Friday 23 February 2018

Andy Kirkpatrick's 'Unknown Pleasures'...Reviewed

‘Unknown Pleasures’ Andy Kirkpatrick. Vertebrate Publishing.... £24 

‘I want to be me, I want to be free’... Toyah Wilcox... Jubilee.

I guess if anyone in the climbing world wants ‘to be me’ then that person has to be Andy Kirkpatrick, who grew up in straightened circumstance, on a Council estate in Hull. For so many years now he has been doing his own thing, almost a ‘Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, seeking out climbs where the danger is real, and safety questionable, confounding his critics and delighting audiences with his stand up comedy performances, that are based on his life and hard times on some of the gnarly big walls and mountain faces of the world. Having noted this, I expected ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (The title gleaned from a ‘Joy Division’ album) to be a laugh a minute, albeit couched in fruity discourse, but no I found this a serious and thought provoking read. I only laughed out loud once in digesting its contents.

There must be something in the water in Hull and its surrounds for besides this author, Joe Tasker, John Redhead and Alex MacIntyre all hailed from within its flat landscapes. It is interesting however to think on this author’s family name, not Yorkshire at all but lowland Scots. We are such a mixture in this country, but this Kirkpatrick is I guess almost a one off, despite the fact he is seriously dyslexic, which was not diagnosed until his late teens, and admits he cannot spell, punctuate or has any grammatical ability, yet he has twice won the Boardman/Tasker Mountain Literature prize. And for myself, his first such, Psychovertical is a modern classic about climbing and climbers.

‘Unknown Pleasures’ is a collection of 32 essays, and the range of subjects covered is best described as ‘diverse’. So much so that I had to stop reading on occasion to re assess my own thoughts on some of the topics included; yes there are some essays that are hard core climbing, but others that touch on relationships, parenting, mental health including suicide, the workings of the media and its misuse, abortion, Nazi atrocities in a French village in the last war and so much more. I do not think it will be ‘Big’ with those who get their kicks only indoors on plastic, but if you wish to be made to think about the meaning of it all then this might be the book for you. However already the trolls are at work on the so called Social media, which is not social at all, and often uninformed, but I think the author is of such a background that he can turn their ill thought out criticisms to his own advantage. 

Maybe we should note here his 30 plus ascents of El Capitan, five of which have been solo, including The Reticent Wall which was the central theme of ‘Psychovertical’, his ski crossing of Greenland, and climbs in Patagonia, Alaska and Antarctica plus his writings about these adventures; which now it seems has enabled him to write, and unburden himself about events and relationships that have troubled in his past.

Each essay is illustrated by one of his line drawings (scraperboards?), some like his drawing of a foxes face are outstanding; though the one of a frog is a little less so. But each piece of art work must have required much thought and preparation, and in many cases they add a lot to the overall feel of the work. The essays are gathered into themes, made up of five such, each with a heading to set the scene, the first ‘Climbing, Expeditions and Adventures’ includes twelve essays, the second ‘Looking On’ four and so on. Between three of these we are treated to Bad Poetry; ‘The Mountain’, ‘Winter’ and ‘Poly Wall’. It is hard for me to suggest whether these are good or bad, for poems are so personal and often mean something to their composer that the reader finds difficult to comprehend.

The essays carry so much feeling that at times I found myself wondering why the author had decided to let us in on the trials and tribulations within his own personal relationships. I cannot think of any other climber who has done this with such honesty. The climbing essays are as one would expect from this writer page turners, and the ones about his early life in Hull ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ and ‘High Marks’ when he was finally diagnosed with extreme dyslexia are interesting and in the case of the latter educative. What undiagnosed problem might we also be suffering, I was always unbelieving when Don Whillans confessed he suffered from an undiagnosed vertigo condition, but having read Kirkpatrick’s story, maybe we were unsympathetic to the Villain’s plight in that respect?

The two climbing essays I enjoyed the most were ‘The Troll’s Gift’ and ‘Queen Maud Land’, the first about attempts and a successful ascent of the Troll Wall in Norway, and the second about being some kind of guide to a party of Norwegians intent on climbing Ulvetanna, a difficult mountain which they wished to ascend and then Base Jump from its summit. In setting the scene about this, he decides that he must start thinking about the cold conditions like his companions. They seem totally inured to such, and I can vouchsafe for this myself when one winter in the 1980’s in Lappland, I made a winter climb with a Swede and two Norwegians. The latter spent each weekend in winter camping near some climbing objective, their secret in combating the freezing conditions they informed me was they slept on reindeer skin mats. I think the author’s writing in this essay is amongst his finest and, despite the fact that his Norwegian partners on this climb were novices they were successful in climbing a mountain, which had previously been regarded as extremely difficult.

