Friday 14 December 2018

Sport for Spartans

The year has ended and for most folk the memory of a fine summer lingers on. And how marvellous it was after a tardy spring! Of course, people grew very tired of that long, hard winter. But not if you were a skier, for seldom have weather and snow conditions combined to produce such a run of perfect week-ends. Friends of mine notched up over a hundred ski-ing days with hardly a wetting.And in May an old friend celebrated his 83rd birthday by skiing from Cairngorm to Ben Macdui. In the blaze of the mid-summer sun there was still good skiing being enjoyed up there.
I, too shared in the bonanza, and the skiing days that shine brightest as I look back were the first two of 1977. Even the drive up to Glencoe on Hogmanay night was memorable, with snow crunching beneath the car tyres and the icy peaks hard and brilliant under a silver moon. My destination was the hotel where the Scottish Mountaineering Club meet was being held, and it was great to see so many old friends. Sergeant Whillans of the Glencoe rescue team was there, face shining with health, having just climbed the Pap of Glencoe to enjoy the moonlight glitter on snow-shrouded peaks and sea. Other friends who had been climbing that day spoke of the depth of snow which made very hard work of getting to the tops. Hearing this, Iain and I nodded to each other; we had brought our skis with us.

Soon the bells were ringing for midnight and we were toasting the New Year. The company was good, but we stole away to bed within the hour to be ready for what we knew was going to be a great morning. And it was icy perfection, looking across glass-calm Loch Linnhe to Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour as the first rays of sun touched it with pink. Great to head off into Glencoe for the skiing mountain, Meall a’ Bhuiridh. It is equipped with chair- lifts and ski-tows, and the operators were just starting up, so we were amongst the first half-dozen to be hoisted up above a glittering Rannoch Moor. From the top of the first chair you climb gently for a mile to reach the second chair and ski-tows, which brings you into shadow on the north face. Soon we were on the drag-lift heading into the sunshine of the summit ridge where barnacles of ice festooning the crags sparked like diamonds in the sunlight.

We climbed up the edge of the pendulous snow cornice overhanging Corrie Ba to enjoy in isolation the incredible vision of Arctic Scotland in the low light of the January sun. What a welter of peaks! In front of us Ben Dorain, Ben More, Lui, Starav, Cruachan and the hills of Mull above a soft gleam of Atlantic; behind us Nevis and the Mamores ; eastward Ben Alder. Nor was it just a white world. It was full of texture, colour and moulded by shadow.

Now I braced myself for the big test. Could I handle my skis as of yore? Meall a’ Bhuiridh is rockier, steeper and more daunting than the smoother Cairngorms of Glen Shee. Two skiers were killed on it last season. You always feel slightly nervous about your first run, so there is an inclination to be tentative rather than bold. On the other hand there is a special, delicious quality about the feeling of the skis below you when you have been off them for some time.
I don’t think I shall ever forget the take-off on the unflawed powder of that New Year’s Day as the skis floated smoothly, responding to the slightest direction of knees and shoulder. One felt almost disembodied, moving as effortlessly as if through the air. Whooping with delight, we threw caution to the wind as we swung across each other’s powder sprays in a 500-ft. plunge loop away on a fast leftward traverse into Happy Valley for its wall-of-death narrows leading eventually to the plateau.

By mid-afternoon we had notched up about 15,000 feet of downhill-running, yet not a muscle felt tired. When the lifts closed we climbed to the summit and in a bitter wind watched the red ball of the sun go down, casting a crimson light in Alpenglow on every peak. It was magical, especially when snow spume blown vertically upwards from the corrie showered round us like sparks from a fire. We took the descent from the 3000-ft. top with only one stop—to watch the full moon rising over the wan shoulder of Schiehallion.The skiing was even better next day, but some of the magic had gone with the arrival of hordes of skiers, now recovered from Hogmanay. Queues were vast, so we went seeking the remoter corners of the mountain.

To an old-timer like myself, who has been skiing since 1947, the standard of ski-ing to be seen on a busy day like this is nothing short of miraculous—certainly as high as you will see in any Alpine resort. Look at the fashions, too, colourful ski-suits built for warmth and to show off the slim line. Examine the rigid clip-boots, the short poles and the streamlined skis built of modern materials which do not warp like wood. Talk to the skiers and you will find that most are working class, as are so many climbers nowadays. I have been exercising myself tracing the evolution of Scottish skiing, which begins with W. W. Naismith and a friend skiing to the Meikle Bin on the Campsies in 1892. Naismith has been called the father of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and he observed that they moved faster and with less effort than on foot, also “… that a very slight gradient was sufficient to get up a tremendous speed.” Summing up, he thought that skis might often be employed with advantage in Scotland, and the sport might even become popular in the Alps.
In fact, it was the British who took the sport from Scandinavia to Switzerland, but it was a German called W. R. Rickmers who stimulated interest in it in Scotland when lie took a party of Scottish friends to Ben Nevis at Easter 1904. His article in the S.M.C. Journal called “Aquatic Sport on Ben Nevis,” describes eight days of rain teaching a party to ski on the summit slopes of our biggest Ben. Rickmers thought nothing of the big carry-up there because the 2000-ft. skiing slope from summit to lochan was so good. Rickmers was teaching a technique that had no real future in Scotland. The short, grooveless skis steered by a single pole were all right for soft spring snow or deep powder, but no use on the icy conditions which are so common in Scotland.
He certainly liked what he saw on Ben Nevis, saying that such perfect slopes of 2000 ft. length in such line conditions for skiing are rarely met with. But the shrewdest observation he made was that in a climate like ours the best skiing possibilities would be in spring rather than winter. Four years after these adventures on Ben Nevis another advocate of ski-ing, Allan Arthur, of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, was advising fellow climbers, “Make a start and keep it up till you master the art a little, and very soon—if I am not mistaken—you will be down badly with ski-fever.” From his own experience, he thought the best conditions were from about Feb. 10 till March 15.
Arthur was a real enthusiast: “It was a morning to delight the skier’s heart when I tumbled out of bed shortly after 4 a.m., with a clear, crisp atmosphere and not less than twenty degrees of frost.” He describes the perfect snow and his peace with the world on the summits in hot sunshine: “the snow was as keen and dry as any I ever skied on in Switzerland.”

Fifty years after he wrote these words I met Allan Arthur. He was old and deaf by that time, but his interest in skiing was undiminished and he was a regular attender at club lectures. I found myself thinking of him last March as I skied up the north ridge of Ben Vane and looked across to the adjacent top of a flawless white Ben Ledi. Following the line down from the summit, I fancied I saw him with three other members of the Scottish Ski Club, swinging down in wide turns for a full 1500 ft., then shouldering their skis to climb to the summit again for another run down.
Of that particular occasion, he wrote, “We one and all agreed that even in Switzerland such an expedition, on such a day, could not well be beaten.”
I echoed these sentiments as I swung down from the summit after half an hour of glorious views from the summit stretching from the Forth to the hills of Arran.
Scottish skiing, like Scottish mountaineering, received a big setback because so many keen men died in the 1914-18 war. But in 1929 the moribund Scottish Ski Club was revived by a new kind of skier, one who had mastered the art of making fast turns on icy snow, and the emphasis now was on harder and steeper ways down from the summits. This revolutionary turn was known as the stem- christie—now regarded as the hall-mark of old-fashioned skiers.

The new technique could be said to have come in with motor car ownership. By 1938, membership of the Scottish Ski Club was 400, and the Ben Lawers region became the focal point of week-end activity since it was within reasonable motoring distance of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth. The high road to 1800 ft. cut down walking time to the slopes, where a spacious hut was built between Beinn Ghlas and Meall Corranaich. Then came the installation of two small ski-tows above the hut in January 1952, precursors of the first Continental-type ski-tow in Scotland.

