Friday 24 June 2016


It is all too easy in these days of Crags, Hard Rock, Mountain and Climbing to assume that the state of mountaineering photography has never been better. The recent entries of still photos for the Kendal Film Festival displayed a breadth of ability and enthusiasm which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Fed by inspirational books and magazines, and armed with the excellent new cameras that have become cheaply available in the last few years, climbers can, and are, taking photographs of their activities that are infinitely superior to those of a decade earlier.

The broad plateau of competence in this field is doubtless due to a number of factors. Apart from those already mentioned, one could also note the increasing demand for good pictures for magazines, books and adverts. Moreover, the increased expedition activity with its attendant sponsorship and book and lecture possibilities has also encouraged climbers to produce better results. Thus in all these fields—action photos, alpine views and expedition narratives—the state of the photographic art in mountaineering is in good shape and we can feel confident that this can only improve. It is in an altogether different field that I fear we are in danger of neglecting; for the amateur, the impromptu snapshot, or for the keener photographer, the telling observational photo that illustrates the world of the climber in a more human way.

Original Caption ' Example of the work of Jed Storah,a young photographer who shows particular talent in capturing the unusual in climbing situations: Image- Extra runners being thrown up to Gabrial Regan on 'The Swan' Roaches.

Recent lectures and illustrated articles have left me bored, despite excellent photographic material, by the inhumanity of it all; an endless procession of bronzed athletes caught in mind-boggling situations doing stupefying moves on routes of tediously repetitive excellence and in permanently magnificent weather. Yet we learn nothing of them as people, nothing of their epics and tribulations, nothing of their lifestyles.

These days people never fail, use camps merely for a few hours sleep, only climb in the sun, never fall out with one another, never lose the route, never get overtaken by storm, never injure themselves, never wobble and never get frightened. The only preoccupation is increasing ones fitness for the next very clinical, very physical confrontation with the latest super-route. The scene has become ever so slightly boring in its technical brilliance. Characters and events have been suppressed by an endless procession of technical successes.

Somehow the photography has begun to reflect this too—we risk being bored by photographs which a few years ago would have had us gasping with amazement for weeks after their publication. At this point I begin to ask myself whether it is me. Whether after half a lifetime of climbing and climbing photography I have seen it all and become too familiar with images and situations that still impress younger climbers. I think not however. The declining attendances at lectures, the increasing tedium of climbing writing, the growing uniformity of photographic features in magazines—all tend to support my basic complaint. But if this article is about photography, what value is there in digressing into a personal diatribe about the decaying fibre of the sport? Namely this: By their efforts, photographers can direct climbers' attentions to new interests in the sport.

In the past I have quite cynically encouraged activity on certain crags or in certain climbing areas by publishing some good photos. Usually the cliffs badly needed traffic to establish newly discovered routes— Lundy is a good example.

It should therefore be possible to encourage in visual terms a move away from the more soulless attitudes to the sport. Of course not everyone is taking pictures for magazines, books and lectures. Many are shooting for personal pleasure and record. In many ways using a camera as a personal diary is its most valuable function. But I suspect the ordinary fun photographer, influenced by the magazines and the possession of better equipment, has begun to elevate his ambitions.

I can imagine countless dusty cupboard-fulls of slide boxes full of tedious action sequences on ordinary climbs, and half-baked landscapes imitating some vaguely remembered painter or photographer. Such "amateurs" (and I use the word hesitatingly for it is they who are truly in touch with the real roots of the sport) would be far better occupied in following the traditional amateur pursuit of the snapshot of the sport, the personalities involved, the campsite life, the extra-mural adventures, peripheral activities like sea level girdling, club dinners, booze ups and the like, editors, confronted by rich new stocks of interesting pictures would soon respond.

While searching through the unpretentious photo collections of some of our folk hero climbers, I have been constantly impressed by the historical value of pictures that were originally conceived as mere snapshots. John Cunningham's superb picture of the Creag Dhu at Jacksonville (in Games Climbers Play) is one memorable image that comes to mind, and another is Geoffrey Bartrum's lyrical portrait snapshot of Menlove Edwards at the foot of the Milestone Buttress (opposite page 87 in Samson, or Mountain 18). I tore my hair when The Black Cliff was published because of the poor reproduction of the photographs.

Yet people didn't seem to mind and still don't. They valued a certain sense of period, a realness in the pictures that a slicker book might have destroyed. Of course, by their nature snapshots cannot be achieved by careful professional planning. They are photographic records of fleeting moments, sometimes technically awful (early pictures in The Black Cliff for example), sometimes approaching perfection such as the work of the professional snapshots hunters— photo-journalists like Cartier Bresson or Donald McCullin.

