Friday 24 November 2017

Ask the way to Cold Mountain: The Ben Nevis Story

I know now, from my own experience, that your memory of youth gets sharper as you get older. Wandering about the Highlands it happens to me more and more, and nowhere more sharply recently than on Ben Nevis.I was passing the point where the half-way house used to be, and in my mind’s eye I saw a lad in short trousers and a lithe fair-haired man, their backs bent beneath bulging rucksacks as they made to doss down on the floor for the night.

The wee fellow’s neck ached under the weight of that sack. He hated it as much as his companion relished doing what few folk would want to do. Ritchie, a champion wrestler, weight-lifter and racing cyclist, prided himself on being a “sourdough.” He scorned comfort. An unemployed Clydeside plumber he sought the wilds.He and I had been travelling across country from getting off the train at Taynuilt and crossing on the ferry to Bonawe three days before. Now we were heading for Rannoch Moor, via the top of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag.

It was bliss to get that bag off, get the Primus going for a “drum- up” and curl up on the floor. But continuous sleep was hard to come by for heavy boots kept thumping in—folk on their way to the summit to await the sunrise— unaware that we were on the floor until their eyes became accustomed to the darkness. As we went up in the mist and drizzle of the morning we met party after party coming down, all of them bedraggled and disappointed at seeing nothing for their effort. Conditions were still the same when we saw the Observatory building looming ahead, less of a ruin than it is today, even to a bit of lead roof remaining. Unpacking the tea-can I went off to find “Wragge’s Well” marked on our old map a short distance away. Ritchie gave me a compass bearing and was pleased when I returned with the means of tea-making.

What we didn’t know was that the ridge of Carn Dearg has got many climbers into trouble for it is difficult to hit on. Ritchie set off confidently and still continued on our rough compass bearing when the easy slope became rocks. Soon they were so steep we had to face inward for hand and footholds.Ritchie was enjoying himself, but I was frightened.

The drag of the sack was unbalancing me and I could visualise myself falling into the unknown void below. My legs were trembling and once I had to cry for help. Memory is vague now, but I have an image of snow patches and an immense scattering of pink boulders far below and away to our right the narrow ridge we were trying to find. A series of ledgeways led us to it.Once down on the Aonach Beag col, Ritchie scrapped the idea of humping the bags over the tops in favour of dumping them for a quick race up and down. I really enjoyed myself then, free of ballast. It was fun to be crunching over the ice-hard snow-patches lying in the hollows and then running back down the screes to our bags.

Little could I have guessed after that wet week with Ritchie that it would be the cliffs of Ben Nevis that would draw me back again and again in every season of the year. Or that the least enjoyable part of future days on Britain’s highest mountain would be the plod from Glen Nevis and the descent from the summit after a day on the longest rock climbs in Britain.And now here I was on Ben Nevis again with two young folk who knew as little about the mountain as I did on my very first ascent, and this time I was going to the top by the pony track on a promising morning of crisp visibility though a full thousand feet of mist still capped the summit.

Of the half-way hut that was used by the road-men who maintained the track in Observatory clays, there is nothing left. When we dossed down in it all these years ago I didn’t know that this was one of the places where you paid your one shilling toll fee to be allowed to walk up the track, four shillings if you rode a pony.To build the track cost £800 in 1883, and until it was opened on that date none but a few eccentrics climbed Ben Nevis. Of these the most extraordinary was Clement Wragge, a gangling red-headed Englishman nick-named “The Inclement Wragge’ by the Fort William folk because he climbed the mountain every day regardless of weather. Leaving at five in the morning he aimed to be on the summit at nine and back down in the town at three in the afternoon, having obtained in that time a scientific record of the weather differences between sea-level and 4406 feet.

It was the astonishing weather variations between sea and summit which decided the Scottish Meteorological Society to build the first mountain-top observatory on Ben Nevis lying in the direct path of Atlantic storms. What Wragge had been doing was a feasibility study over a period of two summers, climbing the ben from June until October inclusive. The £4000 required to build the Observatory was raised in Scotland, as was the money for the pony track.Suddenly everybody wanted to climb Ben Nevis—over 4000 within a year. Many of them would arrive in Fort William by the West Highland Railway which opened in August 1894 bringing the mountain within easy range of the mass of the Scottish population. Trade in the town was brisk. A hotel was built on top to provide bed and breakfast for those wanting to stay for the sunrise, and there was serious talk of extending the railway from the town to the summit.