For this most ambitious development on any Scottish hill the Scottish Ski Club wisely chose Meall a’ Bhuiridh. It is in a bad weather area, but possesses north-facing, snow — holding corries — the major deficiency of the Lawers range. Nor were Dundee skiers idle at this time. They had put up small ski-tows in Glen Shee, on Ben Gulabin above the Spittal, and on Cam an Tuirc. It didn’t take long for me to see that touring men like myself, who had thought of themselves as competent skiers, were being left very far behind by comparative beginners applying themselves to a new style of dynamic ski-ing based on the parallel swing.
Chair-lifts on Meall a Bhuindh, in Glen Shee and a big mechanisation programme above Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms, speeded the technical advance as ski-teachers, trained in the latest Continental methods, imparted their knowledge to the thousands wishing to learn it. Ski business became big business, especially in the Spey Valley where local hoteliers provided entertainment every evening long before the concrete towers of the Aviemore Centre arose to offer skating, curling, skittles, sauna baths, cinema, a heated swimming pool and an artificial ski slope.

In terms of mechanisation, Glen Slice and the Cairngorms have attained the status of ski-complexes offering a whole variety of permutations, while Meall a’ Bhuiridh of Glen Coc remains small-scale because of the nature of the mountain. The two big centres operate every day of the season, whereas the Meall a’ Bhuiridh ski-tows run only at week¬ends and holidays or on special charters. Ski-ing there is therefore more expensive because of the small financial return for a big outlay.

When it comes to comparing the relative merits of Scotland or the Continent for skiing there is no doubt at all that you stand a better chance of getting value for your money in terms of sunshine and ample snow than in Scotland. What we offer is sport for spartans. True, last winter was marvellous, and so was 1963 and 1952, but let’s face it, in the name of ski-ing we endure whiteout, wind, rain and sunless grey days that would be intolerable to Continentals. We cannot even guarantee snow until the February storms fill the gullies. Rickmers was right when he nominated the spring as the season for Scottish skiing. Yet it is also true that it can be winter any day of the year on the Scottish hills, and that January, February and March usually provide excellent ski conditions somewhere, sometime.

I am all for advertising and attracting people to the Scottish ski resorts, but they should be warned what to expect. The best bet is the Spey Valley because of the lovely variety of walks in sheltering woods should the weather be rough. There is little to do in Glen Coe or Glen Shee in foul weather. At Continental resorts it is usually pleasant standing in a queue waiting for a ski-tow or chair-lift. In Scotland you can feel you are slowly freezing to death, and in addition, be buffeted by wind and flying spume, and half-blinded as you are being towed uphill. Which is one of the reasons why I do not favour special boots and bindings that are so rigid on your feet that you cannot walk comfortably.
I prefer boots in which I can walk and climb, and I use a touring binding on my skis which enables me to lift the heel and ski in the good old cross-country Scandinavian way.
Allan Arthur was right about ski-fever being an incurable disease. And so was the late Harry Mac Robert when he advised climbers to take up the sport, “even if only for something less strenuous than rock-climbing to fall back on in old age.”

Tom Weir: First published in the Scots Magazine 1978

Friday 30 November 2018

Strings over Indus

Commissions had dwindled almost to almost a standstill. As tastes changed-the old making way for the new- the proprietor of the ‘Sitar Sales and Repair’ shop overlooking the rugged valley in the north of England, was looking at the future with some trepidation; albeit laced with some slight relief. David Croft- who two weeks earlier, had dispatched four hand crafted sitars to the director of Melbourne city orchestra in time for a music festival in early Autumn- which David very much hoped to attend- contemplated if this was to be the last of these orders. Only three options were available he thought: to sell as a going concern; to wind down the business, or to speak to Elizabeth to see if she would be interested, or at least, continue to give it a go for a while.

"It never used to take this long did it David? "
" No it certainly did not"....David replied to Harold Drasdo as they climbed up the Black Hill. It was in this unique English landscape bordering two counties, with its sandblasted rock faces and crags, that David Croft, Harold, Neville Drasdo and Arthur Dolphin had thought up the idea of forming ‘ The Bradford lads’ which evolved into a unique, working class climbers club, after the war. Going on to make its mark on British climbing and forging national and international reputations.

Returning home that evening David looked into the bathroom mirror, still a handsome man with somewhat sad eyes, tinged with resolve; stepping on the scales,  he observed how his weight had fallen significantly since the last time he checked.
The love affair started in the busy Pakistani port city of Karachi, bejewelled and bedraggled in equal measure. Arriving with the team, David was to lead on to Gilgit., The route chosen was to follow north, the lifeblood of cities, empires and civilisations, the mighty river itself ...The Indus.

It was just beyond the capital that they decided to stop as a final resting place before arriving tomorrow at the base camp. In the unforgiving heat, David left for a swim in a one of the Indus tributaries. While heading there he heard extended series of sound, vast and epic. In the market place a crowd gathered to listen to Sitar and Tabla players. The stringed instrument with its elaborate patterns, had a hypnotic effect that night which was at once both sobering and disorientating.

They had arrived on the Karakoram Highway, it was in these mountain ranges that the Indus which flowed west from its source in Tibet, was forced down south to where Karachi opens its mouth and pours the Indus into the Arabian Sea.

There she was within sight, Nanga Prabat ‘The Naked Moutain’ . This was majesty, captivating from the ground, but the higher you go the more the metamorphosis takes place. Slender shoulders and curves give way to ugly disfigurement and crooked teeth, the mountain literally becomes a Maw… a ferocious mouth. David looked at everyone in stunned silence, here we are, this is what they call The Killer Mountain.

Elizabeth Croft threw her soul into the business and the rapid transformation was astounding. Out went the dusty shelves and memorabilia, in came music workshops, art exhibitions, yoga and well- being evenings. A major music event was planned for the following summer. Gregarious and quick witted, Elizabeth attracted a new clientele which the existing shop could not accommodate. Plans were afoot to expand the premises. Local and national newspapers sent journalists to conduct interviews. Invitations arrived for business awards, local politicians jostled to have photographs taken. The editor of the prestigious culture magazine ‘Late Evening Style’- Russell Brook- Lewis had in particular shown early interest and Elizabeth enjoyed chatting to him.
Returning home after the dinner with Russell, opening the kitchen door Elizabeth walked out bare foot into the warm night air. The sky was the glowing synthesis of gold and black. Sitting cross legged on the grass, she was lost in thought for a long time. “This is really it...enchantment.!' Stretching her right index finger into the air, Elizabeth ran her finger over Russell’s eyes, over his cheekbones, his lips along the back of his neck.
Horror and pain comes to us when we are at our most happiest. Like an avalanche, it arrives without warning and tears the ground on which we stand, consuming us at once. "David did not want to tell you himself, but will be at home to see you ", Dr Stobowski said to Elizabeth

"It is a very aggressive tumour that has spread to his lungs and chest, a specialist in this area has advised me that it is terminal. There is treatment available to slow down the disease, but David has declined. Perhaps you can talk to him. We expect two months at most. Elizabeth, we are here to help anytime of the day and night and there might be other help available. I’m so sorry "


The Burial took place in the nearby Methodist church, a plot which had been bought by David next to Mary -Elizabeth’s mother. It was private affair, Elizabeth was accompanied by Russell, Dras and the remaining members of the ‘Bradford Lads’. The British Alpine club sent someone, the Pakistani Embassy in London- where David was on first name terms, due to his service to Pakistani tourism and mountaineering- sent a high ranking official.

Elizabeth returned home alone, sifted to through the many letters of condolences that arrived from UK and overseas. Some from editors of mountaineering journals, from university climbing clubs and members of the public. One letter was address Elizabeth Croft stamped Melbourne, Austrialia. Opening the letter, the director of Melbourne City Orchestra expressed his sincere condolences at the loss of David whom he got to know well and how the world was very much poorer without him.

