where rock appeared it was wet and covered in slime.  Above the right hand wall towered an imposing and vegetated mountain face.  I was halfway up Esgair Gully; a deep gash that burrows below the north face of Foel Goch in the Glyderau.  Ahead things seemed to be getting steeper and looser.  It finally seemed time to admit it: I had a problem.  I had become obsessed with the obscure and esoteric world of Welsh gorges, gullies and streams.

How did it all start?  I moved to Bangor in 2004 to start university.  One of the major attractions was the mountains.  I’d always loved mountains and the wild places.  With the University Mountain Walking Club (Bangor UMWC) I started scrambling the classic Snowdonian grade 1 ridges, and after getting hooked on that started ticking off the grade 2 scrambles in the Glyderau and Carneddau.  I never had the head for heights or the bravery to tackle the top scrambles, and so soon ran out of new routes to explore.

It was one August day in 2007, heading with three friends out of the Llanberis Pass to upper Cwm Glas, aiming to go via a grade 1 described in Scrambles and Easy Climbs in Snowdonia.  I can’t now recall who had the idea, but we took to scrambling up the easy-angled watercourse of the nearby Afon Gennog to avoid the tedium of the steep approach.  It was pleasant: dry, grippy rock, water burbling under out feet.  Eventually the gradient relented and we walked over to the dripping wall of Craig y Rhaeadr.  The scramble we aimed to do threaded a way between Craig y Rhaeadr and an adjacent gorge.  Once again, someone suggested that we ignore the description and follow the water instead.   We set off into the gorge; steep sides, waterfalls, the occasional deep pool.  I recalled something A. Harry Griffin had written about gill scrambling in the Lake District.  He followed a set of self-imposed rules to maximise the fun: stick to the watercourse, traverse pools (rather than wade), take the hardest possible route.  An hour later we emerged near Llyn Glas, soaked to the skin and covered in bits of slime, but smiling.  With this, I was hooked.

Clocaenog Forest's secret waterfall
Autumn 2007 slowly unfolded.  At this time I couldn’t drive, but fortunately a friend, Pete Early, had both a car and a desire to get off the beaten track.  We explored Nant Gwynant and its surrounding valleys, always beautiful when the oak leaves turn and the rowan berries gleam. Above Llyn Dinas we discovered a gem of a scramble, following an open and unthreatening stream through a hillside scattered with conifers and rhododendrons.  Beyond this we ventured to Craig Llyn-Llagi, that sprawling heathery crag on the northern flank of Cnicht.  In thick mist we squirmed and slid up an algae-ridden stream-way, before retreating it and dismissing it as worthless.  It wouldn’t be until 2012 when I returned and discovered that the stream gathered itself into a narrow and enjoyable scramble higher up (albeit still on the slippery side).

The obsession grew over time, and in 2008 with various friends I searched our routes around Gwydyr Forest, Nant Ffrancon, Mynydd Mawr, Nant Gwynant, and the Llanberis Pass.  Possibilities seemed endless and everywhere, and each new look at the map suggested that more routes were waiting to be found.  I found the Geograph website a brilliantly useful tool to bring up photos of likely looking streams and gorges, and to decide if they were worthy of closer investigation.  The discovery of some usefully placed bothies then facilitated some trips into south Snowdonia, away from our usual stomping grounds, where we unearthed scrambles on Cadair Idris and in the Coed y Brenin. 

So what is the appeal?  Certainly, the deep gorges are a relic landscape.  There is no agricultural use for them and so their vegetation has been left intact whilst surrounding woodland has been felled.  This is part of the appeal of the big Snowdonian gorges; they are atmospheric and evocative places, untouched by the hand of man.  Apart from a handful of routes that the outdoor centres use, it is likely that you will be alone once you enter.  However, the open, sunny slabs of the gentle mountain streams also have their attraction.  On a hot day in summer there can be few more enjoyable pursuits then following a watercourse up onto the tops, perhaps with an optional swim on the way.  

Exploring Craig y Rhaedr Gorge
Of course, during my explorations it hasn’t all been fun.  A handful of scares are fresh in my memory.  I recall a day in the Vale of Ffestiniog with Gareth Harvey, when we went to scope out the Ceunant Llennyrch, a huge ravine formed where the Afon Prysor leaves the dam at Llyn Trawsfynydd and flows down to the Dwyryd estuary.  It was October 2010, probably a bit late in the year to be doing the big gorges that involve getting wet, but it should have been relatively trivial.  For a start, we knew the gorge got used by outdoor groups.  We entered the woodland along a riverside path, and opted to stay on the path until the gorge became interesting.  Unfortunately, we made the ridiculous error of walking too far, and the path climbed high above the river.  Being too lazy to retrace our steps, we decided to descend direct down the slopes to the bed of the gorge, Gareth leading the way.  This was possibly a mistake.  The ground was wet, covered in blankets of thick moss and dead trees, and deep holes waited to ensnare angles. 

