Friday, 30 September 2016

Wild Country : Two Reviews.

Image: Vertebrate Pub
To business that we love we rise betime,
And go to it with delight.’

Despite an impressive back story, Mark Vallance has not figured other than rarely over the years in this country’s outdoor media. This despite the fact that he has been responsible for some of the activities major developments in equipment design, retailing and a lead role in the setting up of the first modern style climbing wall in the UK, The Foundry in Sheffield.

To start at the beginning of his book to set the scene, The Prologue, for whilst rock climbing in Spain at Pedriza north of Madrid, he first realised that he had  physical co-ordination problems, returning to the UK the symptoms worsened. This led on to a diagnosis of an early onset of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 54. For many this would have meant a retreat into a cosseted existence; a drug regime, pipe and slippers, but not for Mark. Despite the ongoing problems the condition imposed, he still managed some impressive climbs, particularly in the Himalaya over the next decade. But it has inevitably led to a long term physical decline, a real personal tragedy in that he had by the date of his diagnosis divested himself of his business responsibilities, with the intention of a long term active retirement, the diagnosis was in his own words a ‘bugger’. 

Vallance did have a silver spoon childhood, and schooling. His parents were Unitarian ministers, both mother and father, his maternal grandfather was a standout figure in that religion; who like Mark’s parents had graduated from Oxford, he even was the recipient of an honorary degree from Harvard. Mark was born in Cheshire in 1944, but the family moved to Chesterfield early in his life, and this was later to be crucial in his development as a climber. He was inspired in this by a viewing of the 1953 ‘Ascent of Everest’ film, and at his public school Abbotsholme near Ashbourne, his headmaster Robin Hodgkin had been an outstanding climber in the 1930’s, but who had suffered serious frost bite injuries on Masherbrum in 1938, yet he continued to climb despite having lost toes and fingers in a harrowing descent off that mountain in a storm.

Abbotsholme is seen as a progressive school, and Hodgkin ran as part of its curriculum outdoor pursuits, including climbing. At the school Vallance made friends with Nick Longland, the son of another outstanding pre-war climber, Jack Longland, and he like Mark was hooked on to becoming a climber. The early chapters of the book recount the days they spent developing their skills together in the Peak District, and further afield in North Wales. It was not like the working class introduction to the activity of the previous decade, ‘nowt but pluck, beginners luck, and his mother’s washing line’, but cycling out from Chesterfield into the Peak District, Mark was soon making some impressive climbs, leading such as Brown’s Eliminate at Froggatt Edge and later Cenotaph Corner on Dinas Cromlech whilst still a schoolboy in his gym pumps. These were very creditable leads in the early 1960’s. Through his friendship with Nick Longland, he became for a while firm friends with the latter’s father Jack, who welcomed him regularly into the family home in Bakewell, after a day spent climbing with his son. This friendship was to be badly damaged later over the Mountain Training dispute, when Mark sided with the BMC against a rival Educationalist group led by Jack. Longland did not speak to him again for many years after this, but in writing about this in his book, Vallance has the facts wrong about how this fractious debate was resolved. An independent arbitration group was set up by the Alpine Club, whose findings/recommendations were accepted by both sides to the dispute. John Hunt had no part in this as wrongly reported by Mark, but he had before the dispute escalated undertaken as head of a committee (of which I was the secretary) formed by the BMC, carried out an investigation into mountain training. This resulted in the publication of a booklet, known as The Hunt Report and it was the recommendations within this that so upset the educationalists, in that mainstream mountaineers through the BMC should play a much larger role in developing the policies surrounding mountain activities. The real reason why this had become such an acrimonious debate was there had been a succession of accidents involving young people on training schemes, culminating in the Cairngorm tragedy in 1971 when five young participants had died whilst taking part in an organised youth outing. This alerted the-none involved climbing world as to how serious in mountaineering terms some of these programmes really were.

We are all products of our environment and though Mark grew up in such a religiously inspired background, other influences persuaded him towards atheism. A great uncle had been Hermann Woolley, a pioneer climber at the end of the 19th century, who became a founder member of the Climbers’ Club and a President of the Alpine Club. In these early chapters he is honest in accepting he was privileged, and also that he was no great scholar academically, but the stubborn streak in him which was to emerge so strongly in his later business ventures and dealings, was honed by his early experiences as a young climber. This also led on to a desire to travel, to experience other worlds’ and so on leaving school he took a gap year in India. He was inspired to go there in part by reading Somervell’s autobiography ‘After Everest’, who after taking part in the 1922 and 1924 expeditions to that mountain, spent most of the rest of his life as a missionary surgeon in south India.