I suppose I am saying that in pursuing the fickle goal of sports and landscape photography in mountaineering, we have sadly neglected the photo-journalistic side. In the past this was naively achieved by unpretentious wielders of Brownie Box cameras. Today we need to consciously seek such pictures so that our period can be faithfully reflected by more than a catalogue of athletic action shots. Finally I would like to say a word in defence of the photo album. I have always kept one, not for my best professional work, but for pictures that are, in effect, personal diary entries. Looking back at ones first Alpine season or ones early trips to Wales, remembering half-forgotten friends, rekindling nostalgic memories, is always entertaining.

From the same era: John Cleare's classic 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' cover shot.Photo-John Cleare Mountain Picture Library.

As the years go by such collections gain in historical and retrospective value. Photo albums are difficult to keep in these days of the colour slide, but I advise anyone who is taking pictures solely for personal pleasure to forget the colour slide and opt for the black and white or colour snapshot. By careful selection and notation a photo album of real value can be assembled. Trade postcards can always be used to illustrate the mountains, huts or places one has visited, but the really valuable contribution that the photographer can make to himself and to posterity is to try and make a really good record of the nature of his activities and his friends. Therein lies the true enjoyment and value from the cameras we all lug around these days. 

Ken Wilson: First published in Crags Dec/Jan 1981

Friday 17 June 2016

The Old Men of Hoy

L to R; Paul Trower.Al Alvarez and Mo Anthoine: Photo G Band
Most of us city dwelling climbers lead split lives; five days a week in the office or factory, occasional weekends and holidays in the hills. Rarely can the two interests be merged; when the chance occurs it must be seized. One such opportunity arose last February 1985. It was the most prestigious oil industry dinner of the year, still some months before the oil price collapse. The UK's 212 million barrels per day of production was earning over £20 per barrel. Even while we ate, royalty and tax revenue was accruing to the Government at £1 million every 44 minutes. The Prime Minister had just delivered a stirring and congratulatory speech. In the Great Room of London's Grosvenor Hotel, eighteen hundred well fed guests unbuttoned their dinner jackets, lit up cigars and recirculated the port and brandy.

Conversation became completely relaxed. My host was the chairman of the company which operates the Paper and Claymore North Sea oil fields and their onshore pipeline and storage terminal at Flotta in the Orkneys. It was a prize-winning plant constructed with great care to minimise its impact on the environment. Learning that I had never yet visited it, he immediately invited me to do so. 'That must be quite close to the Old Man of Hoy', I volunteered. 'I've never been there either'. 'Then you must do them both', he said. And so the idea was born. I recalled a much earlier occasion in the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel below Snowdon. It was 1966 and in came the late Doctor Tom Patey, who, in between treating his patients at Ullapool, was famed for seeking out hard new routes on remote Scottish crags. He fanned out a sheaf of large photographs of an incredibly spectacular sandstone sea stack.

It stood like a stubby pencil on a granite plinth, vertical on all sides for 450ft, and separated from the equally sheer line of sea cliffs by a jumble of rocks just clear of the breaking waves. Rusty Baillie, Chris Bonington, and I have just made the first ascent', said Tom; 'there was one really hard pitch’  a third of the way up the East face; a thin traverse to the base of this long vertical crack which Rusty led using several slings and wooden wedges where it overhung: I've come to show the pictures to Joe Brown. What a TV spectacular it would make'. Tom's words were right. Both in 1967 and more recently in 1984 live TV broadcasts of the ascent by several different routes had fascinated and gripped millions of viewers. Climbing standards had also shot up in the intervening period, not only due to sheer fitness and intensive training but helped enormously by the invention and development of modern safety gear: the whole range of 'nuts' and 'Friends', and sticky soles. 

It meant that climbers of my age who had still kept reasonably fit were uniquely still able to lead routes as hard as they were doing in their twenties, even though these fall far short of the more desperate present day routes. It is a rare privilege accorded to our climbing generation which will probably never occur again.

Having accepted my host's generous invitation, I soon began to have misgivings. I could manage to fly up to Flotta but was less sure about the Old Man. After years of festering in the Tropics, I was no longer leading hard routes and would need to assemble a strong party to get me up. I contacted two equally mature friends: Dick Sykes, who had recently introduced me to ski touring and was still rock climbing well; he had celebrated his fiftieth birthday by leading Cenotaph Corner, and Al Alvarez, poet, poker player and author of several books including a recent one `Offshore; the story of North Sea oil. Both were enthusiastic but we needed younger blood. Al suggested Mo Antoine with whom he had climbed in the Dolomites. Mo ran a small company, Snowdon Mouldings, making and selling climbing equipment but had a profitable sideline as a 'safety officer' to the cameramen in stunt films requiring climbing skills.

