Wednesday 28 January 2015

String of Pearls

The sun cut through the mist and our senses were blunted by the technicolour glare. The plaques of granite became a gaudy mosaic across the face, and the String of Pearls acquired a lustre to match its name. To be frank, the Bosigran Girdle needs the magical touch of the sun, just as jewels need bright lights to sparkle. At risk of heresy it must be said that girdle traverses can be very boring indeed, and the middle sections of this one all but founder in the complex folds of granite. But not the start.

 At the right-hand end of the main cliff there juts a magnificent set-square of overhang, beneath which the early pitches nestle. Damp whiteness clamped the rock in cold monochrome as we swung on the Bow Wall. Some way across it the enfilading thrust of the sun flared on to the cliff. Our parting memories of Bow Wall were of granite as yellow as Catinaccio limestone, and of the 'Coalface’ slab of Suicide Wall glistening like newly spread tar.

And the rock was so hard. Three days on Bosigran had not lessened our wonder at its bruising density, as numbed Easter fingers, grown careless on more gentle,northern stones, came off the holds polished and raw. From a splendid pedestal stance in the middle of Suicide Wall, the great plates of granite pucker into a complex cluster of ribs and bays.

From this point the tempo changes completely, in a way that would have alarmed Glenn Miller, from one of whose titles Goodier and Deacon are reputed to have named the climb. Hitherto the scale and style of the surroundings have overwhelmed the deficiencies in detailed interest. Now, sustained only by what they can offer in climbing detail, the next four pitches are found wanting. Even the crux, a difficult and exasperating teeter across a very steep slab, is totally isolated in this confused and mediocre zone from those parts of the cliff which would give it real dignity.

It is in crossing Raven’s Wall, whose total height is only 120 ft that String of Pearls gets it together again. An overhanging fist of rock presses the route to within 40ft. Of the ground; encirclement of the knuckles provides a marvellous and disturbingly exposed 70ft. pitch. Tiny overlapping slabs lead to a steeply dropping hand traverse round the lowest forefinger of white granite; then the painful certainty of tired hands, thrusting deep into dirty cracks, brings this strenuous section to an end.

 As is so often the case,powerful rock architecture invests the lines that pass it with something of its majesty. The last pitch is delicate, unprotected and very lovely. For the first time the foreground is not the toy cove and picture-book island of Porthmoina, but the dramatic silhouette of the Seaward Cliff, creaming out of the Atlantic. The convex bulges glisten with a silvery, slickered sheen,roughened in striding sequence with a regularity unequalled by any human step-chopper.

The last pitch of Beaker Route completes the girdle, after 750ft. Of sustained, varied and often strenuous climbing. Regard the route as being like a rather dusty stretch of road, with the Bow and Raven Wall sections representing two automatic car-washers at either end, whose atmospheric drenchings erase enough of the journey’s grime to make String of Pearls fit for inclusion in this book.

Dave Cook

This article was intended for inclusion in ’Hard Rock’ but was omitted. Hence the reference to 'book' at the end. Like the essays in 'Hard Rock’ this piece highlights descriptive personal writing which seems so lacking in the magazines.

** After failing to make the cut for Hard Rock, Dave's article eventually appeared in Crags32. 

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Letter to Jeanette

Coniston Fells: Original painting-Delmar Harmood-Banner 1938

Arthritis Cottage,



Dear Jeanette,

I am sorry...I apologise. I feel desolate. I did not mean to make you unhappy with what I said about your soloing Hopkinson’s Crack on Dow Crag. I never imagined you would flounce out of the climbing shop as you did, slamming the door and making us squirm with embarrassment. We Brits dislike scenes. I was clearly the culprit. “She didn’t like that,” said Julia,wrapping a pair of Huecos at the till. No, clearly you didn’t. Yet I had meant well.

Jeanette is, of course, no more your name than Arthritis Cottage is my address. But you know me - or should do by now. (When was it we last climbed together on Dow- 1953 ? I simply can’t take things seriously. But I feel serious enough to want to protect your identity as I try to make up for my calamitous mistake. In those days Dow Crag was a giant place. Still is: an eyrie of the mountain gods; its ramparts the kind that make the climber’s heart skip a beat when seen from deep in the valley near Torver, or high on the footpath from Coniston. The times our bunch from Ladnek had on Dow! Was there ever a dull moment? Unlike today where the po-faced reign.