After proceeding gingerly down the slopes I came around a tree to see Gareth standing down in the river.  Between me and him was a cliff of brown rubble, but no obvious route down (and to this day I’m still not sure how he got down so fast).  I slithered around on my mossy ledge, trying to find a way down, but nothing was obvious.  The drop was perhaps only four metres, but with a rough landing, and it certainly looked nasty.  I remember standing there, shouting obscenities at poor Gareth for several minutes, for leading me into this predicament.  I had the bright idea to throw my rucksack down to lighten my load when I eventually tried a descent.  Shit. I realised I’d just thrown down my helmet and several long slings that might have extricated me.

 After several more minutes of gibbering around I gracefully climbed/tumbled down into the river, emerging with a few light scratches and an apology for my bad language.  An important lesson learned: the entries and exits to some of these gorges can be trickier than the navigation of the gorge itself.

Other memories of days that slide more to the unpleasant end of the enjoyment spectrum.  An adventure away from usual haunts into Clocaenog Forest, where the map promised a huge v-shaped ravine, but suggested no waterfalls existed.  Gareth was in attendance again, and we’d been joined by another friend, Chris Earing.  Another day with a difficult start: our first attempt was to descend from the road through forest slopes, but thick, spiky gorse barred our way.  Attempt two involved climbing down an adjacent stream, but this lead to impossible waterfalls and collapsing bracken.  Our third, successful, attempt, entailed bracken-bashing followed by a light jog as we trespassed across a few farm fields to the river. 

As we headed up river we found a series of beautiful waterfalls, hidden to the outside world by the trees, and presumably seen by very few people.  The going was tricky as the rock was incredibly treacherous; both friable and slimy.  Impossibly steep waterfalls forced us to the sides of the gorge where we climbed up steeply through a combination of bracken and brambles.  Agonising progress, using brambles to pull up on, and with deadwood collapsing under our boots, but no chance of a retreat now.  Eventually the steep v-shape of the gorge relented and we could breathe a sigh of relief: escape was possible if we needed it.

For every one of these testing days, there must have been at least ten days of perfection: scrambling in solitude, unencumbered by ropes and harnesses.  Summer evenings were particular favourites, when a quick post-work hit could be had; the mountains even quieter than normal, with cuckoos calling from the valleys below.  Eventually 2013 arrived and I left Wales for Oxfordshire.  Over the years I drafted the explorations into a guidebook that now contains 70 routes or so.  More remain to be investigated, especially into the great desert of Wales.  Deep in the Cambrian mountains all sorts of gorges and streams lie ignored and unknown.  Will the guidebook ever come to light?  I hope so, but no publisher so far has decided to take the project on.  I do remain hopeful though, and long to see other people get as much happiness out of these lost landscapes as I have. 

The Author 'new routing' at a secret location in Snowdonia
Mike Peacock:2014 
Photos: Author's Collection

Friday 14 March 2014

Wreckers' Slab

Mike Banks leads the first pitch of Wreckers' Slab:SV

Memories have been stirred recently by recent features on the Very Severely Frightened theme. I have often been frightened — of course I have, jibberingly so — but not usually on a VS route. Memorable VSs — yes plenty of them. My very first was Cir Mhor's South Ridge Direct on Arran. I was slightly apprehensive about leading the crux Y cracks but in the event I coped okay and the domi­nant mood was one of contentment, lapping up glorious acres of granite and savouring the thrill of using for the first time my very own rope, nuts and slings. Another beauty, but harder, was Longland's Climb on Cloggy. But for real pant-wetting, mouth-drying, leg-trembling terror, I can only offer Slape, an unfashionable little number in the Llanberis Pass.

It was a cold March day, 1974. My first climb after breaking a knee four months earlier. The crux wall on, I think, the second pitch, seemed horribly steep. I had no arm strength and no technique to compensate. Stuck too far above protection, fight­ing the hysterical sewing machine judder of my legs, clawing frantically with numb fingers, I hung on for ages, whimpering at the prospect of limb-smash­ing spikes on the belay ledge beneath, before fi­nally dredging up some precious reserves of adrenaline to scrabble up the last moves to safety.

