Friday 25 November 2016

Skye Revisited

“Thy love of Nature, quiet contemplation,
In meadows where the world was left behind,
Still seeking with a blameless recreation,
In troubled times, to keep a quiet mind;
This, with thy simple utterance, imparts
A pleasure ever new to musing hearts”

Bernard Barton

It is Easter 1982, and I decide that I need to get away for a few weeks climbing as life is beginning to stifle my senses. After some deliberation, I settle on driving to Skye for a return visit but rather than go to the Cuillins to climb, I decide to go to Staffin where I knew there was great potential for much climbing.

Planning takes all of half an hour as I throw everything I think I will need for the fortnight, into the back and boot of the car before leaving home to drive north. The suspension springs are at full stretch and the tyres appear half inflated despite how much air is pumped into them. Turn left at the drive, on through Edinburgh city, bustling with ants hurrying and scurrying about their business, faces set in concrete as they live their lives within a well framed lifestyle of worrying about their mortgage, the cranky boss at work, mundane financial matters, what excuse to use this time for arriving at the office late again, and so on. I drive past without a care in the world knowing that two weeks well-earned holiday on the island of Skye, offers me so much rock to touch and get acquainted with. What a mind blowing thought.

As I drive through Edinburgh, the only two thoughts in my head are, would the trusty old banger make it there, and, would it make the return journey? Nothing else matters, not the weather, not the midges, not even the time of year, April, could dampen my spirits.

After a long but pleasant drive, I arrive at the Kyle of Lochalsh but having missed the last ferry for the night, settle down to sleep in the front seat which was not all that easy given the amount of climbing gear I had thrown on the back seats. I try as best I can to get comfortable in a small space under the steering wheel, but whichever position I get into, the damn thing just sticks out preventing me from doing so. I try sleeping in a sitting position but as the seat would not go back due to the gear stuffed behind it, I just toss and turn, huffing and puffing and moaning to myself as the slow passing of the night crawls agonisingly past.  

Dawn finally starts to arrive as I wake from a half sleep, but am dismayed that it is another two hours before the first morning ferry is operational. ‘God I wish they would build a bloody bridge across’ I muse to myself, as I try once again to get comfortable in a space even a contortionist would find difficult. As the full morning sun finally pokes its nose above the murky horizon in a clear blue sky, the sound of the ferry, its diesel engine chugging merrily along, calls out to me: ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming’. Eventually it enters the small harbour, and the steel ramp scrapes along the concrete slope as if to say ‘I have arrived’.

At last, I am crossing over the sea to Skye, jubilation, excitement all mixed up with the weariness and aching bones, but at least I was moving. The shore gets closer and so the engine is revved in anticipation which does little to make the last few yards go any faster. Bump, the ferry slides into the far shore ramp and within seconds I am off down the road with the wind at my back.

The ten odd cars that accompanied me across, jockey for first pole position down the narrow road and I am no different. Race after the car in front. Overtake. Get overtaken. Drive faster to overtake the car that has just overtaken me and so the game of leap frog goes on until I get tired of it all and slow down enough to allow them to disappear into the distance, leaving me an empty road. Sods law was only taking a short nap, for when I rounded a sharp bend, there in front was a slow moving lorry.

Braking hard I become frustrated because the road is full of bends for the next few miles or so. A car comes up behind me, close, too close so I tap my brakes to give him a fright hoping that it will make him back off a bit but it doesn’t, it just makes him more determined to overtake me and the lorry at the first opportunity that is presented. Suddenly a straight stretch of road appears and so I signal to pull out, but the car behind has other ideas as he pulls out without signalling and forces his way past me and the lorry waving with two fingers as he passes.

I ignore his gesture and stop at Portree for breakfast before driving on to park in the lay by beside the Old Man of Storr, a magnificent obelisk of rock that stands proud inviting those interested, to come close to its base and admire the conical shape of the rugosities that adorn the surface. Standing around are an array of other odd shaped pinnacles, rugged, weathered and just as magnificent, pleasing to the eye and touch.

I put on my running shoes and with my soft soled climbing shoes slung around my neck, I trot over to the base of the Old Man eager to feel its surface under my fingers.