Talking about these things my young friends and I overtook the first climbers of the morning, a family in yellow oilskins, father and mother with a bright-faced wee girl roped between them. In foreign accent the man asked if I thought the weather would remain fine. “We turned back from here yesterday. We would like to climb up the highest peak in Scotland but perhaps it is too much for this little girl?” She was not quite six.“She’ll do it if you can keep her interested,” I told him. “Tell her about the wee house there used to be on the top—the highest in the whole of this country. Give her something to look forward to.”

They were from the flat lands of Holland.We broke off from the path after crossing the Red Burn to see what we could find in the way of mountain plants among the boulders; fir club and other mosses, alpine ladies mantle, starry saxifrages and the tiny least willow. No snow buntings singing as I had hoped, but I have a feeling they nest here. We were well in the mist at 3500 ft. and at 4000 ft. were on the unbroken snowfield between Cam Dearg and Ben Nevis which Wragge called “The Plateau of Storms”.

I used the compass now in this dimensionless world of white mist on snow, to keep on parallel course with the big cliffs which sheer away from the plateau edge for roughly a mile between here and the top of Nevis. Then suddenly came the proof that all was well: the big snow dome of the summit suddenly bulged in front of us, the mist pouring off north-eastwards revealing the black thrust of crags soaring to thick lips of snow cornice.Our spirits soared as colour Hooded around us and below us. There was green-shored Loch Linnhe, a ribbon of soft grey winding to the blue hills of Mull. Corpach on Loch Eil and the Pulp Mill on its peninsula looking like a white toy. Highland topography at a glance. Behind the deep cut of the Great Glen jumbled ridges stretched from Knoydart to Kintail and Glen Affric. 

There would be even more to see when we reached the top.Our first delightful surprise on getting there was to find the Dutch family already there. The wee girl said she wasn’t even tired and proved it by grabbing my ice-axe and digging furiously into the snow while we talked.They were amused when I told them about the Fort William man who claimed the first wheeled victory on Ben Nevis by pushing a wheel-barrow to the summit, followed in 1911 by a Model T Ford motor car which took three days to reach the Observatory, but a mere 2 ½ hours to return after a night cooling down.

At the news of the victory of the internal combustion engine over the steeps of the mountain a public holiday was declared in Fort William and a pipe band played to greet the entry of the motor car into the town. The man with the wheelbarrow was there trundling along in the procession. It was to be another thirteen years before the motor car could equal the wheelbarrow by going up and down in a day. That came in 1928 when a Model A Ford achieved the feat.We took a walk along the cliffs to identify the peaks stretching from Ben Wvvis to Ben Lawers, Schiehallion, Ben Alder and the high mass of the Cairngorms, the nearest approach to true Arctic terrain we have in Scotland and still very white after an exceptionally long winter and cold spring.

Sheltered by the modern “survival hut” which perches on what used to be the Observatory conning tower, I thought about the disappointment Wragge must have felt when the Observatory was built and he was refused the post of Superintendent which he wanted. But you can’t suppress a man of his pioneering spirit.He had been in Australia, and he went back there, getting his due as Government meteorologist and setting up mountain-top observatories on Mount Wellington and Mount Kodciusko. The world remembers him as its first long-range weather forecaster. He died in 1922.The staff of the Observatory was normally four and they seem to have got on comfortably together with little friction. Visiting students came to stay. One was C.T.R. Wilson, a Nobel Prize winner from Glencorse whose work played an important part in the development in nuclear physics. It was the optical phenomena shown when the sun shone on the clouds surrounding the hilltop that turned his thoughts to imitating them in the laboratory which led to 40 years of tracking atoms.

Life on the highest mountain had its share of fun. The team enjoyed the snow, tobogganing from the Observatory to the “Plateau of Storms”—a thrilling half-mile course with a large drop and a sensational bit known as 'McLean’s Steep'.For skating they made a pond on a big tarpaulin stretched on the flat roof; and for curling matches they would descend 2000 ft. to the half-way lochan. In summer they played quoits and amused themselves hurtling rocks over the cliffs to see them bounce and smash with sulphurous smell.

