Friday 29 April 2016

Mountain Characters: Spirits in the Sky

 John Porter and Alex MacIntyre in Peru: Photo John Porter

‘Your young men shall see visions’    The Bible

Recently I read an article by Nick Bullock bemoaning the fact that the present day climbing world is no longer as replete with ‘characters’ as it once was. He blamed this shallowness on such as the majority of the younger generation being spoon fed, with climbing wall introductions to the sport, consumerism and an-unwillingness to seek out new experiences in relatively unknown (unpopular) climbing areas and wilderness destinations.

I think it is only from a distance in time that we can appreciate the true worth of such character in our own climbing friends and acquaintances, but three mountaineers who worked alongside me at the BMC, would I believe pass Bullock’s designation as ‘characters’, namely Peter Boardman, Alex MacIntyre and Andy Fanshawe. However they were much more than their climbing record suggests, for all three became published authors, each had an academic record, and they had a major influence on their contemporaries and in the subsequent future direction of Himalayan exploration; and no three people in my experience exhibited such a degree of difference in their personalities. However, they each had enjoyed a similar introduction to climbing whilst schoolboys, one that demanded enterprise and keenness with no spoon feeding.

I first met Peter Boardman when I gave a lecture to the Nottingham University Mountaineering Club in 1970; he was studying English and had already made some impressive ascents in the Pennine Alps and the Mont Blanc Range (e.g The Bonatti Pillar of the Petit Dru). I got to know him better when he assisted during the BMC’s first ever International meet in North Wales in 1973, giving a lecture on the Nottingham clubs expedition to the Hindu Kush the previous year, and climbing with the brilliant Russian, Aleksandr Gubanov on Llech Ddu,  ascending routes like The Groove and The Great Corner. By that date Peter was a post graduate at Bangor and typical of him he also studied Welsh in his spare time. He had also begun writing about his climbing experiences, including an outstanding article in Mountain No 36, ‘Long Necks in the Hindu Kush.’ On this his first expedition, they had made some spectacular ascents, including the North Face, of Koh-i-Kaak (5,860m). What made this even more interesting was they had driven overland to Afghanistan and inevitably experienced some hair-raising adventures en route.

Peter was appointed the BMC’s National Officer in November 1974, and although then only 24 years old, he exhibited a maturity which impressed all who met him at that time. He was above medium height, physically powerful, dark haired and quietly spoken. But he quickly adapted to a role of attending and steering meetings the length and breadth of the UK and abroad. But he was not all serious, and he was a member of the Mynydd climbing club, which he had joined as a schoolboy in Cheshire, and he was a keen member of their folk group, led by a climber known as ‘leather lungs’ and complimented by Pete’s fine baritone voice, whose party piece was ‘The Rawtenstall Annual Fair!’.

In September 1975 Peter was to achieve national recognition by summiting Mount Everest on the South West Face expedition along with Sherpa Pertemba, following on   Doug Scott and Dougal  Haston who had climbed the mountain shortly before him. He was the last person to see Mick Burke alive just below the summit, and Peter awaited his return in deteriorating conditions whilst he also summited, but he was never  to be seen again. Post Everest Peter  was in demand to write articles and give lectures, but once back in the BMC office he was nose to the grindstone, answering phone calls and letters, attending meetings, whilst observing with some justification  by what has occurred subsequently,  that ‘we are creating  a monster!’. But also whilst arguing between us  about the merits of our favourite poets; myself being a fan of such moderns as Gary Snyder, and Pete condemning them in comparison to his own classical favourites such as  Spenser. He was also a great fan of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories.

Joe Tasker was then based in Manchester, and he was a frequent visitor into the BMC office, so much so that I invited him to attend the staff Christmas party in 1975/6. He had also been away that summer in the Indian Himalaya and with Dick Renshaw had made the first ascent of Dunagiri (7066m). A brilliant achievement for they had driven overland to India in an old Ford van, but unfortunately Dick had contacted frost bite in a storm during the descent, and thus was unable to return with Joe to attempt an even more impressive objective for the autumn of 1976, which they had observed from Dunagiri, the West Wall of Changabang(6,864m).  Joe started enthusing Pete about this, but there was a snag, for he had been away for many weeks in 1975 on Everest, and I was none too keen on being once more left to hold the fort for another long absence. However before he had started to climb as a 20 year old Joe had studied at a Catholic seminary,training to be a priest, and he had become a persistent debater. At the Christmas party after a meal, lubricated by alcohol he started on me, and I found myself some while later agreeing  to Pete taking part with him in apparently what might be the most important ascent in the history of British Himalayan endeavour?

Joe and Pete had at that point in time never climbed together and so they came along one weekend in January 1976 to a weekend in the Peak District, with me and my family staying at the Oread hut near Baslow. The weather was dire, cold and wet, but we still did go climbing, and impressively Pete led the Right Eliminate on Curbar, for he was an outstanding free rock climber and both Joe and I needed an extremely tight rope in following. Later that year they trained together mid-week by spending evenings hanging off meat hooks in a cold storage in Manchester, so by the time they left for Changabang in early September 1976 they were well attuned to each other’s likes and dislikes!

Their successful ascent of Changabang’s West Wall over 25 days, was without doubt one of the outstanding breakthrough’s in modern Himalayan climbing history. And Pete’s award winning book of their climb ‘The Shining Mountain’ was agreed to be a classic of mountain literature and it is still in print.   

Peter left the BMC at the end of 1977 to take over as the Director of The International School of Mountaineering in Leysin at the death of Dougal Haston in a skiing accident.  His life from thereon was dominated by mountaineering, he had passed his guides carnet earlier that year, and eventually he became President of The Association of British Mountain Guides in 1979. He  married in August 1980, and his wife Hilary Collins, a keen climber had previously taken part with him in making  the first ascent of the South Face of the Carstentz Pyramid in New  Guinea in December 1978.

Peter’s life over the next immediate years was to be a round of expeditions in between his guiding commitments. A tragic expedition to K2 in 1978 was abandoned when Nick Escourt was killed in an avalanche, a successful new route was achieved, on Kanchenjunga by its North Ridge in 1979 with Doug Scott and Joe Tasker, and the first ascent of Gauri Sankar’s south summit (7071m) was made in November of that same year. Attempts were made on the West Ridge of K2 in 1980, and success was recorded on the remote Xinjiang peak of Kongur (7,719m) with Joe Tasker, Chris Bonington and Al Rouse in 1981. Joe and Peter by that date must have been one of the strongest high altitude partnerships of their era, but it all came to a tragic end in 1982, when attempting the unclimbed North Ridge of Everest on the Tibetan side of the mountain during which Joe Tasker and Peter were last spotted on the 17th May at the foot of the second pinnacle (8,250m). A decade later, a Japanese-Kazakh expedition found Peter’s body around this altitude, but Joe’s has never yet been discovered despite other expeditions subsequently following this same route.

When Peter left the BMC I was so sorry to see him depart. Over the three years he worked with me, we had become close friends, and I did go out to Leysin in the summer of 1981 and undertook some guiding of clients for him. His loss was equably sad for all who were involved at the BMC at that time, both the staff and volunteers, for he had taken on the role of a Vice President in 1979 and he was still very much involved in shaping the organisations policies. Both Joe Tasker and Peter were fine writers, and each had published two books, Joe ‘The Savage Arena 1982’ and ‘Everest the Cruel Way 1980’ and Peter, besides ‘The Shining Mountain 1978’ , ‘Sacred Summits  in 1982’, they had also contributed numerous articles to magazines and journals. And so we, who were their friends and most importantly including their families, set up the Boardman/Tasker prize for mountain literature in 1983. This is now the leading such award in the UK, and has gone from strength to strength in recent  years,  with over 80 entries from around the English speaking world in the last two years; the winner last year being a Canadian, Barry Blanchard. Whilst Peter’s old school; Stockport Grammar, has erected The Peter Boardman climbing wall as their way to keep his memory and example alive for their students.

Alex  MacIntyre succeeded Peter Boardman as National Officer of the BMC at the end of 1977, he was 23 years old at that date, and a graduate in law from Leeds University. Although he had a very Scottish name he was born in Yorkshire, however his parents were from Caledonia, and the family moved south to Letchmore Heath when Alex was young, from where he attended Watford Grammar School. He started climbing whilst at school and joined the London Mountaineering Club, with whom he attended club meets in Wales, but which did not seem to affect his studies as so often happens to young climbers, for in 1972 he managed four Grade A’s at A level. Leading on to entry at Leeds University originally to study geography and economics, but later he switched to read law. He joined the University climbing club, which at that date was a dynamic force in the land and he began to hone his climbing skills alongside such as John Syrett, Brian Hall, John Porter, Roger Baxter-Jones and John Powell.