So you see, Jeanette, my memories are fond ones, treasured from an age ago when everything was sunlight and laughter, when you were a leading light. You in your shorts and long brown legs, joyfully and outrageously- for that time - soloing Hopkinson’s Crack. When I introduced you to Julia thus, I was re-living my golden and most affectionate moments of climbing innocence.

Your angry rejoinder that “Tony may live in the past but I prefer to live in the present!”, not to mention your double-quick exit through the door - saddened me utterly. Everyone looked so accusingly at me. Perhaps Jeanette, for all your success as head one of the biggest British branches of an international organisation, you regret that you’re no longer climbing. Possibly it’s too painful to bring back those days when your hair was a cap of blondest curls and when the sun blazed like a blowtorch, heating the rock on which you smeared so daringly in your Woolworth’s rubbers. If that is the case, then is it any wonder my words struck such a painful chord?

Hopkinson’s Crack rockets into the air from the depths of the Amphitheatre – an unusual feature for Dow, where many routes climb exposed battlements, busy with climbers at weekends. How different is the setting for those solos of Hoppy’s you did! Grim, silent walls surround you on either side. Just to reach the foot of the crack seemed an expedition, about that time when Everest was climbed, as we cranked fearfully up into the Amphitheatre past the massive boulder jammed in Easter Gully; or instead descended into its bottomless pit from the steep end of Easy Terrace, tricounis  grating on wet rock.

The situation of Hopkinson’s Crack graded Hard Severe but verging on VS – is galactic. On the left is the mendacious pillar of Great Central Route, while on the right is Black Wall. How your heart must have raced when soloing: especially when you drew level with the small rock stance and the crux of Hopkinson’s loomed overhead. 

You were climbing a deep cleft until then, but at this point your world fell away. I seem to remember you climbed the right wall, heart stopping in its exposure. The alternative is to climb the crack, bridging occasionally, reaching and reaching again, up past the big hex that fits so snugly in the back, to where many (including me) make an inglorious landing on the Bandstand.

Climbing solo though, you bypassed this famous haven and continued straight on up the crack, the next pitch an arrow-straight skyshot offering bridging that is exquisite. Is it surprising, therefore, you might now regret no longer doing what you once did with such elan and such prowess?

In those days,Jeanette, routes like Eliminate A and Murray’s Direct were a world away. But possibly you went on to do both before you hung up your rubbers and wet day socks. I sincerely hope so, for they are also quite magical. I climbed them first in the 1960’s. But they are the kind of routes you would so enjoy: the best sort in the world. Eliminate A, to start with, pierces the front of the great buttress on the left, its bigness on a par with that of Notre Dame. A smooth wall is shaded by a slanting roof, continuing above like a great rock prow. That any VS can breach its front is unthinkable. Yet Eliminate A does just that, with four particularly memorable pitches. The first runs out 90 feet of rope above the depths of Great Gully, leering up at the intrepid leader engrossed in placing his gear; layaways and rockovers, the kind at which you used to excel, dear Jeanette, coming at you faster than you can stop them.

The shelf below the Rochers Perchers pitch arrives as a welcome refuge, but the take-off up the next mauvais pas comes as a shock; so overhung you stay dry in the rain, you are soon above a chuteful of thin air. Here is where Neil Allinson felt himself  slipping down the crag and realised the block he was pulling on ( one of the heavy Rochers Perchers themselves) was slowly sliding down towards him. Have you met Neil? He’s the coal miner who inadvertently pulled the Rochers Perches off; said it was like the pit roof coming down in Eldon Drift Colliery, Co. Durham.

The third of Eliminate A’s great pitches is the next one, slanting up leftwards beneath the great roof and using the edge of a crack as a handrail, made all the more enthralling for its lack of gear especially as you pull through and over onto the steep slab above - which is the fourth pitch of note. And what an immaculate pitch it is! A rising traverse on the very lip of the roof which has shadowed you for so long, with nothing but outer space below.

