Friday 26 May 2017

Up and About: The Hard Road to Everest.......Extract

Mount Asgard: Baffin Island

Described by Michael Palin as a ‘full and fascinating portrait of one of the great figures of mountaineering’, the first volume of Doug Scott’s two-part autobiography, Up and About, tells his story from his birth in Nottingham to the summit of Everest, including many of the climbs he established on the world’s highest mountains. In this extract, Doug and his teammates explore the mountains of Baffin Island. 

Two years from conceiving the expedition, we were labouring along Pangnirtung Fjord, some of us on foot and some by canoe, steering it around ice floes as we headed for Weasel Valley and the mountains. Dennis and I were transfixed by the skill of an Eskimo hunter known as Killabuk who joined us on the walk in. Towards the head of the fjord we watched him leave our canoe and stalk a seal we could not see, across the pack ice, inching his way forward behind a little screen of plywood, painted white. Eventually a shot rang out and Killabuk reappeared, pulling the seal across the ice, now with a neat hold through the front of its head, just above the eyes, and behind a bloody cavity.

We didn’t make it all the way to the head of the fjord. Just six miles from the village, at a constriction, the water became choked with ice so we were forced on to land, carrying heavy loads of 100 pounds. At least a helicopter based at Pangnirtung for the summer had already flown in our heavy camera gear and Base Camp tent. Thanks to Pat Baird’s connections we were able to procure its services at a rate we couldn’t resist. Turning one headland after another, hoping that the next one would be the last, we finally staggered into the Weasel Valley to camp beneath Crater Lake, trusting its moraine walls wouldn’t collapse while we were under them.

Freed of our heavy loads, we were able to take in the incredible scenery in the perpetual twilight of the Arctic night. Mount Ulu stood sentinel, guarding the approach to the valley. It was the first of many unclimbed granite mountains we were to admire over the coming weeks. We continued up this valley, turned a corner and there before us was the unforgettable 5,000-foot west face of Mount Thor. We passed under the snout of the retreating Fork Beard Glacier, the tundra stretching up to striated slabs of rock so recently vacated by ice.

The tangle of lichens and mosses were peppered with purple saxifrage, the yellow Arctic poppies, white heather, willow herb and Baffin Island’s tallest tree, the Arctic willow now sprouting woolly catkins as it straggled along the ground. This mantle of vegetation supports a wide variety of bird and animal life; we saw snowy owls and occasionally a peregrine falcon, as well as lemmings, Arctic fox and hare now in its summer garb romping across the tundra. We also found caribou moss, still contaminated by atomic weapon testing in the Arctic in the 1950s and 1960s. Health workers were warning
Eskimo women not to breastfeed their children since their milk was contaminated from consuming caribou livers, a great delicacy among the locals.

We took great care to be roped crossing the streams, recalling how John Fleming had perished in the Hindu Kush, and after walking twenty miles averaging just one mile per hour we arrived at Base Camp shattered. Pat Baird had gone ahead to our cache of food with the helicopter and set up some of the tents. When he landed, Pat realised the food, deposited by ski-plane during the winter, was five miles away from where he had recommended and so Pat had busied himself ferrying the huge pile to his preferred campsite above Summit Lake.

Despite his fifty-eight years, Pat was still fit enough to climb a virgin summit every year or so and this is what we did in our first week. Pat, Rob and Steve climbed twin summits overlooking Base Camp and Summit Lake while Dennis and I climbed two 6,000-foot peaks south of Mount Asgard. Ray, Guy and Phil climbed a peak at the head of Baldur Glacier. The weather was perfect throughout those first few days. Only the mosquitoes troubled us. With five summits climbed we were considerably fitter than on our walk in and felt ready to tackle the big walls of Asgard.

Food and equipment were laid out on the tundra in eight neat piles. The small tents were taken down and we all moved into our big Stormhaven tent ready for an early start next morning. Then ominous high-flying cirrus moved in and before long the sky was full of thick grey cloud bringing rain and wet snow. By morning the tent was lashed by a ferocious gale. We went out to secure the guy lines and pack away the food in polythene sheeting. The hillside was virtually a sheet of water with every stream overflowing its banks. Visibility dropped to a few yards and we had difficulty in standing in the force-10 winds.