It was during that time I first met him, at the then famous Leeds University Wall. He was a striking figure in appearance (one of the wags at the wall, comparing him to the young Shirley Temple), of medium height, lithe, dark and with a shock of thick curly hair crowning his head. He looked like a rock star, a doppelganger for Marc Bolan. He was however no wall expert, in fact although he developed into an outstanding mountaineer, he was never a premier division rock jock, preferring to excel in the mountains.

Besides the University club being, at the cutting edge of disciplines from outcrop to alpine climbing in that era, it was also a part of a vibrant social scene of partying, clubbing and youthful exuberance. Alex was no shrinking violet and I once observed him at a club disco head-banging with the rest, and sometime into his studies at Leeds he took on a bet to wear the same clothes for a term, earning him the soubriquet of ‘Dirty Alex’, which took some little time to become inappropriate for in his later years, he became a wearer and a designer of some ‘smart’ outdoor equipment. Whilst at Leeds he started to travel (sometimes hitch-hiking) to winter climb in Scotland, and it was there he found out what he was outstandingly good at ice and mixed climbing.

In March 1975 he made solo ascents in a day of both the Zero and Point Five gullies on Ben Nevis, and soon he was transferring these skills to the Alps.  After the usual early alpine bumble ascents, he really began to motor, and by the time he joined the BMC he had taken part in pioneering two new routes on the North Face of the Grandes  Jorasses (including the now classic Colton-MacIntyre in 1976), ascended  the Shroud  also on that face, and the Eiger Direct:  the Harlin route on that mountains north wall.

Alex once in post at the BMC was so different to his predecessor, he was more ‘up front’, more argumentative in stressing his views, and more aggressive. But if it seemed in expressing his own stance so strongly he had over stepped the mark, he was sensitive to other opinions, and good at regressing and allowing others to make their case. His background of being a law graduate was good at helping to form direction and policies, and he had a very sharp intellect  and was actually easy to work with, and many of the younger generation of activists appeared to agree ‘if someone like Alex  MacIntyre could work for the BMC, it was a body worth supporting!’

 An event that occurred before Alex joined the BMC   was to have great meaning for his own future development as a Himalayan mountaineer, this was a visit, organised by the Council of Polish climbers to the UK in September 1975. Peter Boardman was away on Everest at that time, and normally the hosting arrangements would have been his task as National Officer but in his absence I had to take on this role. To do this I needed to invoke the voluntary help of my own friends, one of whom was John Porter, and he joined the party to help during the stay of the Poles in North Wales.

He struck a strong rapport with our guests and subsequently he accepted an invitation from them to climb in the Tatra Mountains.  It is worth recording that Eastern European mountaineers had by that date begun to establish a formidable record in Himalayan exploration, this despite having a much reduced standard of living compared to their western counterparts, and their initiative in overcoming travel and funding difficulties being one of an incredible ability at ducking and diving, all within their then pervasive communist-system of governance.

John was invited in 1977 to take part in an expedition to the Hindu Kush by the Poles, and in order to make this into a joint endeavour, he invited Alex MacIntyre to join him. They had met each other whilst studying at Leeds, and were close friends. This trip was to energise Alex and set his future direction, attempting lightweight attempts on the highest peaks. On this his first such expedition just reaching the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan was an adventure, travelling overland by train, and public transport as cheaply as possible all master minded by their Polish team members, one of whom Woytek Kurtyka would go on to be one of the most outstanding climbers of his generation. They enjoyed some spectacular successes on this expedition, including a major new route on Kohe Bandaka 6868m. The following year they were to repeat the exercise, a joint Polish-British expedition to the Indian Himalaya, with success in the ascent of the south buttress of Changabang 6864m, a highly technical route which took 11 days, climbing in Alpine style.

By 1978 and the Changabang climb, Alex-was deeply into his role as National Officer at the BMC. He had been given leave of absence to take part in that expedition, but we could not keep on doing this. The Executive Committee discussed what to do about such requests for absence in future and agreed that from there on any of the professional officers making an application for leave to take part in an expedition this could only be granted once in every five years of service. I realised that this would not suit Alex, but the work load was increasing exponentially at that time with a massive increase in participation occurring within the sport, and expedition membership forty years ago meant being away for many weeks. In the time it took for Alex and John to reach the Hindu Kush in 1977, most modern teams have been to their mountain/s and come back.

Once again as with Peter it was not all serious. On some of the International Meets one of our regular venues in the Peak District, after a day’s climbing was the Swan in New Mills, run by old friends Bob and Elsie Upton, members of Manchester’s Karabiner Club, so they were well attuned to visits by such a clientele. Usually our visitors enjoyed a pub meal, a lecture and afterwards a social when lots of local Peak District enthusiasts turned up in order to meet with our visitors. On one of these occasions, Alex raided his girl friend’s make up box and appeared late in the evening made up in highlights. This invoked from all present much laughter but things did get a little out of hand subsequently, when one of our guests began a simulated strip to the music of The Stripper! It was all done in the best possible taste, but next day back at my desk in the BMC Office I was stunned when a reporter from The News of the World phoned demanding details of who and what had been involved in such an organised orgy! It took me some time to convince the reporter that it was just a case of youthful high jinks, commonplace at such climber’s gatherings.

I had guessed that with his developing ambitions Alex would not stay too long at the BMC now we had instituted a five year rule on expedition leave. He wanted to develop and test his skills, climbing alpine style in the highest mountains. He decided to leave in 1980, and once again as with Peter Boardman I was so sorry to see him go. By that date I was almost old enough to have been his father, and I was worried where his drive for adventurous style ascents would lead him, and I feared for his long term future safety. Over the next two years his none stop activity was impressive, with ascents and trips to Dhaulagiri, Makalu and Shisha Pangma.  This latter yielded an impressive new route on the mountain in 1981 by its south west face in the company of Doug Scott and Roger Baxter Jones. The book of the expedition, written jointly by Doug and Alex was an early joint winner of the Boardman/Tasker prize in 1984.

Like Peter, Alex’s demise happened at the frontier of what was then possible in Himalayan climbing, an attempt in autumn 1982 on a new route with French climber, Rene Ghilini on the South Face of Annapurna. John Porter had joined them, but was laid low at base with illness but watching their ascent via a scope. After some very difficult climbing they were descending to re-group at base, to rest ready to return to the face, when a single stone falling from high on the mountain scored a direct hit on Alex’s head killing him instantly. I was in Nepal when this happened for I had been speaking at a UNESCO/UIAA ‘Future of the Himalaya’ conference, and then subsequently out trekking finishing in the Rolwaling. I was awakened in my tent with a message about the accident to Alex, carried by a runner from Mike Cheyney in Kathmandu and so I immediately rushed back to there- where I met a distraught John Porter, who filled me in with the detail of what had happened.

John after many years of struggle with the subject matter has now managed an outstanding   biography of Alex. ‘One Day as a Tiger’. A winner of the Grand Jury prize at Banff and short listed for last year’s Boardman/Tasker Award. And we who were Alex friends, in a similar move to what had happened at Peter and Joe’s sad deaths, wished to set up an appropriate memorial to him. He had been keen on Scottish winter climbing, and by an act of serendipity I had attended a meeting of outdoor organisations in Manchester at the headquarters of the Co-operative Holidays Association some time before Alex’s death. I found out they owned a property at Onich and they offered to let us rent a large cottage in the grounds which was surplus to their requirements. Initially we did do this, but subsequently we managed to persuade the CHA to sell and we purchased the property for £28,000 and it now stands as The Alex MacIntyre Memorial Hut of the BMC/MC of S, a suitable recognition of its named climber, which over the last twenty years or more, has been used by hundreds of climbers from the length and breadth of the UK and overseas.