Through connections he obtained a post as a teacher at the Ramakrishna School near Calcutta. This was at a time in the 1960’s when the hippy trail and flower power led many westerners to visit India one of whom, the writer Christopher Isherwood fetched up one day at the Ramakrishna centre. Isherwood famous as a novelist recorded his views about meeting over lunch Mark and several others in his diary; about Vallance he wrote ‘met a handsome and sexy nineteen year old boy from Cheshire, named Mark Vallance who has come here to teach English-or rather, his no-shit Midlands accent’. Being an innocent abroad at that stage of his life, Mark had not realised Isherwood’s sexual orientation. India had a seminal influence on him and he found himself comparing the Unitarian faith with Hinduism, and having an enquiring mind attending with the students at the temple, their puja prayer ceremonies, but he concluded this was not for him. He also managed a trek up into the Kanchenjunga foothills, and the view of the Himalaya was to stay with him from thereon.

Returning to England in January 1965 he enrolled at Goldsmith’s College in London to read for a teaching degree. It was there he met his future wife Jan, a drama student, but the paths of true love were a roller coaster for them due to taking on subsequent challenges in far flung regions of the world, but a few years later they were to be married in the Falkland Islands. Whilst waiting to start his course in London Mark returned to his first love climbing. To do which he needed to earn some money, especially for a forthcoming Alpine season; he took a job drilling blast holes in a quarry, then another pouring concrete to help build a dam project in the Goyt valley. His alpine season was successful with routes climbed such as the Frendo Spur, the north face of the Lenzspitze and the north face on the Triolet, back then before the development of modern ice climbing equipment still notable ascents.

The pace now quickens in his book, with a compelling chapter on his two years experience working for the British Antarctic Survey, in Halley Bay, first as a general assistant, but ending as the Base Commander. He admits that living in the Antarctic changed him, with its raw beauty in such a challenging environment and in managing a group of dedicated individualists, mainly scientists from several different disciplines. It was to be for him truly educative. Finishing his BAS sojourn and en route to the USA via the Falklands, there he met his wife to be again, and Mark and Jan were married in Port Stanley. But climbers like Vallance need to move on with life, and leaving her there to finish a work contract, he took off to Colorado and the Outward Bound School for a post as an instructor. During which he also managed a lot of climbing in Colorado, and later in Yosemite where his wife joined him at the end of her contract. It was in Yosemite that the event occurred that would eventually change his life, the meeting and climbing with Ray Jardine the inventor and developer of the camming device which he named ‘Friends’. Jardine reads like a very brilliant but demanding character, in his day one of the best rock climbers in the world, pioneering the first 5.13 climb Phoenix, and a computer engineer who had worked in the aero space industry.

Returning to the UK with his wife, after a three years absence, Mark needed to find a job, and to his surprise after applying he was appointed to a post working in the Peak District National Park. I remember him well in this period, for he not only chaired the BMC’s ‘Access and Conservation Committee’, he also working with myself organised a symposium on these topics in North Wales. He seemed very happy in this work, first as schools officer then as the volunteer organiser, but an incident which happened on one of the latter courses soured his view of the work and he decided to move on. Undecided what to do next unexpectedly a letter arrived from Jardine, offering Vallance the possibility to manufacture his camming devices in the UK. I know from other sources that this was no act of charity on Jardine’s part, for he had arranged with Bill Forrest to manufacture them in the USA, but the arrangement fell through at the last moment. Forrest was also involved in developing outdoor equipment, but others such as the Lowe brothers had tried to design unsuccessfully camming devices, and this had led to a view in the USA which rather coloured against them. And so Jardine who had been impressed with Mark decided to try to persuade him to take this on, which he did with enthusiasm, obtaining a bank loan and a second mortgage to do so, and eventually setting up Wild Country to manufacture Friends.

This was in 1977 and few such innovations can have taken off so quickly, although the setting up of the manufacturing processes, were fraught with difficulty for a none engineer, but within six months sales had rocketed. Later to be assisted by an appearance on the BBC’s popular technology programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’, where Mark so confident in his product dived off the top of Millstone Edge to be stopped by his belayer, held by Friends placed as protection devices in a crack after a fall of many feet.