On you climb, up and up past the steepest rock, with holds and runners always coming. There’s a further pitch above, but it’s difficult to trace. The crack of Aréte, Chimney and Crack is a popular finish however.And then Murray’s Direct, the third of this trio of three-star routes. Then, when we used to stash our Bergen sacks under the cave on the scree, bouldering on the nail-worn slab immediately behind (4b today), I never dreamed that one day I, too would climb the inexorably smooth slab of Tiger Traverse - let alone the imperial line above: a magnificent corner hooded by overhangs and the essence of perpendicularity. Yet that is Murray’s Direct.

The Tiger Traverse slab is so tilted, the climber feels about to be tipped off onto the horrific landing below, gnarly jagged rocks and all. But wait. Today’s gear saves the day. Wires and Friends fit into a horizontal break immediately above the step up from a pointed flake, the next moves up and away also being protected by a further placement before the padding starts. Then happy holds are here again.

Tiger Traverse over, the open-book corner above is positively inviting. There  are beautiful holds for bridging; everything is so steep. But this is only the link pitch. The crux is still above, the corner itself deepening and  cowled with overhangs. Glance down between your legs as you bridge out above the tiny stance and it’s spit-straight to the screes. Then the immediate climbing has all your attention. Is it a layback, or a jamming crack, or will you bridge it as well? So near the belay, yet so wonderfully poised in such an outlandish position, it has seen the drying of the saliva glands inside many a leader’s mouth - that sure symptom of apprehension. No spitting now: at least not until relief once more flows through the body as you bridge and bridge again to reach better holds and begin to feel you are winning.

Shielded from the sun after mid-day but bathed in it before, Murray’s Direct is a well-protected line, complementing superbly both Eliminate A and, dear Jeanette, that climb I always associate with you, Hopkinson’s Crack. Whether you ever return to the rock or not (and surely it’s never too late, looking as fit as you do)  I can only wish you the very best. And hope you will now realise that whenever I might have so innocently gone on about  Hopkinson’s in the past, I saw it as a landmark to cherish rather than the reverse. A beacon in the light as the years roll by. We all need them. 

Take care then, Jeanette. Fight gravity  in all its insidious forms. There are so many straight faces around today, not to mention individuals with independent “miens”. Wherever did light-heartedness go?

All love and best wishes,

Yours affectionately,

Antonio (and his ice cream kart).

Antonio Frascarti:First published in Climber April 1992 

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Ken Wilson....The man who gave us Mountain

I first met Ken Wilson at the foot of Pontesbury Needle, at the very spot to which Drummond, like Icarus, fell. It seemed somehow prophetic. After ticking the crag, we adjourned to the pub for a few beers. Subsequently we argued vehemently for nearly three hours in an empty car park while a silvery moon threw eerie shadows across Nesscliffe. Ironically we were on the same side.

Mention the W word in climbing circles and it's likely you'll invite a peevish response, typically from those who have never even met him. He's a maniac, he's a fundamentalist, he's an iconoclast, he's visceral.  Well indeed he is all of these and more... so much more.

At heart I suspect Ken is a figure of the 1960s, that vast, sprawling decade which indiscriminately spewed out so much good and bad that history couldn't help but be changed irrevocably. Certainly he emerged from that time, this architecture student turned photographer of crags and climbers, this courtier to those who once were young kings.

In the first age where the medium could be the message, Wilson, with a single Promethean bound, transformed Mountain Craft into Mountain. It no longer mattered whether you lived in Southport or Seattle. With Mountain, you were plugged into a global network spanning continents and eras, outcrops, big walls and great ranges. If there had been a mission statement for Mountain, surely it would have read, 'mountains and men who matter'. Unashamed elitism from a didactic autocrat?

Well unsnap the ring binders and consider those first 60 or so issues from over 40 years ago and what do you find?  Classic, after classic, after classic. The great routes, the great personalities, the great debates. As Flaubert noted aptly, 'You don't make art through good intentions.' Good intentions, yes... but there must also be iron in the soul. And Wilson fashioned Mountain from a motherlode.