Andy Fanshawe:Photo Fanshawe Trust

Andy Fanshawe was as different in character from Alex has he had been from Peter. Tall and angular, he exuded enthusiasm and caring, with a measured approach to problem solving, and he was universally popular. He had started rock climbing as a schoolboy at Wilmslow Grammar School from where he gained entrance to Imperial College to study mining geology.  Whilst at University he organised an expedition to Ecuador and Peru, and during the summer before he was appointed BMC National Officer, as a 23year old in the autumn of 1986, he had taken part in the first successful traverse of Chogolisa 7665m in the Karakoram Himalaya.  Like Peter and Alex before him, prior to taking on his role at the BMC he had completed some major alpine ascents, including the South West Pillar of the Petit Dru and the North Ridge Direct on Les Droites.   The reader might wonder what was the role of The National Officer within the BMC?

It was one that demanded almost 24 hours a day, attending Area and other meetings, acting as Secretary to the Technical Committee, which had a major role in setting standards and equipment testing, dealing with queries and phone calls mainly in the safety and technical areas, and acting as liaison with the hundreds of clubs and organisations and individuals in membership of the Council; and organising a programme of International meets, expedition grants and advice. It required driving thousands of miles a year to meet the requirements of the job. In retrospect I am impressed with how well Peter, Alex and Andy carried out their work demands whilst managing to continue being active in the hills. During the period Andy was at the BMC we had a very cohesive working together staff, I have worked in many organisations in different parts of the world; in China, East Africa and Europe but none where the staff were so close as the BMC in that period. This was highlighted when Andy had a terrible accident during the New Year of 1986/7 on Ben Nevis.

After a successful climb he and John Taylor were descending off the mountain in bad weather. From the summit plateau they had descended too far east and found themselves at the head of the Five Finger Gully, a notorious accident black spot. Realising their mistake they started traversing, back the way they had come, when the slope they were on avalanched, carrying them along its wake. They were buried by this and though Andy survived despite his injuries, John Taylor died. Obviously this was a terrible event for John was one of Andy’s oldest and closest friends. I know he was deeply affected by meeting John’s parents who he visited as he slowly recovered. Back in Manchester my secretary, Leslie Smithson took Andy into her home and helped him to rehabilitate and get back to work within a surprising short time, taking into account the seriousness of the accident. In fact within four months he led his first E5 rock climb in Wales.

The next few years were full of incident, for there were always crisis looming at the BMC, especially in relation to access and safety problems, and combating threats to the integrity of our sport. However using the five year rule Andy applied for leave of absence to join an expedition, led by Chris Bonington to Menlungste West 7023m in 1988. An impressive peak in the Rolwaling Himalaya of Nepal, and along with Alan Hinkes he was successful in reaching its summit on this mountain which some refer to as The Matterhorn of Nepal.

I left the BMC in mid 1989, and I was heartened by both Lesley Smithson and Andy Fanshawe pleading with me not to leave, suggesting that after 18 years I should take a sabbatical. However I had given 8 months notice and wanted to do other things with my life. We all stayed good friends and I attended Andy’s marriage in 1990 to Caroline, a keen outdoor enthusiast herself, at which he also decided to leave the Council’s employ moving to live in the Eden Valley of Cumbia. In that same year he published a climbing autobiography, with a rather unusual title ‘Coming Through’.

He then worked as a fund raiser for the Barrow Hospital Trust, aiming to purchase a 1.5million pound scanner for that body, but taking time off to visit the Alps and climbing the North Face of the Eiger and the Croz Spur in winter on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses with Ulrich Jessop, a climbing companion from his University days.

Like Alex and Peter before him, tragedy was awaiting and on the 14th March 1992, whilst leading on the Eagle Ridge Direct on Lochnagar, he fell and though his second held his fall, badly injured his life ebbed away before he could be rescued shortly before his 29th birthday. Peter, Alex and Andy three incomparable characters who, were, to leave a void in the memory of all who knew them. Before his death Andy had started work on a coffee table book with Stephen Venables, ‘Himalaya Alpine Style’ and this was eventually finished by his co-author and published in 1995.

Once again friends wished that the memory of such an outstanding figure should be continued in a suitable form, and one thing that made Andy stand out was his social awareness, he appreciated that he had been fortunate in his mountain activities life style. And so The Andy Fanshawe Memorial Trust was brought into being, its purpose ‘To fund projects that give disadvantaged young people the opportunity to develop an existing interest in the Great Outdoors’. Since its inception hundreds of young candidates have been helped into meeting these objectives.

To return to the original hypothesis, namely the opinion held by some that we are no longer producing characters with the initiative and approach of the previous climbing generations in this country, but I am not sure that this is true? I am gob smacked by the levels of difficulty now reached by the present generation of rock climbers and mountaineers, but I will agree that they do not seem to have as much fun as hitherto. There is an awful lot of emphasis on achievement and not much humour?  

Pete Boardman and Dennis Gray: Photo DG.

However whilst we do have the example of Peter Boardman, Alex MacIntyre and Andy Fanshawe so embedded in our sport via their memorials, I hope climbers will emerge wishing to emulate and climb/live in such an adventurous style.

Dennis Gray:2016

Friday 22 April 2016

John Muir- The Wildest, Highest Places

When John Muir, the son of an emigrant from East Lothian to southern
Wisconsin, was 16, in 1855, his father lowered him daily down a well shaft on their new farm at Hickory Hill. John cut with chisel and hammer through fine-grained sandstone until he struck ‘a fine, hearty gush of water’. By then he had dinted his way through eighty feet of rock, working alone from dawn till dark. When he was overcome with choke-damp at the start of work one day, he was hauled up unconscious – and resumed after a day or two once water had been thrown down the shaft ‘to absorb the gas’ and a bundle of brushwood had been dropped on a rope ‘to carry down pure air and stir up the poison’. This was only the most spectacular, and symbolically oppressive, of the Herculean ordeals which ingrained in Muir an extraordinary hardihood and helped to make him the finest field naturalist and most eloquent wilderness writer of his age. As eldest son he did most of the ploughing and stump-digging on the family’s virgin land and split a hundred fencing rails a day from their knotty oak timber: ‘I was proud of my skill and tried to believe that I was as tough as the timber I mauled, though this and other heavy jobs stunted my growth and earned for me the title “runt of the family”.’

The beauty of Muir’s Eight Wilderness Discovery Books is that they make one weave of his life and his literary work – perfect for a writer whose thinking and experiencing are hard to separate. The Life and Letters volume reprints the first biography, by his masterly literary executor William Frederic Badé. The narrative is laced with Muir’s letters, which rival Lawrence’s in the wholeheartedness of their responses to life around him and to his correspondents. In them we see a man at one with himself and with the granite, the fast rivers, the mighty resinous trees of the western Sierra Nevada. In a letter of 1871 to the friend who elicited much of his most heartfelt incidental writing, Jeanne Carr, wife of the professor of agriculture at San Francisco, he jotted down this statement of his ideal: ‘Patient observation and constant brooding above the rocks, lying upon them for years as the ice did, is the way to arrive at the truths which are graven so lavishly upon them.’ To another of his women friends – his ‘spiritual mothers’, as they are called by Thurman Wilkins, his latest biographer – he wrote the following year, welcoming her to come and camp in Yosemite: ‘People who come here ... should forget their individual existences, should forget they are born. They should as nearly as possible live the life of a particle of dust in the wind, or of a withered leaf in a whirlpool.’

 ‘Lying on the rocks for years’ is not a metaphor, it is how he did his fieldwork. He walked great distances and climbed great heights, nearly always alone. In the wilderness he lived on bread and tea, boiled on a fire of fossil wood or shavings from the underside of his sledge. To save weight he usually did without blankets and ‘made my bed of rich, spicy boughs, elastic and warm’. In a cleft three miles back from the brow of El Capitan, ‘I lay down and thought of the time when the groove in which I rested was being ground away at the bottom of a vast ice-sheet that flowed over all the Sierra like a slow wind.’ He carried little but his notebook tied to his belt and a spray of fir-needles in his buttonhole, and he walked extremely fast – a friend called him ‘dear old streak o’ lightning on ice’.

His daring was unshakeable. The rock-faces he climbed were often of the severity we now grade 5.8 (US) or Hard Very Severe (UK). This is near the limit I will climb with a companion and several hundred pounds’ worth of ropes and metal protection gear. Muir was climbing alone – to observe the glaciation of rocks and the moulding of valleys; the terrain was untouched; no guidebooks had yet been written.He was virtually naked in the face of the cliffs and cascades, the glaciers he explored in Alaska, and the deep trackless marshes in Ontario where he waded all day, steering by compass, in search of new flower species.