I'm not sure I could cope with that level of fear now. At the time it was a therapeutic opportunity to triumph over my own weakness and the victory was deliciously sweet, restoring some much needed self respect. I can remember those sensa­tions vividly but details of the actual climb are vague and I'm ashamed to say that I have forgotten which fellow undergraduate it was who witnessed my solipsistic jibbering. In other words, there's not really an article's worth of material. So I am going to fast forward 20 years to a very different VS ex­perience. On this late summer day in 1994 there was no epic, no cold-sweat-fear, no victorious ca­tharsis but the route was a classic and it was made specially memorable by my companion for the day, an old friend and neighbour, Mike Banks.

At 71 he was still horribly energetic. Wrecker's Slab, a famous VS on the wild north coast of Devon, was to be his final limbering up before a charity ascent of the Old Man of Hoy. As we drove down the M5 he remarked cheerfully: "I bet Bonington can't wait for me to kick the bucket so that I don't clutter up the Golden Oldie media slot." I asked if he was going to write his memoirs: "I'd love to, but I'll have to wait until quite a few retired generals have fallen off their perch or they'll all be sueing me." Rebellious, provocative, impatient of author­ity, he used sometimes, like that other great icono­clast John Barry, to be a thorn in the flesh of the Royal Marines. However, after wartime service in the Far East, he found his niche in Cornwall as a climbing instructor in the cliff assault wing and be­came one of the great aficionados of South West climbing. One of his juniors was a young naval doc­tor called Tom Patey, and it was with him in 1958 that Banks made the first ascent of one of the world's highest and most beautiful peaks, Rakaposhi.

Like so many Himalayan summits, Rakaposhi was snatched at the eleventh hour, in this case on the second expedition Mike had led to the moun­tain. The weather was lousy and by all normal cri­teria the two men at the top camp should have gone down, but as Mike recalled: "I'd invested two years in this mountain. It was probably our last chance and we had to get up the bloody thing." So they went for it, boldly, and got away with it,escaping with just a touch of frostbite. "And what about The Doctor," I asked, "how did you get on?" "Oh, he was a lively, talkative, irreverent sort of bloke. We were bound to get on well."

It was the same doctor, the incomparable ex­plorer, Patey, whose route we had gone to climb. Wrecker's Slab, in 1959, was one of the first explo­rations on the Culm — the unique rock of North Devon, laid down millions of years ago as mud, then squeezed, compressed and solidified to slaty consistency, folded, twisted and finally forced up into the tilted slabs which now brood over the Atlantic. Wrecker's is the largest of several over­lapping slabs, faintly reminiscent of Cloggy's West Buttress, which form the headland of Cornakey Cliff. lain Peters, in his admirably idiosyncratic guide to North Devon and Cornwall, pays fulsome trib­ute to the first ascensionists — his grandfather, Admiral Lowder, Zeke Deacon and Tom Patey, 'who had all the necessary qualifications for success; experience on loose rock, ability and, uniquely, a robust, individualistic, almost "buccaneering" approach to climbing in the finest tradition'.Inspired by those stirring words, Banks and I left the car and headed across the fields under a darkening sky.

Rain began to fall as we geared up at the top of the cliff, so we waited under a wind-bent hawthorn. Mike ruminated about a Quaker friend: "I don't think much of religion but at least these chaps have lots of silence — very conducive to thought' while I got out my camera for some stock shots of the thinker, enjoying an all too rare moment of silence, under a crown of thorns. Then the rain slowed down to a drizzle and we headed down, seaward.

The sea was a wonderful sculpture of glisten­ing pebbles. Fronded fins of culm stretched jagged out to sea, like Chaucer's 'grizzly, fiendish, blacke rockes' and one could imagine the wreckers at dead of night, with their deceiving lanterns, luring un­wary ships to disaster. But we were there by day, the drizzle had stopped and within minutes the slab's sheen had evaporated. Banks led the first awkward step off the beach (which turned out to be the hardest move in all of the 400ft of the climb) and we were away.After the great build up of legend and tradition the route was, dare I say it, a little bit disappoint­ing.

By the second pitch Banks was muttering: "Don't think much of that, certainly not VS. Still, it is the biggest sea cliff route in England." And even if the moves did seem disappointingly easy, the at­mosphere on that great tilted sweep of culm, speck­led orange with lichen, sprouting translucent re­mains of spring's pinks and still juicily pungent samphire, with the turquoise ocean far below, breaking white on the boulders, was truly exhila­rating.And, even if time and experience has tamed the route, it is still no place for complacency; any one of the thousands of slaty tiles which corrugate its surface might break off without warning and, as the admiral's grandson warns, protection is indeed sparse.

