Friday 31 March 2017

Shooting ghosts at midnight

THE last link with the splendid early days of British rock-climbing is still living quietly, surrounded by his mountain photographs, in a Keswick house that looks out over one of the finest views in England. He is Mr George D. Abraham, pioneer climber, photographs and writer and, at 93 years of age, perhaps the oldest living mountaineer.

Thousands of climbers must have been brought up on his British Mountain Climbs or The Complete Mountaineer and his other writings of half a century ago. And generations of mountaineers were first attracted to the sport by his thrilling photographs, still displayed in the windows of the family business at Keswick. But how many of the thousands of climbers who pass through Keswick each year on their way to the crags realise that the man who almost started it all is still alive, and that he still lifts his eyes every day to the hills that have been his whole life? When Mr George Abraham discovered his first new climb in 1890 — Sandbed Gill in St. John's-in-the-Vale near Keswick — there were only about 20 rock climbs in Lakeland. Today there must be nearly 2,000. He climbed with the legendary Owen Glynne Jones and knew all the great men who laid the foundations of our sport —W. P. Haskett Smith, Geoffrey Hastings, W. C. Slingsby, J. W. Robinson and many, many more. But all are long since dead and Mr Abraham is left alone with his memories of great adventures 50, 60, 70 and nearly 80 years ago. And Mr Abraham is not only the very last of the deerstalker and Norfolk jacket pioneers, but the first man to popularise the sport with his photographs and his writings.

With his younger brother, Ashley, now dead, he lugged heavy plate cameras into desperate places to picture — for the first time — determined looking men hanging on to rocks by their eyebrows. And the two — the Keswick Brothers as they were called — found new ways up crags in Scotland and Wales as well as in their native Lakeland.

When he was in his 70th year Mr Abraham decided to take his wife up one of his most famous discoveries — the Crowberry Ridge on Buchaille Etive above Glencoe. and she told me the other week: "When we were about half way up George said he knew of a good place where we could have our sandwiches, but it turned out to be a ledge about nine inches wide overlooking a vertical drop". This was one of his last climbs in this country but he was climbing and walking in Switzerland up to five years ago. Flying over there every summer and visiting old friends in Interlaken, Grindelwald and Zermatt. And there is a jagged aiguille high above Chamonix that still bears his name. Remarkably, his memories of adventurous days 50 or 60 years ago are almost as sharp today as the wonderful photographs that line the walls of his home.

He even remembers his very first climb nearly 80 years ago — Pillar Rock by the old Slab and Notch with the help of his mother's clothes line. "There were some Alpine Club men on the Rock that day" he told me "but instead of frightening us away or laughing at us they offered to lend us a proper rope and gave us all the help they could. I remember thinking at the time 'What wonderful men!' and I made up my mind there and then to become a climber". How well George Abraham succeeded in his aim may be seen from a study of the guide books for most of the climbing areas in Britain, for they show him as the leader of many first ascents and the companion of O. G. Jones in many of his more desperate adventures. One of these was the first ascent of Walker's Gully on Pillar Rock — "the last big unclimbed gully in Lakeland". They left Wasdale Head one January morning and walked to Pillar through a storm of rain and sleet — Jones, George Abraham and A. E. Field. The climb was iced with a waterfall splashing down between the icicles and the party was wet through and frozen before they reached the limit of previous exploration. Jones led with George Abraham as his second and to climb the crux took off his boots and his Norfolk jacket and used a rope loop to help him up the worst corner. And thus, with the gully era at an end, was the way opened for a start on the great face climbs of Lakeland and elsewhere.

This combination of Jones and Abraham was perhaps the most formidable in British mountaineering at that time and between them they privately laid plans for an attempt on Kangchenjunga in the Himalaya. But before they had finalised their plans Jones fell to his death on the Dent Blanche, and the development of British climbing was held back for years as a result. George Abraham tells me that Owen Glynne Jones was the finest climber he had ever known, either amateur or professional and he was including the great Siegfried Herford, leader of the first ascent of Central Buttress on Scafell. "Jones was immensely strong in the arms and fingers", he said, "but he was also extremely neat in his footwork. The young climbers of today still don't use their feet enough and rely too much on their arms". 

George Abraham was involved in a great deal of exploration in Skye and in the English North Wales his favourite climb remains The New West on Pillar in his beloved Lakeland. Discovered by him and his brother in 1901. And it is still a classic route — not a hard climb but the easiest way up difficult rock and a wonderfully natural route. It was the last climb the two brothers did together in the Lake District in 1936.

The very first new climb discovered in Lakeland by the Keswick Brothers was Sandbed Gill in the hills to the east of Keswick. They climbed it in 1890 when George was 19 and Ashley only 14 and Mr Abraham still clearly remembers the day. "But I can't remember what we called the climb except that it wasn't Sandbed Gill" he told me. "People often altered the names of our climbs and sometimes put our own name on them — those two buttresses on Dow Crag, for instance. We never called them Abraham's Routes".

"I remember having a drink in the gully above St. John's in the Vale when we came to a steep bit about half way up with a waterfall coming down it, and when we got up the pitch we found a dead sheep lying in the water. That night I was very sick". And he clearly remembers their first ascent of Walla Crag Gully in Borrowdale in 1892. On this climb the brothers made use for foothold of the withered root of an old holly tree projecting out of the vertical rock, and as their weight came on the twist of dying fibre it sagged but did not snap and they were able to reach the holds above. Perhaps 60 years later, after I had repeated the climb, I happened to be chatting to Mr Abraham about it. And his first question was: "Is the old root still there?" It was very pleasant to be able to tell him that it was, that it still creaked ominously, but that it seemed likely to remain there for ever. 