Elizabeth open the card which included invitation to the festival and continued reading 
..rush and retreat, cadences of ebb and flow
Strings over Indus
take us to where we came...

Elizabeth’s back crashed against the wall and she slid down to the floor, tucked both knees close to her chest and covered both her eyes with her hands. 

Zafar Ramzan: 2018 

Friday 16 November 2018

What's in a name?

Arni Strapcans: Original Image-Photographer unknown?
It has been suggested that routes with boring names should be omitted from future guidebooks. Alternatively, routes with names such as "Straight Crack" or "North-East Climb" will be exchanged for more intriguing options such as "Outer Plasmic Membrane", "Rupert Bear Goes Hiking", or even "Bimbo The Lorry Drivers Gulch Eliminate". ("Exploding" is an optional extra applicable to all route names.) Names will be reappointed by a qualified body of verbal diarrhoea sufferers on a three-yearly basis. All British route names will be placed in a lottery barrel in a heavily guarded room at the BMC head-quarters in Manchester, then drawn out at random and reappointed to completely different routes. By this method, classic routes will not get over-polished because nobody will know where they are.

Consequently, chalk will be rendered unnecessary, and the more congested routes will be relieved as traffic gets more evenly distributed over all the crags from Land's End to John O' Groats. Every decade, all the names will be discarded and replaced by a completely new set—to prevent boredom, of course, and also to provide permanent employment for guidebook writers (a profession which was beginning to look increasingly insecure owing to the worsening new-crag and line shortages. Who cares what a route is called? Does it matter? What difference would it make if White Slab was called "The Orange Throated Gonk"? Would it be any worse a route? Well, a name certainly does have a predominant influence on the first impression given by a route description, and therefore a well chosen name may well even enhance the existing character of a route. The honour of naming a climb is given exclusively to the first ascensionist, who apparently has the right to call his route whatever he likes, whether relevant or not.

A route name might be merely functional—pinpointing a feature or features encountered on the rock face. On the other hand, a little imagination might be employed and something more entertaining might evolve. Therefore the simple role of naming and describing a route can provide an amusing literary side to climbing which can only come as an enrichment to an activity which is becoming increasingly categorised. But in the '50s British climbers realised that if they were going to rate by European standards in the Alps and elsewhere, they would need a thorough knowledge of pegging. Hence, not wishing to undermine the free-climbing tradition, they set about catching up with the continentals by smashing to bits what were then the less popular crags — especially on limestone, which had not really been accepted as a free-climbing medium. The idea initially was that of practice for bigger things elsewhere. 

The very nature of this type of ascent gave little motive for consideration of a route beyond the desire to practise. Consequently, little attention was paid to its potential value as an addition to the wealth of British climbs. Times have changed, unscaled rock is becoming increasingly scarce. Consequently, areas of rock once taken solely by pegging-practice routes are rapidly getting overlapped by free-climbs, often of the highest quality and difficulty. Surely this totally different outlook can no longer be compared with its shady predecessor. And the renaming of areas of rock is highly commendable as a blunt rejection of the low values which no longer apply. Yet perhaps this harsh wipe-out of the past is a far too insensitive attitude, as there are several pegging routes which hold a lot of historical value, and even quality, in themselves,.Routes such as the Main Overhang at Kilnsey stand out as milestones in the development of British climbing and their mode of attack is still far from obsolete—as can be seen by the tactics of ascent which still seem necessary for scaling impasses on the huge remote rock walls of Patagonia, Baffin Island and elsewhere. Maybe a compromise of some sort is the logical answer. 

If an aid route is climbed without aid but along the very same line, should it be renamed?  * What does the name apply to? Is it the line, or is it a reference to a particular climbing experience? If a name is given as an indicator of the line, its significance is unchanged by the new method of ascent, and a renaming may be difficult to justify. However, modern free versions of old aid routes frequently merely overlap at certain points and the lines of ascent, though close, may be significantly different. Where this situation arises, it would be quite false to apply the old name to both routes. Nevertheless, the matter is a delicate one, and points of view will inevitably clash. The final decision, of course, has to rest with the guide-book writers, who will, I hope, take account of current trends and opinions rather than stand doggedly by their own personal ideology. 

Arni Strapcans : First Published in Crags 3.

Editors' Note.—( Crags Editor) People are very sensitive. We had a quick dig in the ribs at some folk in 'Crags' 1 and look what happens. Harness Can-straps sends us 50,000 words which have to be typed-up, Vesta Bincroft is now wandering around every climb muttering the words "Here Steve Bancroft is climbing this 10 foot crack before an unknown crowd". 

* See Paul Ross's 'The Great Overhang' and Pete Livesey's 'Footless Crow'.

Friday 2 November 2018

The Totem Pole- 20th Anniversary Edition....Reviewed

 Photo: Paul Pritchard

Unless you approached this book thinking it was an anthropological study, examining the belief systems and symbols of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or perhaps more appropriately, a rock climber who nevertheless has spent the last 20 years in a coma after being hit on the head by a television sized rock, then you must be aware of Paul Pritchard's Totem Pole saga. And indeed it is a saga, which 20 years on still has the power to shock and awe. As survival stories go, the story of Paul's accident, heroic rescue and rehabilitation, stands up with some of the gnarliest tales of triumph over tragedy within the climbing/mountaineering genre. Except this time, the hero doesn't get the girl and ride off into the sunset, fully restored and imbued with sage-like wisdom. Our protagonist loses the girl- girlfriend and heroic rescuer Celia Bull- ends up a smashed up hemiplegic and sees the whole focus of his life, cruelly torn away forever. An experience which left him facing nebulous demons in the guise of anger, despair and confusion. An unholy trilogy of emotions which in those first months after the accident had left him broken, both mentally and physically.

Paul's road to recovery came about by getting the whole experience down in words. A project which manifested itself in the original book which went on to take the Boardman Tasker prize in 1999.. Now, twenty years later, Paul has re-released The Totem Pole after a successful crowd funding campaign which uses his original work as the foundation but as Paul explains in the introduction...”restored my authentic voice which had previously been edited out'.

If anything, The Totem Pole is a story of redemption. Not achieved through overcoming disability and routing those dark demons buried away in the darkest recesses of the soul, but through a gradual philosophical acceptance that things will never be the same again...just different. As intimated above, one of Paul's first steps in his rehabilitation is to write down his thoughts and describe his experiences honestly and graphically. Despite struggling in those early months to articulate these thoughts and put them within a coherent structure, through a grim determination to paint the picture as accurately and honestly as he can, he perseveres . Despite the picture he is trying to paint being more Jackson Pollack than the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood in those confused early stages when his pummelled brain struggled to make sense of events. Locked in an endless, frustrating ritual of therapy and treatment, he finds solace and satisfaction through working these thoughts out and getting them down. As much to work out the chain of events which had led him to this point and attempt to make sense of the chaos. I'm imagine that when he started setting down these thoughts, the last thing in his confused and groggy mind was 'this will make a great book...Banff here we come!'.

The bulk of what evolved into The Totem Pole appears to have been written in Clatterbridge Hospital on the Wirral, about 60 miles from Paul's then North Wales home in the Welsh climbing capital of Llanberis. Sharing a ward with what sounds like the cast from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest- a cast which the author is never less than sympathetic and kindly disposed towards in most cases- he nevertheless took pleasure in shaping the book in what quiet spaces and moments he can find. I cannot imagine what is must have been like for a climber who was used to freedom, travel and wide open spaces to find themselves imprisoned, amongst strangers. I guess that writing, apart from its therapeutic value, would also be an escape from reality. A pretty grim reality at that but isn't the best art hewn from darkness and struggle?