Later, in 1892 they had to warn tourists not to hurl rocks down the cliff. An incredible thing had happened: a family from the north of England had scaled the 2000 ft. cliffs. In four days the Hopkinson brothers pioneered two of the great classics of Scottish climbing, Tower Ridge and Observatory Ridge. Strangely they wrote not a word in any journal about it.In March two years later a noted Scottish Mountaineering Club alpinist came with a strong party in March and made the first winter ascent of Tower Ridge which Collie described as being comparable with the Italian ridge of the Matterhorn—powerful praise and not over-stated. These great crags are a volcanic cauldron of lava which did not erupt but subsided inside a mass of softer material, its head changing the nature of the surrounding rocks.

It was erosion by moving masses of ice scraping away the softer which uncovered the inside of the mountain and made its lava the north-eastern outside we see today, a superb architectural form of ridge and spire, buttress and arĂȘte, gully and chimney. From below they look even more daunting than from above, so all praise to the Hopkinson brothers in finding two of the best natural lines.Among the early pioneers was Dr W. Inglis Clark, Scottish Mountaineering Club President from 1913—19. His name is remembered in the only true alpine cabin in Britain, situated below the Tower Ridge. Dr Clark built it to commemorate his son Charles, who died of wounds in Mesopotamia. It was opened in 1929. This year a large gathering of Scottish Mountaineering Club members plans to celebrate its 50 years of active service.

I’ve been looking back the record of the official opening of the hut on 31st March five decades ago. The time was 7 p.m. They had just eaten a splendid meal cooked on the club stove. It was snowing hard outside when the door was thrust open and in lurched two climbers in a state of near exhaustion. They had fallen from Observatory Gully, lost their ice axes, slid 600 ft. and were fumbling their way down when they saw a light beside them. Clark wrote: “Thus early our hut had justified itself in time of danger.”

Time of danger? In fact mountaineering accidents were very few on Ben Nevis until the sudden popularisation of the sport in the late 50s when the climbing revolution took place and gathering streams converged in all seasons. Accidents became commonplace- over 50 in two decades- many of the victims totally lacking any idea of what to expect on this most savage of Scottish peaks. There is less excuse for ignorance today than when Ritchie and I went up on our first visit.

How long should you allow yourself to climb Ben Nevis by the pony track? For comfort you want seven hours from Achintee or from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. Don’t be misled by the fact that runners in the Ben Nevis race, held on the first Saturday in September, will have to beat 1 hour 26 minutes 55 seconds to beat the record from the town park to the summit and back.Just remember that experienced fell runners regard the Ben Nevis race as the hardest in Britain, not just because it rises so sharply from sea- level to summit, but because of the roughness of it, and the severe jolting body and feet have to take on the descent.

August will see hundreds of climbers on any reasonable day setting off up the pony track to the top. if you are one of them, make sure you have some warm clothing and a pair of gloves, even if it is warm and sunny in Fort William. And your footgear should be stout and comfortable, not smooth leather soles, but with nails or cleated rubber to give a grip.

Don’t be put off by mere mist for the upper part of the hill is well marked by cairns of stones. You may climb above the clouds or get the same kind of clearing as we did. But don’t be too proud to turn back if the conditions become too wet and stormy for comfort. Go back another day.The Big Ben is an experience not to be missed.

Tom Weir: First published as 'The Big Ben' in The Scots Magazine-1979

Friday 17 November 2017

The Climbers.... 'The Ogre' Extract

I took a first tentative step towards the Ogre in the spring of 1968. I felt the need to go off climbing on the really big mountains of the world following on from my experiences in the Hindu Kush with friends from the Nottingham Climbers’ Club in 1967. I started to hatch plans to go overland to Pakistan with Dave Nichol and also Ian Clough. Ian suggested I invite Don Whillans to come along as leader. I wrote off to the Pakistani authorities exploring the possibilities of climbing on Gasherbrum III, Kunyang Chhish and the Ogre. The Ogre was top of the list as I’d just read an article in Mountain by Dennis Gray who had marked it up as a better proposition than Trango Tower. Unfortunately permission was not forthcoming but I remained interested. 