The two things in the Sierra which he did his utmost to save unspoiled, with results that have lasted to this day in the National Parks he helped to found, are the monumental sequoias growing on its western slopes and the glaciated granite valleys that make its arteries. The sequoias rise so tall, on their 200-foot trunks like furred brown tendons, that as you stand beneath them and look upward to their crowning needle-clusters, you feel yourself sucked through a time-tunnel into some primal and unpeopled continent. Muir rejoiced to think that they were in their prime and ‘swaying in the Sierra winds when Christ walked the earth’. He made some of the first estimates of their age and studied their distribution in relation to soil depths and water. As you walk through the Yosemite valley with the colossal front of El Capitan standing up straight and steely to your left and the hunched mass of Tissiack (Half Dome) to your right, its curve sheared off frontally, you feel your shoulders brace and your brain contract as though you were having to hold apart the irresistible gravity and closure of the Earth’s crust.

Muir called it ‘a grand page of mountain manuscript that I would gladly give my life to be able to read’, then did just that, moving across it with the freedom of a flying, swimming creature. He knew it through shepherding and sawmill working; he sensed the curve of its domes, the shining of its surfaces, the angling of its clefts so intently that he became able to explain its formation as though he had been an eye-witness of the Ice Age. When expert geologists were still asserting that the valley floor had dropped in some huge seismic event, Muir could see that it had been made by glaciers moving down the cleavage joints of the granite, shearing, graving, polishing, dumping boulders and moraines.

Now, after a century and more of aerial mapping, examining fossilised pollen through the microscope, sampling ice in cores hundreds of feet deep, we can say that the work of glaciers is obvious. To make sense of the labyrinth of mountain, forest, glen and ice-field by living in it and traversing it, with no instruments and precious few maps, was a physical and intellectual feat. Muir could comprehend that world – meaning both ‘encompass’ and ‘understand’ – because he delighted in it, was equal to its rigours, and craved to understand its least leaf and crystal, swarming up its pines in gales of wind and leaning out over the lips of its waterfalls.

His feeling for nature is scarcely separable from his piety, which is luxuriant and ecstatic. In the Californian Sierra, ‘the presence of an atmosphere is hardly recognised, and the thin, white, bodiless light of the morning comes to the peaks and glaciers as a pure spiritual essence, the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.’ Canoeing along the ice-cliffs of coastal Alaska he feels the same: ‘bays full of hazy shadows, graduating into open, silvery fields of light, and lofty headlands with fine arching insteps dipping their feet in the shining water ... Forgotten now were the Chilcats and missions while the word of God was being read in these majestic hieroglyphics blazoned along the sky.’ So organised religion shrinks and falls out of the frame as the potency of nature comes over him. Essential belief never leaves him. On the glacier near Wrangell, among the ‘gashed and sculptured’ ice-walls and cornices, ‘every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God.’ He can see it all as divinely created (although he knew about evolution and wholly accepted it) because it strikes him as beautiful and wholesome – utterly so.

 The ice, on which nothing can grow, which crushed rocks and swamped canoes (and nearly killed him as he paddled between two closing icebergs), has a ‘broad melting bosom’ which is ‘filled with light, simmering and throbbing in pale-blue tones of ineffable tenderness and beauty’. In this Nature of unalloyed goodness, there can be no poison, injury or disaster. When an entire cliff on the south wall of Yosemite collapsed, he saw the rockfall as ‘an arc of glowing passionate fire ... as true in form and as serene in beauty as a rainbow’. A spate that tore away rocks and swept whole trees down from Mount Hoffman to plunge over Yosemite Falls is part of ‘the universal anthem storm’. He developed a philosophy of storms to counter our tendency to fear them out of a ‘lack of faith in the Scriptures of Nature’ (for which he faulted Ruskin) and he argued that storms of rain or snow were ‘a cordial outpouring of Nature’s love’. Nature was whole, where people are divided and confused: ‘How terribly downright must be the utterances of storms and earthquakes to those accustomed to the soft hypocrisies of society.’

His determination to see nature as benign has been called a flaw by his most intelligent critic, Michael Cohen, in The Pathless Way. As we climbed together on a route called Great White Book in the Tuolumne domes east of Yosemite, he told me how Muir was disconcerted by the writhen and stunted junipers rooting in crevices of the granite because they were struggling, not harmoniously healthy. For Muir nature must be good, and this goodness was almost personal. So storms ‘utter’; trees ‘behave’, whether they are ‘thoughtful’ or ‘wideawake’; rock pinnacles at sunrise ‘shout colour hallelujahs’. Lichenous trees ‘sing psalms’ in the light of an Arctic camp-fire. Grouse and ptarmigan, anemones and ferns, are ‘mountain people’ and ‘plant people’. Snowflakes ‘journey down with gestures of confident life’. Daisies and sedges, ‘brought forward in the fire-glow, seem full of thought as if about to speak aloud and tell all their wild stories.’ Tissiack (Half Dome) is ‘full of thought ... no sense of dead stone about it, neither heavy looking nor light, steadfast in serene strength like a god’.

Such personifications, all positive and happy, may seem too soft-focused. Sometimes the rhapsodies cloy: ‘Glaciers came down from heaven, and they were angels with folded wings, white wings of snowy bloom. Locked hand in hand the little spirits did nobly’ (letter of 1871 to Mrs Carr). Or again, from his marvellously fresh and sustained My First Summer in the Sierra: ‘it was in the wildest, highest places that the most beautiful and tender and enthusiastic plant people were found ... I said: How came you here? How do you live through the winter? Our roots, they explained, reach far down the joints of the summer-warmed rocks.’ Surely personifying nature flies in the teeth of the evidence that life is an unfolding of organic and inorganic materials according to their composition, without the intervention of any other agency? And yet, as an (almost) lifelong atheist, I can read Muir with more quickening and illumination than I get from either Ruskin or Thoreau, because his response to nature is so absorbed and direct. He sees, touches and hears far more than he philosophises. Although the pious remarks are heartfelt, they are not hard to treat as interjections in the flow of richly physical prose. In this he is closer to the master wildlife writers of our own time – Barry Lopez or Mike Tomkies, Jim Crumley or John Baker – than to the moralistic and didactic Victorians.

In Muir a delighted immersion was primary. He was born like that and he grew up like that. Activity and gleeful sensing were second nature to him – or should I say first nature? When he starts his Story of My Boyhood and Youth, he takes it for granted that he will begin, not with parents or forebears, but with the eels and crabs he found in the tidal pools along the south coast of the Firth of Forth. The first anecdote is about a walk in a hayfield when he was barely three, hearing a ‘sharp, prickly, stinging cry’, and delving in the hay to find a fieldmouse with six young ones suckling at her teats. The pulsing of the waterfalls, the springing of the forest trees spoke to him because their energies corresponded to his own.

A missionary, Samuel Young, who explored glaciers with him in Alaska, described Muir’s way of moving on rough, steep terrain: ‘Then Muir began to slide up that mountain ... A deer-lope over the smoother slopes ... a serpent-glide up the steep ... spreading out like a flying squirrel and edging along an inch-wide projection ... leaping fissures, sliding flat around a dangerous rock-breast ... always going up, up, no hesitation – that was Muir!’ This bodily fluency fed directly through to his observing of nature, his interpreting of it, his writing about it.

A technical paper on how glaciers change direction as they carve out valleys, illustrated by his own diagrams full of arrows and As and Bs, culminates like this: ‘we find everywhere displayed the same delicate yielding to glacial law, showing that, throughout the whole period of its formation, the huge granite valley was lithe as a serpent, and winced tenderly to the touch of every tributary.’ When rain falls, in his narrative of shepherding in the summer of 1869, he brims over at once into an unstoppable vision of the water ‘plashing, glinting, pattering, laving’, flowing over domes, through lakes, down falls, in and out of woods and bogs, glinting on crystals (each one geologically specified) and pattering on flowers (likewise botanically named).