Sandbed Ghyll

Mr Abraham was born in Keswick and went to school in Manchester where he also studied art. His father, Mr George Perry Abraham, had established a photographic business in Keswick but George's first ambition was to paint Lakeland scenery rather than photograph it. In his study today hangs a splendid oil painting of Skiddaw as seen from Ashness Bridge done by young George when he was only 14. But eventually the young painter went into the family business where he was able to use his gift for colour in other ways. For example, another remarkable picture in his Keswick home is a magnificent photograph of the Matterhorn, taken by Mr Abraham and coloured by him — one of the best mountain pictures I have ever seen. His photographs mostly fall into three categories; exciting pictures of climbers balanced on tiny holds above tremendous drops or jammed in dark gullies or straddling knife edges of rock; studies of the giants of the Alps; and quieter, restful pictures of the Lakeland fells at all seasons of the year.

 But his most successful picture from a commercial point of view and perhaps his own favourite is a photograph of Crummock Water, titled 'Solitude', taken on a quiet November day 60 years ago. Copies have gone all over the world. To take their pictures on the Lakeland crags the Abraham brothers had to manhandle heavy equipment up the rocks and sometimes had to do their own developing and printing in shaded tents close to running water. Some pictures show the only photographs in existence of pioneers like Owen Glynne Jones and J. W. Robinson, the Cumberland climber, whose memorial is the Robinson Cairn near Pillar.
Now and Then: The Abraham Studios in Keswick now George Fishers.

Very many people have been attracted to the hills and crags by the Abraham pictures displayed outside their Keswick shop and the photograph that first drew me to the crags as a boy was one of a climber on Eagle's Nest Ridge on Great Gable. And Mr Abraham still remembers taking that picture and has told me the name of the climber and most of the details of that day generations ago. He and his brother began their climbing on Castle Head near Keswick in the days when rock climbing was a sport practised by only a handful of people.

Mostly university men. They first began exploring the smaller crags in and around Borrowdale and then, as they became more expert turned their attention to the biggest crags and then to Scotland and Wales. And all the time they were pioneering, photographing and writing. The crags looked much different in Mr Abraham's day. "There wasn't a scratch or a mark on them" he told me "and you could climb almost anywhere and be on rock where nobody had ever been before. But there was a lot more grass and lichen about and sometimes we had to do a lot of gardening to find the holds". Mr Abraham has held office in many of the big climbing clubs but he is chiefly proud of the fact that he is an honorary member of the Alpine Club. But he was also the founder president of the little Keswick Mountaineering Club and walked up to the club hut high in the hills for the opening ceremony when he was over 80.

The old man is also proud of a 'signed photograph of the late Prince Consort of the Netherlands. Many years ago he was asked to take the Prince for a walk over Scafell Pike, he and his wife, the former Queen Wilhelmina were holiday-making in the Lake District at the time. They went up from Seathwaite and came down into Langdale, the cars having been driven round. And as they came down Rossett Gill they found the Queen sitting sketching "in a tatty old woollen dress" not far from the sheepfold in Mickleden. Today Mr George D. Abraham can no longer climb the rocks and roam the fells but his memory and that of his brother will always be kept green among climbers by the well known Keswick Brothers climb on Scafell; two climbs on Dow Crag near Coniston that bear their name; many fine routes in Lakeland, Wales and Scotland and their photographs and writings. But Mr Abraham can still look out on the Lakeland he has helped so many people to enjoy and still look back with pleasure on many, many wonderful days of high adventure and mountain beauty. 

AH 'Harry' Griffin: First published in Climber: January 1965 

An exhibition of Abraham Brothers photographs is currently running at the Keswick Museum until May 12th. 

'This exhibition celebrates their work with a range of their iconic climbing photographs and some of the well loved views they popularised and which are still admired today. It accompanies Henry Iddon’s exhibition of photographs taken in 2016 with the same Instanto camera, and featuring contemporary celebrated climbers.' KM

Friday 24 March 2017

Blind Date at Orco

Ed Drummond on Itaca Nel Sole: 'Possibly the most beautiful route at Orco':  Original Photo Dave Cook
'I 've broken my ankle bouldering at Hobson Moor Quarry," Pat Devine said apologetically over the phone. "So you won't be coming to Orco?" was my unnecessary and selfish reply. After a wet fortnight at Verdon and nine arm wrenching days at Finale on my cycle journey to the East, I was rather keen on some Alpine granite and my impatience showed. "No, but Ken's got a replacement from Tuesday night with whom you'll be delighted. I'm sworn to secrecy about the name. Just be at the sports fishing campsite as arranged." I feared the worst. Having closely observed the mischief making potential of the various climbing "hubs" with which Wilson has been associated, whether as axle or spoke, a link that extends back through Altrincham, the Crown at Highgate, Wolverhampton to Shirley in South Birmingham in the '50's, and now looks set to homogenise both sides of the Pennines via the "Tuesday Team". The idea of Ken Wilson playing Cilla Black filled me with foreboding.

In the days when records had flip sides, "Blind Date" was coupled with "Stood Up-Broken Hearted". My own experience had been a bit like that. On the other hand, who could it be? My imagination ran riot as images of some of the climbing characters I knew flicked through my mind. The telephone's warning clicks brought me back to reality. "OK, I'll be there," I said, none too sure. Some days, several hundred kilometres and thousands of feet of steep pedalling later, it seemed my worst fears were about to be realised. I had shared the brutally steep ascent from Noasca to Ceresole with a fair share of Turin's Sunday drivers, most of whom seemed to imagine themselves at Monza. The normally tranquil campsite rendezvous was adjacent to a major road widening scheme along which JCB's thundered. What's more, at 9pm there was still no sign of my "delightful partner". With a start I remembered it was Tuesday. Would the Tuesday Team be chuckling at this very moment over their beer?

Suddenly powerful headlights flooded the field and a lorry coughed to a halt.Vast amounts of gear thudded to the ground  from the cab followed by a tall figure anxiously scanning the darkness for a red bike. It was Ed Drummond. You could have knocked me down with a proverbial feather. Although I had met Ed briefly I knew him more by reputation — major new route pioneer, poet and politic who combined his sport with "climbs for causes." Pat was right in his judgement. I was delighted. Ed's name had not featured in my wildest fantasies.