However much Mountain changed our lives, for Wilson it could never have been enough. I suspect that for Wilson there will never be enough, the next horizon remorselessly spurs him onward, he is perennially taunted by great ranges which he may never reach. The Black Cliff, which he co-authored with Jack Soper and Pete Crew, hinted at what was to come. Looking back, it seems remarkable that a whole book could have unashamedly been devoted to a single crag, Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, of significant interest only to climbers, and been prominently displayed in city centre bookshops. With Wilson's inspirational photographic sequence of Drummond running it out on Great Wall, modernism in climbing image triumphantly emerged from the swirling mists of the myth-enshrouded past.

A few years later, The Black Cliff's celebratory promise of word and image was fully realised when Hard Rock, the volume most likely to be found on any climber's bookshelf, appeared. At once a hymn to the visual, the visceral and the cerebral, it's 57 essays about major British routes gave us unforgettable images. Perrin's dalliance with Right Unconquerable was a paean of sensual pleasure, whereas Drummond's haunting refrain for Great Wall and its lonely progenitor rings forever in our ears. 'Lovely boy, Crew, arrow climber. Wall without end.'

Games Climbers Play, the classic anthology of mountain literature, came next. So many outstanding writers were represented that to single out any of them seems invidious. But again Perrin featured strongly and again Drummond's sporadic genius soared. Mirror Mirror, the great wall which so nearly proved his nemesis, is one of the most profound studies of  obsession ever written. It touched the essential sickness which inhabits many climbers' souls. And it depicted climbing as a fire which can purify, a rite of passage by which we may possibly be redeemed.

While Mirrors in The Cliffs, Classic Rock and Extreme Rock consolidated Games and Hard Rock, Wilson was already racing ahead with Diadem, his own publishing house. Again the mission statement might have read, 'mountains and men who matter'. Bonington, Boardman, Messner, Roskelley, Saunders, Scott, Shipton, Venables and many, many more formed a distinctive roll call of the illustrious.

Yet as essentially a one-man business, no matter how successful, Diadem was always vulnerable. Its assimilation into Hodder & Stoughton gave Wilson considerably enhanced publishing clout. Hodder Headline's subsequent rejection of mountaineering literature as a significant concern was the stuff of 1990s publishing drama. Within four days of his corporate chains snapping, Wilson had another publishing house, Bâton Wicks, up and running. His declared aim was, 'to publish the best in mountaineering literature'. Same message, different format. Again there were to be the great names, the great ranges, the great deeds. And again there were innovative writers such as Paul Pritchard and Dermot Somers. Whatever you may feel about Wilson, be in no doubt – he takes publishing risks. And we benefit.

But what are we to feel about Wilson?  Confusingly perhaps, there are so many Wilsons. There was Wilson the courtier of yore, who became Wilson the king-maker. There was Wilson the photographer, whose compositions of crags such as Cloggy and Gogarth reveal an architectural simplicity of line which has probably never been bettered. There was Wilson whose Mountain helped shape our perceptions of all mountains. There was Wilson who demonstrated the potentially infinite variety of Games Climbers Play. There was Wilson of Hard Rock, Wilson of Diadem and now of  Bâton Wicks.

There is Wilson the ceaseless archivist of climbing history. There is Wilson the polemicist, unsparing and unyielding as he grapples with the great debates. There is Wilson the climber, a soldier of the middle grades. There is Wilson the mountaineering politician, merciless in his pursuit of what seems the greater good. There is Wilson the businessman, who takes considerable risks with climbing writing, is canny with money yet meticulously pays his bills. There is Wilson the friend, unexpectedly considerate in one who possesses not a jot of sentimentality. There is Wilson the dutiful family man. There is Wilson the iconoclast, his iconoclasm consistently invalidating establishment status. There is Wilson, not an original thinker (Mountain, Hard Rock and Games Climbers Play all had their less-heralded precursors) but a consummate shaper of ideas. Above all, there is Wilson the man who delivers. That motherlode of iron runs deep and far and wide.

