Friday 24 April 2015

Alternative Slate


Geography mutates inhabitants: the quarrymen, generation upon generation, dug in, taking hits and diminishing the mountain for the demanded slate; day after day, lung after lung, producing a lethal strain in the indigenous population. A package deal of volatile deliverance and bought pleasure from Ebenezer's Kingdom. Time left those dusty appendages and tale full jars to eke out in some other field. They left a huge dead quarry, into which the micro-quarrymen came; reluctantly at first, to work and play and exert their recreational rules, and again, to become prey to a different sort of mutation — a more intellectual, dare I say, "artistic" Manic Strain!

The rock-climbers, tier upon tier of them, are the micro-quarrymen, milling about their business on the faces and slabs, like termites — feeling and probing. The demand to cap roofs around the world, has left this place a climbers' paradise, or perhaps a climbers' dungeon?  A dungeon of climbers, some touching, some hacking this friable substance — some tentative, some robustly forging lines — exerting their own character on the structure left behind. "Love Sculpture" as someone put it! Creative sculpture does exist here — it's also matched by blatant thuggery.

There are no rules for production here. There are no lines drawn between the poet exercising his urge and a team of navvies next door, hell bent on ascent! Each justifies their Strain. The difference between a wall where there was nothing, carefully chipped to produce a series of moves that give the discerning "dancer" unsurpassed climbing pleasure.....Manic Strain, E7 6b/c and a climbable line, cleaned and chipped to produce an easier route for the first ascentionist, lies in the former being a series of subtle, aesthetic changes, that neither looks, nor feels, chipped, as opposed to blatantly produced jugs.

Both are bolt protected, and both valid. This is the essence of the quarry activity. The movement is constant and without constraint. It is both honest and deceiving; both aesthetic and ugly. Just like the light on wet, varnished slate clearly defines shape upon shape and changing depths of reflected colour from strange sources. It cannot stand still — it is with the stroke of movement. As for the mentality, it is obvious. A tiny flake is levered off whilst cleaning, producing a better hold or nothing at all. On the former you make it secure, and give it the wire; but on the latter, you could have a choice? You want the line to go, it's yours, a lot of effort, the expense of bolts — you say, "it will go", and depending on the `strain' acting on you, a hold is chipped, or you can leave it for someone better? This choice, brought about by Slate's limited, but intense history, just isn't applicable.

This isn't Clogwyn du Arddu. We are here on what's left of the destruction of a hillside- a mountain — you don't even consider the environment. This is "all the throes of climbing pleasure", unrestricted amidst a moraine of slate debris, of oil drums and iron bars, skeletal machinery and stacks of discarded nude books. There cannot be any respect for the rock, giving unlimited lines from the Lake Padarn to the clouds. Will it hell be left for someone better — the better are too busy doing their own thing, and anyway, you, already have a name for it! Do you not find this sinister in its possible encroachment down the Pass? There is room here for conjecture. Like the lad who's just started climbing — straight into slate, on an abseil rope, with tools and excavating equipment, producing minor routes, with no experience, or "apprenticeship", no feel of what's gone before, and elsewhere. Caught by colour and proximity, dug the style, and hitched straight in.

Could there be a strange, twisted analogy here of a quarryman's son, destined to spend his days with the dust, with like-minded disinterested in the Welsh mountain surroundings. A slate breed- a mutant. Differing circumstances, differing strains-same quarry: Right here on the ravaged hillside, in a throw from Pete's Eats are ten-fold “Cloggy's", from Dinorwig's Big Hole and of above, down through Australia, and Dali's dip to California — to Serengetti, tier upon tier down to the Rainbow Slab Area, and in across, and down inclines to the more accessible Vivian Quarry. Yawn! Don't relax there’s a Steerpike around every corner.

A lot of unstable characters play out their visions and anarchy here; one indeed seems to forget the 'link' with climbing. Tests indeed. Offset and lethal waves fusing out of the surroundings — characters can be changed and possessed as easily as winding up a Power Station official. Perhaps from a fictitious "Arfonwy Roberts", bent double in 1806, for the pleasure of some unknown "Dust Queen", high up in a tunnel near the Big Hole. Lines were lost, goitres were brown — a strain embedded into the rock — their character and lives permeated into every fought for vein; its greyness exuding their dangerous misery.