We rescued wind-tossed cans from the stream and topped up our supply of water ready for a long stretch inside the tent. At least the mosquitoes had gone to earth. After digging drainage channels around the flysheet, we ducked back inside the tent where the weather kept us pinned down for the next two weeks.

After two weeks, a patch of blue sky appeared through the swirling morning mist. By the afternoon the sun was out and we were being bitten by a thousand ravenous mosquitoes. Given the loss of time, we decided to concentrate on two big walls near camp. So far, exploration on Baffin, such as it was, had focused on exploring and making first ascents by easy routes. We now hoped to do something never before attempted in Arctic Canada and climb one of the big granite faces around us. Guy and Phil set off that same afternoon for the elegant 2,000-foot north buttress of Breidablik.

The rest of us also took advantage of this respite from the weather. The east face of Freya Peak reared up for 3,000 feet in slabs and a headwall to a point easily seen from our camp. We named the point Killabuk, since the main summit of Freya was set well back towards Asgard. We regretted not making an earlier start since the slabs were at 5.7 a bit harder than expected and required a rope. The headwall was also more difficult than we bargained and with very little food and no bivvy gear we debated whether it would be prudent to retreat. We sat around undecided until Dennis said, ‘Well, why don’t we just go up and have ourselves an adventure.’ As one came the reply: ‘Yeah!’ And so we went for it.

Towards evening we were on the headwall but the crack system we were following ended abruptly. We could neither free climb or peg our way up and so the only solution was to arrange a pendulum and try to reach another line of cracks away to the right across a hundred feet of blank rock dripping with water. From a peg placed as high as possible we fixed a rope and slid 150 feet down it. One after the other we swung backwards and forwards, gathering momentum and distance until we could clamber into the new crack. After this exhilarating manoeuvre we made good progress to a ledge suitable for a miserably cold, wet bivouac. Winter was obviously drawing nearer for there were now a few hours of dark. We were only 600 feet from the top but the headwall overhung its base by fifty feet and we found the climbing strenuous.

Climbing on Asgard's West Face 
Next morning, as the crack we had gained was now overhanging and full of loose flakes, we followed a ramp round to yet another crack system, crawling along as the ramp narrowed alarmingly. Right at the end it was just possible to stand precariously in balance and reach for a ledge. I tried not to notice the thousand-foot void below. From the ledge I stepped round a corner into sunlight as the sun rose, each of us warming our cold bodies and numb fingers as we flopped down on a large ledge.

Above, the mountain was cleft by chimneys set at right angles to one another. We wriggled and pushed, getting good friction from the rough red rock. Shafts of sunlight pierced the dark recesses of the mountain now full of the sound of heavy breathing and clanking pegs. After 200 feet we were disgorged on to a wide terrace below the final wall. In two more pitches of hard pegging and pleasant free climbing we arrived on the summit twenty hours after leaving camp. We felt elated to be there, looking down on our tents and across at the peaks stretching out in all directions, still covered in fresh snow from the storms. It is always a good feeling to arrive on the top of an unclimbed summit. We lay out in the sun among the weathered rocks scattered about the flat summit. I took photographs of Steve venturing out on a block of granite jutting out for twenty feet above the slabs 1,200 feet below. Having been cooped up for so long in the tents we were doubly elated at having carved out a fine route involving a variety of problems and difficult route finding.

Hurrying down the back of the mountain, we made six long abseils to eventually reach the Caribou Glacier. We arrived back at Base Camp a few hours before Guy and Phil. They came steaming in from their long walk home from Breidablik and quietly described the great climbing they had found and how, after eighteen long pitches of pegging and hard free climbing, with a bivouac in hammocks, they had reached the summit. Over the next few days Guy, Phil and Steve climbed a prominent unclimbed peak beyond Breidablik but the weather was bad and Mick, still gathering material for his film, was lucky to find a window in the cloud just as their three bright red anoraks arrived at the summit. To make sure we had a film of a climb in the can, Rob, Dennis and myself repeated Guy and Phil’s excellent route on Breidablik while Mick filmed us.