God knows, mountaineering has thrown up more than its fair share of quirks, maniacs and oddballs. But what in heaven's name have we done to deserve Wilson? Bolts at Harpur Hill, trees in Cheedale, guidebooks in Pembroke, lower-offs in Lancashire quarries, ethics at indoor climbing walls, something else, something else, something else...  Will Ken ever shut up?

No he won't. And nor should he. Because Ken, however much he may rant, is truly the Jonathan Swift of our time. That such an extraordinary creature should have emerged from the climbing world should be cause for celebration, not confusion.

When Ken sights along the line of truth, he has 20:20 vision. It's less easy for the rest of us, who tend to be misty-eyed with misgivings and, when we eventually manage to focus, often don't like what we see. Ken's devotion to the truth is unswerving.

When you stand back and try to add it all up, you find that Ken has given so much to mountaineering that it's well-nigh incalculable. Why does he do it?  Who knows? It's his belly and it's his rat. But for as long as we are content to live with the convenient popular caricature, we are blinding ourselves to a visionary in our midst.
Photo: Ian Smith

© Mick Ward, 1997.  First published in Climber, September 1997.

Sunday 4 January 2015

How to get killed in the Alps

Getting killed in the Alps is becoming rapidly an international mania. This is evidenced by the statistics of the Swiss Alpine Club, already quoted, showing that last year 165 tourists and guides somehow managed to break their necks, while the number of wounded, those who managed only to break something,arms, legs or ribs - is quite beyond compute. The periodic massacre is due largely to the fact that alpine dangers are unseen. On the sea shore, for instance, sane persons who cannot swim would not think of bathing in a rough sea, for the sight and roar of the waves terrifies them. In the Alps it is just the contrary, for nature, it would seem, takes pains to cover the deadly crevasses with thin snow bridges and avalanches come down without warning where the novice would least expect them. The most beautiful alpine flowers, too, contrive to bloom overhanging the most perilous abysses.

Some years ago it was the elite which climbed, while the man-in-the-street stayed in the street, or looked at the mountains from his hotel window. Now it is a mad scramble of a hundred thousand souls to reach some snow-capped summit. As most of these know nothing of the techniques of getting killed, the following rules may be of service, and are easily memorized: A fascinating way is to go and pick edelweiss; To pluck it one must approach from above. Descend slowly, therefore, clinging to some small shrub. If a passing guide chances to call warning, reply that you know what you are about, and that tourists, as well as guides, have a right to pick alpine flowers. Lean slightly over the precipice- and as one hand grasps the alluring bloom, with the other hand pull on the shrub, which will come loose, roots and all! There will be a grating sound of loose,moving rock, the overhanging ledge will cave in,and one may soar, edelweiss in hand, into the void below.

There will be three lines in the newspapers about it, and a caravan of expert guides will find the body. Climbing without guides is why so many Germans and Austrians succeed – vide statistics - while English and Americans somehow, unfortunately, cannot get over the habit of choosing always the best ones. Eighty per cent of the fatalities occur to tourists climbing without guides. Signor Cumani, an Italian artist, started to climb Mont Blanc alone twenty years ago and he has never been heard of since. M. H. N. Riegel, from Philadelphia, in 1898, also attempted Mont Blanc alone, and guides found his body later on the Glacier de Miage, to which he had fallen from several thousand feet above. 

Sitting down in avalanche paths is sometimes effective. A friend of mine, dispensing with guides, climbed up above Pierre Pointue on the route up Mont Blanc and deliberately sat down quietly to lunch in a gully where avalanches come down off the Aiguille du Midi every fifteen minutes. Suddenly the air was filled with singing,flying stones and ice, the velocity making the smaller stones invisible. He failed to get hit, however, and disgusted, leaving everything behind, fled to Pierre Pointue, where he recommenced with absinthe cocktails.
Climbing without heavily-nailed boots, too, has its advantages. An American, who considered it commonplace to ascend Mont Blanc like everybody else, tried it with patent leather shoes. At the "Jonction" of the Glaciers des Bossons and de Taconnaz he slipped into a crevasse, dragging with him an English friend. Guides had great difficulty in getting them out. Hot words followed the cool crevasse, and the two Anglo-Saxons, each blaming the other for what had happened, indulged in a warm pugilistic encounter in the snow. But for being attached to the guides by rope both men might to-day be buried somewhere in the glacier.