I'd forgotten that Paul had undergone a similar experience here in north Wales when he took a huge ripper at Gogarth and ended up amongst the Irish Sea washed rocks at the foot of the Zawn. That time, despite being smashed up and subject to a lengthy rescue, the injuries sustained were not life changing. Students of Oscar Wilde at this point might proffer the suggestion that to suffer one such accident might be considered unfortunate, to suffer two such accidents looks like carelessness! But then again, why would a climber who has survived a serious accident not carry on? Perhaps a feeling of immortality might kick in after coming through such an experience? Although some climbers do indeed pack it in and take up something safe like fell running or hillwalking after a brush with death, in Paul's case, as a high end activist of international repute, giving up would never have been an option after an accident. Especially one which you fully recover from. The mental turmoil that an individual experiences after being involved in a serious accident will vary of course from person to person and their investment in the activity.

Fortunately, I have never suffered a serious accident whilst climbing myself. I have however experienced the horror which comes when witnessing a jagged rock freewheeling through the air with flesh and blood within it's terrible orbit. Although not in the same league as that experienced by Celia Bull as she watched 'that' block bulls eye on Paul's bare bonce in Tasmania, I recall a late friend trying to re-direct a sizeable flake of rock he had pulled on, away from me on Craig Dinas in North Wales as I looked on helplessly. Being lashed onto 'The Boulder' and unable to move more than a foot or so either way, I watched transfixed as the flake spun towards me. Growing in size with each nanosecond until it exploded just inches to the side of me. Even worse was when I trundled a huge fang of rock on a ground up first ascent in Nantlle, which twisted 90 degrees from its intended destination, and just missed my then 14 year old son who was belaying at the foot of the rib we were climbing. Its terrible trajectory so close that he felt the rush of air through his hair. The thought of what might have been still gives me nightmares! These accidents are freaks of nature which often defy all attempts to minimise risk and climb safely. Wrong place, wrong time and even the best mountaineer in the world can be swept away in a moment.

In some ways, being injured when climbing through a fall or bad technique can be accepted as it's just part of the game. Being struck by a rock on the other hand, is like being stabbed in the back rather than thrust in the chest by a rapier in a fencing duel. It seems as if fate is not playing fair! The tendency to curse your bad luck and succumb to despair, a debilitating and possibly inescapable condition which may become a prison cell from which there is no escape. The message which Paul, conveys through the Totem Pole challenges this fatalistic mind set. The goal which can be applied to most people who suffer mental, physical or emotional life changing turmoil, to find a way through the maze. Despite the endless dead ends and U turns which bring one back time and again to where you have started your journey. Through perseverance and with more than a little help from your friends, you can find a way through the towering box hedges and reach, if not the point from which you set out, an escape back into the light.
Paul and a handful of Totem Poles: Photo Eli Pritchard

When the Totem Pole first came out two decades ago, it took that years' Boardman Tasker award. A double header for the author after the success of Deep Play. To write a book of any description after having your skull stove in and your brain ruptured and plastered to your scalp, is just about beyond imagination. However, to write an honest account of such a traumatic, life changing event with such clarity, without any self pity or rancour and imbued throughout with that quiet northern self deprecating humour -which friends will describe as the essential essence of the man- is quite inspirational.

John Appleby: 2018 

Friday 19 October 2018

Wild Light/ Extreme Scotland....Reviewed

High winds and poor visibility are common during a day’s climbing or walking in Scotland. This photo was shot on the same day as Ines’s ascent of The Hurting and shows just how brutal conditions were.(Extreme Scotland)

‘Wild Light’. Scotland’s Mountain Landscape. Craig Aitchison.Vertebrate Publishing. 160 pages £25. Large Format, Hard Back.
‘Extreme Scotland’. A photographic journey through Scottish Adventure Sports. Nadir Khan. Vertebrate Publishing. 184 pages £25. Large Format. Hard Back.

Photography is truth’ Jean-Luc Godard. 

Maybe Godard would wish to now surround his view of the standing of photography with a less-Certainty, for digitalisation has changed as to whether photography is an art form or a developed skill? But these two books are an exemplar of both forms of today’s present image recording, film and or digital, both succeeding without question in a wish to faithfully record for us the spectator what they felt to be their vision in one moment of time.

‘Wild Light’.
This is Craig Aitchison’s second book, his first ‘The Highlands: Land and Light’ published in 2012 was successful, but it has taken him seven years to prepare and execute his second, ‘Wild Light’. Such a work of landscape photography to achieve a sumptuous coffee table result requires careful planning, with hours, and days of waiting with nights spent in lightweight tents anticipating the key time of dawn light or an evening sunset. 
Aitchison despite still working in film is a modern, for his equipment would more than impress previous generations of landscape photographers, his main camera being a Hasselblad X Pan, which was developed by that Swedish firm in co-operation with Fuji to produce the world’s first 35mm dual format camera. The concept behind the X Pan was to provide medium format image quality with the convenience of 35mm film, for which Aitchison uses the Fujichrome 50 Velvia. 
 An Teallach, Dundonnell :February 2016
The first light of dawn ignites the chiselled slopes of An Teallach on a perfect winter’s morning. After years of waiting for the right conditions, I finally achieved the image I had hoped for and realised a long-standing photographic ambition. (Wild Light)

Interchangeable lenses are also a key to his success, but surprising to me he only carries three, a 30mm, 45mm and a 90mm. Which somehow yield a wide angled, scene grabbing result in the mind and hands of an operator like Aitchison.

Using film employs an authentic approach to Landscape photography, for it enables the picture taker to capture the nuances of colour and light in the mountains, extremely accurately something that is difficult to replicate digitally. There are however problems with this approach associated with perspective and distortion errors; and in Scotland’s mountains, the ever fast changing light and moving objects, such as clouds and day lighting! And in this day and age working with film means high additional costs in processing and scanning; I guess that might mean ensuring that making sure the technicalities of composition and exposure must be executed correctly out in the hills, for little can be achieved in the laboratory.

Interesting to me is to compare Aitchison’s sumptuous colour results to those of some landscape photographer’s of yesteryear known to me; Ben Humble immediately comes to mind. Someone I was fortunate to get to know in the early 1960’s. Two of his books ‘On Scottish Hills’ 1946 and ‘The Cuillin of Skye’ 1952 were groundbreaking in their era, as was Walter Poucher’s many publications also around the same time, ‘The magic of Skye’ 1949 being a book to own at that date. However I must confess that my own most precious mountain picture book as a young teenager was the Swiss Andre Roch’s ‘On Rock and Ice’. In more recent times concentrating on Scotland, Gordon Stainforth’s beautiful opus, ‘Cuillin: Great Mountain Ridge of Skye’ published in 1994 remains the outstanding work on that range of mountains. Interesting that despite the far reach of Aitchison’s book there are no pictures contained within of the Cuillin.
An Teallach, Dundonnell:  July 2017
Standing at the foot of An Teallach in the predawn light I knew from experience that the low-lying cloud above me was indicative of a potential cloud inversion surrounding the mountain. With the thought of what might lie above I pushed on hard, hoping to capture this rare phenomenon before it burnt off. In a little over ninety minutes I had reached the summit. I was in luck: above the cloud it was warm and windless, the silence – absolute. I immediately set up my camera to capture the stunning conditions; I made my exposure and only after that could I finally relax. I sat down to recover, taking it all in. Two hours later I was still there: it was almost impossible to leave, but as the sun gained height the sea of cloud gradually dissipated and I returned home sunburnt and happy. (Wild Light)

There are however ones of more remote and more difficult to reach mountains such as Canisp and Suilven, An Teallach and Torridon. Based in Glasgow, fretting over weather forecasts he must have clocked up thousands of miles over the seven years of putting together the 156 photographs in his book.

The Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms: December 2012
The Lairig Ghru is a high mountain pass that carves its way through the heart of the central Cairngorm plateau, one of the wildest areas in the country. This great gorge features some of Scotland’s most revered winter mountains and this image shows its western aspect. From left to right are the summits of The Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul and Braeriach. (Wild Light)

Aitchison was the inaugural winner of the ‘Scottish Landscape Photographer of the year’. His photographs are ones to savour and memorise over, plate 134 Braeriach in winter is one such for me, a night spent in a bivouac in February 1963 at the foot of a possible new route with Eric Langmuir (now deceased), to almost die retreating next morning in an ensuing blizzard. So Aitchison is in a long line of Scottish mountain photographers, he may not be the last, but he will remain I am sure one of the best! Everything about ‘Wild Light’ is appealing, none more so than the huge panoramas of favourite hills, for me the one of ‘The Cobbler’ (plate 124 shot in February 2017) remains breathtaking. It must be a huge gamble by Vertebrate to publish this book, and knowing a little of how much it must have cost to put together, I do hope it is successful for it really does justice to the finest mountain scenery we have in the UK.

‘Extreme Scotland’.
Nadir Khan has a most unusual background for an adventure photographer, post a career as a hospital based oral surgeon, working on facial trauma and reconstructive surgery, he now concentrates on his first love, photography. A journey which started at Glasgow University when his father, also a surgeon, gave him an old SLR Canon film camera, which became a companion on his early mountaineering adventures in Glencoe and on Ben Nevis recording his own and friends activities in these mountain areas. From such outings he began to develop a major interest in wilderness photography, studying the work of such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. The latter must have inspired many to take up climbing photography for besides being one of the most outstanding exponents of this type of image; he was himself one of the leading pioneer climbers of his generation. His two seminal works; ‘In the throne room of the Mountain gods’ 1977 and ‘Mountain Light’1986 would inspire any tyro as they seem to have done so for Khan? I did meet Galen on occasion in the States, and his death in a plane crash, returning from Alaska in August 2002 was a shock to all of us who knew him. 

Dramatic skies and light on Sgùrr an Fheadain, the Cuillins, Isle of Skye. Climbers: Matt Barrett and Scott Brooks.(Extreme Scotland)
It is always interesting if you yourself have an interest in photography to discover what equipment such an operator as Khan is using to craft his images. He has long ago left behind his old film camera and is now a digital user, mainly with Canon EOS lDC and a 5D Mark lll, along with L-series lenses as well as for flash a Canon 580 exii and Elinchrom Quadra. There is a short but interesting Foreword to ‘Extreme Scotland’ by Hamish MacInnes, explaining his long held belief that a timeless book of mountain images holds sway with him, over the moving picture. Stating ‘I must admit I am a large-format buff , an admirer of Vittorio Sella and the Abraham brothers- such subtle light and shadows’. Hamish does go on to also note how much digital photography has changed the name of the game. I myself still use film cameras, but I do understand the benefits of digital whilst filming moving images.....a major one being I understand is exposure speed. And of course you can also see what image/s you have captured in an instant.

Extreme Scotland is broken into four sections, by season. Winter first and for me this is where the books greatest pictorial strength lies, then Spring, Summer and Autumn. And in each season there are activities which seem to complement, with trail running and rock climbing in summer and kayaking in the Autumn. 
Extreme Scotland’ covers all the major adventure sports which Scotland plays host to. Ice climbing, kayaking, ski-touring, trail running, surfing, mountain-biking and rock climbing. But the book is about more than just a recounting of some adrenaline junkies doing their thing! There are some thoughtful articles and poems from such as Nick Bullock, Tom Livingstone, Elana Bader, Mike Pescod, David Canning and Stuart Campbell. A poem I enjoyed was ‘One Day’ by Elana Bader and an article ‘Creme de Violette’ by Tom Livingstone repeating a Nick Bullock/Tim Neill route on Beinn Eighe. I would have thought that perhaps a longer scene setting historical revue might have been included? Who for instance first ran the Scottish 4000’ers, or kayaked the middle Etive, or climbed in the Scottish winter?

The winter climbing photographs are frankly stunning, and some of the climbers featured all have wonderful, memorable names..... Caspar McKeever, Uisdean Hawthorn and Ines Papert. The pictures of her repeating ‘The Hurting’ (Xl. 11) in Coire an t-Sneachda, pages 4-7 are I guess what modern, winter climbing at the front edge of performance are all about. But I wonder, as to when did climbers, start calling themselves ‘athletes?’ Although I was once a member of the Manchester Athletic Club and similarly The Leeds A C and such as Arthur Dolphin ran every year for Yorkshire in the Counties Cross Country Championship, I never thought of him, Brown or Whillans as ‘athletes’. They were ‘climbers’ which was a superior designation, yet in ‘Extreme Scotland’ the climbers are all athletes just like the trail runners.
I think ‘Extreme Scotland’ which highlights the use of all of today’s innovations in adventure sports is nevertheless a worthy successor to much that has gone before. A list of climbing photographers is almost endless but Nadir Kan is using some of the techniques pioneered by John Cleare for his now historical work, ‘Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia’. I mention this because I was Joe Brown’s second while John filmed him off an abseil rope, climbing Vector. But earlier works also set the scene, C. Douglas Milner’s ‘Rock for Climbing’ with its sense of period (the 1940’s) and its climbing sequences that were revolutionary in that era. A final mention of climbing photographic development must rest with Ken Wilson. His large format books, such as ‘Hard Rock’ 1974, ‘Classic Rock’ 1978, ‘Cold Climbs’ 1983 and ‘Extreme Rock’ 1987 set a standard that it is hard to equal for capturing a climb, a climber and a place. 
To be fair ‘Extreme Scotland’ could not be anywhere else in the world, with its unique setting of Mountains, Lochs and Wilderness Areas. Some regions are harder to capture the zeitgeist, and some activities are more photogenic than others. And here climbing comes into its own, although Callum Anderson kayaking the Middle Etive in a double edged spread (pages 92 and 93) is pretty awesome. 

Surfing in Thurso in fine evening light.(Extreme Scotland)
So all in all this has to be a ‘bible’ for future adventurous souls to go forth, to ski tour, to trail run, surf, mountain bike, rock climb, kayak and winter climb. Knowing much of the territory the pictures cover, I would be surprised if anyone else could improve on this work of Nadir Khan. So I congratulate him on an outstanding book, and I do hope it proves to be a well thumbed, well read success.

Dennis Gray:2018 
Images-Vertebrate Publishing 

Friday 5 October 2018

Rough Shoot

ME AND THE LADS I guess I never told you about me and the lads, did I? Well, I mean, it was all so long ago — back in the fifties, like, when we thought the world was young, and really it was only us.... What? Oh, me and the lads . . . no, we weren't a club really. We just used to go out in the hills together at weekends, y'know, and meet most nights at Sullivan's Cafe. Out on the Bolton Road . . . what? No, they pulled it down years ago... . There was the four of us went round together, like. Me, Big Harry, Sorrowful Jones and Toddy. He were the quiet one, Toddy, but Big Harry — well, he was big and blonde and noisy, with a bushy beard like Father Neptune. It was him as picked me up on the Preston by-pass, as then was, did I tell you? Well, maybe I will some day. Got me started climbing, did Big Harry. Sorrowful Jones? Ah, now there was one of the lads, if ever there was one. Small and scruffy,

We sat at our usual table in Sullivan's Cafe, idly eating lumps of sugar from the bowl, and ignoring the malevolent glances of Sullivan. He was a bit put out because his wife had returned unexpectedly from London one evening a week back and had caught Fanny Cranshaw doing overtime. She cut up dead rough about it, too, by all accounts; but she always did strike me as a narrow minded bint, and anyhow, as we pointed out to Sullivan, who was to say what she herself had been up to in the gay Metropolis? He asked us not to mention it. The last lump of sugar had gone and Big Harry was just about to lean over to the next table for another bowl, when the swing door opened to admit two of the roughest characters in the business — any business — Louis the Bum, and his dark familiar, The Bat. In the normal way of things, I am the last person to criticise the failings of my fellow men, but I have to admit that Louis and The Bat were a couple of uncouth sods. For a start, they looked uncouth: small with dark greasy hair which tumbled about their ears and ferret like faces which even a magistrate wouldn't trust. They looked like brothers, terrible twins, for they dressed alike in black leather jackets decorated with brass studs, and black jeans of an outrageous slimness, in the pockets of which they invariably hooked their thumbs. 