We had ten days left. Having climbed eight peaks, including the rock faces of Killabuk and Breidablik, and having the film in the can, we could be reasonably contented the expedition had been a success and our sponsors would be satisfied. Yet at a personal level we were far from satisfied and never would be until we had climbed Asgard. The peak has twin summits, north and south. The Swiss team had climbed to the north summit in 1953 from the relatively easy east side, as reported in Mountain World. Guy, Phil and Rob now set off to climb the south summit by its south ridge. Dennis and I had walked right round Asgard a few weeks earlier with the ‘film crew’ helping carry 300 pounds of equipment. We considered climbing the west face of the south peak but eventually settled for a sweeping 2,000-foot dihedral on the north peak. To reach it we would have to negotiate a thousand feet of easier-angled mixed ground.

For a second time we moved into our lonely tent pitched on the glacier below the west face. The day after our arrival was overcast and cold but we went up to the foot of the dihedral and stashed all the heavy gear and food. We returned to the tent after ten hours’ climbing to await a settled period of good weather for our ascent which we thought could take up to seven days. During the night bad weather blew in and the temperature dropped to -10Åã Celsius. Snow piled up against the tent and we settled in to sit out yet another storm.

The wind blew in gusts of over a hundred miles per hour and pummelled our tunnel tent violently. It was a daft place to be testing a prototype but fortunately it survived. Wind whistled through the external poles like a flute while ice hammered into the tent walls with the sound of cymbals being brushed, reaching a crescendo. Every so often the end wall of the tent boomed loudly like a huge drum. Then it would be dead calm and we would wait, tensed, for the wind to come whistling back and slam into the tent, which flexed and shuddered at the new onslaught.

It felt good to be so close to the harsh environment lying in warm sleeping bags, a private world seven feet long and four feet wide where everything was orange. It played strange tricks on the eyes when we looked outside; Asgard had a blue haze, a cold Arctic blue, and was plastered in snow. With frozen water beneath us and frozen water masking our mountain, we talked of California’s sun-soaked mountains and surfing off Ventura. The only liquid in this frozen land was produced on our stove with its little ring of flame.

'Old Friends...Bookends'. Chris Bonington under Everest
We slept, re-read Hermann Hesse and slept again. Still the storm continued. One morning a shaft of sunlight broke through and lit up the notch below the south ridge of Asgard and then reached the tent. The snow around us sparkled like a million diamonds until the wild grey sky closed in. We had managed to curb our frustrations up to now but we both knew time was running out and winter might have arrived. It had never been so cold. We packed up and, shouldering huge loads, walked out to the big tent at Summit Lake where we devoured a large quantity of chocolate bars from the mountain of food remaining. We sat around playing over and again Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 1971 live album 4 Way Street and in particular Graham Nash’s classic ‘Teach Your Children’. We also wore out a copy of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and its brilliant questioning of society’s loss of direction; the line about the president of the US sometimes having to stand naked was particularly relevant as Richard Nixon’s chickens came home to roost.

Climbing had started off so well but seemed to be turning out all wrong, as Melanie Safka sang in ‘Look What They’ve Done To My Song’. Dylan’s album was really an indictment of unbridled capitalism and consumerism; to me Dylan is a genius and a prophet without preaching.

Phil, Rob and Guy had gone around to King’s Parade Glacier on the east side and climbed the south ridge to the unclimbed South Peak of Asgard. The front that scuppered our attempt on the west face of North Peak caught them on the summit after twelve pitches of superb free climbing and just a little easy aid. The descent became an epic as light snow flurries turned into a full-blown blizzard. They were lucky to get off the mountain without frostbite. We both felt a little left out of this success but admired their effort. Climbing Asgard had added considerably to the success of the expedition as a whole.

We prepared to strike camp and walk out but faced with our mountain of filming equipment and camping gear, Rob, Ray and I volunteered to run the fifty miles back to Pangnirtung. The helicopter was still based there for another two days and we decided to hire it rather than make several journeys up and down Weasel Valley ferrying kit. We set off light, knowing we had a food cache on a prominent boulder not far from the fjord head but to our dismay we arrived there shattered and hungry to find it had gone. A lone trekker thought it abandoned and took it. We did have brewing gear but only one tin of corned beef to last the next twenty-five miles down the side of the fjord to town. Rob took the can and prepared to cut it into three. I said: ‘Cutter gets the last slice.’ Rob was incensed but eventually forgave me. But he never forgot.