The sun was now bright, with that special clar­ity of early autumn and both of us were busy pho­tographing. Banks, ever image conscious, wished that he had left his helmet behind: "I'm making a cottage industry out being a wrinkly; my white hair is my most valuable feature," but he still looked quite striking with his bushy Asterix moustache. A moment later, with uncanny coincidence, we found a little white-haired gnome wedged in a crack. I stuck it for a moment on Banks's head, then put it respectfully back in its crack, wondering what Friendless wag had brought it up there for protec­tion. Another long, sunny pitch and we were on top, following a final arete till it merged with the green and russet cliff top.

The rain returned so we re­treated to the Morwenstowe pub, where I ordered a pint of the excellent local bitter and Mike asked smugly for an alcohol free lager. "It helps the arthtitis." I could easily have stayed all afternoon, sinking into a beery stupor but the breezy teeto­taller suggested that while the weather made up its mind we should visit the church, a Culm mas­terpiece, fortified in places by foreign Dartmoor granite. The Saxon font, Norman dogstooth arches and intricate 16th century wood carving testified to centuries of continuity at this ancient place of worship, making a mockery of our frivolous pastime on the rocks below but we were ostensibly there to climb, so as soon as the sun re-emerged we headed back to the cliffs.

We finished the day at Oldwall's Point, on an almost Alpine arete above a huge expanse of glit­tering ocean, with Banks posed patiently for hack­neyed silhouttes against the westering sun. A few days later he established his new age record for the Old Man of Hoy and raised a large sum of money for his Quaker friend's charity. I had longer to wait for my next climb but that seemed pretty unimportant after such a wonderful day out on the incomparable Culm cliffs of north Devon.

The Culm Coast:JA

Stephen Venables:

First Published in High 166

Friday 7 March 2014

The Atholl Expedition...Review

The Atholl Expedition is Alex Roddie’s follow up to his well received ‘The Only Genuine Jones’ although a short novella-Crowley’s Revenge- preceded this latest work.

This was something of a rare excursion for me in the field of mountain based literature in that I don’t tend to read that much fiction these days. Certainly not works set in the first part of the 19th century. However, I was aware that Alex is someone who had immersed himself in the culture and social history of the period, and furthermore, as  the original ‘Glencoe Mountaineer’, he had a deep passion and appreciation of all aspects of Scottish mountaineering. The signs and feedback were overwhelmingly positive, so with great expectations I sallied forth into the Cairngorms with Alex as my guide.

The Atholl Expedition is essentially centred around the passions which drive men to undertake challenges and adventures which are physically and emotionally charged with risk and an uncertain outcome. The book is concentrated around two contrasting variations of that theme. The first, to stalk and kill  the great stag, ‘Damh-mor’. A  living Monarch of the Glen; a creature of flesh and myth pursued by the Prince Consort Albert and his retinue. A quest that will take them far beyond the confines of the Atholl estate, and into the vastness of the wild Cairngorm mountain range where winter storms, hunger and physical exhaustion await. The second quest sees Professor Forbes- a real life Victorian glacierologist- gambling his fragile health on the discovery of a mysterious lost glacier which had somehow remained undetected in a remote corrie high up amongst the endless folds and depressions within the vast Cairngorm range.

With remarkable prescience, just as the book was being released, the news pages in the UK were detailing scientific reports that glaciers may have existed in the Cairngorms up untilthe 18th century. I’m sure the author couldn’t have wished for a more serendipitous turn of events to compliment the novel’s launch!

Without detailing every twist and turn of the tale, suffice it to say that the author has done his homework  surrounding his characters’ lives and the world they inhabit. Bringing  to life the appalling inequalities within the Scottish social system at the time. A period where the Highland clearances still cast a long shadow and landowners like the vile Duke of Atholl still had the power of life and death over his minions. Casting entire families into the dark maw of poverty, forced emigration and starvation on a whim of displeasure or profit driven estate management. To this end, Alex has created the McAdie’s. The elder, Alec McAdie being a forester and stalker who is charged by the Duke with delivering ‘Dahm-mor’ to the Prince at all costs; young Duncan, the ambitious son who sees his future far from the feudal estate,and Gail McAdie; the quiet but indestructible mother who holds the family together.

I was impressed with imaginative way the author brought together quite a sizable cast list which also included a treacherous German ‘Jaeger’, a maverick student and a respected academic, and worked each character into the story in a way that each became an indispensable and coherent part of the greater work. Often a book carrying a lot of characters can become a confusing  puzzle as the reader keeps reappraising just who is who? The descriptive passages as each party make their way through the mountains in the teeth of a storm, are, as you would expect from someone with Alex’s mountaineering pedigree, always vividly drawn and with the power to engage the senses.

Altogether, a compelling and imaginative work. The Atholl Expedition is the first book in the ‘Alpine Dawn’ series of novels promised by the author and is available as a paperback or digital download from Amazon.