This direct and unlearned affinity with the natural world – developed by lifelong fieldwork and reading – enabled him to see equivalences everywhere. His writing, considered as one piece, is a web of likenesses, noted with exactitude and delight. Butterflies emerge from the chrysalis ‘like cotyledons from their husks’. Plants of the Adiantum fern waving in air currents between the Upper and Lower Falls stir like the purple dulses he remembers from the tidal pools of Lothian. Woodsmen’s faces are ‘furrowed like the bark of logs’ and their trousers, sticky with resin and never washed, thicken as they build up concentric layers of sawdust like growth-rings in a tree-trunk. The song of the dipper is like the noises of the rapids it lives among, which the bird must learn ‘before it is born by the thrilling and quivering of the eggs in unison with the tones of the falls’. He tries to spell phonetically the song of the distinctive Western meadow-lark and is fired to this vision: ‘Drops and sprays of air are specialised, and made to plash and churn in the bosom of the lark, as infinitesimal portions of air plash and sing about the angles and hollows of sand-grains.’

On a larger scale, the gradation of spruces on islets of the Alexander Archipelago, from tallest in the centre to smaller at the ends, is as harmonious as ‘the arrangement of the feathers of birds or the scales of fishes’. Larger again, and the South Lyell Glacier has the gnarled, bulging base and wide-spreading branches of an oak. His life was confirmed in its direction by an epiphany he described many times. After crossing the Diablo range down into the San Joaquin valley, on first heading for the Sierra, he found himself wading through a meadow five hundred miles long and forty across, one golden drift of Compositae, daisies and tansies and asters, ragwort and dandelions. Three years later this issues in a Wordsworthian passage of seeing and connecting: ‘Well may the sun feed them with his richest light, for these shining sunlets are his very children – rays of his ray, beams of his beam ... The earth has indeed become a sky; and the two cloudless skies, raying toward each other flower-beams and sunbeams, are fused and congolded into one glowing heaven.’

In this climactic passage, from an essay called ‘Twenty Hill Hollow’, we can feel how he needs new language for his perceptions as he sees the ‘sunlets’ of the asters radiating ‘flower-beams’ that ‘congold’ with the light of the sky. His linking of natural things by their equivalence is knit into the fibre of his style, for example those distinctive compound nouns. Forests are ‘tree pastures’. Foam on rocks makes ‘wave embroidery’. Towering cumulus clouds above the Sierra at summer noon-times are ‘light fountains’ springing from ‘shadow caves’. Scars in the ground made by uprooted trees are ‘ditch writing’ – a metaphor that reminds us of the root of the word ‘write’ in the Old English writan, to ‘scratch’ or ‘score’. In those same years Hopkins was minting words like ‘bone-house’, ‘yestertempest’, ‘leaf-light’, ‘knee-nave’, ‘shadowtackle’, ‘trambeams’, because the stuff of life sank into him so deeply that to express its being he had to fuse one thing with another.

The muscular impulse of Muir’s writing was like his walking and climbing and probably like his speech. We know that he laboured over his writing, struggling to cope with the ‘lateral, terminal and medial moraines’ of notes on his study floor, and regarded the making of whole books as ‘unnatural’. He published only three in his lifetime, although he made a good income from his articles. He felt himself ‘begin to labour like a laden wagon in a bog’ when he took up his pen, yet his prose feels fluent, even headlong, and palpably has the character of his speech. This was so vital and appealing that people invited him to private and public gatherings and his conversation ‘lingered as a literary tradition in California’. In a sense he was preaching – akin to the ’almost wholly extempore and unrecorded sermons and prayers’ whose ‘astonishing wealth of imagery and illustration, sometimes sonorously eloquent and sometimes racily colloquial’, was regarded by Sorley MacLean as the ‘great prose’ of the (Gaelic) Presbyterian culture.

Muir had escaped from the fundamentalist Christianity of his father. When they set brush fires in Wisconsin to clear scrubland for the plough, Daniel compared their heat with hell and the branches with bad boys: ‘Now, John, just think what an awful thing it would be to be thrown into that fire ... their sufferings will never, never end because neither the fire nor the sinners can die.’ Twelve years later Muir can write to his brother that he has been baptised three times that morning, in ‘balmy sunshine’, in the ‘rays of beauty that emanate from plant corollas’, and in ‘the spray of the Lower Yosemite Falls’. He made his own the thinking of the pioneering scientists, Darwin on species, Lyell on rocks. He saw that the Bible account of creation was for its own time, not for all time. A letter about Ruskin is vehement in its dislike of the doomy piety Muir saw in him: ‘Nature, according to Ruskin, is the joint work of God and the devil ... made up of alternate strips and bars of evil and good ... You never can feel that there is the slightest union betwixt Nature and him.

He goes to the Alps and improves and superintends and reports on Nature with the conceit and lofty importance of a factor on a Duke’s estate.’ (In Ontario Muir had met many refugees from the Sutherland Clearances.) He especially opposed Ruskin for regarding plants as ‘evil’ because they were poisonous. His only bête noire seems to have been the black ant with its seemingly wanton biting and widespread distribution. Here he perhaps laughs at his own Panglossian optimism: ‘I see that much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the universal rule of love and peace.’ This is rather like the devoted missionary Mr Sorley in A Passage to India, who believed that God’s mercy, being infinite, ‘may well embrace all animals’ but ‘became uneasy during the descent to wasps’.

Muir deeply respected Thoreau but he would not have sympathised with the sage of Walden’s dismay at the damp and mossy woods of Maine (in a posthumous book quoted by Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory): the swamps and the slopes pockmarked with bears’ dens were ‘the most treacherous and porous country I ever travelled’, the bare summits desolate and savage, ‘made out of Chaos and Old Night ... It was Matter, vast, terrific.’ Although Thoreau’s description, in Chapter 4 of Walden, of his new-scrubbed furniture out on the grass with blackberry vines running round its legs, is charmingly fresh, his account of the cabin he built for himself in the Massachusetts woods near Concord is low-key compared with the poem in wood which Muir (an inventor and skilled craftsman) made for himself in Yosemite. A stream ran through it to lull him at night, his bed was ‘suspended from the rafters and lined with libocedrus plumes’, and when Pteris ferns pushed up through the flooring planks, he trained them in an arch over his desk so that the tree frogs climbing up it at night could entertain him with their sounds.

Image:The Sierra Club
Thoreau had been conducting what he called an ‘experiment’. Ruskin was Britain’s most distinguished aesthete, travelling to Switzerland (on private means) to admire and paint the Alps from a distance. Muir worked in the Sierra (as shepherd, sawyer and fruit farmer), he explored them for many years on end, and the richness of his writing roots deeper into the terrain than any other wilderness writer known to me. To know this book* is on your shelf is like having your woodshed filled with dry peats or your mind with glowing memories.

* John Muir:His life and letters and other writings

David Craig: First Published in LRB 1997 

Friday 15 April 2016

The Rock

The most impressive early companion of my childhood was a dark cliff, or what looked like a dark cliff, to the south; a wall of rock and steep woods half-way up the sky, just cleared by the winter sun. This was the memento mundi over my birth: my spiritual midwife at the time and my godfather ever since — or one of my godfathers. From my first day, it watched. If it could not see me direct, a towering gloom over my perambulator, it watched me through a species of periscope - infiltrating the very light of my room with its particular shadow.

From my home near the bottom of the south-facing slope of the valley, that cliff was both the curtain and backdrop to existence. All that happened against it or under its supervision. At the same time, all that I imagined happening elsewhere, out in the world, the rock sealed from me, since in England the world seems to lie to the south. If a man's death is held in place by a stone, my birth was fastened into place by that rock, and for my first seven years it pressed its shape and various moods into my brain. There was no easy way to escape it. I lived under it as under the presence of a war, or an occupying army: it constricted life in some way, demanded and denied, and was not happy. Beneath it, the narrow valley, with its flooring of cricket pitch, meadows, bowling greens, streets, railways, and mills, seemed damp, dark, and dissatisfied — dissatisfied because the east-west traffic poured through it on a main route, converting our town to a mere corridor between places of real importance, such as, to the east. Halifax, with its formidable backing of Bradford, Huddersfield, and Leeds; and to the west — after a grisly false start at Todmorden-Rochdale, backed by Manchester, Liverpool, and New York.