And nor had Fissura Della Disperazione as a first route. As I had waited in the field below, looking up at the climbers on El Sergent's great southerly face. One thing had become very clear; this six hundred foot crackline, the best looking line on the cliff, had remained deserted. Al Churcher's guide book, "Italian Rock", provided the explanation, "man-eating off-widths and a grade of E 10 5b." (Yes E10!) There did seem to be a certain implication here. It didn't take us long to discover that if the grade was a printer's error, it was definitely a Freudian one. Ed, whose climbing at the time was restricted to soloing gritstone routes he had done many times before, was anxious to get on to the big ones, "the more like Yosemite the better." Disperazione fitted several bills. It was big, butch and very Californian. The so called 5b pitches were cruel, unrelenting, strenuous and poorly protected. We learned later that Galente's first ascent in 1974 had used gigantic bongs for aid. No wonder the Friends wouldn't fit . . .

Fortunately, the guide book described other, easier routes that ascended big cliffs, and next day we hitched down to Noasca and hiked up through glorious beechwoods to Torre Di Aimonin, another magnificent granite bastion further down the valley. Our objective was Pesce D ' Aprile, (April Fool), a six pitch Hard VS with an attractive dierdre as its crux. An old friend, Mike Kosterlitz who, while living in Italy twenty years ago had been an important pioneer of free climbing at Orco, had done the first ascent. The Curbar style crack by the campsite which bears his name is one of the most famous boulder problems in the country, and is highly at risk from the road works. Italy is reported to have been a "jam-free zone" before his arrival, although this is hard to credit. How did they get up all those towering cracklines in the Dolomites more than 50 years ago if this was the case? Pesce d'Aprile also introduced us to another Orco regular, the mid-afternoon thunderstorm. From then on no day, and usually no crux, was complete without the sudden building up of cloud, menacing tension and the sudden release of exploding rain. We saw too our first glimpse of the incredible wildlife for which the Gran Paradiso National park is famous.

A file of Chamois tiptoed across a vast bulge of holdless slab, breathtaking in their beauty and their audacity. It was at least E10! In the course of the next few days we saw Ibex, beaver, martens and several varieties of deer, foxes and goats. The Italians tend to shoot anything that moves, and some of these species would be extinct without the haven the park provides. In complete contrast to National Parks in Britain, there was an absence of regulation notices, waymarking and information points.

The only one we saw stated simply, "These fields belong to the mountain people — Respect please." Usually on a holiday in a new climbing area there is a route you cannot dodge. Guide book recommendations, compelling line and general reputation impel you towards it. In Orco, Itaca Nel Sole, on the SW face of Caporal, is the one. Indeed, Churcher's guide implies that you would be a halfwit not to do it. "A stupendous route . . . the most sought after classic in the whole of Orco . . . there is little on this side of the Atlantic to rival the experience it offers." Well, I suppose that's what guides are for! Itaca is really two routes, and this ideally suited our party. Ed could use the modern name Tempi Moderni and the completely free grade of 6A and I could revel in the old fashioned original E2 5c/A 1 .

Of course all routes have this option, but few have it legitimised in guide book print in quite the same stark way. In the event the rains came early on our first attempt, and we abseiled off after only one pitch. Saturday followed, and this time we were not alone. Indeed every climber in Turin seemed to have joined us. However, we were first. Picture the scene. Two elderly Brits head the queue; one of them determined to free climb every move, the other making less resolute efforts. Behind them a lengthening file of Italians grows, at first respectfully interested in this strange obsession, but later, especially as the afternoon thunderstorms threaten, increasingly impatient. The Brits take a belay in the wrong place. Smiling politely, the Italians begin to climb over them. The younger of the two Brits, wearing a beret, is at grips with the second 6A pitch. His friend, anxious that there should at least be the option of an unoccupied foothold for his partner, begins to speak harshly to the Italians.

To no avail. Clearly the race is on ...Ecco . . . Ecco. Amazingly, Anglo-Italian relations survive the conflict. On the summit Ed was soon negotiating a translation deal for his book, A Dream of White Horses, with those who minutes before had been elbowing him in the ribs. Our two main rivals for handholds insisted in showing us a brilliant descent route and pointing out Diedro Nanchez, another mega classic from the boots of Galente. They waited for us at the road, and soon we were exchanging beer instead of gloves. Nor was Italian kindness over that evening. As we cooked supper on our building site field a lone figure approached us out of the gloom. "Are you Cooki and Drummond, les Inglesis con bicyclette?" At least that was the gist of what he said. Loved ones back home, alarmed at our lack of contact had phoned Ken, who having been portrayed in a somewhat Machiavellian part hitherto, can now adopt a very commendable role in this story. A long series of international calls had followed, involving the Alpine Club, Italian Guides, and eventually our lone messenger who had driven up the valley in search of two Inglesis in a haystack.

We phoned home, heartened by this brilliant example of international climbing fellowship, not to mention detective work. Next day saw us back at El Sergent, to sample some of the shorter climbs. Orco is a conflict zone. An older, adventure climbing tradition rules this fantastic valley, but it is under pressure from modern sports climbing ways. The huge plaques of granite are climbable, but without bolts there will be few takers. With them, they will fall at the rush. Sergent, closest to the road, is where the issue will be decided.

Incastro Mania gave me the 100ft S-shaped 5b jam crack of my dreams, and Nichia Della Torture, E2 5c, another Galente 1970's classic, gave us both whatever a torture chamber gives you. So far no problem. We placed our own (ample) protection. Next came Paperinic Colpisce Ancora, E3 5c, no natural pro, but brilliant slab climbing. The ethical dilemma smote us in the head and below the belt. We clipped. We enjoyed. Fired up by these successes we wanted a big one for our last day. Ed, exultant at the re-discovery of his old "real climbing" form, suggested Casa Degli Specchi (The House of Mirrors) back on Torre di Aimonin. Myself, exultant at the possibility of discovering it, agreed.