In February 1969 I wrote to Jimmy Roberts at Mountain Travel in Kathmandu, enquiring if he thought there was a chance of not only climbing in Nepal but also Pakistan. Jimmy had recently been there trying to gain permission for the Ogre. He decided against it on account of the turbulent political situation for this was the time when the young politician Zul kar Ali Bhutto was gaining strength and support to oust Pakistan’s second president and first military dictator, General Ayub Khan.

 The Pakistani authorities would only issue permits a couple of months before a team was due to arrive, which was perhaps a major factor in deterring Jimmy from pursuing his climbing ambitions in Pakistan. He therefore recommended I concentrated on climbing a peak in Nepal, where the government had just recently brought their seven­year ban on mountaineering expeditions to an end, and politely suggested this should be after I had done my own research. Really I was grasping at straws as my domestic circumstances, at the time, were unfortunately in a state of turmoil and precluded any long two to three month expeditions. After the Hindu Kush expedition in 1967 it would be five years before I was in a position to go ‘off with the boys’ again on long trips. 

In July 1975, Clive Rowland, Rob Wood, Tony Watts, Bob Wilson, Ronnie Richards and I travelled out to Pakistan to climb Sosbun Brakk, a shapely peak near the head of the Biafo Glacier. We came out on a shoestring budget and with limited time enforced upon us by commitments to jobs back home, and in the case of Ronnie and I, to get back in time to join the South­West Face of Everest expedition (see the account of this trip to the Karakoram in my book Up and About, pages 358–360). 

We flew out on Afghan Air to Kabul. At £180 return it was by far and away the cheapest air fare we could find. We then took buses from Kabul, through Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass to Rawalpindi. There we stayed with Buster Goodwin, once Colonel Eric Goodwin of the Indian Army, who had settled in Rawalpindi after a lifetime of service mainly amongst the Pathans on the North­West Frontier. In fact Buster, within a few minutes of meeting, sold us all a copy of his book Life Among the Pathans. 

Numerous climbers have stayed in Buster’s bungalow, looked after by his adopted family. His carers were a rather indifferent couple and the house had seen better days. Buster, too, was past his best at eighty ­four and would drift off into soliloquies about his mother. When he came to, he was quite lucid, taking quite a liking to Rob Wood, telling him he was just the sort of chap he would have welcomed into his regiment. Apart from his mother the one thing that Buster seemed to be missing of the old country was cheese. Our supply reduced during the night; at first we thought it was being taken by rodents, but it turned out to be our host. We gave Buster a whole round of Stilton cheese with our thanks and left this charming relic of the British empire for the hills with high ambition. 

We were, as can be imagined when considering our time and financial constraints, doomed to disappointment, especially as there was an added factor ensuring our demise – the weather. at year there had been consider­ able dumps of spring snow on the Biafo Glacier and we simply could not reach our objective. After three days of wading through thigh­deep snow, sometimes up to our chests, we gave up on our peak and turned the trip into a recce of the Ogre. We had already seen the upper part during our journey up the Biafo and now, with Clive’s local knowledge, we went back down the Biafo and turned left up the Baintha Lukpar Glacier on to the Uzun Brakk Glacier. We climbed some way up the peaks to the west of the Uzun Brakk from where we had excellent views of the south side of the Ogre.

There was far too much snow, and the team, already depleted with the departure of Bob and Tony for work commitments, and without time to fully acclimatise, were not able to reach any of the attractive peaks hereabouts. The visit had not been a waste of time as far as Clive and I were concerned. Clive was able to reaffirm his commitment to climb up on to and along the West Ridge of the mountain and I became hooked on a empting the magnificent South Pillar of the Ogre – a prow of granite, 3,000 feet high, above which mixed rock and ice climbing led up to a final 800­foot tower. 

I had for the last few years, and especially after climbing Asgard right on the Arctic Circle of Baffin Island, thought about climbing big rock walls at altitude. Without any obvious plan in it I had taken to climbing big rock faces, first in the Alps and Dolomites during the 1960s, then in the 1970s in Norway including the Troll Wall, and in Yosemite Valley on El Capitan. These climbs had involved ever­more technical difficulty, and on the big walls on Baffin Island there was the added challenge of subzero temperatures. The next logical step could be right here on the Ogre. 