So while thinking distractedly out to east and west, we valley-dwellers were stuck looking at the dark hairy wall of Scout Rock, as it was called, and the final sensation was of having been trapped.  The oppression cast by that rock was a force in the minds of everyone there. I have heard that valley is notable for its suicides, which I can believe, and I could also believe that rock is partly to blame for them. Most days it seems far enough off, deflated and scenic, with visible trees and scrambling walls to its steep fields, and clearly enough there is a farm or two along the top of it, people living happily up there and cattle grazing; and it is plainly no Eiger. But other days you step out of the house, or get off a bus come from elsewhere, and are astounded to see that blackish hogback mass riding directly overhead. Something about the clouds and light, the inclination of the season, or some overnight strengthening of the earth, has reared it right out over you, and you feel to be in the mouth of a vast dripping cave, in some hopeless age.

 Now I think back I cannot understand why I almost never went near it. I remember the pylons that stepped away toward the moors behind its left shoulder — these were the first pylons I ever saw at close quarters- to read their danger sign and appreciate their single-minded soaring oddity, and their leaning stride. And I was familiar with the road that draggled off among farms and cottages down behind its right shoulder into Luddenden Foot. But the steep face itself I never encountered. The nearest I got was one memorable day I went there with my brother, up one side, through the steep bracken and birches, and along the top where a thin path kept braving the very edge. Four things make that day memorable. First, the unique new view of the valley spread out below, from a wholly unimagined angle, and from the other end of the telescope, as it were, up which I had gazed for about six years. I looked down at myself with the eye of the cliff, and that was a terrible piece of newness. Our house was not distinguishable. Too far off, too far below, in a tiny puzzle of houses. It was a balloon view: an alarming exhilaration. I felt infinitely exposed, to be up there on the stage I had been trying to imagine for so long. The second memorable detail was my discovery of oak-apples, in the little scrub oaks that twisted out their existence on the cliff-edge.

It needed this spotlit exalted rostrum to bring oak apples to my notice, though I had been seeing them all my life. Anyway, that is the first place I really concentrated on them with some surprise, and examined their corky interior and dusty wormhole, and tossed them in numbers, out into space, disappointing missiles, and put some in my pocket as if I might never find any again. And it was there that my brother told of a woodpigeon shot in one of those little oaks, and how the bird set its wings and sailed out without a wing-beat stone dead into space to crash two miles away on the other side of the valley. And there followed the story of the tramp sleeping up there in the bracken, who stirred at an unlucky moment and was shot dead for a fox by an alert farmer, and sent rolling down the slope.

But of the rock-face, the central character to all that, I remember nothing, though I imagine I stared down it thoughtfully enough. That visit altered nothing, did nothing to tame the strangeness of my neighbour. I went on feeling it was alien, belonging to other people. I went on disliking it. It worked on me constantly. It should have inured me to living in valleys, or gulleys, or under walls, but all it did was to cause me to hate them. The slightest declivity now makes me uneasy and restless, and I slip into the shadow of the mood of that valley — foreboding heaviness, such as precedes downpour thunderstorms on Sunday afternoons. It is a mood that seems to have saturated the very stones of the walls and houses — those scorched-looking west Yorkshire-grits — the pavements and the soil of the gardens and even the dark privet leaves: most of all the dark privet leaves.

A slightly disastrous, crumbly, grey light, sunless and yet too clear, like a still from the documentary film of an accident: The hours could be terribly long and empty, when the whole valley looked like a pre-first-world-war snapshot of itself, grey and faded, yet painfully bleak and irremovable, as if nobody could ever stir and nothing could ever happen there again. All because of that and its evil eye. It had an evil eye, I have no doubt. For one thing you cannot look at a precipice without thinking instantly what it would be like to fall down it, or jump down it. Mountaineers are simply men who need to counter-attack on that thought more forcibly than most people. But since Scout Rock was always there, that thought was always there — though you got used to it. It was not a frightening presence, it was a darkening presence, like an over evident cemetery. Living beneath it was like living in a house haunted by a disaster that nobody can quite believe ever happened, though it regularly upsets sleep. A not too remote line of my relatives farmed the levels above Scout Rock, for generations, in a black weepy farm that seemed to be made wholly of old grave-stones and worn-out horse-troughs.

Their survivors are still at it. And it was one of that family who once when he was out shooting rabbits on that difficult near vertical terrain below his farm, not quite in living memory, took the plunge that the whole valley dreams about and fell to his death down the sheer face. A community peace-offering, I feel. An assurance, too, that the watchfully threatening aspect of the rock has something genuine about it. Recently a hoard of gold coins was unearthed at the foot of it, which has left the dark face with an even stranger expression. Escape from the shadow trap was not east or west along the Road — with the end-less convoy of lorries loaded to the limit with bales of wool and bolts of cloth —but north and upwards, up the north slope to the moors. Ultimately, the valley was surrounded by moor skylines, further off and higher than the rock, folded one behind another.

The rock asserted itself, tried to pin you down, policed and gloomed, But you could escape it, climb past it and above it, with some effort. You could not escape the moors. They did not impose themselves; they simply surrounded and waited. They were withdrawn, they hid behind their edges show-ing their possessions only upward, to the sky, and they preferred to be left alone, seeming almost to retreat as you approached them, lifting away behind one more slope of rough grass or parapet of broken stone. And however rarely you climbed to investigate them in detail, they hung over you at all times. They were simply a part of everything you saw. Whether you looked east, west, north, or south; the earth was held down by that fine line of moor, mostly a gentle female watery line, moor behind moor, like a herd of enormous whales crowded all around at anchor.

And just as the outlook of a bottle floating upright at sea consists of simple light and dark, the light above, the dark below, the two divided by a clear waterline, so my outlook was ruled by simple light and dark, heaven above and earth below, divided by the undulating line of the moor. If any word could be found engraved around my skull, just above the ears and eyebrows, it would probably be the word 'horizon'. Every thought I tried to send beyond the confines of the valley had to step over that high definite hurdle. In most places the earth develops away naturally in every direction, over roads and crowded gradients and confused vistas, but there it rose up suddenly to a cut, empty, upturned edge, high in the sky, and stopped.

I supposed it somehow started again somewhere beyond, with difficulty. So the visible horizon was the magic circle, excluding and enclosing, into which our existence had been conjured, and everything in me seemed to gravitate towards it. I must have been quite young, three or four, when I started my walks to the moors. From the start, the moors were the exciting destination. It was a long climb to get up there, and a thousand distractions tended to draw me off along the slope, among the woods and lanes and farms, but even if I wasted too much time in these ways, and had to turn back, I was reserving the moors as you do reserve the really superior pleasures, even from yourself. The first half of the climb was over fields, and the first of these fields, 200 yards above the house, was a mild domestic incline belonging to the Co-op; heavily grassed, usually pasturing a herd of cows. Coming up on to that, and turning back, you met Scout Rock opposite in its most formidable bluish aspect, over the slate roofs.

The second field.belonged to the farms above. It was poorer, wilder, steeper and in it you began to feel a new sensation, the volume of space, the unaccustomed weight of open sky, and you saw that the ridge of Scout Rock was a ridge below the further ridge of moor,and moor was friendly. In the third much-steeper field you began to feel bird-like, with sudden temptings to launch out in the valley air. From that field kites or gliders would stand out at a great height, and the traffic far below on the main road was like slow insects.

Then the last fields rose in your face, and after almost a toiling stair you reached the farms, perched on knees of land or headlands, halfway up the valley sides. At that point you began to feel the spirit of the moors, the peculiar sad desolate spirit that cries in telegraph wires on moor roads, in the dry and so similar voices of grouse and sheep, and the moist voices of curlews. An avenue of tall trees ranged just above the first farm, I think sycamores, and the desolation of their foliage and silvery bark, the strange unearthly starkness of their attitudes, always struck me. I don't know quite what it was about them: something of the sky moving so close above them, of the bleak black wall at the laneside, the scruffy gorse-tufted bulge of hillside just beyond; or perhaps it was simply the light, at once both gloomily purplish and incredibly clear, unnaturally clear, as if objects there had less protection than elsewhere, were more exposed to the radio-active dangers of space, more startled by their own existence. But I liked that.

In an imperfect reluctant way, these trees were beginning to reveal what showed nakedly in the ruined farms, with their one or two trees, along the moor's edge, or in the foul standing pools on the moor itself, and in the inane frozen-looking eyes of the sheep. I suppose in some ways it was eerie, and maybe even unpleasant. But everything in west Yorkshire is slightly unpleasant. Nothing ever quite escapes into happiness. The people are not detached enough from the stone, as if they were only half-born from the earth, and the graves are too near the surface. A disaster seems to hang around in the air there for a long time. I can never lose the impression that the whole region is in mourning for the first world war. The moors do not escape this, but they give the sensation purely.