This is a surprising fact of some of Kirkpatrick’s climbs, he climbed the Nose route on El Capitan, with a scratch team of Irish climbers including his second wife, some of whom had never multi-pitched previously, and another stand out adventure was in  the ascending of El Capitan with his 13 year old daughter, Ella. As someone who was in the Valley in 1966, and can still recall the awe that such routes were held in at that time, I can only gasp in admiration at his chutzpah! However Warren Harding the pioneer of the Nose route over many days/weeks of effort, would in my experience as I knew him quite  well and actually climbed with him on Yorkshire gritstone, no doubt be falling about laughing at the Downward Bound standing now of his climbs in the Valley, including the Dawn Wall.

One essay, ‘Celebrity Abuse’ that I am sure will be read with interest, is the ascent of the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park with the BBC  presenter of ‘The One Show’ Alex Jones, for all such live TV presentations, have a potential for spinning out of control. The author had no idea who Alex Jones was when he was phoned to lead this event, mistaking the name for Aled Jones the former uber choir boy. Only one training session was managed at the Castle Climbing Centre in London, and poor Miss Jones who was not a climber was taught how to tie in, prussik and move up and down the wall.

However despite everything the climb was successful, although we learn from the essay that several juicy bits were cut from the broadcast, it was well received and raised £1.9 million for Sport Relief. One matter which the author does not avoid in his Big Walling stories, is the business of toileting, and one can imagine that such as Alex Jones finding that on this wall in Utah, she was expected to poo into a paper bag, it must have been off putting for such a none climber, and a media star!

The later essays do take on ever more serious themes, especially such as those listed under the heading ‘Life, Death and in Between’. The death of Dean Potter, in the essay ‘The Artist’ affected the author deeply for he was by any standards an amazing adventurer. Climber, Base jumper, slack liner and much more, a Yosemite legend but true to his Yorkshire roots Kirkpatrick does not endorse empty eulogising, just remembering the meet ups, the banter, the friendly support from such an outstanding personality. Nor has he any wish to be involved in climbing circuses like those now surrounding TV personalities or Everest junkets, hitting home hard and true with his views in the essay, ‘Everest sucking in a barrel’.

His final essays which he classifies as ‘Unidentifiable’ have little to do with climbing and much to do with life, in all its different forms. The essay ‘Roger Godfrin’ is disturbing for it deals with a terrible massacre in a French village, Oradour-sur-Glane by men of the Waffen-SS. ‘Roger Godfrin’ of the title, a young boy who disobeyed the orders to line up, and who said to a friend ‘They’re German’s, They will hurt us. I’m going to try and escape’. And he did whilst the hundreds who obeyed orders from their teachers, priests and the SS were all murdered.

The book finishes with an Epilogue ‘What I’ve learnt’ and notes about The Essays and their origination histories. In the first of these ‘Not Your Man’ you get the essence of what Kirkpatrick is about. He is not a made over, Instagram warrior. He certainly try’s to tell it without flim-flam as it appears to him, and for instance now living in Ireland with his second wife, who is from that country he is not afraid to give us his views on abortion, in another judgement piece he lets rip about the CIA, the Contras, Nicaragua, drugs and the secret Iran arms deal and much more. He also tells us that a Gay contact had told him that if he also was such, he would be a BEAR. His wife likes to refer to him as ‘Polar Bear’ for he is physically solidly built! And typical of his roots in the East Riding he is an avid tea drinker.

So I leave it at that, a most unusual book from a talented writer. I guess it is not going too far to declare him an artist?  I have no doubt that some will find this book controversial, demanding and challenging. But I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend others to do the same. It is well produced, and is a case bound book that meets the high standards Vertebrate have set for this type of production.    

Dennis Gray: 2018 

Friday 9 February 2018

The Iron Lung

In the late 1930s my brother Ron bought a motor-bike and sidecar for £5. It was an old side-valve Ariel which never went very fast but slogged away all day without any trouble. We called it the 'Iron Lung' and indeed it was a lung; a transport to the fresh clean air of the moorlands and the hills. Ron quickly learnt to drive and after a few sorties to such places as Ilkley and Almscliffe we travelled further to the Lake District and then to Scotland. It was on the Isle of Skye we saw our first rope slings and a strange artificial contraption called a karabiner in use by a small team of climbers. We were surprised that such artificial aids and safety devices could be used in a sport we felt depended mainly on personal skill, judgement of difficulties and conditions and assessment of one's own ability.

Years later I trained people in the use of such equipment but always felt strange carrying such extraneous gear as chocks, slings,karabiners, harnesses and helmets. However, though we climbed the hardest routes in Britain up to the coming of the war, they would not now rate as hard — but we had a grand time doing them, sometimes in rubbers, often in nails, occasionally solo, but generally the two of us together. Linked by a Beales three red-stranded hemp rope, there seemed to be no problem in the whole wide world other than getting up the next stretch of intriguing and alluring rock. In the 1930s Hopkinson's Crack, or Hoppy's, on Dow Crag above Goats Water was graded as the top severe on’t crag'. Though not the highest standard climb, the big corner crack gave a good natural line full of interest. The day before we climbed the crack on a winter’s day in 1937,my brother and I drove to Coniston Copper Mines Youth Hostel with the Iron Lung.