Fissura Della Disperazione: Ed Drummond leads the 5c Chimney: Original photo Dave Cook

Although graded no harder than some of the things we had done already, (E4 6a), it obviously was. You just had to look at its first pitch zig zagging up an impending wall to know we were contemplating a different league. Ed led the crux in majestic fashion, and I, thrilled beyond belief at the spacewalking moves, managed to keep my hands away from the oh so tempting quickdraws. The next pitch, a big overhang, was my lead. Fortunately, right on cue, the downpour came .. . We met in Courgne that night, for a bye bye meal, Ed flying back to Derbyshire and myself pedalling East to Valle di Mello. The test of a blind date is if you make another. We already have. 

Dave Cook 

Originally published in Climber and Hillwalker-October 1989 

Friday 17 March 2017

Norton of Everest.....Review

Mount Everest and its climbing history, still retains a keen interest within the mountaineering community and the general public, none more so than the early attempts in 1921, 1922 and 1924. The members of those expeditions have had many books written about them; Mallory, Irvine, Morshead, Somerville, Finch and Noel but until now no volume has appeared about the part played by Colonel Teddy Norton in the 1922 and 1924 parties.

A career soldier, an officer of the Royal Field Artillery, how he became selected for the 1922 expedition remains to this day unclear. He was related by his mother’s family to Sir Alfred Wills, who was a founder of the Alpine Club and who made the first ascent of the Wetterhorn, but more famed for his role as the judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde to two years hard labour for gross indecency than his climbing record, impressive as it was for the part he played in the golden age of Alpine exploration. Wills had a chalet built in the Haute-Savoie in the Vallee des Fonds as a retreat, and it was on family visits to this facility that Norton learned to climb, along with his three brothers. However in 1922 his Alpine record was ‘thin’, and the very few ascents he had made on the higher peaks above the Chamonix Valley, mainly on the Aiguilles were with guides and he was yet to be elected a member of the Alpine Club.

However those who knew him were impressed by his calmness and decisive character, perhaps developed by his experiences in the 1914-1918 war which in surviving he remained a statistical miracle. For He soldiered at the Marne, Aisne, Ypres, Loos, and the Somme, and he was awarded every medal for gallantry and combat save for the Victoria Cross, and he emerged from the war with a certain quality of being, a serenity and a confidence that would stand him in good stead on Everest in 1924 when the ill health of General Bruce, the appointed leader, forced Norton to take over in his place. By 1922 Norton had seen much army service in India, and probably his linguistic abilities and familiarity with some of the dialects of the expedition porters stood him in good stead. Physically he must have stood out against such, for at 6 feet 4 inches, thin and spare he was unusually tall for his generation and at 38 years old; it is again surprising that he was selected to take part. It is interesting to me that the Everest Committee had all the expedition members medically tested before departure. I do not think we even considered doing that in my generation. Another matter that I do find surprising is that although the early Everest expeditions were made up of climbers, used to climbing in the Alps with guides, they never thought of taking some of them to bolster their technical skills on Everest. Yet they did achieve some impressive results, two parties reached 27,000 feet in 1922, Norton, Somervell, and Mallory without oxygen, while Finch and Geoffrey Bruce reached 27,300 feet using oxygen. The 1922 attempt came to a sad end when below the North Col, a party made up of Somervell, Mallory and Crawford, with thirteen Sherpa porters was avalanched, in which seven of the Sherpa’s died.  I have read previous accounts of this event, and it seems that some feel that Mallory was to blame, for although there had been a heavy snowfall, he was determined to make one final summit bid. However surely the other two climbers involved, and the leadership were equally to blame for they were too late on the mountain by that time and into the monsoon season, and yet they had agreed to this going forward?

1924 Everest was Norton’s truly impressive effort, although by then 40 years old, he had to take over the leadership when the leader General Bruce had to turn back during the approach march due to an attack of Malaria. The approach through Tibet during those early expeditions was a challenge in itself, taking four to five weeks and even today travelling in that country can still be demanding. The 1924 party was made up of some of the same climbers as 1922, and Norton climbing with Somervell without oxygen reached solo, after his partner had been forced to give it best due to breathing problems, to within a 1000feet of the summit. A height record that stood for fifty-four years until in 1978 when Messner and Habeler climbed the mountain without oxygen to the summit. The failure of the Norton/Somervell bid led on to a determination by Mallory to have one more go at summiting, for which he decided to use oxygen. He chose as his partner the relatively inexperienced climber, but excellent oxygen practitioner Sandy Irvine.

The story of Mallory and Irvine’s attempt, and how it ended in their tragic disappearance is now one of the most discussed and fantasised events in mountaineering history; plays, books, films have all entered into a guessing game, of ‘did they reach the summit?’ Norton was certain that their deaths had been caused by a climbing accident, and he was vindicated in this view by the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999, lying low on the slopes of the north face with the rope which was still tied around his waist broken a short distance from his body.

In the face of this tragedy Norton as expedition leader was however praised not only for his high altitude achievement, but in the way he handled events surrounding the accident, and its aftermath in liaising with the lost climber’s families and friends, in dealing with the media and for his overall qualities of leadership. Somervell and a later Everester, Dr Mike Ward (a member of the successful 1953 party) recognised Norton as ‘probably the best of all Everest leaders’. Various things flowed from the Everest Expeditions in his later life, the 1922 party were awarded Olympic Gold medals in the winter of 1923-1924, he was elected to the Alpine Club and he was given the RGS’s gold Founder’s Medal in 1926. He was also considered as leader for two of the later Everest Expeditions in 1933 and 1935, and even Presidency of the Alpine Club in 1946, but he turned all such down for his military career took precedence. A significant outcome of his temporary celebrity as a mountaineer was the naming of a peak in the Canadian Rockies in 1927, Mount Norton 10,200feet, by an American climber Alfred Ostheimer (who named another of his first ascents Mount Somervell) .