He was currently involved in the shooting of 'The Highlander' starring Sean Connery. More important he had assisted in the TV programmes of the Old Man, and had done the climb. He suggested we should have at least one more strong climber. I enrolled the youngster of the party, Peter Evans, who I had last seen wandering off to try Suicide Wall alone with a fixed top rope. He was the son of Sir Charles Evans with whom I had climbed Everest and Kangchenjunga 30 years ago. 

It was not until the end of the summer — Friday, September 13th, to be exact — that we could fix a mutually convenient date. The weather then would be less reliable but it would give us veteran pen pushers the summer to improve our fitness and finger strength. Dick and I climbed a few days together on the seacliffs of Cornwall and Pembroke. Al rehearsed his favourite routes at Harrisons Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, and I practised on a rough brick wall at home. Mo returned from filming 'The Mission' in the Argentine. Over the phone he said What if the weather's really poor? We, need a hard man at the sharp end who can get up in the rain, if necessary. With six in the party we can fix the Old Man with one long rope from top to bottom'. He produced his secret weapon, Paul Trower, a plumbing and heating engineer, who like many top climbers had chosen to live in the heart of the Welsh mountains at Llanberis. With a permanent stubble and single earring he added not only strength but a slightly piratical image to our party.

Surprisingly, we all arrived in time at the southside of Heathrow airport on Friday 13th, for the specially chartered flight to Orkney. We were joined by Alex Blake-Milton, Occidental's public affairs manager who was adept at handling unusual assignments with his customary good humour. Expecting some spectacular moments, he had I commissioned a professional I photographer, Chris Mikami, to come along with us. I began to worry that with all our climbing ropes and equipment our increasingly large party would no longer be able to fit into the compact HS-125 executive jet which was to whisk us up to Kirkwall. 

Happy wanderer: Author George Band
It was drizzling on Saturday morning as we boarded the ferry for Hoy. The weather forecast promised sunshine and showers with even a little hail and S.W. winds of 25-30 knots gusting to 40 knots later in the day. We were rather subdued about our chances; but with most of the climb on the East Face we ought to be sheltered from the wind. It's nearly an hour's walk over the moorland from the hamlet of Rackwick towards the Old Man. Halfway there, the summit appears 50ft above the level heather. Only as one teetered at the cliff edge and peered over did the immensity of the 450ft pinnacle appal one. Powerful gusts blew in from the sea and angry waves surged around its foot. We changed into our climbing footwear and waist harnesses and, shouldering one or two ropes each, scrambled warily down the steep and soggy grass slopes and scree, to the base of the pinnacle. Alex, who had already muddied his fine hand-stitched brogues, wisely stopped halfway.

We planned that Paul should lead the climb; Mo going second would then remove surplus gear, Next the three veterans with 167 years between us: Al, myself and Dick: all of us doubly protected on the tricky traverse by rope ahead and behind. Finally, Peter would patiently bring up the rear. The first pitch of 70ft led to a convenient ledge at the top of a buttress on the South East corner. From there one descended a few feet onto the slightly overhanging East Face where an irregular ledge, but an acute absence of handholds, enabled one to traverse gingerly across to the foot of the vertical crack. Paul swarmed up confidently and was soon out of sight over the overhangs, the rest of us silently hoping to make it look as easy but knowing that it would be a lonely struggle. It was my turn to climb up to the ledge at the top of the first pitch, where the wind still buffeted unless one could sit right back in the corner.

On the second pitch Mo had left a sling dangling as an extra foothold but Al didn't need it and crack widened above until one was straddled inside as in a chimney. Above, it was blocked by a roof, but the rope snaked up through a diminishing slit on to the outer wall which overhung. I could hardly believe that was the only way. Fortunately for me, previous parties had left slings or wooden wedges in place here and there and I had no scruples about using them for extra handholds to conserve my strength. Leaning right out on the arms over the void, one had to commit and lever upwards on the right foot to gain an inch wide ledge for the left toe at the extreme point of reach. Comfortingly, the rope eased tight to reassure me after the move. The crack continued up a vertical corner with the natural jointing of the sandstone providing occasional horizontal creases giving rounded handholds and adequate bridging for the feet.There was no point in dallying and I soon thankfully joined Al — my guardian angel — crouched in a niche amid coils of rope. We had climbed the crux. Two more pitches followed at a distinctly easier standard continuing upwards but easing to the right in a depression. The ledges became wider and more frequent but the rock was also more suspect, slippery with sand grains, or coated with a slimy green lichen. Finally a vertical 50ft corner led to the top.