Doug Scott

All Images Doug Scott Collection Courtesy of Vertebrate Publishers

'Up and About-The Hard Road to Everest' Available from Vertebrate

Friday 19 May 2017

The Man Who Abolished Guilt

"Yes, I know there's a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?"... "You bet there is," Johnny replied, "...'think of all the men you know — fathers, husbands, students, workers, wankers — whatever hat they are wearing, guilt keeps them in line. It must be the same with climbers." I gulped nervously. In this mood Johnny's imagination bounced about like a fire-cracker. You were never sure where his comments were going to land. "Look," he explained maliciously, "think of you and Jane. Guilt rules your relationship.

Each time you go climbing and leave her alone with the kids for the weekend, you spend the next week in a frenzy of 'new mannery', beating your breast and stroking hers, trying to amass sufficient points to cancel out your guilt and her anger." "Nonsense," I barked back, "it's called give and take — something you wouldn't know too much about." Johnny tilted his head and grinned, pleased to have drawn first blood. "Listen dummy," he purred, "it won't work. You are so transparent there isn't even a watermark.

‘Do you think she doesn't know that all your lovey dovey stuff is a con — the price you are prepared to pay for a week-end away from her. God — it's positively evil. When was the last time you were nice to her spontaneously, rather than as a crafty scheme to stack up the points?" Ouch — on the chin — footwork — get out of range. When Johnny punches like that I leave the ring.

"That's what marriage is like," I countered weakly, "without guilt there can be no morality. You're right, It does keep us in line." "You are full of shit" he stated sadly as if I was a no-hope case. "I'm going to abolish guilt from my life. It's a dangerous emotion. You can be paralysed by it, and deceived by it. And in the end it's just window-dressing. Most people parade their guilt to show how 'right-on' they are, but when it comes to the crunch it means nothing. Selfishness rules. Best have the reality on the table."

It took Dostoevsky 700 pages to say something similar. I felt as if his collected works in hardback had fallen upon me. In the years to come I often remembered Johnny's fighting words. We met occasionally — on the crag or in the bar — and he never lost a chance to remind me that his memory was also good. He said that a cloak -remorse and lost opportunities- hung around me like mist on the Ben, and even used to sing me 'The Guilty One' by Jerry Lee Lewis to rub it in. Don't think I didn't try to change things.I didn’t like being under heavy manners like that. Jealousy and envy — no problem — seeing them off was easy, but the big G was a different matter.

Just as the old Soviet Union is finding out with virulent nationalism — something it thought had been relegated to the history books — guilt kept bouncing back in my life and slapping me across the face. Johnny, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on his diet of emotional lobotomy. Women, he said, liked his honesty.

"Make your wants explicit" he was fond of saying. "Then people can make up their own minds without bullshit." He was good on the rock as well. I guess most people have to jettison half the baggage they carry around in their heads to deal with climbings simplified reality. Johnny had done it already. He was always ready for the crux. You will understand by now that we are talking real love-hate' here. We were 'mates', but the chemistry was occult. Which probably explains why we climbed together so infrequently. Yes, our careers had swirled us in different directions — geographically, socially and financially — but the mountains span wider gaps.

As so often it was a funeral that united us. Among climbers no party or celebration seems able to issue an invitation with a greater attractive power. Across the windswept churchyard was ranged a class photograph from every corner of our contrasted lives, a unique cobweb of partners and memories from rock faces the length of the land, as if the names from the columns of my annotated guidebooks had all assembled. However at the end of the service, only one strand of the web was in my hand. "We must do a route" I found myself saying. "I've got the gear in my car" Johnny said. As always he was ready. The valley cliffs were damp and cold, but the west facing quarries beckoned. Johnny had done several first ascents in the early days, necky ungardened leads that had earned him a big reputation.

One of them, the ugly jumbled wall above the pool, still awaited a repeat. After the Ball Johnny had named it. I had tried it several times, but on each attempt midnight had always struck before I got committed. "Don't suppose you'd fancy a second ascent?" Johnny looked at me curiously. "You mean, would I take you up it?" he responded tartly. He led the first section in fine style, then disappeared from view above the overhang where the angle fell back. The upward movement of the ropes slowed to a halt and the half-way marking tapes seemed to shuttle-cock across my stitcht-plate.