I have not noted Norton’s other interests, like Somervell he immersed himself in painting and sketching, but he also was something of a caricaturist and the book contains many examples of his work. These illustrate very much the interests and the gentle humour of his times. He was also a keen naturalist and collected hundreds of botanical specimens whilst taking part in the Everest expeditions. However apart from a few later Alpine ascents, and hill walking in Scotland; Norton did not go on to make any more Himalayan journeys.

He slowly ascended the army promotion ladder finishing as a Lieutenant General, having held many command posts in India. He started his career at the pinnacle of the British Empire; but slowly over his decades of service he witnessed its slow disintegration. He was a man of his times, although interestingly he had been born in Argentina where his father was a shipping line and estancia owner. But grew up in England, and was schooled at Charterhouse (which he disliked) and entered RMA Woolwich which was then the school of artillery, before becoming a commissioned officer. 

In 1940 he acted as the governor of Hong Kong for a short period, appalled on arriving there at the lack of preparations against the possibility of a Japanese invasion, whose troops had already conquered huge swathes of eastern China. He immediately set about preparing air raid shelters to protect the civilian population, organising the drilling of caves into the nearby mountains to do this and trying to alert London to the seriousness of the situation. He did leave the colony before the Japanese occupation, and eventually after a brief period back in Quetta, where he commanded that garrison; he was recalled to England and the War Office.

I found whilst reading this book a growing questioning, why it was that Norton who was obviously an accomplished and kind person, and his fellow rulers of the Empire never seemed to understand, that such as Indians, Chinese, and the other subject people did not wish to be ruled by the British or anyone else for that matter? At least if they did, they never seemed to have declared that this was so.  Knowing China like I do, I am always amazed that after the opium wars and the forced treaties imposed on that country, which is how Britain gained Hong Kong, that we are not pariahs when we travel and work amongst them. Norton, true to his station in life was a monarchist, and a social conservative, and like the rest of us a product of his environment.

I enjoyed reading this book, and to anyone interested in the early Everest expeditions, and in a wider context the tumultuous events of the 20th century which changed all our lives, particularly the two world wars, I believe they will like me be both educated and held by reading this timely Norton biography, by one of his surviving sons. I guess writing about such a distinguished parent must have been difficult, but I think there is a degree of separation helped by the passage of time from the events described, that the book avoids becoming a hagiography.     

Dennis Gray: 2017

Norton of Everest. Hugh Norton. Vertebrate Publishing. £12.99
Available to Pre-order direct from Vertebrate.

Friday 10 March 2017

Quo Vadis Bergsteigerland

A few years ago a whole edition of the fine German magazine `Alpinismus' posed this ques-tion. Today it is of particular relevance to English and Welsh rock climbing, which seems to be on the way to becoming a football match in reverse -all performers and few spectators. Awakening from an afternoon siesta on a hot June day, the shouts eho round the cwm above Llyn du'r Arddu. They are colourful adaptations of the textbook sterilities taken from the accepted climbing manuals, punctuated by the rattle of stones in the central descent gullies. A kicker usually wears a crash hat and shouts 'Below!' after his stone has made its satisfying clatter down the middle rock. All good textbook stuff. And there is a book to tell you where to go once you know how, and even before, if you wish. The green turf below the East Buttress is swiftly disappearing, leaving loose earth and stones, although the faithful spring continues to refresh an increased clientele; even in drought conditions.

How many climbers are up there on a fine June Sunday? Fifty are apparent on the lower area of the West Buttress. There is someone on most things on the East and no doubt others lurk in the East Gully and on the Far East. No one climb seems of importance. By the lake the sun is hot, and the isolation, once out of the grey shadow of the cliff, is splendid. There are too many up there whatever the count. The cliff has lost its impressiveness and the climbing has lost its point. Perhaps Llech Ddu is quiter, but if there is new stuff to be done and the Holliwells are doing it, that is unlikely! How come there are so many of us? Baden Powell's mild equivalent of the Hitler Youth introduced many to the open air life between the wars and after. Educational entrepreneurship in the new outdoor pursuits centres has augmented the movement, in size though perhaps not in quality. Schoolteachers anxious to escape onto the outcrops are probably even more culpable. It is good to see the young on the crags, though what the climbing community will do to their characters I shudder to anticipate.

The chiselling of holds and names has reached new peaks on Gritstone. Long established problems are destroyed, or rendered impracticable by the shelter building activities of little boys (Roches). We are back to the old problem of freedom and responsibility—Baden Powell did stress that! Knowledge that climbing is possible is not enough. We can afford to do it, to spend on the vehicles or travel; we can afford the energy too, though one does question this on some Monday mornings. The vehicles crowded below popular cliffs are no longer uniformly battered vans and motor-cycles. Once the Hon Rotterslay's weekend excursion to Derbyshire in an E-Type Jaguar caused widespread gossip. It might be less extraordinary now. Basically we still seek the high drama, a contrast to a world where life is entirely conversation, while alternative tasks are obscured by the discipline of fulfilling a (sometimes not so) reasonable objective, and completion gives its own short term satisfaction. Then there is the gear, attractive looking, limited by weight (to some degrees by accepted norms), but increasingly complex and increasingly used.

Most hard climbs can be wholly or partially reduced to boulder problems. Pure practice of free climbing is widely distributed at a high standard, but the numbers of climbs resistant to new methods of protection are growing fewer. Double-think on the climber's part is probably easier now than in the past, when the distinction between. free and artificial was much more clear-cut. Now there is less dependence upon high morale and more upon technology. The degree of uncertainty when entering upon a big new rock climb is im-measurably reduced. It is exceedingly easy to over-estimate ones abilities, particularly in the margin between pretty good and excellent. Probably there are still few of the latter, for while many climb hard routes, there are few who innovate in boldness.

Thus we are many and we are likely to become more. The gear sellers, the magazine producers, the manufacturers and the press, the educators and the interests of the pubs and cafes, all these will contribute to the growth of the numbers in the future. We swarm like flies in the summer months and, at worst, climbing can become a garish cartoon-like pandemonium. Some are able to operate in the week or in winter, but most will continue to depend upon the weekend, even if it becomes an extended period. One can climb in Scotland and avoid the crowd as yet—but for how long? Often it may seem scarcely worth the candle. The aggregation problem in climbing rock will turn many to broader mountaineering or other activities' (canoeing?) which require similar psychology.