We waited for what seemed an age as the rope eased out foot by foot and then stopped. We shivered to keep warm and watched the passage of the heavy clouds breaking and reforming, infused by shafts of sunlight. With the wind distorting our voices, communication round the corner was difficult and Chris, in between taking photographs from the opposite slope, helped to relay our requests to pull in the rope.

In the back was a crack with daylight filtering through here and there as the summit block almost became split into two fingers.The wind howled through the gaps and made us realise how lucky we had been sheltered on the East face. We were also largely protected from sheets of rain enveloping the mainland cliffs and a splatter of hail which now suddenly surprised us. It made us keen to finish as quickly as possible. We had been slow; there as no question of lingering as a group on the summit. Paul and Mo were already descending past us, abseiling down and busy fixing further doubled ropes below. Al brought me up to just below the summit where he was squeezed in the corner sheltering from the wind.

I climbed the last few feet and the blast hit me as I raised my head above the parapet. It was four minutes to four. I stood bracing myself momentarily on the summit in case Chris was taking pictures from the opposite clifftop but I could only see a dim figure running for shelter. Peter now led Dick up the crack as Al and I prepared to descend. Al was soon out of sight, and at the third abseil I began to feel very lonely. How was I to know that the rope below ended at a convenient ledge? One might end hanging like a spider over space or simply slide accidentally off the end.
To avoid this at the overhanging second pitch it was essential to leave a fixed rope on the way up so that the first person descending could haul himself back in to the cliff at the beginning of the traverse and then tie in the end of the abseil rope for the others. When it was Al's turn to haul himself in he had an anxious moment finding himself slipping precariously upside down out of his harness which had become too loose. Dick and Peter had the tedious task of retrieving and coiling the numerous abseil ropes. Finally Peter was halfway down the last abseil laden with three coils of rope over his shoulders. A sudden extra strong gust of wind blew him sideways and the twanging of the taut abseil rope flipped a loose block of rock from above on to his head. Fortunately his climbing helmet protected him. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he joined us at the bottom.
A couple of hours later, tensions released, we were laughing and joking and downing our first pints at the bar of the Ferry Inn, Stromness. 

Chris Bonington's 80th birthday ascent of TOMOH

George Band: First published in High-May 1987. 

Friday 10 June 2016

The Fear Barrier

I first perceived the fear barrier on my first VS climb — the Barbican on the Castle Rock of Triermain.Four of us,on separate ropes,went for it on a damp March day in 1975. Big black boots; a stiffish nylon rope; not much experience (on my part). The book's relentless phrases had shelved themselves in a dark layer of my brain: "exposed and sensational in the upper part" — I would rather not have known that. "Particularly for the last man" — I couldn't understand that, which made it the more unnerving. We huddled beside the ash tree above the seeping vegetable life of the lower pitches and stared at the corner which bent round into space. It was undercut and it looked holdless. Below there was nothing but the crowns of tall trees and the backs of flying wood-pigeons.

Pete led off round the corner, hands on invisible holds, toes on derisory edges, moving fluently. A few years after he was to help pat up an E4 on Kilnsey; today he was in a state that he later called "blind fear". One of the party, an experienced climber but years out of practice, leaned her head against the rock beside the ash with her eyes shut. When I followed Pete, it felt like treading a wire-thin line of rock stretched in mid-air. At the corner lay the fear barrier, a zone of menace, of impossibility. As I neared it, it shrank, became transparent, turned out to be impalpable. I rounded the corner and there it was again, part way along the seemingly impossible wall. As though in a dream, pulled by the magnet of sheer necessity (and pushed by the impossibility of going back), I kept fitting the hefty Vibrams to the little edges, advancing on the fear barrier — until it disappeared, and we both felt fully human again, tethered to the rusty but solid peg (Drasdo' s from the first ascent in 1951?), and beginning to glow with the realisation that the barrier could be nullified.
Jim Birkett in Langdale
But still it lurked,ready to materialise on any crag, and for me it still has the character of that great wall on Castle Rock. A character made of the bottomless drop below an overhang, the vacancy that yawns behind you as you climb only just in balance, the silent obdurate resistance of any big steep mass, of stone. There it was again on Gimmer, on the steep rib above and to the right of the chimney stance on Kipling but not at its crux (though I fell off that twice); and at the apex of the flake on the traverse of Haste Not, Birkett's most spectacular line in White Ghyll, where you cling on with strained forearms and frictioning toes, trying to drape a sling; and on the incredibly undercut crux a hundred metres up the VI — on the Punta della Disperazione above the Canali but in the Pala Dolomites, where I only made the fear barrier vanish by deciding in advance that I would aid along on a sling clipped into one of Renzo Timillero's solid wedges.