I was now familiar with the effect of climbing in the rarefied atmosphere up to 27,000 feet (8,230 metres) on Everest but, that had been on relatively easy, non­ technical snow slopes. Even so, I knew enough to appreciate that to survive at that level it was essential that everything that had to be done was second nature. It would be an interesting exercise, to say the least, to see if I could put the two together successfully: climbing steep rock high in the thin cold air at 23,000 feet. If that worked out I might just have time, before old age and decrepitude, to attempt the mighty West Face of Makalu up to 27,000 feet, and even the highest rock face of them all, the West Face of K2. 

My only regret was that I had not started my high ­altitude apprenticeship earlier. There is a relatively narrow window of opportunity to climb technical routes at altitude. It can only realistically happen after a climber has accumulated big­wall climbing experience and also climbed at extreme altitude but early enough to ensure that he is still fit and strong enough to put it all together to make technical climbs up high. 

Clive and I decided to launch an expedition together for the summer of 1977 hoping that the mountain would still be unclimbed. It had already been reported in Mountain magazine that an eight ­man Japanese expedition had attempted the Ogre in the summer of 1974. The climbers were from the Shizuoka Tohan Club and were led by Reisuke Akiyama. Team members were: Yukio Katsumi, Kimio Itokawa, Masamitsu Urayama, Tetsuji Furuta, Mitsuo Nishikawa, Takeshi Tsushima and Toshio Kasai. They set up base camp on the Uzun Brakk Glacier and attempted the South Face but an avalanche left two members seriously injured and essential items of equipment lost. 

In 1976 the Asagiri Alpine Club (Tokyo) expedition of seven climbers led by Tadashi Nishihara, including team members Muneo Ueda, Hideki Yoshida, Hideo Yamaguchi, Masahiro Murashima, Toshikazu Suzuki, Takeshi Ogawa, made a determined attempt also from the Uzun Brakk Glacier. They climbed the South­West Spur reaching the West Col (20,670 feet/ 6,300 metres) on 12 August. Two days later they climbed the West Ridge to a shoulder at 21,851 feet/6,660 metres but gave up in favour of trying the South Face. By 25 August they had traversed the snow band to the point where it connects with the South Face (21,326 feet/6,500 metres). Incredibly, after being so well poised to at least climb the South Face, their application for an extension to their permit was turned down by the Pakistani authorities and so they retreated. 

Doug Scott: 2017 

Images Doug Scott Collection-Provided by Vertebrate Publishers.

The Ogre is available Direct from Vertebrate.

Friday 10 November 2017

The Last Hillwalker...reviewed

John Burn’s ‘The Last Hillwalker’ has been out for a while now but only recently dropped through my letterbox. Currently still sitting pretty in the Amazon ebooks best seller list, the author's well received mountaineering reflections prove that you don’t have to be a Krakuer, Kirkpatrick or a Bonington to pen something which will capture the imagination of the the great outdoors reader. I guess that’s down to the fact that the author is very much a mountaineering man of the people. A gifted journeyman whose mountain experiences fall within the orbit of 80% of the climbing, hillwalking fraternity. For me, that’s a refreshing change from the writing which tends to dominate the outdoor publishing market. Desperate Dan doing desperate things in desperate environments! That genre of outdoor writing is entertaining enough in the same way a James Bond movie can be mildly diverting, but in the word’s of Morrissey..’ The songs that they constantly play, say nothing to me about my life’. For the great majority of readers, the author’s mountain life and experiences will strike a chord and those frustrations, triumphs and emotions will be all too familiar.

John Burns was a name that I was familiar with without knowing much about him. I’d seen the name crop up in the Twittersphere and on social media platforms without having much of a clue what his bag was so to speak. I knew he was based in Scotland so imagined a rugged Highlander who gained his spurs hacking up remote cliffs with a Slater's hammer and home made crampons.  A smouldering tab hanging from gritted teeth framed within an ice crusted beard. Turns out that the author and I have more in common than I thought. A fellow Merseysider-albeit from the wrong side of the river- of a similar vintage and whose early footsteps into the great outdoors chimed with my own. The ill fitting clothing from Army and Navy suppliers, Boots guaranteed to inflict maximum pain . Tents which offered as much protection from the elements as Geisha’s bamboo umbrella.