A few real misanthropes may give up and take to buttering the final jugs on a Friday evening before taking grandstand seats on the Saturday. Some will get killed, especially if they continue to rain stones on one another on crowded days and if sages gaze into the Black Cleft and pronounce it authoritatively to be Longland's. But this will offer little prospect of reducing the climbing population as more women climb now. Thus the mass is likely to increase for years with replacements outnumbering the wastage. In this situation there will also be more people doing the hard climbs and the innovators who always balance on a knife-edge will be pushed one stage further.' If climbing `extremes' is really easier because of the protection', then the protection must go.

Missing runners while leading endangers the second, so he must go. A rope makes retreat easier, perhaps it should go too. Thus on rock one can avoid aid, avoid the ennervating effects of the possibility of placing a nut every foot and being left with nowhere to put your fingers but in the slings. Thus one can climb genuinely free at the highest level of technique.' To many people this will sound foolish but it is essentially logical. It is dangerous to a greater degree than protected leading at the same grade but this alone does not make it unjustifiable. Justification must depend only upon the climber's assessment of himself, as long as he is not deranged. To solo revives the real relationship between man and rock which the insulation of protection obscures. Those who feel that modern aids are choking the sport are justified in reducing the insulation.

To solo on hard climbs may be near rhetorical, but it is the most valid way of criticising the technology which supports so many of our stuffed shirts. This question seems deeply involved with that of numbers. Crowds would not exist on hard climbs without the technology. It is noticeable that the leading climbers who have taken to soloing do so sometimes for immediate practical reasons, but often they do so because they are both actors in and detestors of the climbing circus. They wish both to differentiate themselves and to excel in an overcrowded atmosphere. Innovators not taken with solo climbing will probably go further afield more often and get involved in mountaineering—even the biggest Scottish rock climbing seems to have slightly more laissez-faire than the English-Welsh system.

 Paul Nunn image:Ian Smith

For those not developing in these ways the traditional rock climbing south of the border looks increasingly sterile. All this links with the third major problem. A few years ago the soloists would have done more new routes instead. They still are among those who do new routes, but all too often their quality is lower than the average of the early sixties. Many are quite banal. For those who cannot be satisfied by the odd holiday away from the stereotyped areas there may well be only one solution—emigration!

Paul Nunn: First Published in Rocksport-Oct/Nov 1969

References : 1. Margins of Safety by H. Drasdo, The Alpine Journal, 1969. Does improved equipment and technique re-duce accidents? by K. I. Meldrum, Accident, Equipment and Miscellaneous Notes, The Alpine Journal, 1969. 2. Games Climbers Play by L. Tejada-Flores, Ascent, May 1967; The Alpine Journal, May 1968; Mountain 2, 1969. The Game We Play by D. D. Gray, Rocksport, April/May 1969. 3. See description of the corner pitch on The Bat; Ben Nevis by J. R. Marshall, 1969. 

Friday 3 March 2017

Sven Hedin: Travels under a darkening sky

OriginalImage: Sven Hedin Project
In ten journeys in Xinjiang, formerly known as Chinese Turkestan, and three in Tibet, a name that I noted which appeared again and again in their recent recorded history is Sven Hedin, the Swedish born geographer, explorer and much more. Of the figures who investigated the antiquities and history to be found in their caves, deserts and mountains, and who would seriously translate his journeying into maps of these regions, his story eclipses those others involved in the so called ‘Great Game’ between the Russian and British empires. And the race to re-discover the story of the lost Silk Road oases and their relics on the fringes of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts.

Born in Stockholm he was the son of the Chief Architect, but from being a boy, having observed the return to the City of an Arctic explorer, and the adulating crowds, he decided he too would become a famous traveller. It seems few have ever pursued this ambition with such single minded determination. The list of languages he eventually commanded, a dozen or more, including Persian, Tibetan, Kirgyz and Turkish and, his studies in Sweden and then Germany from 1889, in first Berlin and then Halle-Wittenberg, studying under two of the outstanding geographers of the era, Von Richtofen and Kirchoff; these connections were to frame the rest of his life, for good and eventually for ill. It was the former a leading sinologist who coined the designation ‘The Silk Road’ for that famous trade route.

Hedin (pronounced Heedin in Swedish) began his travels at an early age; he was attracted most by deserts and mountains. At the age of 20 he was to be found in Persia and a few years later he was back there as a member of a  Swedish group, from which he and three members climbed Mount Demavend 5,671m which is the highest peak in the middle east, and is a former volcano. An easy climb technically but nevertheless in 1891 seen as an outstanding feat, he subsequently after this successful ascent set forth and journeyed along the Silk Road to Kashgar and reached the western fringe of the Taklamakan desert. To those who know nothing about the deserts of the world, then this is one you would think twice about trekking deeply into its dune and sandy wastes. The name means in the Uighur language, a form of Turkish, ‘you go in, but you do not come out!’ And crossing the fringes of this either by the northern or southern route was the crux passage for The Silk Road caravans, sometimes made up of a thousand camels or more; which on occasion just disappeared, buried in the notorious sand storms which occur in the Taklamakan.  

Hedin was not the popular image of the strong man explorer, he was of small stature, with a bookish bespectacled appearance, but he possessed a single minded ruthlessness in pursuing his goals, and he survived so many close calls during his expeditions, that one must wonder if his craving for recognition and approbation did not on occasion cloud his decision making. Between 1894 and 1908 in three daring expeditions he explored and mapped huge areas of Xinjiang and Tibet unexplored until then.