I remembered that Harold Raeburn a noted Scottish climber and mountaineer visited the Old Man back in 1898 with A. W. Russell who noted at the time, that “we will not venture to assert that the Old Man will never be ascended, but we were quite content to look at him without making an attempt”.

It was not until 1955 when three climbers, that the legendary Don Whillans with George Sutton and John Barber made the first recorded ascent of the Old Man, although it rarely gets repeated ascents due to its suspect rock and the difficulty of finding good protection. However, for the solo climber it is ideal and I was in no mood for thinking otherwise.

As I stand at its base, some 40 feet in diameter, I crane my neck upwards following its shape to the overhanging summit some 160 foot above, being thankful for the light warm breeze that caressed the air making the atmosphere both pleasant and reassuring to me. Donning my climbing shoes, I deliberate on where to start climbing. Should I follow the first ascent line carried out by Whillans, Sutton and Barber assuming I could find it, or should I seek out a route of my own?  I chose the latter.

Finding some good hand holds just above head height, I place my right toe gently yet with conviction onto the rock surface and pull up. My fingers are soon playing sweet music on the many protruding rugosities that covered the rock keyboard and my feet dance gracefully to the tune of the tiny holds. Climbing is both ecstatic and friendly in its harmonious contact with me and I truly feel life is indeed, full of bliss and rewards. As soon as my fingers touch the rounded globules and intrusions, my feet follow contentedly, gripping snugly to the same holds that earlier had caressed my fingers.

Movement is ballerina like, tempered with the approach of a fine arts restorer repairing a priceless china vase, delicate, with precision and all with a flowing purpose to please. 

My mind is devoid of all thoughts as I allow my senses to become one with the rock itself. Life in every sense of the word, at least right then and there at that moment in time had meaning but impossible to verbally describe. As I move across the angulated rock surface, I sense I was not climbing alone and at one point I was convinced I felt someone’s breath on my naked arms. However, I dismiss this as possibly being a gust of wind until I thought I felt their body touching mine, and so I suddenly stop moving for no apparent reason. I still feel safe so smile contentedly to myself and ‘welcome’ whoever or whatever it was and carry on my ever upwards flowing movement.  

 Up and up I climb until suddenly I become aware that the holds begin to become intrusive as fingers ache with the roughness of the rock. As I halt my upwards movement, I instinctively look down which is when I realize how far above the ground I am and that a slip would likely result in serious injury or death. In an instant, I relinquish the urge to continue upwards and start to climb back down the odd fifty feet I had gained.  

Like Bentley Beetham, I am an ardent advocate of descending a climb, or down climbing as it is often referred to, believing that you should not climb anything you are not prepared to climb down, especially when soloing.

Once back on the ground, I move over to a smaller finger of rock, often referred to as The Old Women, and climb it several times by different routes. Clearly my body is receptive to climbing and so I indulged myself once more back on the Old Man by climbing up and around the circumference in an upwards spiral for approximately sixty feet, then back down using the same strategy.

After playing on some of the other rock pinnacles, I run back down to the car enjoying the tingling sensation in my toes that race upwards flooding all my body senses. I know that the rest of the holiday will be even better.

I had booked a small self-catering cottage in the tiny hamlet of Staffin, but lose no time once I had dumped all my gear inside, to set off to explore the Trotternish peninsula before the sun gave way to the rising moon which had already put in an appearance.

Over the next few days I thrill myself by making acquaintance with many of the odd looking rock pinnacles that surround the upper peninsula area. First there was the Needle, a 100ft pinnacle where I just could not resist the invitation to join the surface all the way to the top. Feeling fit and good with myself, I amble over to the Prison and found an exciting route to the top only to surprise a few local sheep busy munching the sweet green grass that adorn the top ledges. Later, I meet up with the Central Gully to make a hairy ascent inside its dark and dank interior, exiting onto a platform of crumbly schist. 

Frank Grant: 2016- Previously unpublished.