John Redhead on 'Menstrual Gossip-E7

The pounding of ancient powdery hard-ons in remote cutting sheds (listen) — cut-throats and camaraderie, of manhood, the depraved and the proud. All etched indelibly for your young prancing limbs on smooth slabs. And the climbers, so young with the dust they haven't learned to cry yet. But each one that steps up the tiers or inclines, and jokes along the levels, as before, is tracing a destiny; is being absorbed by the oozing spirit of this place — in dark cave, or hanging flake, the clanging of real men about their work, with their problems and perversions, is stilled before them — ever-present and affecting. Varnished by rain, or dulled by dust — You can skip out — a mutant at every level. May the Manic Strain be with you. 

John Redhead : First published in Climber-Nov86. Photos JR collection unless stated.

Photos available from JohnRedhead Org

Friday 17 April 2015

Long Views in the Hills

Cross Fell: Delmar Harmood Banner. "Perhaps the worst viewpoint in England' HG. Image Lakeland Arts Trust.

Ever since a sparkling August dawn in 1930 when two of us, after a night on the summit, saw- unmistakably, on the far northern, western and southern horizons- the mountains of Scotland, Ireland and Wales from the top of Scafell, I have been interested in long mountain views. Many of us have caught glimpses of extremely distant peaks from alpine summits or seen the far Himalayas- almost unbelievably high in the sky- from Indian hill stations, but it is more the inter-visibility of British hills that fascinates me nowadays. How far can we see in the hills on the very clearest days? What are the maximum visual contacts from our highest mountains? Can you see right across England, from sea to sea, from any mountain top?

Towards the end of our appallingly wet Lake District summer I had a letter from a friend reporting "an unbelievable view, from sea to sea" from the scarcely-obvious viewpoint of Nine Standards Rigg above Kirkby Stephen. Perched on this modest two-thousander, close to its line of Dalek-like stone cairns, he was sure he could pick out both the Solway Firth to the north-west and Hartlepool power station on the east coast and, since there are long valleys down which to peer on either side, I'm sure this is perfectly feasible. Indeed, Kipling has a character in Puck of Pook's Hill claiming to have seen both seas from some Pennine height and, if you work it out, you will find that the theoretical maximum distance for inter-visibility between the Rigg and sea-level is something like 65 miles —quite far enough to reach the coast on either side.

Further, it should be possible to see the top of any other two-thousander up to 120 miles away from Nine Standards Rigg under perfect conditions — provided there was no obstruction in between, which would be most unlikely. All this is based on purely mathematical calculations — not mine, but more of this later. About one hundred years ago the Ordnance Survey claimed that the summit of Black Combe (1,969 feet) commanded "the most extensive prospect in the kingdom" — a claim probably based on the revelation years earlier by Wordsworth, that from the top might be seen "the amplest range of unobstructed prospect that British ground commands". It has nearly always been raining when I've been on Black Combe but, in perfect weather, the Galloway hills, the mountains of Mourne and Snowdon are said to be visible from the summit. A very old Ward Locke guide of mine quotes "several of the older authorities" for the claim that the southerly view from Black Combe extended to Jack Hill near Hanley in Staffordshire, but when I mentioned this in one of my early books I was told by a reader in those parts that he did not know of any such hill around there?

Elsewhere I have read that the view south from Black Combe is the longest overland view in England and that 14 counties could be seen from the summit — before they lost many of them. Whether or not this is true I Can't say, but I do know that you can see Black Combe from ships leaving the Mersey; from the North Pier at Blackpool; from the tower of Liverpool Cathedral and from a score of places along the Lancashire coast — a great shoulder of fell standing on its own on the very edge of the sea. Scottish mountains, being the highest in the British Isles, might be expected to provide the most distant sightings and, according to the summit indicator on Ben Macdhui, the second highest mountain in Britain, both Ben Hope and the Lammermuirs which are 191 miles apart may sometimes be seen from the cairn in exceptionally clear weather.