Surprisingly in 1894 he made the first attempt to climb one of the world’s high mountains, Muztagh Ata 7509m; the second highest of the peaks which form the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau. Kongur 7649m is the highest, and physically connected to the eastern end of the Pamir range. The Karakoram Highway now passes close to both these mountains, and at the Karakul Lake near the base of Muztagh Ata a famous mountain panorama can be viewed. But this was in the future in 1894, and there was misunderstanding subsequently as to which route/s Hedin had attempted on the mountain. This was compounded by Shipton and Tilman, attempting the peak by its west ridge in 1947 believing that this was also the route that the Swede had essayed. His were made firstly to the west of their attempted route, which has become the voie normal to climb the mountain, by the way of another ridge which would have landed him on the summit of the subsidiary peak of the mountain if he had been successful, and secondly an attempt on a steep rib to the east of their route.

A Swedish expedition followed his attempted routes in 2014, led by Lars Larsson, and from comparing their pictures with Hedin’s they realised his first attempt on the peak had reached over 6000m, which at that date of 1894 was the highest anyone had ever climbed. (Probably it might have been equalled the following year on Nanga Parbat by Mummery and his Gurkha companions).

Muztagh Ata however is one of the easiest high mountains to climb; it was first ascended in 1956 by a large party of Russian and Chinese climbers by the Shipton/Tilman route of the west ridge. And in 1980 a party of American’s led by Ned Gillette made a ski ascent/descent also by this way which has subsequently become popular. Hedin managed much of his ascent to over 6000m riding on a yak, but even so his camping and clothing equipment were rudimentary, and his companions were locals with no mountain climbing experience. I guess that Shipton and Tilman’s misunderstanding of his attempt, which in their report they downplayed, has subsequently deprived the Swede of the historical kudos he deserves?

His three expeditions before the first world-war were some of the most important in the history of exploration, and his books about his travels, his photographs, his water colours, and lectures made him a figure of world renown. I think what impressed his fellow geographers was the way he made good on his explorations by producing exquisite maps of these areas which had previously been ‘white’ on previous such publications. In all he mapped 10,498kms on 552 sheets, and I have been privileged to see some of these kept under lock and key in the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. They are works of art and I would like one of them to be framed and on my living room wall to be viewed as such.

For those who are  thinking, Sven Hedin ‘no one is interested in him now?’, as recent as August 2015, a re-issue of his autobiography, ‘My life as an explorer’ prompted an article in the Guardian, which advised that this book was ‘a nail biting read’, including highlighting his horrific attempted journey within the Taklamakan desert in 1895. ‘Once you have read Hedin’s account of what happens to the tongue and throat when the body is deprived of water, you’ll never wish to read another!’ This event brought home to Hedin the danger in relying on only local advice, for he was accompanied by four camel drivers and their beasts from Kashgar, and the decision on how much water they should carry proved inadequate.  It ended with most of them dying; whilst Hedin pushed on to find water, then, returning to discover he was too late to save them. He returned later with sufficient supplies and successfully crossed the desert, but it was this ruthlessness which made critics, accuse him of having an ‘Ubermensch’ view of exploration as ‘a struggle against the impossible’.

Nevertheless his explorations in the Tarim basin in the Oases of the Gobi and the Taklamakan exploring such as the Lop Nur region of the former settlements along The Silk Road were impressive. It was not until his third expedition that he finally was allowed to explore in Tibet. One area above all others that attracted him was in the West of the country, around Mount Kailash 6638m, a mountain which looks like a huge Tetrahedron which on occasion because of snow and weather conditions, a huge face appears on its slopes most apparent to the worshippers. 

This is the most holy of mountains to Hindus, Buddhists, The Bon (Tibet’s ancient religion) and some others. Because of this it has never been climbed, but pilgrims visit from many countries to undertake a Parikarama, a circulation of the Peak’s base. It is thought that Hedin was the first Westerner to complete this? He also discovered the source of the Indus, and laid claim to have found those of the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej rivers as well, all so important to the millions of people living downstream. But these last two claims were disputed when he came to give a lecture about his Tibetan travels in the Queen’s Hall, London in 1909 by the greybeards of The Alpine Club, and the Royal Geographical Society; Martin Conway, Douglas Freshfield and Tom Longstaff. They also objected to his naming the whole region of his travels as the ‘Trans Himalaya’. This must have been an evening to remember! But nevertheless Hedin left the UK laden down with RGS Gold Medals, an honorary membership of that body and such degrees from Oxford and Cambridge.

By this date he was the most famous Swede then alive, and few explorers have enjoyed such approbation, for as a renowned expert on Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet; monarchs, politicians, geographical societies, and scholarly associations, all sought to purchase his exclusive knowledge about the power vacuum in Central Asia. None less so than the British who recognised him as an active player in addition to Nikolai Pzehevalsky, Sir Francis Younghusband, and Aurel Stein in the ‘Great Game’, the struggle with Russia for influence in that region, so vital to British interests and security in India. He was ennobled by the Swedish King, Knighted by the British with an Indian such title; he met with the Shah, the Czar, the Viceroy of India....George Curzon, the Panchen Lama, The Emperor of Japan, President Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-Shek, Hindenburg, and later Adolf Hitler. This was to be his undoing, his future affiliations with the latter and his support for the Third Reich, but he became so loaded with Honorary Degrees and Gold Medals, in the end 42 of these over the years, that he was certainly a figure in his heyday, who was greatly admired and respected as a pre-eminent one in his field.
At the outbreak of the First World War his regard for Germany where he had received much of his education, caused him to support the Kaiser. He was an avowed Monarchist in his own country, and he felt honour bound to do this, but it really upset the greybeards once again, and they cancelled his honorary membership of the Royal Geographical Society. However to be fair to him, he wrote a diplomatic letter to that body, accepting their decision and declared his understanding of the position that this had placed them in.

His fourth expedition 1927-1935 was on a grander scale than any of his previous journeys. This was to investigate the meteorological, topography, geology, and prehistory of the Gobi desert, including the part of that in Mongolia, and Xinijiang. This was made up of over 30 scientists from many disciplines including geologists, botanists, archaeologists, geographers, meteorologists, and zoologists from Sweden, Germany and China. Chiang Kai-Shek the Chinese leader was the patron and four postage stamps were issued by that country to celebrate this impressive undertaking, which are now highly prized by stamp collectors the world over for their rarity.