Friday 18 November 2016

Mountain Painters and Shan Shui

 Path to Kallas Monastery. (Tibet): Nicholas Roerich 1932

The wise find pleasure in waters, the virtuous in mountains: Kong Zi (Confucius)

The painting of mountains and or  climbing action is now an activity with a long history, but it is a difficult discipline to embrace in order to achieve a meaningful result for a studious beholder, and more so for  the artist involved. In recent years there has been several such artists within the British climbing world; John Redhead, Tim Pollard, Bill Peascod, Tom Price, Julian Cooper, Jim Curran etc but they were I believe working within  a sub section of landscape painting , which has its historical origins in China. A form of art which has always encompassed a spiritual element, drawing on Daoism, but which only became explicit in the west with romanticism.

The earliest landscape painting with no human  figures depicted has its origins in frescoes in Minoan Greece, (circa 1500 BCE) but by the 10th/11th century during the Chinese Song dynasty a form of painting, shan shui (mountain water) with brush and ink, had been perfected to the highest standards. Mountains had long been considered sacred places in China, and surprisingly plain dwelling literati painted vertiginous peaks such as Kuo Hsi’s ‘Clearing autumn skies over mountains and valleys’; these works included human figures set  in the vastness of nature, with a Daoist emphasis on the insignificance of the human presence in a scene depicting mountains, waterfalls and rivers.

These works (often in scroll form) do not try to represent an exact image of what the painter sees in nature, but what they thought about this. It is not important whether the painted colours or shapes look exactly like the real object; the intent is to capture on paper an awareness of inner reality and wholeness. Shan shui painters use the same materials and techniques as shufu (calligraphy), and they are judged by the same criteria, including a philosophy which regards painting and shufu as a form of meditation, influenced by Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

David Friedrich Casper's 'Wanderer above a Sea of Fog'

During the renaissance the development of a thorough system of graphical perspective in Italy, quickly became standard throughout Europe, and later in the USA, and eventually to an ever wider geographic area. This allowed large and complex views to be painted, which had a dramatic effect in the working of outdoor studies. Some of the most outstanding artists of the 18th and 19th centuries painted mountain scenes, and crucial in this development was David Friedrich Casper’s  ‘Wanderers Above The Sea of Fog’ of 1818 which had a major influence on the romantic movement, along with Gainsborough’s ‘Mountain Landscape With Shepherd’ of 1783.Subsequently in the US during the 19th century, there was the White Mountain School, which included Albert Bierstadt an outstanding painter of Rocky Mountain Landscapes, and later still from the Hudson River School, Thomas Hill a recorder of views in Yosemite.

By this date mountain studies were appearing as far apart as Duncan Darroch in New Zealand(Mount Cook), Svetlana Kanyo in the Canadian Rockies, Sergio Lopez painting  Zion and the  Sierras and Ivan Aivazvosky, the Caucasus . Mountain paintings are such that they either compliment ones taste and approval or not, but for myself I have two favourite mountain painters, the English born Edward Theodore Compton (1849-1921) and the Russian, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947).   

I was first intrigued by Compton’s paintings when along with Ian Howell I was invited to give a talk in 1965 at the Alpenverienhaus in Innsbruck about our 1964 attempt on Gauri Sankar. Around the walls of some of the rooms were the most impressive mountain paintings I had then seen. I was even more intrigued about their provenance when I was informed they were the work of an English artist, E. T. Compton.

Edward Theodore Compton : Zermatt

Compton I later found out had been born into a devout Quaker family in Stoke Newington in 1849, and exhibited from an early age an outstanding ability at drawing and sketching. His parents recognising his unique talent moved their family to Germany in order for him to study and develop his abilities, first in Darmstadt and then Munich. On a family holiday to the Bernese Oberland, he saw for the first time Alpine mountains and decided he would paint them. It was whilst living in Germany he began to climb, and over the next five decades he made over 300 ascents including 27 firsts, with some of the outstanding mountaineers of that era, Ludwig Purtscheller, Emil Zsigmondy and Karl Blodig. The latter was the first to ascend all the 4000 metre peaks in the Alps, and with whom Compton made the first guideless climb in 1905 of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, and the first ascent of the Torre Di Brenta and the South Face of the Cima di Brenta . In a German publication Berg, he is described as being strong physically, and an excellent technical climber.