In point of fact they were in no way related, except in spirit, although they had shared many vicissitudes and several mistresses together. A gentler age would have called them louts, and I always felt that had they lived in medieval times they would have been the boon companions of Richard Crookback, and had a hand in clobbering those kids in the Tower. They were not prepossessing and young coppers were known to avoid them. Yet Louis and The Bat had their shiny side like most human beings: joined together by a nylon rope, they were one of the finest rock-climbing teams in the country. Because of this they were tolerated, and their opinions carried great force. "What you been doin', then, Louis?" Asked Harry. Meaning we hadn't seen them around for a while. "Me an' the Bat 'ere, we been walkin' these last few weekends. S'right, ain't it, Bat?" "S'right," confirmed his shadow. Harry looked shocked, as did we all. "You don't mean walkin' — on foot as it were?" He demanded incredulously.

"S'right, mate." "Stone the crows!" We all sat stunned at the thought that two of the best rock-climbers ever to disgrace the bar of the Pen y Gwryd should have spent their week-ends walking when they could have been performing miracles of balance on rock faces. Not that we offered any open criticism, mind you, because Louis the Bum is adverse to criticism, and The Bat, too, for that matter, and it pays to stay friends with both. Fortunately for the conversation, Louis offered to enlighten us. "It were all on account of this book, see?" He began. "You ain't been readin' again, Louis?" chided Sorrowful Jones, very much as a mother might scold a child for stealing jam tarts from the pantry. "Belt up will yer?" Louis replied sharply. "An' let me try an' knock some faggin' sense into that dim 'ead o' yourn. "Like I were sayin': I got 'old o' this 'ere book on mountaineerin' by some famous bloke or other—can't remember 'is name, an' anyhow you ignorant sods wouldn't know 'im an' in this book it said as how walkin'were an essential part o' mountaineerin'." "It were all wrote down," confirmed The Bat, who couldn't even read the four letter words in Lady Chatterley. 
Walt Unsworth: Image Cicerone
"Yeah, well. This bloke reckoned proper walkin' were very important; an he 'ad a lot o' little pictures showin"ow it should be done, like." "An we was doin' it all wrong," said The Bat. "Funny ain't it? I been walkin' ever since I were a kid, an' then after all these years I find I been doin' it all wrong." Louis gave The Bat a withering look and asked who was telling the tale? The Bat said Louis was, so Louis requested permission to continue, and added that if he had any further interruptions he would place a well aimed boot in The Bat's groin. The Bat, who valued that part of his anatomy, fell silent. "There's just as much skill in walkin' as there is in climbin'," Louis the Bum continued. "Only it's different, o' course. It's a question of , rhythmical balance an' conservation of energy, an all that balls. Once yer gets the 'ang of it, yer can do bloody long walks an' set up records an' things." "'Ow many records 'ave you set up then, Louis?" Asked Sorrowful Jones, tongue in cheek. "Well, we ain't set up any as yet," admitted Louis, "'cos we only been at it a few times, see? An' anyhow, its the technique I'm interested in, mate, not bloody records."

Sorrowful nodded in mock sympathy. "Competition don't do nobody any good, mate," he said. Personally I thought Sorrowful was asking for trouble, taking the mickey out of Louis the Bum like that, but Sorrowful knew his man. Louis never rumbled. The Bat pointed out the time on Sullivan's plastic clock. "What about them two judies, then, Louis?" He asked. Louis looked at his own watch and nodded." We're off," he announced. "Gotta see a coupla tarts. See yer." "See yer." we replied in chorus. "Did you ever 'ear such a load o' bull in all your life?" demanded Toddy, when they had gone. Big Harry looked thoughtful and stroked his voluminous yellow beard. "I dunno," he said slowly. "I reckon there's summat in this walkin' racket."

"Come off it! It's a load o' balls. Who can't walk up to a crag an' back? Apart from which, who wants to walk at all?" Toddy looked disgusted at the thought. Big Harry shifted his bulk back on his chair so that the legs creaked ominously. Like Sullivan said: he wished Harry would sit some-where else for a change because no one chair was designed to take such a constant hammering, but Harry pointed out that he couldn't move because Sorrowful Jones and Toddy had a side bet of five bob as to when the chair would collapse. Big Harry said, "I been thinkin' about this for some time: Louis the Bum has just brought to a head the whole problem, as yer might say." "An' what problem is that?" asked Sorrowful Jones, who was something of an expert on problems, being one himself. "Our attitude, that's what mate; our attitude. We reckon we're mountaineers, but we're nothin' of the sort — just bloody rock technicians. We do buggar all but climb rocks an' even then its rocks what are near a road like Borrowdale or Llanberis. I tell you this, mates: we've been turnin' the cathedrals of the earth into soaped poles!" "You read that somewhere," accused Sorrowful Jones. "So what? It's true ain't it 'Ow often do we pause to consider the beauty of our surroundings? Never, mate! We get stuck on some bit o' rock an' all we sees is dirty cracks an' grooves, lengths o' rope an' metal pegs. Do we ever think o' the Eternal Hills? Do we faggin' hell! "All we thinks of is how the next pitch is a layback an' we wish we'd never started the bloody climb in the first place. "So we end up as bloody good rock-climbers, maybe, but somewhere along the road we lose our real purpose." Harry's outburst shook us rigid.

Sorrowful Jones said," You gone all philosophical, ain't you mate? Been watchin' B.B.C. telly, or summat?" "Then there's the other side of it," continued Harry, ignoring him. "What about when we go to Skye? Walkin' an' route findin' become major problems in a wild place like Skye." If Big Harry's professed love of natural beauty cut no ice with the lads, his last remarks went home. The fact was, we had all agreed to take a few days off work at Whitsun, and by combining them with the Bank Holiday, arrange to have a full week in the Cuillins; that northern mecca of British climbers. None of us had ever visited the misty Hebridean island and it was an omission which was keenly felt; partly because of the reputation of the place but mostly, I think, because of Piss Eyed Pete. Pete had been there— once — and he never missed an opportunity of telling us so, since modesty is not Pete's dominant characteristic. We had only to mention some obscure crag or mountain for him to say, "Well, it's alright I suppose, but it don't compare with the Cuillin o' Skye. You lot ain't never been to the Cuillin, 'ave yer? Believe me, mate, the Cuillin are the only real mountains in Britain." The inference being, of course, that anyone who hadn't been there could in no way be regarded as a real mountaineer. 

So what with the visit to Skye on our minds and everything, Big Harry's point was well taken. "You may be right an' all," Sorrowful Jones conceded. "The Cuillins is a pretty rough place. I remember Paddy the Wop once come down on the wrong side o' the main ridge in a mist, an' e 'ad to walk over twenty miles back to 'is tent. 'E were bloody 'ungry an all by the time he got back, seein' as 'ow 'e dropped 'is butties down the Cioch Slab in the mornin'." Harry welcomed the support. "Well there it is, ain't it?" he demanded. "I reckon we ought to practise this walkin' caper."
Between you and me, there are walks and there are walks, when it comes to a question as to whether one is a good walker or not. Like Toddy said, anyone can toddle up to the foot of a crag and back, if it isn't too far and the weather is right, and nearly everyone can reach the top of a hill without undue peril. I base these surmises on the yobs one encounters from time to time in such elevated positions as the summit of Ben Nevis and the Snowdon Hotel. But not everyone can do a walk. Walks, in these present times, have become things of contest between man and mountain, and man and time. It is no longer sufficient to stroll around the hills: today a walk —a proper walk— is a challenge as stern in its own way as the stiffest rock climb. There was a time, and not so very long ago either, when the admission of inadequacy in the mountains was contained in the phrase, "I'm only a walker", meaning that the speaker felt himself unable to comment on the mad rich world of the mountains in the same way that the more romantic rock-climbers did. Rock-climbers tended to look down on walkers (although they would never admit it) and say, "Well, each to his own pleasure old chap," when what they really meant was "The poor sod. The poor inferior sod." But times change. 