Funny how sometimes the static flickers along the nylon. Geiger-counter palms can sense a leader's cry of desperation before your ears pick up the sound waves. The runners stopped him below the roof — an honest thumping fall, devoid of malice. May they always be so clean. "Not like I remember it" Johnny grunted. Up he went again. This time no wind-mills, just up-draught, surging to the top. "Shit — the whole top wall has been chipped." His anger crackled back down the rope, jump-leading through the metal in my hands.

Indeed it had. Hewn incisions cat's-eyed the vertical slate. I paused for a long time beneath them, searching for alternative holds. There were none. The wall was unclimbable without the chopped finger-pulls. "How did you do it on the first ascent, Johnny?" I shouted. His face craned over the rim, guilt-edged against the evening sky. "The loose flake has gone" he replied, "whoever chipped the holds must have pulled it off." "You did it, you bastard, you chipped that route. If that's how you live your guilt-free life, you can stuff it."

Johnny looked up startled, the rope half coiled across his hand and composure skidding across his face. A snarly smile fought to retain control; harsh words trying to accelerate out of danger. "Always so quick to judge, aren't you? Do you honestly believe that I would have taken you to the scene of my crime if it had been me? Today I fell off the first time trying it without the chiseled holds. Sure, I used them eventually, just like you. But on the first ascent the upper wall was unmarked — no chips — right? " It was hard to tell which was worse — the crime or the cover-up.

His own route description in the guidebook, extolling the quality of the rock, impaled the lie in the widening space between us. We walked back to the car-park in silence; my suspicion and his feigned betrayed friendship, eye-balling each other across the path. That's how it ended. We never climbed together again. Years later he called me out of the blue. "How about a weekend in the Lakes?"
Dave Cook: Photo Ian Smith
I prevaricated clumsily in reply. "Don't worry about the last time" Johnny urged, "life's too short. I bet you've been eaten up with guilt. No need. I forgot it straight away." "Forgot what" "Calling me a liar and a cheat among other things," he answered cheerily. "You are forgiven." 

I didn't go to the Lakes that weekend. 

Dave Cook: 
First Published in the CCJ 1991

Friday 12 May 2017

Bill Tilman-The Last Hero? Two Book reviews


‘Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door!’
‘The Nepal Himalaya 1952’ and ‘Ice with Everything 1974’ published by Lodestar Books and Vertebrate Publishing. £12 each in paperback.

These two volumes are the latest in a bold undertaking to re-publish the whole oeuvre of Tilman books; seven based on his mountain and eight about sailing/climbing adventures. Two such books, a mountain and a sailing one have been published every quarter since September 2015, and the whole will be completed in June 2017, when the fifteenth in the series, ‘Triumph and Tribulation’ is published, along with a reprint of the 1980 biography ‘High Mountains and  Cold  Seas’ by J R L Anderson. An imprint has been created especially to cover these publications, Tilman books, and as perfect bound paperbacks, the layout and styling plus the many maps and photographs belie what one normally expects from this design format. Each volume has a new Foreword, and in some cases an Afterword, written by those who knew Tilman or have a unique insight into his approach to climbing, sailing or navigation.

In the first of these two reviewed books, ‘Nepal Himalaya’ we celebrate the opening up of Nepal to climbing expeditions in 1949, and Tilman was one of the first to take advantage of this act of serendipity for a mountain explorer like himself. True to his long held belief in the lightweight approach, and along with four Sherpas (including Tenzing Norgay) he and a companion trekked into the Kathmandu Valley, then on to the Langtang and an exploration of the Ganesh Himal, before moving onto the Jugal range. Some minor peaks were climbed, but one quickly appreciates it is exploring that Tilman is really about. However he was back to the country in 1950 with more serious intent and in the company of Charles Evans and Jimmy Roberts, they first essayed Manaslu, but after a close look at its approaches decided to leave this ‘to better men!’ From where they moved on to the Annapurna range to attempt Annapurna lV, which they very nearly succeeded in climbing, driven back by bad weather with the serious climbing below them.