And then there were the adventures.Those triumphs of hope over experience. Biting off more than you can chew and putting yourself and your unfortunate partner into situations where just staying alive becomes the ultimate aim and any thoughts of a simple fun day out spirals into chaos. But somehow, for most of us, we survived and lived to tell the tale, and it’s those triumphs and near tragedies which underpin The Last Hillwalker.

As you would expect, the early chapters describe how a gauche schoolboy slowly found his way into the world of mountain activities. The secondary school fellwalking and hosteling trips where in contrast to the stultifying restrictions and limitations placed on youth outdoor activities today by a zealous Nanny State, allowed youngsters an incredible amount of freedom and leeway. Hard to imagine today, a geography teacher propping up the bar while his charges set off alone and with limited experience on a lengthy mountain excursion that finishes in the dark!

In the intervening years since the freedom enjoyed by youngsters in the 1970‘s, outdoor education has either disappeared completely as cash strapped LEA’s sell off their mountain centres, or is so tightly managed and controlled by organisations who live in constant fear of litigation, as to make the experience an outdoor equivalent to painting by numbers.

But back to the book; the experience gained through these school excursions gave the author the confidence to tackle his first big outdoor challenge. The long distance Pennine Way which in those days really was a journey into hell! The cloying peat mud that could suck a divers boot off a misplaced foot, the seemingly endless rain, the miserable walker unfriendly villages that in contrast to today, treated scruffy young walkers as potential criminals.“ Mrs Pennyhassett...
Call the police! ’. 

Successfully completing the 280 mile route as a teenager in the 70‘s was truly a right of passage which announced that the author had arrived as a serious mountain man!

The freedom enjoyed by those who took their first mountain steps in the 1970‘s inevitably developed a ‘give it a go’ mentality, and for those like the author, fortunate enough to go to University, this attitude allied to the opportunities presented through Uni mountaineering clubs opened up new horizons.  Offering the opportunity to develop new skills in new vistas like the Alps or Scottish mountains where the joys of rock and ice climbing were quickly learnt and exploited to the full.

Throughout the early chapters, the author counter balances his growing passion for the great outdoors with the social and political events at home. The 70‘s were after all a time of great upheaval in the UK with strikes, collapsing governments, three day weeks, the developing conflict in Ireland and mass unemployment. It is against this sombre backdrop that the author found escape in the hills. With Uni behind him he entered the Social Work profession and left Merseyside behind to further his career in Leicester before the opportunity arose for him to high tail it out of England and take a position in Inverness.

With the great Scottish ranges on his doorstep, it provided a wonderful opportunity to develop his winter skills and experiences. It was no surprise then that the author should eventually join a Highland mountain rescue team. Balancing a career with the social services with a mountain life is no mean feat and it was no surprise that as we enter a new century, the middle aged activist eventually steps off the gas. As relationships, family commitments and a peeling away of old comrades takes place. Something the single, childless activist cannot appreciate. Just how difficult it is to continue an active mountain life at the same level once a partner and children come on to the scene. For many a middle aged climber, they can continue their activity albeit to a lesser degree. However, many just gradually give up climbing and hillwalking altogether with many taking up new hobbies like the current craze for road biking.

By the time the author had hit his 50‘s, the mountain flame that once burned so brightly begins to take on a different hue. Those activities begin to take on a more mundane course as he finds himself guiding low level walks for the elderly and disabled. As his confidence and enthusiasm for hard core mountain activities diminishes, a new chapter begins. The writer discovers he has a talent for live performance and develops a career in stand up comedy and eventually as a thespian. Developing a one man drama surrounding ‘The Great Beast’...himself...Aleister Crowley. Mountaineer, libertarian, dark arts practitioner and all round bad egg! least according to The Daily Mail who labelled him,'The Wickedest Man in England!' The author is blessed in his role as Crowley by sharing  his physical characteristics and quickly finds himself playing to sell out crowds up and down the country.