Compton became well known as an illustrator for the German and Austrian Alpine Clubs, and was the artist who provided the plates for two of the most iconic mountain books of that period, ‘In the High Mountains’ by Zsigmondy (1889) and ‘Mountaineering in pictures’ by Alfred Steinitzer (1913). In 1880 he was elected to the Royal Academy, and he was a member of the Alpine Club and the DAV (German/Austrian Alpine Clubs).  When he was 70 he ascended the Gross Glockner, but his climbing achievements pale once you are confronted by his canvases.  For myself, his paintings of the Alps (he also visited North Africa, Scandinavia, the Andes   and the UK etc); including the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and the Dolomites are memorable but his study of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses is peerless.

This was exhibited in Chamonix last year, and all those who viewed this (many thousands) were impressed by its detail and accuracy, but nevertheless he can be regarded as an expressionist. He died in 1921 and a hut in the Carinthian Alps bears his name, but his real memorial, are his paintings. It has taken many years for his true technical and artistic ability to be recognised, but if you want to own one you now need deep pockets.

Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich, little known in Britain, is a man for whom the designation polymath is hardly adequate. There are two museums extant at present which illustrate his achievements as a painter, archaeologist, designer, writer, architect, philosopher, musician, and spiritualist. There is one museum in New York and another in Moscow which aim to illustrate the full range of Roerich’s accomplishments, the most lauded of which are his paintings, particularly of Himalayan Mountains and the peoples of those regions. The totality of his canvases spread amongst different collections around the world amount to a staggering 7000 plus paintings.  

He was born in St Petersburg to a well to do notary public, and studied law to please his father and art to please himself; graduating at both the University and the Imperial art school with outstanding grades. An early interest in archaeology and history, caused him to undertake a long journey around Russia and from this, subsequently, once a member of the artistic community in the Russia of that era, he drafted a story, ‘The Rites of Spring’, the music for which was composed by Stravinsky. Diaghilev had been a fellow law student with Roerich, and he invited him to design sets for ‘The Ballet Russes’ which was to cause such a sensation in Paris before the first war. Roerich’s designs for Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ (1909) and ‘The Rites of Spring’ cemented his reputation in that field. 

Nicholas Roerich
At the Russian Revolution of 1917, which he supported, along with Maxim Gorky he was trusted with the role of setting up an arts commission by the Soviet, but sickened by the killing and persecutions which followed the revolution, Roerich migrated with his wife and two young boys first to Finland, then to England, invited by Thomas Beecham to design sets for him at Covent Garden. In England he met with H.G.Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize- winning Indian poet, whose niece his youngest son Svetoslav married in 1945; the legendary Bollywood actress Devika Rani.

During the first decade of the 1900’s, largely due to his wife Helena, Roerich developed an interest in Eastern religions, which would shape the rest of his life; the influence of Theosophy, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism and other mystical concepts can be detected not only in his paintings, but in the many stories and poems he wrote and illustrated. His wife was related to Mussorgsky, and another connection was with Rimsky-Korsakov, and because of this he was invited to the USA where he designed the sets for that composers opera ‘The Snow Maiden’. They settled in New York and founded there an Institute for the Arts, an art school with an extensive and versatile curriculum, including architecture. Roerich’s acclaimed publication on this subject ’Architectural Studies’ (1904/5) had become a standard text by that date.

 They also set up  the Agni Yoga Society, whilst -meanwhile an exhibition of his paintings toured the country and a book of his poetry, translated by Mary Siegrist , was published at that time. They stayed in the US until 1923, but then travelled out to Darjeeling, encouraged to move there to be near the Himalaya, which was where they felt their spiritual journey was leading them.  Two of his paintings of Kanchenjunga from this date, have subsequently sold at auction for over one million pounds each, I have a framed print of one of these on my living room wall.

This interest in the Himalayan region led on to the Roerich’s setting forth with their son George, a brilliant linguist who was later to publish the first  Tibetan/English/Russian language dictionary,  and six friends to travel these regions for five years. They started in Sikkim, then moved on to Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram, Hotan, Kashgar, Urumqi, Iyrtish, the Altai mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the central Gobi, Gansu, Tsaidam and finally Tibet. Where they received an icy reception, being stopped on the high Tibetan plateau and forced to live in tents in sub-zero conditions, and to exist on subsistence meagre rations for several months, during which five members of their party died. Finally they were allowed to leave Tibet in March 1928, from whence they retreated back to India.