The bloke who goes clanking up Borrowdale with a hundred krabs dangling from his waist and two miles of rope round his shoulders is probably a novice out to climb Brown Slabs, whilst the youngster in training shoes, who looks as though he hasn't yet begun to shave, is like as not the newest hard man. You just can't tell. So when a bloke today says modestly, "I'm only a walker," you look at him sideways, because his idea of a quiet weekend is likely to be a double traverse of the Welsh Three Thousand Footers or a quick run along the main ridge of the Cuillins. There are more walkers today than climbers, it seems to me, and you meet them everywhere — on top of Napes Needle, for example. They are a remarkable breed these modern walkers, with adhesive feet and the stamina of a yak. Never under any circumstances offer to go for a walk with one, or you are likely to be convalescent for the following two weeks. They concentrate on accepted routes done within acceptable times, the records for which make you feel slightly sick. 

We decided to make our first serious attempt at walking one cold February day, when there was a sprinkling of snow on the Pennine moors and the clouds drooped like veils of lead. Big Harry knew a bloke who did a lot of walking — a little chap called Amen Smith, who was as bandy as a cowboy and looked as though he couldn't walk across the road, let alone the hills, although in fact he could move like a chamois with a thunderflash up its arse. He had told Harry that one of the best walks was over the moors between Marsden in Yorkshire and Edale in Derbyshire. It was on Amen's recommendation, therefore, that we rolled into Marsden at 8 a.m., cold and sleepy, with Sorrowful Jones moaning away and a whole hunk of wild moor between us and our ultimate destination. There is something about the hills of Wales or the Lakes which makes them seem friendly to man, so long as he doesn't try to mess them about. Even in Scotland, where things are on an altogether bigger scale, there exists an atmosphere of muted challenge, as though the hills knew that man wanted to play on them and were not altogether adverse to the idea. But in the Pennines; in the bleak, wind swept, grough riven peat hags of the Pennines, man is an intruder. These are hills without emotion, without compassion. They have neither form nor beauty and they don't give a damn. 

Their sombre grit begrimed faces betray no trace of the eternal challenge between man and mountains and yet you get the message alright: their vastness mocks and says Put one step wrong here, mate, and we'll kill you. And they would, too. Our own route for the day ahead lay over three identifiable lumps of moor: Black Hill, Bleaklow, and Kinder Scout, separated by deep valleys. At one time, there existed four pubs, equidistant along the line of march, and some do say that it is for this reason that the walk was originated. That the whole thing was nothing more nor less than a sophisticated pub crawl. Such is progress, however, that the first two pubs have been pulled down; not surprising really, when you learn that they were owned by the local water board and therefore in direct competition, as it were. The first few miles from Marsden lay along a good cart track by the side of reservoirs and we made very rapid progress. Even Sorrowful Jones ceased to complain; the air was crisp, the incline gentle, and we exerted ourselves just sufficiently to keep warm. It was a piece of cake, we said, and we liked walking, we said. Then we hit Black Hill. The track vanished and there was nothing but the white, snow speckled acres of moor rising to an indefinite summit. 

The going was rough and boggy, and we were bothered by the deep groughs where surface streams had cut into the peat. Our speed slackened, and we cursed as we stumbled forwards and up. The summit never seemed to get any nearer, and to cap our misfortune, the leaden sky turned a deep violet. "I don't like it, 'Arry," gasped Sorrowful Jones, crawling out of a grough. "It's gonna snow." And for once he was dead right. Hardly had he spoken when the first fine flurry of white needles came swirling down and within minutes we were trapped in a white-out. I don't think any of us had ever been in a white-out before, and the experience is not one to bolster self-confidence, especially if, like us, you haven't got much idea of your exact position. The world as we knew it simply vanished. Land and sky blended into a diaphanous whole so that you could not tell where the one ended and the other began, and we stepped forward into a never ending wall of vapour. It was a dream-world, a nightmare, where there was no future and no past, where the only substance was self and the rest was the white dawn of nothing. 

We stopped, huddling together into a tight group, the snow falling with sinister gentleness all round. " 'Ere's a fine how dye do," complained Big Harry, blowing into his gloved hands. "What the faggin' Hell do we do now?" "We get off these faggin'moors a bit sharp-ish," replied Sorrowful in a gloomy voice, "before we all dies of exposure. Where the hell are we, anyhow?" That, of course, was the nub of the matter. We had concentrated on picking our tortuous way through the peat hags towards the summit of the hill, and we had never thought of checking our location on the map. Apart from the knowledge that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Black Hill, we were lost. Big Harry pulled out a map from his anorak pocket and Toddy surprised us all by contributing a compass which he had pinched for the day from his kid brother who was in the Cubs, and we tried to combine the two with our inadequate knowledge of navigation. But without landmarks to guide our futile efforts it was hopeless from the start. We gave Toddy back his compass, telling him what his kid brother could do with it, and Harry put back his map, all soggy and wet with snow. We had been standing still for five minutes and our feet had begun to freeze. We decided to press on, regardless. For ages we trod the Slough of Despond which is the summit of Black Hill. It is aptly named: black ooze, positively primeval in concept, squelched over our boot-tops at every step until in the end we didn't care anymore. 

Then, joyously, the land began to descend. For better or worse we seemed to be entering some kind of upland valley; whether or not it lay in the right direction we neither knew nor cared. All we wished for at that moment was escape from the cursed moors and the white-out. I think we panicked. Soon we were walking along an ill defined sheep track in a narrow defile. The white-out vanished as we descended, although it still continued to snow, and even though our vision was limited to a few yards it restored our self confidence to be able to see again and regain contact with reality. The track improved at every yard, and a quick check with the compass showed us that it did indeed run in the right general direction, which was a piece of good luck. "If only the snow would stop, we could see where we was," Harry shouted over his shoulder at us. "I reckon we must be in one o' them side valleys near Holme Moss." Toddy agreed. "The compass sez we're headin' south" he affirmed, "so I reckon you're right, mate. This track should lead us down into Crowden." "The compass don't mean nothin'," said Sorrowful Jones gloomily. "This valley could bend in the next half mile, an' then where are we?" "Up the creek without a paddle, mate," replied Harry, effectively ending the conversation. The valley began to widen until we could no longer see the opposite bank because of the snowflakes which were still swirling down. It was obvious, though, that it was a vale of some size, for it boasted stone walls and fields. It had about it a faintly familiar air. "I gotta feelin' I been 'ere before." Big Harry commented, with a puzzled air on his face. 

"Ello, then. What's this?" Through the snow-mist there had loomed up before our path a mound of earth some six feet high and stretching away into the dim distance. It was bordered by a trench as deep as the mound was high, and containing some rusted wood and iron contraptions. It was not the sort of thing one expects to find on the Derbyshire moors, or anywhere else, in our experience. "Maybe it's for catchin'rabbits wholesale," suggested Sorrowful Jones, pondering the enigma. "One thing's for sure though —some poor bastard will fall into that trench one day and break 'is bloody neck." We walked along the side of the trench and entered upon a country straight out of Alice in Wonderland. All about us, for as far as the snow would allow us to see there were more of these strange constructions, arranged in roughly parallel lines. The valley looked as though it had just witnessed a convention of mad archaeologists. Then the snow stopped, suddenly and without warning, as snow does in mountains. We stopped too, in amazement. Bang! Bang! Ping! Its a funny thing, you know, but even if you've never heard the sound of small-arms fire in your life before, you still know when some buggar is firing at you. And somebody was firing at us. 