The results of this expedition has relevance in China today, for Xinjiang  was found to hold the largest deposits of natural resources in the country; iron ore, coal, oil, manganese, gold and much more; over a hundred minerals have now been found in the Province, the largest in China. From 1933 to 1934, Hedin led a group of Chinese scientists planning the best route for a road to run from Beijing to Kashgar. One site that had always intrigued him was the area around Lop Nur in the Gobi desert. Here there had been an ancient settlement, and a lake which literally ‘wandered’. He made some very significant finds in this area, including ancient burial sites, and it was from near here that the world famous Loulan mummies were found. 

The BBC made a documentary about them, for they have confounded historians ever since their discovery for these people were taller, larger physically than any other such discoveries in that region, with fair hair and it is thought blue eyes, and are, at least 5000 years old. Where did they originate from? The Lop Nur Lake subsequently dried out and because of the roads built along Hedin’s planned route, became in 1971 the site of the Chinese nuclear weapon testing ground, set up there in a remote place in the eastern Gobi desert.

In the 1930’s Xinjiang was an unstable place to travel, for besides the activities of local war lords, the Soviet army was making incursions into the Province. The Chinese 36th Division army, led by the Muslim General Ma Zhongying was engaged in combating them, but they were in retreat when Hedin and his caravan of trucks appeared on the scene, at which some of these were hi-jacked by Ma’s army of Tungan soldiers. Hedin and his companions escaped in their remaining vehicles but as they did so they were shot at; subsequently they managed to travel via the southern route of the Silk Road to Hotan and from there south again to Xi’an. In 1934 that must have been a challenging journey, for the first section is mountainous and the roads would have been at best rough riding.

Finishing this incredible journey of thousands of miles in Nanjing which was then the site of the Chinese government, Hedin celebrated his 70th birthday in February 1935 in the presence of Chiang Kai-Shek and 250 members of his Kuomintang administration, to whom he reported the result of their researches, for which they awarded him as leader, ‘The Brilliant Jade Order’. The results of this expedition are still being researched in Universities as far apart as Germany and China. And, the subsequent reports are contained in many volumes.

1936 marked the year of the beginning of Hedin’s disastrous involvement with the German National Socialists. Hitler had been an early admirer of the Swede, whose-conservative and pro-German views eventually translated into sympathy for the Third Reich, and this would draw him into controversy that would last until his death in 1952. He was impressed by Hitler’s nationalism, and he interpreted the German leader’s rise to power as a revival of that countries fortunes; and a defence against the spread of Soviet communism which he felt threatened Sweden in a potential future invasion. The Nazis made a strong connection by bestowing awards upon him and an invitation to appear and speak at the 1936 Summer Olympics, where de delivered an address ‘Sport as a teacher’ to supportive crowds in Berlin’s Olympic stadium. In 1938 they presented him with that City’s ‘Badge of honour’ and on his 75th birthday in 1940 they awarded him with the ‘Order of the German Eagle’.

He was not the only major world figure to be drawn into the National Socialist sphere, for just before he was given the 1940 award it was also bestowed on Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Hedin supported the Nazis cause in his journalistic activities, and in books such as ‘With the German Armies in the West’ and ‘The Trail of War’, but during the conflict he was at home in Sweden, which unlike Norway and Finland remained neutral. Although groups in that country, such as the Swedish Red Cross aided the flight of Jewish refugees safely out of Denmark.

Post the collapse of Nazi Germany, Hedin found himself more and more isolated, but he did not publicly regret his collaboration with them, and because of this co-operation it had been possible for him to intercede and make it possible to save numerous victims from execution or death in extermination camps. Investigators after the war found this to be true, and for instance he did manage to save ten Norwegian saboteurs from death by firing squad At Hedin’s plea their sentence was commuted to a life sentence. And so they survived the war to prove that this was so.

At the end of the war, US troops confiscated the documents, material and surveys held by Hedin’s publisher in Germany, for his planned ‘Central Asia Atlas’. However the US Army Map Service found that this had such strategic importance, they later solicited his assistance and financed the printing and publication of this one of the Swede’s greatest achievements.

He died in 1952, after living out the last years of his life in almost social isolation. Older people in Sweden do not wish to talk about him, but a new generation of Swedes led by such as Lars Larsson, who has organised two ‘in the steps of Hedin’ expeditions, are examining his life and contributions again. To come to some kind of balanced view about these matters, one is faced with a mountain of material; so far five biographies have appeared about the Swede, and a book by a holocaust researcher in the US blames him as a key supporter of the Nazis whose views helped to develop their ideology?

He left behind over 60 books,of which some titles were widely translated and published around the world, many articles, plus diaries, 2500 drawings and watercolours, a library of photographs, films, travel and expedition notes. Besides his scientific papers and newspaper articles held in sixty bound volumes, and of course the maps. The geological specimens are held at Munich University, and other materials in China, but the mass of the Sven Hedin collection is held in the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm.

Sven Hedin expedition watercolour: Image-The Sven Hedin Foundation

Life is a matter of luck, if a young boy in Sweden had not been taken to welcome home an Arctic explorer in the 1870’s, maybe he might have become a famous architect like his father? But we are all a product of our environment, events and times, and his youthful contacts with giants like Von Richtofen, and his love of Germany it seems almost inevitable that with his unforgiving personality he would move too close to National Socialism. It is hard to feel pity for him, he was a towering figure in the history of Central Asian exploration, but maybe it is still too soon to forget his support for the terrible evil that was the Nazi regime and sympathy for its victims. 

I would like to thank Lars Larsson; and the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm for their help in sourcing material for this essay. 

Silent documentary of Sven Hedrin's expedition through China's Gobi Desert

Dennis Gray:2017

Sven Hedin Project

Sven Hedin Foundation