Returning first to Darjeeling; Roerich wrote several books about his experiences from this incredible journey, much of it on foot, two of which ‘Altai-Himalaya’ and ‘Shambala’ were translated and published in the USA.  He had also painted many outstanding studies of the mountains he had viewed, including the Mustagh Tower, whilst traversing the Himalaya. In 1929 Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the University of Paris. His concern for peace resulted in his creation of the Pax Cultura, the ‘Red Cross’ of art and culture. His work for this cause resulted in the USA and the twenty other nations of the Pan-American Union, signing the Roerich pact on April 15th 1935 at the White House under President Roosevelt. This was an early international instrument attempting to protect cultural property.

Pictures of Roerich at this time, illustrate a tall, bearded, erect personality, who might have emerged out of the pages of a Tolstoy story. In 1935 on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture, accompanied by two of their scientists MacMillan and Stephens, Roerich led an expedition to Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. The expedition’s purpose was to collect the seeds of plants which prevent the destruction of benign layers of soil.

During his journeying in the Himalaya, Roerich decided on the need for a Himalayan Institute and in January 1929, he and his family moved to the Punjab’s, Kulu Valley. A site he had noted on his previous travels, and there by the village of Naggar , he bought the Hall estate from the Rajah of Mandi. His son, Svetoslav who is now revered in India as one of its most famous artists, who studied painting with his father from a young age, declared ‘I have seen many countries, but I have not discovered a more beautiful place as the Kulu Valley’. There they set up the Himalayan Research Institute, ‘Urusvati’ a name which in Sanskrit means ‘The light of the morning star’. From this base they set out on journeys into Lahul, Spiti, and Ladakh , and back at the Institute they studied local cultures, language, the natural sciences and much more.

Both Nicholas and Svetoslav painted local peoples and scenery, whilst their eldest son, George a Philologist, who had studied at University College London, Harvard, and the Sorbonne and was fluent in Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi,Chinese  and Tibetan studied local dialects and language. The Roerichs continued their intense work in the Kulu valley until Nicholas died in 1947. Whilst living at Naggar, Roerich was visited by both Nehru and Indira Gandhi and subsequently his son Svetoslav painted their portraits, which along with that of a former President, Radhakrishan, also by him adorn the central Parliament Hall in Delhi.

Nicholas Roerich was a mystic, and an altruistic philosopher dedicated to the Himalaya and its peoples, he painted them as no one else has. He was a symbolist, and prior to his Indian sojourn, many of his paintings are of Slavic history and legend which some find ‘disturbing’. H.P. Lovecraft the cult horror story writer referred several times to the ‘strange and disturbing’ paintings of Nicholas Roerich, especially in his Antarctic novel of 1936,’At  the mountains of madness’. Nevertheless one of these ‘strange’ paintings, the Madonna Laboris sold for 12 million dollars at Bonham’s in 2013! So to own one of these you would need even deeper pockets than to purchase a Compton.

There have been so many books now about the Roerich’s that it is hard to understand why so few people have heard about them in the UK? There are several biographies, and one about Nicholas and his wife Helena ‘The Spiritual Journey of two great artists’ by Ruth Drayer was published in 2014, and another ‘Nicholas Roerich- Inspired by the Himalaya’ by Ashok Dilwali appeared in 2013 and several of his own books are still in a revised recently  published form. There are even music compositions such as the ‘Roerich Suite’ by Juan Carlos Garcia available as an MP3 download. Besides the two museums dedicated to his works in New York and Moscow, there are Roerich Institutes in Mexico and Brasil.

Krishna (Spring in Kulu): Nicholas Roerich

It is obvious now that Roerich was ahead of his time, his spirituality, his interest in Eastern religions and their philosophies detailing a way of living, perhaps anticipated  the ‘beat’ movement and its  Zen Buddhist* disciples of the 1960’s? But few have been able to bridge the gap in thought and interpretation as he did. He was also such a ferocious worker; to carry on with all the creative activity he undertook year in year out is truly impressive. Inevitably within his huge oeuvre there are works which are sub-standard, especially within some of his writings, but at his best, he was I believe an outstanding artist of the highest ability.