Simultaneously, we all four dived into the nearest trench and lay there quaking. "The bloody rifle range!" exploded Harry, when we eventually picked up enough courage to sit up. "You know — the one in the valley that leads up to Laddow Rocks. The Army uses it every Sunday; an' we've walked right into the bastard!" "No wonder the valley looked familiar," said Toddy. "We must 'aye passed the Range a 'undred times on our way to the rocks." A sudden thought struck him and he grinned. "Anyhow, the old compass was right lads: this valley leads straight to Crowden." "If we ever get out alive," added Sorrowful Jones. After the first, frightening fusillade, the firing stopped, although none of us volunteered to peer over the edge of the trench to see why. Instead, we sat tight and began to prepare some Nescafe. The idea of looking for a better hole did not appeal to us, one bit, and anyway, our hole was comfortable enough as these things go. In fact, we were just beginning to feel at home when the officer in charge of the shooting party arrived. Apparently he had spotted us through his field glasses; too late to prevent the first burst of fire by his trigger happy platoon, but not too late to give us a bollacking. He was very annoyed, you could see that at a glance, but he was wasting his breath on the lads. He was a young twat of about twenty with a little moustache and a Sam Browne belt you could have seen to shave in. He stood on the edge of the trench looking down on us and he had a little cane which he flicked angrily in his leather gloved hands, for all the world like a schoolmaster who has discovered some juniors smoking in the toilets. 

"What do you people think you are doing down there?" he demanded aggresively, in that peculiar accent which seems to afflict all regular army officers. "Shelterin' from you lot," replied Big Harry. "Don't be impertinent! I want to know what you are playing at." His cane flicked violently in tune with his temper. Big Harry stood up and eyed him severely. "We're not playin' at anythin', mate," he replied. "It's you lot what are playin' soldiers. Is there a war on or summat?" The subaltern went livid. "Get out of there!" he stormed. "This is War Office Property, and you are trespassing. Get out ! D'ye hear?!" "Keep yer shirt on," Harry said quietly, packing away the petrol stove. "We're goin'." We scrambled out of the trench. Big Harry towered above the officer and smiled down at him sweetly. "There's just one thing, mate ..." he asked. "And what's that?" "Which side is winnin'?" The subaltern lost all control over his emotions. Waving his stick around like a demented bell-boy he let fly a string of oaths which even Sorrowful Jones thought was first class. "Get the faggin' hell out of here or I'll report you to the Major!" He ended. "And I'll tell the vicar," added Harry. 

We ambled away, with his curses still ringing in our ears. "He's only a young bloke, ain't 'e? But 'e ain't 'alf got a marvellous command of English," commented Sorrowful Jones, wistfully. "I wonder what 'e is?" "That mate," explained Big Harry, "is an officer an' a gentleman." We walked down into the Longendale valley, where the huge reservoirs flashed in the new found sunlight. Our misadventures on Black Hill and the rifle-range had cost us remarkably little in the way of time, and although we were well behind our original over optimistic schedule, we felt confident of success. Black Hill lay behind us: all we had to do now was cross Bleaklow and Kinder, and with the weather markedly on the mend, we felt that the job was as good as accomplished. At Crowden railway station we paused to eat our sandwiches and make our postponed brew of Nescafe. Before us, Bleaklow rose in one great two thousand foot sweep of heather, with the sun glinting on the wet rocks of the numerous gritstone tors which are such a feature of the hill. 

Away on our right, a fine ridge of grit was etched against the winter sky and pointed the way to the top. After the ordeals we had suffered that day, the ridge came as blessed relief. Here was something which we understood — rock —and although it wasn't steep enough to be called climbing in the proper sense, after the miry wastes of Black Hill it was a sheer delight. It could have gone on forever, that ridge, but it didn't; within half an hour it debouched us onto the summit plateau of Bleaklow. "Hell fire!" ejaculated Sorrowful Jones, meaning who would have thought that there could be a place so vast and utterly barren as that which stretched ahead? As far as the eye could see there was nothing but miles of undulating moors rising to a whaleback of a skyline. No hummock of curious shape, no startling tors of gritstone, nothing to break the awful monotony of the great plateau. It was truly the most God forsaken piece of country we had ever seen. "Well, it's flat, at any rate," said Big Harry. "We should zoom across this lot." But it wasn't and we didn't. What from a distance looked all smooth and level turned out in reality to be as rugged an area as you could find in the whole of Britain. The entire plateau was as riven with groughs as a gorgonzola cheese is with blue veins. 

Some of these ditches were large, some were small, but all contorted and twisted like a million snakes, crossing and recrossing each other every few yards. There was nothing for it but to push forwards, in and out, up and down, like poor bloody infantry of the First World War scrambling to the attack across the shell holes of No Man's Land. Time and our energies wasted together, yet the skyline seemed to grow no closer. As we advanced the groughs seemed to get bigger. There were some. I recall vividly which seemed thirty feet deep: great canyons of peat, the crossing of which was extremely laborious. In the end, we abandoned all pretence of method; simply falling down one side of the grough and scrambling as best we could up the other. Conversation was at a discount, but we all had a feeling of panic; a feeling that we were trapped on that labyrinthine moor. The walk we were supposed to be tackling was utterly forgotten; degenerated into a frantic struggle to escape from Bleaklow, lest we leave our exhausted bodies forever in some unknown grough. 

The short day of winter began to draw to a close and as the light faded the air grew cold. The peat, once soft and cushion like, started to crackle beneath our steps as it was gripped by the night frosts. In desperation we quickened our pace — if pace it could be called —although each and every one of us was dead tired. How long had we been on that cursed moor — two hours, three? It seemed a lifetime. Then the groughs ceased, suddenly, and we knew we had at last breasted the crest of the hill. As the final rose tints of the sun died on the skyline we struck across a narrow, deep valley, and inside a quarter of an hour we were free of Bleaklow, standing on a metalled road. We leant against a small stone bridge, buggered. "Well, we made it lads." gasped Harry. "This 'ere's the Snake Pass." "All we gotta do now is cross Kinder Scout," said Sorrowful Jones gloomily. He got no reply. When at last we were sufficiently rested we set off down the pass towards the point where a small track leads off it over the great massif of Kinder. We were now hours behind schedule and dog-tired. Nobody spoke, all our thoughts being concentrated on the agony ahead. 

We had gone rather more than a mile along the road when we saw a blaze of lights in the trees which fringed the left hand side of the road. It turned out to be an attractively lit white building with big lattice windows through which we could discern luxury, warmth and the magnetic clink of ale glasses. We had reached the Snake Inn. Big Harry halted. We all halted. "It's another four or five mile over Kinder ..." Big Harry began, his voice uncertain. "We'll never do it in the dark," added Sorrowful. Big Harry sighed as he pushed open the door to the Bar. "They didn't ought to put a pub in a place like this," he said savagely,"it weakens a bloke's resolution." We sank into luxurious chairs, pints in our hands, and just let the ache drain out of our tired bodies. For five whole minutes we just sprawled there, eyes closed in sheer bliss, and then we took good long draughts of the excellent ale. "Why do we do it?" asked Toddy, stretching his legs against cramp. "Why do we bloody well do it?" "Because we're faggin' stupid, mate, that's why," replied Big Harry. "But it don't 'alf make the ale taste good, don't it?" 
 Walt Unsworth 1978. Illustrations Ivor Cumberpatch.

First published in Climber and Rambler November 1978. 

Remembering Walt Unsworth