 It is also stated in Abercrombie and Goldie's "Weather" that the Paps of Jura (2,400 feet approx.) have been seen from the summit of Hecla (1,988 feet) on South Uist — a distance of well over 100 miles. These long sightings tend to confirm the claim made to me by several people that Ben Lomond has been fairly positively identified, on a remarkably clear day, from the top of Red Pike in the Buttermere fells - a distance of something like 120 miles. 

According to the following table all these sightings are possible and, indeed, even far greater examples of extreme visibility are theoretically feasible. This table was prepared by Patrick Satow, an expert on weather phenomena
A few years ago, after I had been writing about long sightings in the hills, wondering how far we could see under perfect conditions, Mr. Satow kindly worked out the necessary calculations and produced the table. It gives the theoretical distance in English statute miles at which an object of known height should be visible for a given height of eye — "under standard conditions of atmosphere, not including exceptional refraction". 

Using the table it will be seen that the top part of Scafell Pike could be visible from 76 miles away if the height of eye was ten feet above sea-level but observed from a height of 3,000 feet — say on one of the southern Scottish Munros —the distance could become 145 miles. It should be emphasised, of course, that all these theoretical sightings depend on there being nothing in the way to obstruct the view. It will be seen from the table that the sighting distances naturally increase as the observer climbs up his mountainside but this distance increases by ever smaller amounts for each additional 1,000 feet of height — due to the steadily greater effect of the curvature of the Earth. Patrick Satow suggests the table can be used in another way. "If you stand on the beach at Seascale, gazing across at Snaefell, in the Isle of Man, 41 miles away," he wrote to me, "look along the line for height of eye 10 feet. By interpolation, it will be seen that your horizon 'cuts off' Snaefell at about 850 feet, and the island below that contour is out of sight. Conversely, if you stand at 850 feet on Snaefell the beach at Seascale will be in line with your sea horizon.

Finally, reverse your position again and ascent to 850 feet at Seascale and your sea horizon to the west will be in line with the I.O.M. beach. But you cannot do that so you go up Eskdale and start up the slopes of Scafell. You are now about 50 miles from the Isle of Man and on reaching 1300 feet above the sea the coastline of the island should just be in sight. This is found in the table by putting Height of Eye at 10 feet (on the beach. I.O.M.) and looking at Scafell. The fifty miles comes between the vertical columns headed 1000 and 1500 feet". The table shows that, in theory, maximum sightings of up to 145 miles are conceivable, under perfect conditions, between three-thousanders — say, Scafell and Ben Lomond or the Carnedds, in North Wales.

So that my dawn sighting from he top of Scafell more than 55 years ago of the mountains of Scotland, Ireland and Wales— but from two points about 100 Yards apart — was nothing remarkable. It has often been claimed that it is possible to see both the Irish Sea and the North sea from the summit of Cross Fell but, in fact, because of the hill's flattened dome shape, you can see nothing from the cairn except about a quarter of a mile of dull foreground and then the limitless sky. Indeed, the actual summit of Cross Fell is perhaps the worst viewpoint in England, not the best, although from rather lower elevations on either side of the fell very long distances, including one or other of the two seas, might well be visible on a very clear day.

Harry Griffin: First published in Climber- April 1986.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Statement: The Ben Moon story......reviewed

Having recently read and reviewed Steve McClure’s Vertebrate published autobiography which I felt somewhat suffered in that it became rather repetitive due to the fact that the author himself was operating in a rather narrow field of activity, I was interested to see how an old hand like Ed Douglas would take on someone who like Steve, operates within those same tight parameters which define the top end sports climber. In this case, Ben Moon, a climber synonymous with state of the art routes like Hubble, Statement of Youth and Agincourt but who, at the end of the day, is not exactly a Fowler, MacLeod or Boysen when it comes to being a climbing all rounder.

With a limited palette to draw from, it requires some creativity to fill an autobiography of 200+ pages; particularly when the subject is still in their 40’s and presumably with a lot of goals and achievements ahead of them. To the author’s credit, he makes a fine fist of the material available and doesn’t get bogged down in the technical minutiae which rock jocks are prone to use when writing about their climbs and projects . Instead, fleshing out his subject and presenting him as someone of interest and integrity rather than a one dimensional climbing machine. 