*Zen Buddhism is a fusion of Daoist and Buddhist beliefs. Daoism is the only religion to emerge from China, but Zen is a Chinese construct from the Tang dynasty 618-907), known as Chan in that country, and Zen in Japan and the West.

Dennis Gray: 2016........(Previously unpublished)

Friday 11 November 2016

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Written in 1974, Chris Brasher's article originally published in the BMC's Mountain Life magazine, tapped into the widespread public concern that was being expressed at the time, in relation to a series of mountain tragedies and close shaves involving parties of young people taking part in mountain expeditions organised by schools and outdoor education centres. Hard to imagine now in an age when schools, outdoor centres and those involved in outdoor education have become paranoid about public liability and fear of litigation, back in those far off days,rules and regulations which governed the actions of organisations and individuals taking youngsters on outdoor activity courses, was of course, far more relaxed. 'Abandoning' youngsters in a mountain environment and leaving them to survive and return through their own skills without interference from instructors, was an integral part of a centre's survival and navigation course experiences.

Ironically,the increased regulation and tightening up of outdoor education in the UK has led to massive decrease in the number of youngsters now experiencing outdoor activities. With many LEA outdoor centres since the 1970's now closed down and sold off, and outdoor charities forced to likewise cease their activities, there are many who would argue that the initially well intentioned actions of the state, has had a serious detrimental effect on outdoor education in the UK.

Everyone of us who has ever been in charge of a party of boys or girls on a mountain expedition must fear the thought of the moment when we have to call out the search parties. On Sunday March 17th that moment came to Chris Abel, the master in charge of adventure training at Bredon School, Tewkesbury. The fear is of the hullabaloo that follows every major search for a party of kids — the enquiries by news reporters and television teams, the criticism of other climbers and the tut-tutting of the public. But, that fear can, and must, never interfere with one's responsibility to call for help as soon as it is needed. I myself have known this fear when three different parties of boys were late at their camp site on an exercise that I had set.An exercise which I know now had too many boys in it and was too arduous. Luckily they were all rounded up — after a vast expenditure of my energy — before dark. And I have been on the other end, quizzing masters in charge of parties that have involved massive searches and then writing about it in the press. So now I examine myself before putting pen to paper and I employ one criterion: would publicity help enlighten others and perhaps — just perhaps — help prevent the same sort of thing happening again?

One has to be careful about being too pompous. There is after all no such thing as a safe mountain. With our unpredictable British weather almost any mountain, however apparently welcoming, and at any time of the year, can be dangerous to people without the complete skills and judgement of the mountaineer. So accidents will happen. Having said that, the case of the Bredon schoolboys and Chris Abel, the master in charge, does warrant examination because, in my opinion, there are one or two factors which resemble the case of the massive search for the Hertfordshire schoolboys on the Carneddau last Easter. Bredon School have a cottage called Dorwen (OS sheet 153, G.R. 772 148). On Saturday March 16th, after a morning of instruction in climbing and abseiling, six boys from the school, aged between 13 and 15, set out in two parties of three — one party at 13.50 hrs. and the other at 14.10 hrs. Their route was via the Trig point 1547 and then to Bwlch y Giedd (2,400 feet), on the shoulder of Bannau Brycheiniog, and then by a very steep sheep track (not marked on the map) which leads past the southern end of Lyn y Fan-Fawr to a rendezvous on a minor road at GR 852214 (OS sheet 140). The distance; according to the school, is nine or ten miles and they were supposed to rendezvous with Chris Abel at 17.30 — approximately three and a half hours after they set out.