It is an invisible obstacle —the point where your arms and your nerve will buckle and fail — the divide where impossibility begins, where everything is too much, the steepness, the sheerness, the not yet-known — a kind of break in the world, a space-warp, where the laws favouring your survival will stop applying and pure gravity will take over.

You can best it — or should I say disprove it? or exorcise it? —only by pushing on into it and through it, as I did in those novice days of big black boots and nylon rope. In that same March, when the mist verged on drizzle, we went at White Ghyll Chimney, and on the thinnish crux where you leave the sheltering security of the corner and step out onto a wall which is all downward-sloping ribs and fitigery edges, I met the fear barrier when I wasn't expecting it, I felt suddenly club-footed, all friction seemed to cease, the rock turned blank and dark, the mental steps afforded by runners ran out and I perched there fearfully, face to face with the barrier, willing it to cease — it didn't — calling out excuses to the other two in the party — they said nothing . . . the barrier consists also of loneliness: you are on your own, as helplessly solitary as though you were hovering in mid air, trying to invent the glider,or evolve wings.

With help from equipment and from people, and with experience, the fear barrier does lose its power. That May we went back to White Ghyll Chimney, I in squashy pumps, and of course I swarmed across and up that wall, and as Chris finally joined me at the top, he said, "Loony tunesville! You failed on that six weeks ago — in proper footgear" (his quaint name for hulking Vibrams). Six weeks later again I made a hash of Kipling, feeling the pumps splurge and wobble on the smaller holds, and by the autumn as the rains came on I had graduated to PA's and my feet felt elegant as an okapi's, unerring as an orang' s. But the fear barrier hadn't lost its power, it had only moved, to a perhaps diminishing but still vast number of locations around the crags the world.

Perhaps it has lost some power in this respect, that I barely notice it when I'm seconding (which for me means on anything harder than 5a). If you fall as a second you can usually swing about airily, like some clumsy trapeze artiste, and the wild free arcing through mid-air helps to make up for the ignominy of failing to surmount the crag by your own powers — I used this compensation heavily when I failed to mantel up the crux of Kipling, tried too late to traverse right, my arms turned to candlewax and I took off on a pendule, facing outwards, Horse Crags, Pike of Blisco, Crinkle Crags, Bowfell all swimming past in a slow-motion arc — crunch as my right hip hits rock and the arc reverses itself, majestic, as exhilarating as flying, the best way to see the Lake District.

Even if there is the comfort of a rope above you, some of the usual fear symptoms still flicker. The sinking gut as the impossible move looms just beyond you, the inefficient scrabbling with fingerends that just aren't up to it. But all this is far less formidable than the barrier itself — that zone of pure ill being or unbeing where your imagination balks — across which it can't throw any Bailey-bridge of conceivable moves into which it implodes like matter into a black hole.

At times the fear barrier locks itself onto a piece of rock and stays there with all the illusory deadliness of the Bermuda Triangle. The only way to prove it doesn't exist is to fly through it and come out alive and well at the other side. For me it was locked for six years (until June 29, 1984) onto the overhung corner and rib on Castle Rock where Triermain Eliminate goes straight up and Harlot Face veers out onto the rib, then round and up it out of sight. The book promises "a good resting place", but you can't see it, and this invisibility helps the fear barrier to form out of the steepness all around. On the Eliminate, in 1978, I tried to follow Pete up the corner, got past the in-situ nut, and faced with more overhang and diminishing help from the crack in the joint before I could even reach the high step onto the doubtful perch on the downward-sloping block, the scale of the overhangs and the colossal outward shove of the great face overcame me — I had reached the fear barrier — it had continued to exert power invisibly, like negative magnetism, and I had to downclimb rapidly (to put it politely) and abseil off the ash-tree.

I hadn’t even tried the move and failed...pathetic! And this mental defeat is what potentiates the fear barrier like nothing else. In this case I’d made it spread and permeate the crux stride out of the corner onto the rib of The Harlot’s Face. Like a fool I let this move become a rite of passage. It was the great thing that I must do to prove my courage, among the thousands of other commitment-points that I might as well have built up into ‘The One’. On a day of cold rushing wind early in June 1983, after retreating off the Raven Traverse with Bill Peascod and Neil because we were too numb and shuddering to climb, Neil and I went over to the Castle for my first epic tilt at the barrier on The One. Seconding it would be worse than useless. The One must be led. I climbed up to the ledge much too quickly, putting on no runners, and belayed to the ash-tree with my guts feeling thin and quaky like watery porridge.