For me reading this section of the book was a memory arouser, for I knew both Evans and Roberts quite well. In 1964 at the end of the Gauri Sankar expedition, left behind in Kathmandu on my own to complete expedition chores, I often met up with Jimmy who was a permanent resident in the valley, and who it is fair to claim was the initial instigator of the now  popular activity of trekking in that country. And Charles I knew first from my days as Secretary of the Alpine Climbing Group from 1961 onwards but later when he was President of the Alpine Club and I was a committee member for my sins.

At the end of the 1950 season, Tilman met up with what might now be seen as one of the first trekking parties to the Solo Khumbu region and Everest, including the well known American mountaineer, Dr Charles Houston. Leaving behind the then little known Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar and its doughty inhabitants, the pair headed north to Pumori from off whose flanks they could look into the southern approaches to Everest, then a totally unknown prospect. Gazing as best they could into the mountains Western Cwm and up at the South Col with the finishing South-East ridge leading to the summit, they were none committal about the possibilities of success to climb the mountain from that approach. But Tilman does observe in ‘Nepal Himalaya’ that ‘Any party which pitches a tent in the Western Cwm, overhung as it is by two such tremendous walls, it might easily become their grave’. I guess a rather bald statement, but not a few Everest climbers have unfortunately found these words to be true.

This proved to be Tilman’s last outing for what he referred to in his own vein of self mockery, Himal Bill. He was finding that now into his ‘fifties, high altitude mountaineering was no longer for him, and typical of an honest review of his fading abilities in this respect, was that he finished ‘Nepal Himalaya’ with a quote from Beowulf, ‘Harder should be the spirit, the heart all the bolder, Courage the greater, as the strength grows less’. And with the following statement, ‘If a man feels he is failing to achieve this stern standard he should perhaps withdraw from such a field of high endeavour as the Himalaya’.

I got to know Tilman by persuading him to come and speak at a BMC National Mountaineering Conference in 1976. At which he displayed all the traits for which he had by then become legend. Speaking without any supporting materials (slides, photographs, music etc) he held the audience in high good humour with his talk, extolling the lightweight approach. He advised a full house at the Buxton Opera House, ‘to forget computers, forget sponsors, ignore-oxygen’ and whilst waving a small brown envelope observed ‘that any expedition that cannot be planned on the back of an envelope, is suffering from over organisation!’ Perhaps the outstanding quote from his spiel was his observation that ‘in 1938 on Everest the problem at 27,300ft was that I suddenly began to suffer from the Mountaineers disease. Namely an inability to put one foot in front of the other’ His writing is full of such quotable observations, and although it may now be an outdated prose style, it still fits the man and his life history perfectly.

But what can a man do turning away from exploring the Himalaya, who has been a heavily decorated war hero twice over (in both world wars), has lived an almost unprecedented life of adventure from his late teens; new routing in Africa, cycled alone across that continent, achieved such notable first ascents in the Himalaya as Nanda Devi (25,643ft), taken part in two pre war Everest expeditions, and spent much of his life exploring new terrain; in China, in Afghanistan, Assam and Burma. Tilman could not just settle down to being what we call in Yorkshire, a bun eater! No he took up sailing to enable him to access remote mountain areas, buying a boat, a pilot cutter Mischief.

This was the start of a whole new way of life, and it is impressive how quickly he mastered the navigational and boat know how to subsequently sail to Patagonia, where he crossed the vast ice cap, to Baffin Island making the first ascent of Mount Raleigh and sailing so many times to Greenland. In ‘Ice with Everything’ this book describes three of those latter journeys in 1971, 1972 and 1973. I had not read this his fourteenth work before, having stalled post reading two of his previous sailing ‘Mischief’ volumes, but once I did get into this work, I found it amusing(on occasion laugh out loud), in parts gripping, and in others a teach in about small boat sailing and how to navigate.

The first voyage in 1971 describes Tilman’s attempt to reach the remote and ice bound Scoresby Sound. His first such to try to reach this had cost him his first boat, Mischief in 1968. This is the largest fjord system in the world, and was named by the Whitby whaling captain, who first charted the coastline in 1822, and in 1971 Tilman was to be defeated once more in gaining entrance into the fjord by impenetrable sea ice. Refusing to give up his quest, he returned the following year when a series of unforeseen, but serious events ended by his second boat, ‘Sea Breeze’ being crushed between rocks and an ice floe. Fortunately no one was injured and the crew survived. So many of the Tilman stories are set around of how on his sea voyages he put together a crew, usually ad hoc, somebody knew someone who might be willing to take part in such a challenge. But on occasion he had to resort to advertising for the same in The Times, maybe Shackleton is most famous for his honest advert in this paper for a crew, but his advertisement has never been found.