In an effort to globalise his business he took part as a member of a six man party of British climbers to Japan, fulfilling an invite to the BMC to send such a group to that country by its climbing Federation. In his book he describes near the end of the meet an incident on the killer mountain Tanigawa, on which almost 900 climbers had died in the years before this visit, but he has not go this quite right, for the Japanese climber who fell was away across the flanks of the mountain, and did not fall past Mark as he described. I know because I was there on the stance alongside him, climbing with a Japanese companion, Takao Kurosawa, but we did all go to the rescue of the injured climber and we all did agree that this was the most dangerous mountain any of us had ever been upon because of its looseness and constant rock falls. However the visit worked out well for Mark, for he set up a Japanese distributor for his products.

Much of the rest of the book is dominated by Vallance’s business story, for Friends were the platform for Mark to go on and build the ‘Wild Country’ brand, eventually developing into several other areas of outdoor equipment manufacturing tents, nuts and some clothing items. An illustration of his ability in this field was his design of another climbing protection aid, which he named Rocks. Probably the most successful range of nuts ever produced in this country. Business is an obsession like climbing, and over the next decade Vallance became the man with the Midas touch, developing further the Wild Country brand into the USA, setting up the Outside retail shop in Hathersage, and being one of the moving forces behind the setting up of the first modern indoor climbing centre in this country, The Foundry in Sheffield in 1990. An innovation which has now spread the length and breadth of the UK, and no one can forecast presently how this will affect the long term development of climbing. Vallance is sanguine about this, and writes that ‘if some participants wish to solely climb indoors this is OK by him’, but I am not so sure that this is a wise decision, for the recent debacle at the BMC over a failed attempt at re-branding, was caused I believe in part by an attempt to cajole into membership an ever growing number of indoor wall exercisers, with a swinging new name change, ‘Climb Britain’.

And writing about the BMC, surprisingly despite his diagnosis of Parkinson’s, Vallance took on at a time of crisis, the Presidency of the Council in 2002. He was a reforming figure head, and needed to take a firm line with the staff and members to achieve some of his goals. One, which I could never understand why he made such a big issue of was his wish to give the individual members a vote; he called this doing away with the ‘block vote’, but in any major issue in which a vote was demanded, the clubs still have votes to the size of their paid up membership. The Alpine Club 1400, the Climbers’ Club a 1000 and so on, that is if you have a one man, one vote system. The majority of individual members join the BMC for its services, and to support its aims, but few wish to involve themselves in the Council’s committees and such as the AGM. The current membership is over 80,000 more than half of which are individual members, if these did all of a sudden become politicised and keen to attend such as the AGM of the Council, it would need to hire Old Trafford for the event, but as it is, just a 100 delegates attended at the last such meeting. Mark did make a great contribution during his Presidency with a development along with Harvey’s, the specialist maker of maps, especially for mountaineering to popular climbing areas, e.g The Lake District. These have been a big success and have come to be used by many other groups besides climbers.

Although business dominated his life for the next two decades, Mark did keep on climbing whenever he could get away, including trips to the Himalaya when he ascended Shishapangma ( 8046m) and some other mountains and the Nose route on El Capitan. The latter with the late Hugh Banner; but once again in buttering up his companions climbing CV before their ascent, Mark repeats the old canard that his companion had made the first ascent of Insanity on Curbar, a route that Rock and Ice leaders had failed on. Whillans climbed this on sight in 1958, in the same year as Banner, the only matter in dispute is who made the first ascent, Brown had been part way up the route and swung left to create the harder climb L’Horla, and Martin Boysen and myself both led the route on sight in 1959 as recounted in his recently published autobiography, so all the Rock and Ice leaders involved were successful on that climb, Whillans, Brown and myself.

The chapters in the book dealing with the machinations around running his businesses are enough to put anyone off starting out on a similar road, sometimes they are so involved they are difficult to follow, as to who was taken over, who sold their shares, who sued who. The litigations, the lawyers, the argumentative falling outs, it all could make for a gripping TV drama series. Talking to others who have been in a similar position, running a medium size business, it seems de rigeur in an era of litigation that inevitably you will meet such challenges.

The book ends in a fine winding down sort of way, looking back on a life so vigorously lived, for I have missed out so much of the action including his later membership of the governing Peak Park Board, a successful completion of the Bob Graham round in the Lakes, the ultimate 24 hour challenge in that district, other long runs such as following the Marsden to Edale route, and a charity bike ride from the Lizard to Dunnet Head in north Scotland and continuing on to ride from the northern most tip of Ireland to the southern-most to raise funds for Parkinson’s research. 