Neil settles himself down for the siege. I put on an original Moac, absurdly low down, and pull clumsily up the corner towards a blur or two of chalk. The crack takes a No. 6 hex, and as my forearms tire I eye the fateful step, the tiny abyss, one stride through air to fix my right foot on the side of the rib and then — the moment I make as if to move, the fear barrier rears —almost visible, almost palpable — a kind of tough formation of the air which my will and my imagination can't win through. No, not my imagination — I can conceive of the move all right: find the best lodgement for the left foot on the pockety wall — right hand onto the first small sweat-blackened spike on the rib — swing out — go for the almost juggy flake three feet up — transfer the left hand — but from what? It's feet away, clung on by its fingerends to a little saw-edged pocket — and if I can't bring it across double-quick to some sharp hold on the rib, or a jam in the corner-crack . . . The half-chances and fantasy-moves flick through almost subliminally, frames in a horror film. My faith in myself has now sucked out into the black hole, and I half-lower off the hex feeling witless and craven and defeated. Five or six minutes on the ledge, shaking out, analysing the moves to Neil — over-analysing them, letting the mental tension build far beyond the point of a useful surge.

Neil is phlegmatic, sceptical. He has a motto for this situation now: "You're your own worst enemy, Dave." He adds helpfully, -It's just one move." I now have a plan: climb higher up the corner; from there I can launch across to a point where the rib is less steep. It turns out that this takes me too high to use the black spike, to reach the juggy flake I would have to fly or something, and anyway at that height the corner impend's, demolishing my strength. I slither back down from nut to nut and stand on the ledge speechless with chagrin, fingertips numb, then starting to throb. Three more deranged efforts make no impression on the Harlot, or on the fear barrier, which remains in place. During the last one I find myself absurdly crouched ten feet up the corner, like a slug impaled on a cactus, craning  rightwards, eyeing the gap and that taunting rib beyond it, urging my inner self to go for it, feeling my inner self quail as the fear barrier toughens into a thick glass presence against which my mind scrabbles and fizzes like a trapped bee.

Then I spent a year rescreening the moves. The barrier was never more precise: six inches out from the rib. At that point the exact grasping of the fingers must begin, the centre of gravity shift smoothly across, the feet pick the perfect friction points, the will remain intact. At the barrier the will may crumple like plastic in a fire, or it may hold and then the barrier is a nothing. I do the climb most weeks — in my head — and in a bad week six or seven times. Maybe I should do more on snow and ice, to reduce the pressure, since it hardens and thickens the fear barrier still more.

The Return Match Just after the anniversary of the epic siege we are up there again. A fine drizzle has made the Castle the obvious place to go. Neil has designs on Rigor Mortis, whose second pitch he fell off several times when he was 16. For me, of course, it has to be The One. "Here it comes at last, the great grey distinguished thing," as Henry James said on his death-bed, and no-one knew whether he meant death or the Order of Merit? Such banter makes me forget the fear barrier, for a minute or two. And then we're there again, Neil steady on the ledge, amused at me but helpful, me staring at the corner and running my eye across the void to the rib. Original Moac, move up, lean out, sketch a sally with the right foot through space, downclimb in good order, five minutes to let the fingertips recover, back up to put on the hex and take a last reconnaissance.

I lean way out, bridging to the utmost, get my right hand on the black spike — then the fear barrier repels my right foot, the lodgement for it under the rib is useless, a greenish slip of cracked rock, I change hands and reach for the juggy flake with my right but the barrier is still working, the flake top runs out, how can I use so poor a hold to haul my full weight up an angle beyond the vertical? Again I retreat, as deliberately as a technician winding back a film (after all, I've done it six or seven times). "This time," I tell Neil, "I'll go for it — no more waste of glycogen - if I fall, I fall." He puts up both thumbs and blows out lips and cheeks in his inimitable mime of jollying and confirming. And as I swing across this time, the barrier shatters and scatters around me. It almost takes me with it, I don't climb well — "I can't do this, Neil!" I remember squawking as my left fingers just clenched my weight inwards and my right just curled hard enough over the flake-top to power me up round into that resting-place I have been trying to visualise for six years — which has become for me the embodiment of whatever lies beyond the fear barrier. It's a flat ledge about the size of a dinnermat, and as I stand on it for minutes, matching little nuts to the crack above, I feel as ensconced in mid-air as a kestrel or a helicopter.

No doubt Jim Birkett, climbing the route without runners 35 years before, made those crux moves at the first attempt. "When I got my hands on something, the rest of me generally followed," was his sublime motto. The fear barrier will have been so much less hard and deep for him, and locked onto fewer places, although he clearly saw it one winter, climbing Engineer's Chimney on Gable (grade IV/V) in nailed boots with one long-shafted ice-axe, since Len Muscroft (his second also on Harlot Face) heard him give a short rasping cough as he moved across the hard wall on verglas: "When he did this I knew it was going to be desperate." (Bill Birkett, Lakeland's Greatest Pioneers, 1983, p. 122).