Tilman’s however is well documented, ‘Hand (man) wanted for long voyages in small boat. No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’. I guess recruiting in such a manner, you would be lucky to recruit star small boat sailors, in fact many who did sail with him he had to train in seamanship and hard living. He even had to suffer ‘a polite mutiny’ on one of his Greenland voyages, and stories emerged via malcontents that he was too demanding, impervious to living off hard tack, to the cold and difficult life conditions. But it cannot have been so bad for a mutual friend, Charles Marriott, sailed with Tilman four times, and when one realises that one of those journeys, sailing over 20,000 miles to Patagonia and back lasted for over a year, then they must have got along pretty well. Mind you Tilman did write that Charles was ‘more of an eccentric than himself’, which compliments my own memories of that great character.

Safely back in the UK he began a search for yet another boat, remarking ‘One cannot buy a biggish boat as if buying a piece of soap’. ‘The act is almost as irrevocable as marriage and should be given as much thought’. Pilot cutters were becoming rare, but after months of searching Tilman found yet another one, ‘Baroque’. And after much expense and refitting out of it’s on board facilities, in 1973 with a scratch crew he set off once more for West Greenland. Any such new boat; that is to a new owner needs like any other mode of transport to be run in. Reading Tilman, his boats almost seem to have separate lives of their own and be a part of his family. ‘Baroque’ over the next four years, sailed to Spitzbergen, East and West Greenland and in the year of his death to Iceland.

Tilman’s last voyage was in 1977 in his 80th year, when he was invited to be a crew member En Avant, skippered by one of his former young protégés Simon Richardson. This was to be a mountaineer’s journey to climb on Smith Island, in the far south Atlantic. They reached Rio de Janeiro successfully, but thereafter en route to the Falkland Islands to meet up with two New Zealand climbers, they disappeared without trace; perhaps, a fitting Viking type of a funeral ending for Tilman; but a tragedy for the mainly young crew and their families.

Reading the whole of Tilman’s works is a challenge. For a notoriously taciturn man he was an astonishingly prolific writer, but those of his books I have read; more than half of his output, they are always educational, funny and erudite. Even Shipton, his original mountaineering companion; who was an equally iconic figure in mountain exploration, and another fine writer, could not match Tilman in this respect. Many have wondered about what drove the man, certainly his early experiences in the First World War, into which he was pitched at 18 years of age, surviving despite being wounded, and fighting at the Somme and being twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery, must have had a real affect on his psyche. I am sure he will continue to be read when so many other explorer travel writers have faded into obscurity. His books are his memorial, one that will continue to enthuse and amuse mountaineers and sailors I believe for many generations yet to be born.

Dennis Gray 2017 


Friday 5 May 2017

The First ascent of Suicide Wall

In the 1930s and 40s I fell deeply in love with Clogwyn y Geifr, otherwise known as 'The Kitchen Cliffs'. I haunted the place and was not really happy unless I was wading up through the vegetation of one of its messy, dirty routes. The classic Devil's Kitchen route I knew by heart, every handhold was engraved on my memory. I had been up or down it some 50 odd times, mostly in bad weather. We used nails on the Kitchen Cliffs, or sometimes socks, it never seemed dry enough for rubbers.

On one occasion I had 26 climbers on my rope. As soon as I had brought up a reliable second or third, I vacated the stance at the top of the cracks, waltzed over the traverse and ran down the track in order to ascend another route. I managed four routes that day before my last man had ascended the Kitchen Route. During one of my numerous outings to this delectable area, I met David Cox, who was the Commanding Officer of the advanced field training course stationed at Llanberis.

I had been introduced to some of his tutors, one of whom was a little chap named Chris Preston, who was a splendid climber. He soon shared my love for the Kitchen and we went up and down a few classic routes. On one of our descents from the Kitchen I pointed out a line on the right hand wall and mentioned to Chris that I thought it might go. No sooner said than we were roped up at the bottom, Chris, myself and Dan McKellar.