At the same time, he slowly rediscovers his passion for the mountains by reacquainting himself with that most Scottish of institutions, the mountain bothy. Feeling somewhat flaccid, overweight and lacking in physical gusto, slowly but surely his bothy campaign takes hold of his imagination and by the end of the book, the author is once again finding pleasure in the hills of home.

Image: JDB

This brief overview gives but a flavour of what lies within The Last Hillwalker and the reader will find excitement, human interest and humour running like a fast flowing Scottish burn throughout its 300 pages.

John Appleby:2017

Saturday 4 November 2017

The Summit and William Blake

Lakeland Fells: Delmar Harmood Banner-The Lakes Trust

The Climber
Climbing mountains was climbing
himself.  From the summit
he could look down and see below
the problems he had left behind

Thoughts were like flowers on
the ledges, high up and far out,
the best needing to be plucked
dangerously and smelling of courage.

At night there was this mountain
above him, dark as the cave
of sleep he would enter and emerge
from tomorrow to resume his climbing.

R S Thomas

William Blake spoke of spots of time; those fleeting moments in life when one escapes the fetters of ‘mind forged manacles’ to express and experience humanity in its complete wonder; to be alive.

Unusually this was something which Blake had in common with Wordsworth and the Romantics. Where their paths split, where they went their separate ways, was with regards to their understanding of the point of it all. Where they differed so radically was on process and purpose : on how one gets to the point, who could get there and, in the end, what is the point?

The ‘point’ for Wordsworth was precisely that; to reach a place, far removed from the humdrum of daily life. A place where one could see all, and put things into perspective. The preserve of the ‘cultured elite’; of those who had the time, money and temperament to undertake the arduous process of inner reflection and personal betterment. To be ‘good enough’ to view and order the world from an elevated position of superiority.

In sharp contrast, for Blake achievement and identity was never about the individual, nor rooted in personal introspection; it had little to do with getting away from it all. No, for him, to be human was a much more expansive process. For Blake personal identity could only be expressed in terms of communal solidarity and action. That is, the extent to which we can only fully understand ourselves through shared purpose, collective appreciation and communal experience. How it is that we can only truly be, through, and with others. Ultimately, for Blake it is not about escape but about engagement.

From what I know of R S Thomas I strongly suspect that his sympathies were much closer to those of Blake than Wordsworth.

RS Thomas
Blake was no climber, though he loved rambling, and all this may seem a far cry from our modern day sport, but the clue is in the word : the word modern. Blake was writing at pivotal moment in time; the very point when what we now take for granted as the natural shape of ‘modern man’ was actually being moulded and transformed into common sense. Blake had the extraordinary vision to see it coming; he railed against it and warned of the consequences. His non-conformist genius expressed itself in glorious picture-words, laying bare the life limiting contradictions at the heart of the emerging way of thinking. How universal empire would literally corral and constrict our capacity to live. He challenged the illusion of calculability, mocking the idea that value can be reduced to an equation, assigned a number and given a price. But most of all he challenged the authenticity and authority of the self-centred, self-regulating, self-satisfied individual; Mr Average Economic Man, at liberty to spend his pennies at any stall in the newly opened free market. The very person who Wordsworth waxed lyrical about, inviting him to wander on his beloved fells, free as a cloud; just so long as he wasn’t the type who came by train. Wordsworth detested the arrival of the steam train in the Lakes, bitterly resenting the hordes he saw it disgorging at Windermere.

By happy coincidence the day I received The Climber from a friend, I bumped into the re-printed article by Terry Gifford highlighting how narrow thinking by editors has squeezed the space for poetry within climbing literature. What is on offer here is less about poetry in climbing, but more about the poetics of climbing; the words we use to describe our experience, what this may say about how we make meaning out of climbing, what it includes and what it excludes. It is an attempt to develop Gifford’s proposition by exploring the inter-relationship between blinkered editors and a wider popular consciousness which I fear is constricted by its own vocabulary. 

Back in 1984, Terry Gifford wondered ‘how far British climbing writing has emerged from the Rock and Ice era’. His question is as pertinent as ever and the poem by R S Thomas’s helps us address the question. I think that the poem highlights tensions and contradictions within language, forms of thinking and visualisation which still restrict our view of climbing. If we look carefully we can see how Thomas’s language is both beautifully evocative and yet slightly constricted within the confines of romantic language and sensibility. It is only at the summit where the experience is complete, the impression of escape and how insight is derived from courage in the face of danger.