And finally, in spite of it, the mood of moorland is exultant, and this is what I remember of it. From there the return home was a descent into the pit, and after each visit I must have returned less and less of myself to the valley. This was where the division of body and soul began. 

Ted Hughes. Text of a BBC Home Service programme given by the author in 1963

Friday 8 April 2016

Sinking like a Stone

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Bob Dylan

I had only just arrived back into ‘Beris after a long haul through feudal France. I am tired, it’s late and I am staggering down the road towards Spar, phased from a full days driving nightmare of Gallic shrugs, closed shops and wagging fingers, hoping that it will be open! I see the illuminated Spar logo ahead like a star of Bethlehem and guiltily, momentarily bless Mammon in Blighty, arms flung as if in prayer! At that instant, in the distance, as in a biblical miracle, a beautiful, mystical array of fairy-lights cluster manically like molecules in the dark-lab of childhood, hovering above the road, bobbing up and down in strange animation. I pause in wonder as twenty or thirty head-torches manifest heads and bodies and legs and mumbling charge towards me. I dash onto the pavement to prevent collision. What the fuck! I look back at their luminous tops – What the fuck! Runners!

A little later, a silent, barefoot group in wet suits, looking like a huge multi-headed seal anthropomorph, ambles towards the lake… what the fuck! Swimmers!

I had previously been held up on the road behind skeletal-buttocked, lycra-clad, heads down, could be anywhere, counting calories, monitoring heartbeat, and calculating elevation… what the fuck road cyclists! Get on a fucking hamster wheel fuckers!

Where are the fucking golfers putting balls into flagged grids on the road? Weight trainers lifting the cars? Kung Fu kids kicking over bins? I am on a theme, but is Llanberis now fit-city that I remember Boulder in Colorado to be? I laughed then at how ludicrous and mono-cultured it seemed, as if a plague of neurosis had spread from health-food shops, therapy and self-reflection groups, and clever advertising. Costumed with labels of fitness, sport, and a neat package for the new religion of the masses! Whatever, Llanberis has changed, it is a gluten free zone…arglwydd mawr…size eight turnstiles on entry – monitored by the thriving outdoor community businesses, selling activity and adventure from ex fruit and veg VW vans… 

Next day. Petes Eats. Lashing down of course. Martin and I set off for a day’s bouldering. Our bouldering, of course, is not weather dependent. We have a lump and sledgehammer, assorted saws, a secateur, screwdrivers and chisels, a broom, a wire brush and several toothbrushes and cloths. These add to the array of old ropes, spades, mats and sodden but useful absorbent clothing and tampons, secreted in cracks and under boulders less that ten miles from Petes. This is Martin’s mountain toolshed.  It is scattered over many a hill and woodland with items liberated from neat, cedar wood B&Q sheds, in the sodden and barren enclosures of ‘outdoorsy-ville’. However, we do not have an umbrella.  Neither do we need one because our ‘look’ is of shady migrants seeking shelter.

We park up in horizontal rain. The tyres slide to a halt in deep trenches of squelchy toad-flaxed mud. No point in wearing socks, so pink Crocs are the sensible footwear of my choice…and I guess we are kind of migrants by choice and the shelter we seek is a cold, wet trek to yet another rock sanctuary… 

Martin has prepared a 50m overhanging traverse mostly free of the rain which now falls more sedately through the hazel and oak.  We try and warm up on mats already spotted by drips. There are sections of seepage, sourced and encouraged from the old ivy tight-squeezed in the fissures higher up, and fans down as rivulets caressing around the rock contours to pool into what are now finger-jugs, adding difficulty and technicality to a move. More body torque and subtle positioning are needed to negotiate such terrain. Normally a wet hold can be ignored but when integral to movement, more judgment and finesse are needed. Wet and cold fingers know exactly that they must adapt and try harder. A few moves can be an instant burn and a tumble into a soak. Enough!

An extra five meters of traverse is awaiting preparation.  A huge flake we call ‘the canon’ protrudes from the bedrock of this ancient quarried face. The tools are laid out. We survey its character for weakness and with the age-old art of a mason, its moral is gently broken, and after half a day working with fissures and strata, it fragments into a landscaped path and a decent landing! A flat landing is a happy landing. The old quarrymen seem to applaud as we bless the rock and embrace the change.

We know we are not alone here. Why, because scampering across wet rocky textures is not the sole reason we are here. This is not the art or sub-sport of bouldering per se. If it were just the rock surface and body tensions and intel’ only, and moves only, all would be stillborn and sterile, a mere tool of the appetites and more to be done – and the appetite grows on that which feeds it. We are connected here…and it is something that has not let go from childhood. Here, we are still playing with the mud, the metaphoric, the mysterious, the dirty and poetic qualities of nature, not side-lining them into a neat commercial package of style and amenities. Yes, we are cold and wet, but have achieved as much as a summers-day cragging plus a session in the gym, touched something alive, aware that our breaths are also with the hazel and oaks, the ivy and the mosses damp to the bone. It is a melody of steamy sweat and cold wind, of bird song at one with the voice of all that flourishes here. Like visitors, this is how you find your way to things… in a mystery of kinship. 

So unlike the true displaced migrants of a different jungle, we have the luxury to sojourn back into Petes, almost unjudged by our strange otherworldly appearance. Cups of tea are much needed and ordered, and indeed, today, paid for. The banter continues and characters move and flow around us in the ‘waiting room’ of life’s adventurers. I pick up the BMC Summit mag as I peep into the daily lives of other visitors. A theme soon comes to my attention as I concentrate my focus without seeming like a stalker. Suddenly the hilarious, cartoonesque contents of Summit mag culture seems to animate into real life with the conversations I am hearing and presents an abhorrent and nihilistic vision of the world…

“…beats me why you would want to climb outside. She’s happy as Larry and the café has all she needs. She’s well ahead of the competition and did her first Font 6b yesterday. Proud as punch. She’s only 14 and looks great in a crop-top! Fighting fit eh…”

“…yeah, he was inspired by a BMC film of an amazing young lad moving up the coloured grips on a wall. Hero. Inspirational. I bought a season ticket straight away. So colourful, happy family stuff and creative, I can’t get him out! He’s seeking sponsorship and wants to be a pro…”

It’s fun, it’s weird, it’s wacky, it’s totally crazy! Tackle a wall covered with large purple blobs, race the clock on the speed climb, shin up a drainpipe… we’ve got 12 different challenges to attempt and each one offers a completely different and completely crazy experience!

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The horror, the horror! I am initially reminded of the Hebrew originators of the preaching, controlling ‘word’ and how false parameters and careful profiling can beget a myth-void-people unknowing of the Earth and how such enforced morality separates us further from its soul…

Well. Perhaps. I could just let it all go because such a ‘vision’ of a culture cannot stop my own soul being fascinated and to rejoice with the wet lichens and moss…in equilibrium with nature, including bashing ‘canons’ on a quarry face, in joy with the messy slops underfoot and knowing too of the biomass in which we all belong, where my skull will be before very long. But will I fuck let it go! Somebody once said that JR detests sport because he must have choked on a trainer as a kid! I like that.

I do not detest sports climbing but I am aware of sports insidious nature and offer insights into what I perceive as a menacing disintegration of creative and poetic significance and a deep threat to the interrelatedness with the living planet…a destructive quest to take control!  But do what you want and do your best! Perhaps, through my articles and work, I have not quite made myself clear.

Glam-rock dictator of corporate Climb magazine thinks otherwise by saying, “British climbers do not care either for your verbiage or for the abhorrent views underlying it, John. They never have, and they never will.” Precious and proselytizing rock-climbing media’s Jihads! Wake up and crawl out the corporate arse you suave, thick bastards and stop turning kids into zombies of your own image! You give your readers nothing but tit-bits to promote an advantage over nature, personalities, style and ego and hence a decline of the soul - the world hasn’t changed that much really because people still need the same stuff as they always have, and THAT is why folk still need to be reminded through myth, poetry and art the substance of their heartbeat…in the heartbeat of the world. And yes, as corporate zombies, that would be an abhorrent view to you! Sport is generally the fear of helplessness in a meaningless, fragmented world…so lets be brave man and show the fuckers who’s who… enter the hero with a thousand poses. He will be loved.