One and a half hours later we were at the top of the new route (which we subsequently called Advocate's Wall) congratulating ourselves on a fine new line which, for the Kitchen, was on sound rock. Chris Preston really impressed me. His climbing was so sure, so steady. His reading of a line of rock face was superb. Once embarked on a chosen line he rarely had to retreat.

I mentioned to David Cox that here was the man, if any, to solve the old problem of Suicide Wall. David agreed but stipulated, as Chris's Commanding Officer, that Chris should abseil the wall first to have a look at the proposed route. Some days later he did just this and pronounced the wall climbable. So, there and then some three or four of us roped up to Chris and he climbed the first pitch up to the ledge which we promptly labelled Preston's Ledge. Much to his dismay not one of us could follow. He decided against a solo ascent as he thought that the first 10ft off the ledge would be the crux of the climb and he would like a second man there.

 He gave a quick glance around the ledge and then called for a top rope and then proceeded to climb the second pitch faultlessly. On returning to Mother Earth, Chris told us that the ledge was completely devoid of belays and that there were no cracks for pitons. You must realise that pitons or pegs were not used very much in those days and if we had them we were not very expert in using them. The weeks that followed were mainly spent arguing as to how we could arrange a suitable belay on the ledge. Lump hammers and chisels were shouldered up in order to open up a crack but all that we succeeded in doing was to make a groove half and inch deep. There was some talk of using a 'beehive', which I understood was a plastic explosive, to blow a hole or crack in the wall or on the ledge.

Fortunately nothing came of this proposal and the whole problem was shelved for some weeks until one evening in a pub in Capel Curig someone mentioned that there was now a patch of damp on the wall. Bad weather would soon be along and unless we really had a go at it now it would probably get wetter and wetter and have to wait until next summer. That did it. Whether it was the numerous pints we had drunk or not we shall never know, but we all agreed that we were climbing as well as we ever should; we were fitter than when we had tried the route before; we could arrange some protection on the ledge when we got there and if we could not we would let Chris climb on a slack rope. He would hit the ground before he pulled us off. Mind you, this was entirely Chris's idea. He said that the first 10ft were the hardest and we reckoned that with two of us on the ledge we could protect Chris for that distance and afterwards he was on his own.

The next day saw a large party at the foot of the intended route. Chris, myself and Jack Haines were to be on the rope. Chris was soon up on the ledge and now it was my turn. We were all climbing in socks as the wall was slightly damp. I could not make head nor tail of the first few feet so elected to have a shoulder from Jack Haines, the third man. Once thus launched on the wall I proceeded up to the ledge and Chris, but I made heavy weather of it. I was over 40 and did not really try to keep very fit, apart from rock-climbing and many, many pints of beer. Jack came up as third man without a shoulder and suddenly there were three of us on the ledge. We busied ourselves trying to arrange a belay.

I eventually got myself tied on to a couple of pegs which were in about half an inch. Jack Haines, a big, powerful chap, was holding me as well. I was looking after the leader's rope. Away went Chris. Nowhere did he stop or retreat. He had made up his mind as to the correct line and he stuck to it. He was soon over the so-called crux - Jack and I breathed easier. Jack pointed to the pitons, one of which had already fallen out. Chris was now at the damp patch which, from below, looked desperate, but he did not stop, on and steadily on he went until he reached the top of the wall and disappeared looking for a belay.

He shouted "Come on". I threw away my fag end, tightened up my belt, said a few quiet things to myself such as "Why aren't you in a nice quiet pub just now" and started off up the second pitch. I nearly made the first 10ft, nearly. I think that if I could have made a few more moves I would have been all right but I came off. The holds to my 'aged' hands were nowhere near large enough. Back on the wall again, a pull for a few feet (Chris by now, had a lot of willing hands to assist) and then I climbed again. 

 The wet patch humbled me. I fell off three times and, in the end, was hauled up, exhausted and crestfallen. Haines came up without falling off and without a pull on the rope but he told me afterwards that he had a good tight rope. Chris Preston had made the whole climb look relatively easy, never seeming to stop or even hesitate. A wonderful climber. I wonder where he is now? 

RG Morsley: First Printed in the MCNW Journal. (Date Unknown)