The famous guide, Emile Rey, of Courmayeur, lost his life on the Dent du Géant by neglecting to renew some worn nails. He was descending with Mr A. C. Roberts, an English climber, and as the weather was growing bad, they unroped so as to move quicker. In descending a chimney Rey jumped to a narrow shelf covered with small pebbles, when his feet went out from under him and he fell over 600ft. His body was found and brought to Courmayeur two days later. Nothing is easier than falling over a precipice. Guides say that if a tourist has a tendency to vertigo he should confine his ascension to peaks frequented by cows. To get killed, therefore, the alpinist with vertigo should tackle the Matterhorn, Schreckhorn, or the Aiguille Verte. 

While it lasts the sensation of falling several thousand feet must be extraordinary. Dr Cauro, an alpinist, broke his neck falling off the Montagne de la Cote, a goat-frequented buttress of Mont Blanc; while a French actress, in 1902, trying to be polite, was instantly killed on the Mauvais Pas, by the side of the Mer de Glace, while attempting to pass outside when she met a party coming in the contrary direction. In case of passing beneath a forest fire on a mountain side, stop and have a look at the thick yellow spirals of ascending smoke. In an amazingly short time the roots of the trees burn, releasing the stones lodged between them, and these, falling, bombard the footpaths below. By watching the fire from an exposed vantage point the spectator will be hit squarely in the face by a twenty-pounder and his body will be recognized later by visiting-cards, which, by the way, every novice should carry in his pocket.

Do not bother about heavy underwear, double pairs of socks, mittens and dark goggles when going above the snow-line. If the sun shines one may go blind, and, therefore, more easily fall over a precipice. In case of bad weather coming on suddenly, as it often does, one can freeze in a very short time. It is said to be a delicious, drowsy death. A party of three English and American tourists, with eight guides, during bad weather froze on Mont Blanc, and ten days later, when the storm abated, watchers below with telescopes saw them sitting dead in the snow.

Making rash glissades is a method adopted sometimes even by experienced alpinists. The glissade starts in sunshine in fairly soft snow, but in passing swiftly from sunshine into shadow, where the snow is freezing, one encounters an icy crust, and there is no possible way of stopping. With one swoop one goes until he strikes the wall of a crevasse or bergschrund, and then well, it does not matter.

Persons addicted to heart trouble should undertake violent exertion and quick changes of atmospheric pressure. It may put an end to their trouble. For the same reasons those without physical force to resist fatigue and cold weather should undertake long climbs. This is a tiresome end, however, and the least desirable. Getting struck by lightning is not so easy. The unhappy porter, Casoli, who was struck on the summit of Mont Blanc and charred from head to foot, lived three days. The guide Joseph Simond, also, was killed by lightning while descending the Aiguille du Geant with the guide Joseph Ravanel and M Fontaine, the celebrated French alpinist. Simond was the only one carrying an ice-axe. Take note, therefore, tourists, and when in the midst of an electrical disturbance seize the steel ice-axe!

Breaking rope played a fatal part in the catastrophe on the Matterhorn when Lord Francis Douglas and three others were killed. Moral: Do not take old rope, for it might not break. Falling stones have killed more than one in the Alps. In the early morning, when everything is frozen tight, falling stones are rare. It is in the afternoon, when the sun is melting hot, that the silence is continuously broken by their dropping. Amateurs when amusing themselves in such places should do so in the afternoon when the sun is hot!

 Finally, in choosing a guide for excursions always take an inveterate drinker. Dr Hunter Workman, the famous Himalayan explorer, told me not long ago that when in the Alps he unwittingly was fortunate enough to get caught in a difficult passage with one who was taken with delirium tremens. Dr Workman, although he turned guide, failed to get killed, and has not yet forgotten his sensation.

For those who know nothing of the mountains, and who continue lusting for the flesh-pots, there is left always the climbing receipt of Mark Twain: Hotel veranda! Bottle of whisky! Telescope!

Frederick Burlingham: 'How to become an Alpinist' (1914)