They carried two emergency rucksacks between the six of them. Each sack contained one tent, one sleeping bag, a plastic bag holding spare clothing, and a one man 24-hour food pack plus one pound of chocolate. Each sack weighed about 24 pounds when dry, perhaps 30 pounds when wet. Each boy had an anorak, a nylon cagoule and corduroy or cavalry-twill trousers. None of them had waterproof trousers and some were without a woollen cap or gloves because the weather was good when they set out. The boys reached the Bwlch at 16.35 hrs by which time, the mist had come down and the wind had risen. In unpleasant conditions -strong wind, cloud and a hint of hail — conditions with which they were not familiar- they could not find the sheep track and rather than face the steep slope down to the llyn they decided to turn back. For some reason (perhaps fear of the steep escarpment on the East) they did not attempt their planned alternative route of coming down the SSE ridge of the mountain (a gentle ridge) until meeting the main road at Gwyn Arms. (This ridge, incidentally, is part of the proposed Cambrian Way)

 They camped before dark -sunset on that Saturday was just after 18.00 hours- beside a stream at the estimated position 816214. When they did not turn up at the rendezvous point, Mr. Abel and two others started looking for them. Two of the searchers reached the Bwlch at 18.30 and blew their whistles. The boys who were no more than three quarters of a mile away, heard the whistles but the searches did not hear the boys' reply; perhaps because of the wind? Next morning, Sunday March 17th, Chris Abel walked up from Dorwen cottage to Trig point 1547. Visibility was good and the Bwlch was clear. He scanned the whole area with his binoculars and could see no sign of movement. He then went back to the cottage and called out the search teams. That Sunday afternoon more than 100 people searched the area and found nothing. One of the boys was feeling ill and this seems to have spread a certain amount of lethargy amongst the rest of the team. At one time during the day they left their camp standing and went up the Bwlch to try to cross it but were again turned back. They were not found and they settled down to another uncomfortable night, during which there was a slight snowfall.

Next morning, Monday March 18th, they struck camp and set off back to the cottage. They were sighted and rescued by an R.A.F. helicopter at about 0900 hours when they were less than one and a half miles south of their camp site and three and a half miles from the cottage. Chris Abel says that similar parties from the school have regularly done this trip on many occasions before in both directions. Experience, he says, shows that 3-1/2 hours is a reasonable time for it. He himself has been organising this type of expedition for the school for 10 years and before that he was at the Devon Outward Bound School. (Some instructors will no doubt comment that the law of averages had to catch up with him sometimes). He did not set the boys off at an earlier hour because they were involved in climbing and abseiling instruction and because he wanted them to be well briefed and to have a good lunch. The trouble arose, he feels, because one of the party was not feeling well and because the cloud came down half an hour earlier — and it came 1,000 feet lower — than had been forecast.

Now for our comments:

1. The distance by the best route on the map is 8 miles. The height gained is 1700 feet. Two boys out of the six were loaded and the speed of any party is the speed of the slowest. Using the R.A.F. formula for a loaded party of 2-1/2 miles per hour plus one hour for every 1,500 feet gained, the formula time for the expedition is 4 hour 20 minutes. This would put the boys at the rendezvous point at 18.20 hours — after sunset. We realise that formulae are no substitute for experience and Chris Abel has far more experience of this area than we do. Nevertheless, is this not another typical instance of that terrible British habit (of which we ourselves have been guilty many times) of setting out late in the day and not allowing an ample margin of time before dusk. Should not we aim to be at our terminal point by mid-afternoon — or earlier — thus allowing plenty of time for wrong route finding, not feeling well, dawdling over lunch or any of the other diversions that seem to spring up in the hills?

It is worth recalling that the Cairngorm party did not set out until well past mid-day and that the Hertfordshire boys were still at the stream in Cwm Eigiau at 16.00 hours when they were supposed to rendezvous on the summit of Foel Gras at 17.30 hours.

2. Again there is a similarity with the Carneddau incident in that the crux of the Bredon schoolboys' expedition — the crossing of the Bwlch — came near the end of the expedition when there was much less than two hours to darkness. Should not the crux of any "adventure training" expedition come early in the day when the boys are fresh? It then gives them a tremendous glow of achievement to speed their way for the rest of the day.