I now see that the image of a barrier which is there, as though solid, is not true enough. The fear barrier is a zone of nothing, where you cannot be. As you move up closer to it, it may enter into you —you become nothing, your strength is cancelled, weakness hollows out your arms, your feet can't be trusted, your brain ceases to screen clear images, your balance shakes out of true, your imagination can't conceive of a way beyond. But if the fear barrier fails to invade you, it cancels itself, and you remain yourself, strong, limber, and collected, in a fit state to savour the lovely jubilation that floods through you as you move on and up, unscathed.

David Craig: First published in Climber and Rambler May 1985

Friday 3 June 2016

Three men in a boat

There’s nothing quite like being on the sea at night in a wee boat,” said Graham. “Nothing lies ahead of us now except the Outer Hebrides. We should be there in another five hours.”

The trim little craft rising and falling in the oily swell was the Mysie, a 36-ft. long “Fifer” ketch with twin Perkins diesel engines which we had fuelled at Oban five hours earlier. Aboard we were three—Graham Tiso, the master; Brian Mahoney, the mate ; and myself, very much the passenger.

I am not a sailor, but a year ago when we went to Scalpay and made landings on the Shiants and Uist (you can read about the voyage here) I had surprised myself by enjoying it all. This time we had a more ambitious ploy to land on Barra Head on the Isle of Berneray and to explore the cliffs of Mingulay.

Seated in the stern, we looked with satisfaction on the dark headland of Ardnamurchan point behind us, while on the port bow the orange ball of a rising moon cast soup-plate reflections on the rippling water. In the west the sky still held a flush of pink, and around us shearwaters skimmed and guillemots scuttered out of our path.

The shipping forecast had spoken of mist in the Hebrides. It had come true by the time I bunked down, leaving the sailors to sort out the landfall. I had no doubt of their ability, and slept well. Above me, had I known it, they were having an anxious time trying to identify shapes in the mist and figure out a light that was flashing in the distance.

They were baffled, and for safety turned south with engines throttled back. I was awake now, and could detect the notes of concern in their voices as they tried to fix the position of another light. “We thought this was Castlebay but it never looked like this,” grinned Graham as I came to the wheel- house. What I saw was something which had the rough shape of a bay, dimmed by mist, and high above its right edge the searchlight beam of a lighthouse.

“It can only be Barra Mead, so how’s that for navigation when you’re trying to find Castlebay? We’re in luck!”

From the land I could hear a thrush singing as we dropped anchor in a tiny bay by the jetty on Berneray which is used for lighthouse supplies.

Graham and Brian were tired and ready for sleep. Nor was there any stirring until 10 a.m. when the galley got going for a ham and eggs breakfast, then into the dinghy to an island that looked green and inviting in simple plan, a high green ridge sloping to the sea with the ruins of houses and signs of former cultivation in an incipient hollow at mid-height. Incised above the landing, the distance to the lighthouse was marked, one and a quarter miles.

Canna Life...1930's
It was great to be on dry land again and walking in the sunshine under a great singing of skylarks, following the road to the lighthouse, but breaking off to climb the ridge and look down the other side. What a transition, where the grass ends as if with a knife-slice cleaving the island vertically, 600 feet to the breaking sea. The effect was heightened by a thin mist steaming up the ridges and buttresses of the dark crags.

Then, when the first shock had registered, you became aware of the birds whisking back and fore like bees round hives : puffins, their red legs out like rudders, razorbills whirling along in the updraughts, and settling down on airy ledges to perch and look out on the world. Fulmars glided at eye-level with us, and far below, above smooth overhangs polished black by the Atlantic rollers, kittiewakes bugled, mingling their neurotic chorus with the growing “Arr-nr-arr “ of hundreds of guillemots.

Outside of St Kilda I had never seen more puffins, and the razorbills ran them a close second. Two of the keepers were painting the outside top of the lighthouse when we got there. They were James Hunter from Stonehaven, the principal light- keeper, and Alan Chamberlain from Manchester, cheery men both who enjoy their job and are sorry that Barra Head is to go automatic, and that this could be the last season.

Joe Toner from Glasgow, the third keeper, was on cook duty and invited us for coffee.

“We do a month on the light here, and a month in Oban, so we have six months at Barra Head in the year. I like to see the birds. Sometimes we get ones that are strange to me.”