Decline of the mysteries and sacred experience enforced self-reflection and alienation, dispossession and narcissism…   Gnostic thought.

‘…and one for the crow’, strangely for me, one of the most inspirational climbing books according to Climb, expressly denounces the established mainstream, makes a plea for the wayward, the weird, the poetic, the lost and the unknown. It talks from the beady eye in the slops. I condemn magazines promoting sport, the commercial, the corporate and the glamour associated with movement on rock, generally promoting a spiritual poverty by espousing a quality of experience centred on the mere physical and clean, materialist energy. You will always want more and there is always something for sale! The eye is not beady; it focuses on the aesthetics and positioned labels. The glamour is arranged around the bland type of valueless political correctness agendas and a paid position. Fuck equality, it is a sham, a mere photo opportunity! This is institutional climbing by numbers…fuck the purple blobs, may they burn in hell! This is not a simple case of ‘climbers being as difficult to categorise as the vertical world they have created’, (John Sheard in Yosemite) but a blatant assault on our humanity and spiritual wellbeing. 

There is some sort of hallucination taking place here! We are fed nonsense and believe it to be true!

‘There is a mental disease called the ‘metaphysical tendency’, by which man, by process of logically abstracting an individual being’s qualities, experience a form of hallucination which makes him accept the abstraction as the real thing’.


This abstraction is a corporate strategy!

A few observations in,  ‘…and one for the crow’ -

‘I face the modern, unrebellious language of ascent as a format for describing much that is at odds in society, my own scratching involvement and the questions brought about by my work, observations, recollections and sudden themes that are ‘chanced’ upon along the way. I see the banal uni-sexed product of sports climbing as a sad, limp offshoot of the plague of the modern feminist agenda; this sickly sweet swamp of a people-bath emanates a nihilism on a par with the macho-laden boys of summer, charging and stamping their tribal machismo profanely across most of the special places on this wounded and ailing planet. Talk of abuse and pollution and disrespect merge with these agendas and seem only to tighten the confusions and alienation and further terrorise the weak and self-pitying in clouds of guilt and repression. Sport and leisure and pastimes neatly fill a painful present with style and artifact. Escape is very often the venture…’

‘…Climbing is nothing more than a ‘poise’ from which to explore other worlds, to be tapped into when questions arise. It is not a world in itself and must never be a language to rejoice in or identify with for its own sake. The rock is a sanctuary…’

‘Many of the ascents in this book were stalked through with a sense of annihilation, and were more hunter-gatherer than farmer in concept. Sports climbing is like farming, in which the ascentionist reaps a profit and attempts to gain an advantage over nature…’   

Hundreds of thousands of homeless people…war torn areas…torture and cold blooded murders…acid rain…massacres and rapes and ethnic cleansing…religious fundamentalism…genocide…political correctness…bits of bodies set in clear plastic…sheep in formaldehyde…chip papers thrown from the window of a sparkling new Mercedes…global warming…chipped holds on Great Wall…kids demanding $100 trainers…everywhere the legacy of disassociation and suppression, of fear, guilt and shame…on your doorstep. Perhaps there is a need to climb…but how can you climb for sport?

John Redhead:2016

All images apart from 'Pete's'-JR

Friday 1 April 2016

Magic Carpet Ride on Cloggy's Great Slab

On Snowdon there is a cliff called Clogwyn du'r Arddu. Its name is enough to frighten away many people. It is over 500ft. in height and mostly vertical;quite the most magnificent precipice in England and Wales. Up to 1931 there was only one route on each of the two main buttresses. It was the West Buttress that first attracted me. In 1927, Longland and Pigott and Morley Wood had succeeded in breaking across from the left, to make their magnificent West Buttress Route [Longland's Climb]. My friend, Dr. Graham Macphee, had led me in record time up this climb, and we were sunbathing by the dark little Llyn du'r Arddu. Macphee thought he had earned his rest, as indeed he had, but I had other ideas. I had designs on the middle of the West Buttress. On the upper half of the buttress was a huge slab. If only it could be reached!

Below, the rocks were almost vertical. But the main problem was in the first few feet. All the way along the foot of the cliff the rocks overhung. It was a genuine overhang too; it formed a kind of covered corridor, with a roof that projected in places for 20ft or more. Nobody had yet succeeded in overcoming this over-hang. There seemed to be a faint chance in the middle, where a pile of blocks formed a kind of natural ladder. A well-known climber had tried to climb straight up at this point and had fallen off, luckily without hurting himself. It looked a nasty place, but it seemed to me that, instead of climbing upwards, it might be possible to traverse out to the left above the overhang.

Don Whillans and Bill Peascod in'a nasty place'.Photo-Bill Birkett.

This would lead to a narrow slab, which ran up to the skyline and out of sight. It was impossible to guess what happened after that. The traverse was very severe. There was one sloping hold where my rubbers would not grip at all, so at last I took them off and managed to get across in my stockinged feet. I found myself on a tiny grass ledge, looking rather hopelessly up at the grim face above. I had crossed on to a higher part of the cliff and was already about 100ft above the bottom, with the overhang below me. I felt very small and isolated. I started up the narrow slab. It was far more difficult than it had looked, and wickedly rotten. I threw down every other hold. A thin ribbon of grass ran all the way up on the right, looking like a long and ragged caterpillar. I thought that even this might be safer than the rock and plunged into it. It wasn't at all a friendly kind of caterpillar; it began to peel off and slide down.

I left this moving staircase very hurriedly and took to the rocks again. I climbed on the extreme edge, where it seemed to be a little firmer. Below my left foot the rocks dropped, sheer and unclimbable, for 200ft. Macphee called up that I had run out nearly all of the 120ft line. There was no stance in sight, so I had to stand about uncomfortably while he tied on another 100ft. length. I went on and on, with things looking more and more hopeless. I wondered whether I should ever find a belay. At last the climbing began to get easier, and I was able to traverse to a sheltered grassy recess.
The 'Sheltered Grassy Recess'.Climbers Martin Davies and Dave Williams

 There was a perfect thread-belay, and Macphee soon joined me. It was wonderful to think that no one had ever been here before. It was still more interesting to wonder whether we should ever escape. I tried the slab immediately above, but did not dare to pass a big loose block, resting on a ledge. A few years later, an optimistic climber was more daring; he succeeded in pulling the block on top of himself, gashing his hand very badly. He had to abseil down, weak and faint from loss of blood. He got back very late, and search-parties were out all night looking for him. By this time he was safely in bed. Some one had made a muddle of things. We climbed a rib to a little stance. The big slab, for which we were aiming, was away on our right. It was very steep and smooth here; the far side looked much more hopeful. But could we reach it? 

I got a long way across, and then stuck. The next move might be possible, by a kind of jump. It would be dangerous, but— well, a new climb was worth a risk. I looked at it a long time. It seemed to grow more and more grim. The exposure was terrifying and I was a long way from my second. I came back. I managed to find an easier way across, at a lower level; but that meant that I still had the steep part of the slab ahead of me. The corner was a 20ft wall of literally vertical grass. I made a mad rush at it. I had to climb up more quickly than the grass fell down. It was nasty and dangerous, but I dug in my finger-nails and toes (I was still climbing in stockings) and clutched and scrabbled until I reached the top. I don't know what Macphee thought of all this?

He is a safe and careful climber himself. But he is an ideal second. He watches you carefully and says nothing, except to point out a hold now and again. You feel that he trusts you and expects you to get up, and so you jolly well do get up. Also, he is equally famous both as an alpinist and as a rock-climber, so that I knew I could not have had a better man to back me up. The next pitch was still grass, but not quite so steep. The turf split from the slab and curled up. It was rather like standing on a roll of carpet — with the carpet going on unrolling. It was very difficult and unpleasant.

But our reward was to come. We had two wonderful airy 100ft pitches, right up and across the Great Slab, to its top left-hand corner. The rock was warm and very rough, and we felt profoundly happy and exhilarated. All the thrill of conquest was ours. The climbing was just severe, but it was easy after what had gone before and we seemed to glide up without effort. Macphee said I deserved a kick in the pants or a potato medal, he didn't know which. Why only a potato medal I don't know; I felt I deserved more than that. But it had been a marvellous day. We had done 1,000ft. of rock-climbing, most of it in the very severe class. 

Colin Kirkus:LET'S GO CLIMBING 1941.