For me reading a book in which so many of my own friends and acquaintances appear was a joyful experience, Dez and Ann Hadlum and John Evans in Colorado, Eric Beard, Johnny Cunningham and Eric Langmuir in Scotland; Peter Boardman, Steve Bell, Robin Hodgkin and Jack Longland and so many more. This is an outstanding book by an outstanding personality and it is a tragedy that it needs to end on such a sad note with failing vigour, decimated by a presently incurable disease, however he assures us that he is ‘still fighting gravity and always will’.

Dennis Gray: 2016
Original 'Friend'.Image Wild Country

Wild Country - The man who made Friends

Mark Vallance – Vertebrate Publishing

People had been telling Mark Vallance for years that he should write the ‘story of Friends’ – I know, because I was one of them. And what a story it would be, telling how a somewhat esoteric mechanical engineering concept was explored by a hotshot American climber who, by chance, met a climber from Derbyshire who was able to turn this into not just a commercial success, but probably the most influential climbing ‘gizmo’ since the rope was first used.

However Mark, being Mark, went several steps better than that and wrote the story of Mark Vallance – the man who made Friends. It’s a good thing that he did as there is far more to Mark’s story than the ‘simple’ development of Friends as a commercial product.

He is the slightly dyslexic son of a family of Unitarian Ministers – grandfather, mother and father all being in this profession, and all highly intellectual, gaining degrees from Oxford. He failed to match their prowess in his early academic life and didn’t ‘make the cut’ into his father’s old school, Sedbergh. As Mark notes - if he had gone to Sedbergh, he would have spent his school time unsuccessfully playing catch-up with those to whom academic learning came more easily. Instead, he won a bursary to Abbotsholme school near Ashbourne where an alternative approach to education and an emphasis on outdoor pursuits suited him better.   Here he formed a friendship with fellow pupil Nick Longland that is still close today and, through this, an entrée to the social and climbing world that Nick’s father Jack inhabited. When Mark applied to join the British Antarctic Survey some years later, the interviewer asked “How the hell did you manage to get references from Jack Longland and John Cunningham?”

His referees and BAS were astute – Mark excelled in the post and completed his time in Antarctica as Base Commander at Halley Base!  His time in Antarctica was followed by work at Colorado Outward Bound School and a meeting and much climbing with Ray Jardine, at that time one of the best climbers in America. Over the next few years Ray fiddled with and tweaked various home-made camming devices as potential assets for improving his own climbing through better protection. It was at this stage that Ray’s bag of secret prototypes acquired the name that was to change rock-climbing – a coded “Have you got your ‘Friends’ with you today?” Nudge..nudge…   when met at the crag. A much better name choice than Ray’s which was ‘Grabbers’.

Mark moved on from Outward Bound to return to the UK and took a job in a National Park, but it seems that he had been the only person who Ray believed to have understood both the functioning of Friends and their potential for changing climbing. Eventually this appreciation led to an offer from Ray of a world-wide manufacturing licence – a challenging prospect for a full-time officer in the Peak District National Park! What followed would indeed have made a good book in its own right as many technical design problems were overcome, patents acquired, sub-contracts arranged, marketing and sales begun and, eventually, a company name, Wild Country, was selected that, today owned by Salewa, is still one of the strongest brands in outdoor equipment.  Other ground-breaking [not literally!] products followed – ‘Rocks’ off-set nuts and ‘Quasar’ geodesic tents amongst them.

But there is much more to Mark’s life than this. Outside the demands of Wild Country, he started Outside gear shop in Hathersage, opened The Foundry climbing wall in Sheffield [the first of the modern walls] and continued to climb at a very high level. His fell-running too was serious stuff and he completed the Bob Graham Round. He climbed an 8,000 metre peak – Shishapangma – and, years after the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, got almost to the North Col on Everest. Later he cycled to the geographical extremities of Britain and Ireland in a one 1,600 mile push in order to raise awareness and research funds for this debilitating disease. Somehow, in between these activities, he found time to serve on the Peak District National Park Board, to become President of the Climbers’ Club for our Centenary year and later to take on the Presidency of the BMC. 

The man himself:Image- Wild Country

Mark writes with fluency and humour, even about the devastating diagnosis and consequences of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of only 54. This, for anyone, would be a crushing disaster and Mark’s sometimes brutal honesty puts his later achievements into a perspective that none of us would wish to face.  The story of his life flows quickly and engagingly – he has achieved much, but attributes his many successes largely to ‘luck’.  It is a good inspiring read which covers not just the life of a remarkable man, but gives a unique view of some of the developments in our world of climbing that these days we take for granted.

David Medcalf: 2016

David's review will also feature in the forthcoming Climbers Club Journal. My thanks to Dennis and David for their contributions

Wild Country is published and available to buy from Vertebrate Publishing