None of the keepers knew very much about the families who had crofted and fished here until 1931, when the island population had fallen to six. That remote population had hung on remarkably well, perhaps because of their neighbours manning the light and the little bit of extra service provided by visiting ships. Nowadays the main link is by helicopter, as crews are exchanged every month, but, weather permitting, the light keepers make a recreation trip to Castlebay by boat once a fortnight.


From Barra Head across the Sound of Berneray to Mingulay seemed a very short distance. I knew the view, having seen it in the opposite direction two years ago, but I had been frustrated then by lack of time to see all of Mingulay’s cliffs. Here was a chance now if Graham was prepared to take the boat in a clockwise circuit round Barra Head and up the west side of Mingulay.

Before doing so, however, we set out east from the lighthouse along the spine of the island to get an idea of its birds. Here is the list I made—buzzard, peregrine, meadow pipit, rock pipit, wren, wheatear, starling, songthrush, collared dove, twite, snipe, skvlark, raven, greater blackbacked gull, kittiwake, razorbill, puffin, guillemot, fulmar.

Back at the boat we had a snack, and I swallowed a couple of seasickness tablets, remembering the rough water I had seen on the American side of Barra Head. Never was any precaution more necessary, for the moment we became exposed to the Atlantic swell the boat began to emulate the Big Dipper. Brian shouted a warning as the boat cork-screwed at a steep angle sideways before diving into the rough and shooting up with a shuddering motion.

The rocks were all too near, contorted masses of grey gneiss, veined with pink and holed in places by the cannon-action of mighty seas. Atlantic seals playing in a boil of white water and crashing waves lifted my spirits with their supreme mastery of their element.

The lighthouse on Barra Head loomed above us at the head of the gully, and I remembered the head keeper telling us of the spray that is thrown up over 600 feet in a tumultuous sea.

I can’t say I felt any fear at that point. But I did feel it as we came into the heaving turmoil of lifting sea hurling itself white against the cliffs and churning back on us. Brian’s stomach had rebelled at the motion. His face was grey as he hung his head over the side, but my pills seemed to be doing their stuff. Graham’s enjoyment of the violent motion, and delight in the wonderfully textured Lewisean gneiss carved into holes and pinnacled into rock-stacks was reassuring. Privately I wondered if the engines of the boat were powerful enough to keep pushing at right angles to the power of the waves surging to the rocks.

Graham took my arm. “Last summer when I was here in the heatwave it was so calm that I sailed right behind the stack on Mingulay. It was marvellous. I landed on Pabbay. We’ll go and look at The Hoe —wonderful pink rock, and what must be the biggest overhang in Scotland.”

It was all he said it was, but I was glad when he did an about turn and we came into the marvellous calm of the sheltered eastern side of Pabbay. On this green side, with its deep bay, are the ruins of houses and signs of cultivation dating from the beginning of the century. The people left, I understand, when an island fishing boat and its crew failed to return.

There is not room here to write of our visits to Yatersay and Barra. I have to jump ahead now to the point where we sailed into the superb natural anchorage on the east side of Eriskay, now with only one engine working.

For me it was like coming home, since I have walked every corner of this rocky island blessed by two of the finest shell-sand bays in all the Hebrides.

“I love it,” said Brian, smiling the peat reek appreciatively and looking at the lazybeds of potatoes and wet places yellow with flowers. The road climbs gently over the Hanks of Ben Scrien to the settlement where most of the 200 of a population live facing South Uist.

How bright and well-kept the houses looked in their coats of fresh paint! Laughing children answered me in English when I tried out my Gaelic. It was their joke, for everybody uses Gaelic here as a first language. The island priest, Father McNeil, invited us in for coffee and expressed his concern that crofters who leave Eriskav are hanging on to their land when they should be giving it up to those who want to live and work in Eriskay.

“Let them keep the crofthouse as a holiday home. But the land is needed. We have up and coming young fishermen, and we’ll soon be able to crew two more boats. The four boats we have give a living to 24 families. But the young men must have land to build a house and grow potatoes—this is vital.”

I was pleased to hear that the Eriskay pony, which was threatened with extinction a few years ago, is now doing well, and that the island is likely to have a new shop, perhaps with a licence, if a couple can be found to manage it. As yet there is no hotel, but the priest would like to sec one as there is a demand for accommodation.

“We have a wonderful community spirit here,” he said. “Give them an excuse for a gathering and they’ll come.”

I imagine Eriskay is like what Mingulay used to be. We asked him if he knew what it was that drove the Mingulay people to up-sticks and abandon their island.

"It was tobacco' he said." Often they couldn't get it.And they hadn't the money to buy it in quantity'.

Tom Weir:The Scots Magazine:1977