Ben Moon like his friend Johnny Dawes is certainly no scion of a horny handed son of toil. Born into a comfortable Home Countries, middle class family, his father Jeremy Moon was a talented artist of some renown and the young Ben was brought up within that comfortable, slightly bohemian suburban setting which for a youngster, is never less than stimulating as fascinating friends of the family pass through. Having a grandfather in Jack Moon who was a keen climber in his day, it was no surprise that the young Ben Moon should take an interest in the activity. An interest which took root early in life through family holidays in the mountain areas. However, it wasn’t before the young Ben Moon had suffered tragedy through the loss of his father who was killed in a motor biking accident when Ben was only six.

Ben was brought up by his mother Elizabeth and eventually found himself as a boarder at the somewhat archaic Christ’s Hospital Public School; renowned for the rather wacky  school uniform and eminent alumni . It was at Christ’s Hospital that perhaps not surprisingly, he developed an anti authoritarian streak and began to evolve into the proto punk. An image which defined the young climber when he first came to public attention as a pale, skinny, dread-locked rebel with a cause.

Like just about every climber whose lives have been dissected in biographies like this, it is remarkable how consistent they are in what you might call ‘the experience trajectory’. Time and again the same venues and the same climbs feature as these future stars climb the ladder of success. The local outcrops; the first trip to Snowdonia. A journey- usually in an old van- to Fontainbleau. Then its Verdon, Buoux, Yosemite and the Yorkshire limestone cathedrals of endeavour etc etc. 

The author charts his subjects’ rise to prominence through diary notes, interviews with Ben Moon himself and contemporaneous material drawn from articles and journals of the time. It paints a picture of a young man who, whilst not sharing the same capacity for self promotion and playing the sponsors game in the way his friend Jerry Moffatt did, was equally single minded in his desire to push the envelope and become one of that elite band of sports climbers operating at the limits of technical achievement. Like so many of his contemporaries within this select band, Ben did the competition circuit with mixed results. It did at least establish his name within the game and as routes like Agincourt began to fall, the previously dismissive UK climbing press, began to recognize and acknowledge his place amongst the cream of the crop.

Apart from charting his subjects climbing achievements, the author touches on areas where Ben Moon has experienced conflicting fortunes in his relationships, business ventures and answers that old question as to just what exactly Ben Moon did at the 1990’s Newbury By-Pass protests? Like a lot of people, I was given to understand that he had gone down there as a highly paid security goon. Employed with others for his climbing skills, to essentially remove environmentalists from the trees to allow their felling.

However, popular myth has it that gamekeeper turned poacher and he cast aside his Hi-Vis jacket and joined the Crusties!. As it turns out, neither story is strictly true. In the book, Ben Moon and Jerry Moffatt turned up to lend their support- although it has to be said, short of actually taking to the trees. (If anyone wants to learn more about this read Jim Perrin’s brilliant ‘The Judas Tree’ which, written from an environmentalists’ perspective quite rightly lambasts those climbers who took their twenty pieces of state silver). However, what Swampy & Co made of two tanned climbers turning up in a sporty silver BMW Evo is anyone’s guess!

As an aside to his income from sponsorship, Ben Moon launched his S7 range of climbing wear and bouldering mats although without the necessary business nous to bring the business on it eventually foundered, although later,, and with more business savvy, he launched his to date, successful ‘Moon’ climbing label.

The book winds to a close with Ben Moon- now married and with a daughter- joining that army of former rock stars who now prefer to get their fix through bouldering. No surprises here as a young Ben Moon once went on record in a radio programme to utter those immortal words...’I’m not climbing to be in nice places...I’m climbing for the moves man!’.

Certainly, not many UK climbers in the last thirty years have been in the same ball park when it comes to bending the body and torturing those tendons like Ben Moon. Yes- ‘Statement’ reflects the life and times of someone corralled within that small world inhabited by the technical elite, but it nevertheless throws light on an individual who has never been that interested in self promotion or being a climbing Charlie Big Potatoes. Ed Douglas- who of course won a BT award for his Ron Fawcett book- has penned another fascinating portrait of a UK rock master.

John Appleby:2015

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