Friday, 7 October 2016

Rob Collister's 'Days to Remember'....reviewed

Without ever becoming a household name in the wider climbing/outdoor world, Rob Collister is well respected by those who are aware of his climbing achievements and his passionate involvement in all aspects of conservation and environmental protection. A long term mountain guide and explorer of his native peaks,the Alps and the Greater Ranges, Rob has always managed to balance his professional role with an active position championing the protection of our wildest places. Not least here in the mountain region of north Wales.

Commuting between his family home above the Conwy Valley to fulfil his professional responsibilities as a mountain guide in the Alps and beyond, the environmental impact of global warming and its dramatic effects on glacier erosion combined with a growing awareness of his own contribution to the problem through his frequent use of air travel, has led the author to a Damascene conversion in recent years, towards greener forms of travel. This ‘think globally-act locally’ approach to environmentalism has drawn him to not only reshaping his own lifestyle to lessen his carbon footprint but opened his eyes to the myriad ecological problems brought about here in Wales through national and EU policies which have effected real and lasting damage on our fragile ecosystems.

But first things first; ‘Days to Remember’ is not just a green manifesto, it is brim full of evocative essays drawn from a lifetime of mountain activities. From his time as a young student at Cambridge, taking his first steps in the Scottish winter scene; early forays in the Alps and adventures in the greater ranges of the Himalaya and South America. Figures like Dougal Haston and Dick Isherwood slot into his outdoor life and like so many young tyros who took their first steps in the outdoor world in the sixties, the envelope is well and truly pushed on many an occasion. Adventures springing from boundless enthusiasm in those early years rather than gradually honed experience and natural ability. Surviving through luck rather than skill as when climbing in Zanskar he pulled a rock the size of a football onto to his bare head when abseiling and had to be lowered back to base camp by his companions.

‘Days to Remember’ is neatly sliced into three distinct sections. The first part ‘Home Ground-Wales’ really captures the spirit of place. Anyone like myself familiar with the Welsh uplands will instantly recognise with the areas described in the author’s peregrinations. The ancient church of Llangelynnin above the Conwy Valley; if it has grown out of its craggy surroundings; the fragile and ancient land of the Rhinogydd. An area of cascading streams,hidden llyns and described by legendary climber and archaeologist, Pete Crew as ‘one of the richest ancient landscapes in Britain’. The lonely Arans, in recent times an area of bitter conflict between farmers and outdoor folk who risked incurring their wrath by stepping a millimetre off the courtesy path over the summits, and wo betide anyone who walked directly to climb on Gist Ddu!

These evocative descriptions of our homeland are each framed within an activity which has opened to door to the imagination. The aforementioned Aran essay springing from an impulsive decision to complete a circular expedition of the Arans on foot and by bike. In another essay, the author wanders over to Craig Ysfa one fair morning and solos up Amphitheatre Buttress and then on to the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn;  whose summit beckoned and it was much to fine a day to ignore the summons. A winter climb above Fynnon Caseg in the Carneddau when... a projecting sphere of rock on Carreg y Garth Isaf was tipped gold by the sun, as if freshly drawn from the molten core of the world. Within each essay, Rob’s love of both the natural environment and those activities which bring him close to that fragile theatre of dreams-running, climbing,skiing,winter climbing and cycling-shine through.

Part Two, 'Further Afield’, as previously mentioned, describes the authors' further adventures across the world. Essays which encapsulate the essence of foreign travel. The bureaucratic frustrations,the frisson of excitement that being totally alone in a wilderness brings. Coping with illness and stress and of course, the very real pressure that comes with confinement. Trapped with companions for weeks on end, when even the closest friendships are tested and relationships inevitably become strained.

In Part 3, ‘Issues’, Rob returns to many of those subjects raised in Part One. Matters of environmental concern which have impacted on the author both in a physical and spiritual sense through human mismanagement of the land. Sadly, many of these depressing ecologically degrading elements, whilst being carried out by individual landowners, are being driven by political factors both home and abroad. Even the most enthusiastic EU-rophile cannot fail to see the negative impact that many EU agricultural policies have had upon the countryside. The subsidised overstocking of the uplands with sheep, leading inevitably to previously diverse eco-systems become bare monocultures. The erection of giant agribarns, the gouging out of tracks over the mountains, the draining of ponds and wetlands, the grubbing up of hedges and copses. All subsidised by an EU agricultural policy which has placed profits above environmental protection.

Nowhere is this more vividly seen than in the area of stock fencing. As the author says of his north Wales uplands home, ‘appearing where no fencing has ever appeared before’. It is a phenomena that I have noticed on my travels. Shiny green fencing topped with pointless and in the circumstances useless barbed wire! Winding and rolling across the undulating hillsides in even the wildest bleakest landscapes which are devoid of sheep. Why is this happening? As the author points out, farmers can receive £9.00 per metre in EU subsidies for erecting fence yet they can hire contractors who will erect fencing for just £3.00 a metre. As you’ve guessed, fencing is not just taming and aesthetically despoiling the uplands, its a money making scam to boot!

As touched upon in the second paragraph, the final essay ‘More Adventure- Less Impact’ we find the much travelled author now fretting about his Doc Marten Size 12 carbon footprint! As someone used to flying here there and everywhere, both in a professional and recreational capacity- like the travel writer and BBC Coast presenter, Nicolas Crane who now refuses to use air travel period-without totally following in the umbrella man's footsteps and going completely 'Cold Turkey', Rob has decided, as far as possible,to dramatically reduce his flying time. Instead using rail travel to reach places within reach like The Alps, and totally abandoning any future trips to remote places like Antarctica.

In conclusion, Days to Remember brings together a wonderful collection of essays by a seasoned outdoor campaigner at a stage when his mountain career is winding down and he can take stock of new horizons. Although far from collapsing into his rocking chair, the essays convey a sense of both contentment at a life lived to the full, tinged with a wistful melancholia which springs from a love of the natural world and his observations that the land lies bleeding. In this his essays act as a signpost for those who care to look. Pointing the way towards a better way of living.

John Appleby:2016 

Days to Remember is published and available to buy from Vertebrate Publishing