In those days powered vehicles were forbidden but Mrs. Mowitt, the hostel warden, always turned a blind eye if you were a climber. This was a piece of vital information passed on to us by Charlie Wilson and the Thompson brothers. The next morning was grey and cold and promised to remain so. Probably ice on the rocks, I thought, and shivered, but warmed up trudging over Little Arrow Moor, fortified by a breakfast of Mrs Mowitt's bacon and eggs. The crag was strangely silent, no wind, no sounds of running water, and no drip, drip of liquid from the overhangs. As I'd suspected the rocks, normally damp, were now glazed with ice.

Ron, as always, was not deterred, his decision brief and to the point. "No sense hanging about today. Leave the rope and we can each solo!" "Might as well," I agreed, "the hemp rope will soon be difficult to handle," but I felt distinctly unenthusiastic. In Easter Gully we arrived at the huge chockstone that blocks the way to the Amphitheatre and the foot of Hopkinson's. Its left-hand route known as the Cave Pitch was normally easy but this day fingers were quickly numbed and progress slow as with our nailed boots we kicked at the ice knobs to reach the rock beneath. Then at last there was the crack — direct, honest, not long, perhaps 150 ft., but long enough for such a day. Ron found no problems. "He's got methylated spirits in his bloodstream. Doesn't seem to feel the cold at all," I thought.

Three or four moves and my fingers were numb with cold, totally lacking in feeling. I beat them, blew on them, stuck each of my thumbs in my mouth feeling pain when the blood came throbbing back. I was thinking, "Don't hang about here. Ron's kicked ice from most of the footholds but there's still lots so kick again." I did so, each time making progress for a few more feet. At 80 ft the crack became really thin, the rock walls steepened and the small finger holds were covered with frost.

Finger nails scraped and dug into the verglas and I realised Ron's ascent had looked deceptively easy. Pausing for a re-warm, I looked around and across the gully and noted the rime on the Bandstand Wall. There was an increasing greyness to the day and between my feet I caught a fleeting glimpse of the fan of large boulders above Goats Water. I failed miserably on my first attempt at the final few feet of the crux. "Try facing right", advised Ron— and I did. That's how I climbed the crux, but seemed to gain most of my adhesion from my rough tweed jacket freezing to the crag. 

Once over the crux my spirits rose and we climbed immediately behind each other without pause following the crack to the last steep section but with good holds. Back at the Youth Hostel we quickly packed, mounted the Iron Lung and sped back home, having had from start to finish twenty-four hours of living life to the full. 

John Jackson:  
First published in the Fell and Rock Club Journal 2002

Friday 2 February 2018

Counting Crows

Footless Crow was launched in 2010 and initially was aimed at bringing long forgotten quality essays, previously published in journals, outdoor magazines and anthologies, back into the spotlight, to be enjoyed by a new audience who had never seen them the first time around, or enjoyed by those who had read them before but who could now revisit them anew in a digital format. A format previously unimagined when they were first typed out  by the authors. Over the years these articles have been complimented by new, previously unpublished works by respected figures in the climbing world, as diverse as David Craig, John Redhead and Dennis Gray.

Now after seven years of weekly articles, FC is going fortnightly.In an age when even a highly respected publication like Climb has gone under after many years and in various guises, there is no doubt that reading habits within the climbing community have changed. In fact climbing itself has changed dramatically with more and more especially younger activists, moving into other areas like mountain and road biking, skiing, parascending and surfing.Many who do still climb are more likely these days, to be bouldering, sports climbing or down at the wall. Witness the many great crags which are disappearing under vegetation throughout the climbing areas of the UK, as modern climbers find trekking in to a remote mountain crag where they might find a once recommended, two star route is now a lichenous, heathery, green spiral!

Another factor in the fast changing climbing culture landscape has been the rise of the vlog. More and more people these days are abandoning the traditional outdoor press and digital sites like Footless Crow, and moving over to You-tube and Vimeo where they can watch thousands of highly polished personal vlogs and professional sites. Producing highly entertaining and informative videos on everything from climbing to wild camping; road trips to back country skiing. It might be an exaggeration to state that moving images are taking over from words but there’s no doubt in my mind that this trend and appetite for vlogs is hitting the written media.

Which brings me back to why FC is going fortnightly. First off,it takes a surprising amount of work to source material and then knock out a presentable illustrated article every week and the truth is, viewing figures have been declining in recent years. FC has always been rather quirky and specialised in that it resides by and large, in the past, and in 2018 there is a limited audience it appears, for historical articles. The positive side of a fortnightly enterprise is that an article remains at the top of the tree-so to speak- for an extra week. It is surprising how many people will come to the site from Google and just take a look at the lead article and not bother scrolling down to check out the other articles beneath.

So, the crow is alive and well; its just that he’ll be spending more time perched on a gently swaying branch, scanning the horizon, than in the air!