This isn’t to say that these sentiments and evocations are invalid or of less worth, but simply to put them in context. The context of Blake, of what he anticipated would grow into commodity and universal empire. A restricted way of seeing; a way of being built on the muscular ideals of personal achievement, fortitude and conquest; of being the best – the perfect specimen. The key word here is restricted, not right or wrong. Blake simply recognised that this way of being was just that; one way; not, the way.

What strikes me most of all in this is that while climbing continually portrays itself as a counter culture of outsiders, it expresses itself overwhelmingly within the mainstream idiom. We may actually ‘talk’ more like the ‘insiders’ we often scoff. Whilst it is easy to track the extent to which the practice of climbing has escaped the constrictions of polite society and the amateur, it is less clear on how far our talking and writing has progressed. Rock and Ice prised open the doors of the Alpine Club many years ago, quite literally changing the face of climbing, opening it up, making it more democratic in the sense of its ‘membership’. But the extent to which our chatter both then, and since, has escaped the confines of mainstream constructs is less certain. I personally detect a strong continuity of romantic sentiment which both feeds and feeds into a wider set of climbing constructs which are perhaps not as counter as we imagine.

To start with, whilst Rock and Ice clearly pushed the boundaries in terms of who could climb, ‘talk’ about climbing remained firmly rooted in male white tropes, when men were men; rites of passage had to earned the hard way and apparently nobody took themselves too seriously. Later, whilst this hard edge of masculinity soften and more athletic forms of practice were celebrated, the vein of hardness remained as core stratum. Indeed it has continued to be a rich seam within the literature, often expressed as nostalgia for those times of hard training, hard climbing, hard partying and hard womanising. On top of this, familiar romantic tropes such as the savage beauty of nature, trial by ordeal and courage in the face of overwhelming odds have provided the scaffolding for much of the spoken and written word. 

To me this remains as strong today as it ever was. For sure the language has softened, but the underlying sentiments remain present and remain visible within our current self-preoccupation with process and the journey. Just to give one current example. I couldn’t help but notice the latest ‘big number’ headline on UKC recently - “E10 7a” (UKC 11/Oct).  Reading the associated article, I was struck by what I interpreted as reticence : ‘for those interested in the numbers’. Perhaps a healthy ambivalence with regards to a perceived pressure to reduce a long and complex effort into a number; unease at the way in which numbers make good headlines in the same way that points make prizes. The climbing media and its editors are not totally responsible for this either. We can’t blame them for everything that is spoken and written.

Clearly there is much talk and many perspectives on climbing, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that one thing all these different conversations have in common is an insistence on climbing as counter culture. But I am left wondering how counter we really are? If we look carefully at our language then we see that we may be part of a counter culture which is almost wholly dependent on the language of the mainstream to articulate and describe itself. No wonder there isn’t any space for poetry.

Responsibility for where we are and where we go as a community of climbers rests on the shoulders of both the residents and those who purport to speak on our behalf. In this context I think it is great that the other Climber is seeking to add depth of analysis and breadth of coverage into its new format. I also chuckled this week to see that, characteristically, UKC appears to have risen to the challenge by re-defining “ESSAY” as no more than 3 paragraphs (UKC Oct 12 ESSAY: Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders?) . But it is easy to mock this lazy thinking. We should all think about our own language and how we can contribute to developing a more expansive and inclusive vision of climbing. 

William Blake never made identical versions of his Illuminated Books, each one was different. He went to extraordinary lengths to avoid ‘making copies’, refusing to be constricted by what he saw as the identikit cloning of commodity. Similarly, long before ‘extreme sports’ appeared, Terry Gifford was concerned that climbing was being reduced to the “physical and athletic”. We don’t have to go to the same lengths as Blake, but if we are to prevent the total commodification of experience within climbing, then we can start by thinking more about the words we all use. This not about suggesting that all previous work and talk has been sub-standard; it is merely to suggest that it is a partial view, a view expressed largely in the tropes of the mainstream and to suggest that we should not only encourage more voices but also expand our vocabulary.

John Postlewaite: 2017