3. This business of staying put. Many experienced mountaineers felt that all the praise lavished on the Hertfordshire schoolboys (including a Mayoral reception!) for their "sense" in staying put would only lead to other parties of schoolboys bedding down for the night at the first sign of trouble and then waiting to be rescued. If this sounds harsh, then please remember that the Hertfordshire boys were "found" by a couple from Cambridge after they had been "lost" for over 18 hours but they did not want to go down to the Conway Valley with the Cambridge couple because it was in the opposite direction to their rendezvous. And what, may we ask, were the "well- trained" Bredon schoolboys doing throughout Sunday when conditions were such that their master could see the whole route up to the Bwlch.

The pendulum of human experience as tends to swing in an exaggerated way. Before we knew about Mountain Hypothermia, lives were lost because parties and individuals would press on when conditions got bad, the body got wet and exhaustion approached. So out went the call "to stay put and keep warm". And very good advice it is. But it does not mean staying put for two or three nights when conditions are such that escape is more than feasible. Because if this goes on then the fears of those people after the Carneddau incident — fears that our lives would be spent looking for "stay put" parties — may well turn out to be only too true. 

Perhaps it all comes down to this one to truth: that a party is only ‘well-equipped’ in and ‘well-trained’ if it is able to cope with the worst conditions that are liable to be encountered on any expedition. We confess that if that ‘truth’ was always rigidly applied then many famous climbs, many famous expeditions, would never have taken place. But we put it to all our readers that there is a world of difference between an expedition undertaken by — as the phrase goes — ‘consenting adults’ and those set by a school, education authority or outdoor pursuits centre when those in charge are "in loco parentis" to the boys or girls who are setting out on the expedition.
Chris Brasher: Mountain Life-April/May 1974

Friday 4 November 2016

Chris Bonington-Mountaineer...reviewed

First published in by Diadem in 1989 and edited by the late Ken Wilson, Chris Bonington-Mountaineer, charted the remarkable climbing career of someone,who even 30 years ago, was THE public face of British mountaineering. Since then, his fame and influence has only continued to grow to the extent that the genial knight of the realm is recognised and respected wherever people climb mountains.  Chris Bonington Mountaineer originally set out to detail through words and images, his outdoor life, from youthful early days wandering in Somerset’s Quantock hills, to later military style expeditions in the Greater Ranges, where his organisational skills came into their own.

The book was no searing, in depth autobiography but a simple coffee table tome which set out to record his global and domestic campaigns in a photo-journalistic style. The substance and strength of the book was in its photographs with the matter of fact text simply outlining what was going on at the time when the image was recorded. Fast forward almost 30 years and the fifty something action man has become an 80 something grizzled veteran and survivor. Where many have fallen, Chris has overcome triumph and tragedy and remained in the saddle to reach an age when many of his generation who have come this far, have fallen into decrepitude. By contrast, ‘rage,raging against the dying of the light’, he remains ever the activist. Climbing The Old Man of Hoy with young whippersnapper, Leo Holding in his 80th year! Good fortune or simply living a healthy life? Whatever the reasons for his continued rude health, his exploits in the great outdoors continue to delight and astound the mountain community.

Atop the Old Man of Hoy with Leo Holding:Photo Berghaus

Vertebrate’s 2016 re-issue takes to story forward to the present day. Still chock full of those classic early photographs of people and places,including iconic figure like Don Whillans and Nick Escourt, his post 89 adventures have been brought in to bring his mountain life up to date. Further expeditions to the greater ranges of course, but also recent excursions in Morocco, The USA and Greenland with lifelong friends. Climbing simply for the sheer pleasure of it rather than as part of a sponsored siege of an unclimbed peak.

Given the quality of the images-and not all photographs included were taken by Chris- those interested in photography would be interested to discover what cameras were used to record what are overwhelmingly, outstanding images. Well, Chris is very much an Olympus man. In the footnotes at the back of the book he tells us that he switched to Olympus in 1974 and never changed. Attracted by the introduction of the compact SLR, he generally used Olympus cameras and lenses with Kodachrome film-25/64 above the snowline and 200 below. The Olympus addiction continued into the digital age and he continues to use the OM-D and four third system Pens. Although he confesses to increasingly use an iPhone 6 to record his adventures.

Go North Young Man:
Chris Bonington Mountaineer is out on the 7th November and available direct from Vertebrate or as they say in the trade- from all good book sellers.

John Appleby:2016