Friday 23 March 2018

Nick Bullock's tides....reviewed

To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field’ Boris Pasternack.

Nick Bullock has made something of a reputation as one of the leading chroniclers of modern mountaineering and rock climbing; via the social media, articles and now his second book, ‘tides’. This covers the period from 2003 up to 2016. The first of these dates marks the year he left his job as a PE Instructor in the Prison service, based at a high security institution in Leicester. For 15 years acting out a role as a warder, helping to keep behind locked doors some of those who society wishes to hold and keep off their streets. Many of whom are damaged souls, with little hope of rehabilitation. At this happening Bullock was 37 years old, and to decide to leave such a career post and a settled life to become a full time climber was by any reckoning, a bold step?

Before moving on to the meat of the book, the climbing, I wish to make an observation about prison life, I just cannot believe that the 15 years of his previous career has not made Bullock into the climber he has now become. Questioning his own motivation and sometimes racked by self doubt; at others totally dedicated and positive about living the life of a full time climber, and in the arena of expedition climbing becoming one of its leading exponents. I think if you have been exposed to prison life and its denizens, to subsequently freely move around in open country, to watch the bird and animal life, to chart an array of stars in the night sky, and observe a grove of flowers, it must provide experiences that are so heightened by the previous knowledge of, other humans, living almost like caged animals. I write with a little knowledge about these conditions, for I was many years ago for a short period of time a prison visitor.

The book starts with Bullock making a visit to his aged parents who are living on a canal boat in Northamptonshire. A bold step for them to take in later life, post the selling of their house in which the writer had grown up in Staffordshire. In summer they cruised, the canal system, and in winter they stayed put at a permanent site. Bullock is very honest in the several segments of his book, writing about the history of these parental relationships, with his mother caring, gentle and hard working, his father gruff and hard to live with.  Born in 1965, and leaving school at 16 he worked variously as a gamekeeper, a self employed labourer and at Alton Towers before joining the prison service in 1987. In 1992 whilst training to be a physical education instructor on an outdoor course held at Plas y Brenin, he was introduced to rock climbing, and the sport has never left him since that first experience.

The book is made up of 36 short chapters, and their headings give some sort of feeling as to the stories they tell of extreme rock climbs, and committing expeditions; ‘love and hate’, ‘death or glory’ ‘the pitfalls of a peroni model’ ‘that’s rowdy dude’ ‘slave to the rhythm?’ and so many other such do get the reader set up for what is to come. Some of the writing is so dense that I had to go back and re-read parts of the action to quite understand its significance. And so with the writer living in his van (having let his house in Leicesteshire), he commutes in this between Llanberis, Scotland and Chamonix. Outstanding climbs are made on the sea cliffs of Anglesey, in the Pass, Glencoe/The Ben/Lochnagar and the Mont Blanc Range. And as the chapters progress the authors companions are also centre stage for he is climbing with some of the leading ‘stars’ of the period;, Kenton Cool, Al Powell, Steve House, Nico Favresse, Andy Houseman, Jon Bracey and James McHaffie. Someone who he climbs with a lot, and who plays many roles in the stories of his climbs is ‘Streaky’, Graham Desroy, who for some reason Bullock always refers to as ‘The Hippy’. Most of the time poor old Streaky is scared witless by the action, particularly on the sea cliffs, but for those of us who know him well, this is a part of his put on persona, for he is actually a very competent and outstanding climber in his own right.  I might be accused of Yorkshire favouritism here for Graham was once a part of the Leeds Mafia, editing the area’s guidebooks. (In passing Cool, Bercy and Powell also cut their climbing teeth in the same milieu)

He does not spare himself or his companions as the action unfolds, and I suppose as a former Prison officer one might be thinking about people and their motivations. Who you can one really rely on and who might just be talking a good game, bolstered by past glories? Once again as in some other recent climbing stories, we are let in on the authors  very private life, his wish for a deep relationship with some female who he can gel with, but each of these attempts fails, some leaving deeper scars than others. One can imagine the dedication to keep up such a climbing life, year in year out wears down companions if not the author, but everyone if they survive gets old and now into his early 50’s Nick must be wondering what might yet still be in store in climbing terms? I do have an example for him, an old friend from Geneva, Jean Juge climbed the North Face of the Eiger when it was still for tigers only, more than thirty years ago in his late ‘sixties’.

There is so much climbing that it is hard to keep up, but one that sticks with me is the confrontation with Stevie Haston, who when he discovers that on a route of his ‘Melody’ on Craig Doris, Bullock had been trying to remove his original protection  pitons, by then very old and rusty, to replace them with new pins. Stevie came a steaming to the crag, warning of dire consequences if he went ahead with his plans. Bullock actually thought he might be physically attacked by Stevie who can look and act very ferociously, but actually he is a gentle kind soul beneath his hard exterior. I used to meet him occasionally in London at the Mile End Wall, as did my eldest son when he was a music student in the Capital. Haston would willingly spend his time encouraging us lesser mortals up his favourite problems. Bullock returned to ‘Melody’ at a later date, bolstered by Streaky, and led the route without too much fuss, and only relying on Stevie’s ancient pegs for protection.  

The story of the confrontation in the Autumn of 2015 with a grizzly bear that the author and Greg Boswell suffered on the lower slopes around Mount Wilson in the Canadian Rockies is truly gripping. After preparing the trail to reach the first pitches, scouting out a twelve pitch route named ‘Dirty Love’ high on the mountain, they left all their gear, axes, and ropes behind ready to return once the conditions improved. It was while they were descending through deep forest that the bear attacked and Boswell was floored and bitten in the legs and ankle. Somehow, through screaming and shouting, for they had no weapons themselves the bear was frightened off, but leaving Boswell bleeding profusely and in agony for the rest of the descent back to a car and the hospital in Banff. These are the bare bones of this story for obviously the event lasted longer in its frightening hours.    

 Bullock has been energetically exercised in so many climbing areas of the world, in south America with Al Powell, in Alaska with Andy Houseman, in the Himalaya with Kenton Cool, so many stand out ascents such as a repeat of the Slovak route on the Mount  Denali. But there is a price to pay for several good friends are injured or die whilst also pushing out on such magical climbs. None more so than the death of Jules Cartwright, who was killed along with a client guiding in the Alps; his death affected the author deeply for he was such a larger than life character, and they had made some outstanding climbs together.

Nearing the end of the book we read the story of the first ascent in Tibet of the north Buttress on Nyainqentangla, an eight day mountain marathon in September 2016, by the author with Paul Ramsden. This is now where cutting edge Himalayan climbing is happening, new routes on the lesser but probably more technically difficult mountains of the range. For this climb they were awarded a Piolet d-Or. One has to wonder about such, but the photograph of them is good fun, for although their climb was worthy I guess to receive an award, they do appear a most unlikely couple for they look more like a couple crown green bowlers than hot alpinists. Tempes fugit and it gets us all in the end, and sadly we read about the death of the author’s mother, someone who had been a generous caring rock throughout his life.

Bullock’s knowledge of fauna and flora, particularly in the UK is poetically expressed and knowledgeable. Maybe that harks back to his time spent as a gamekeeper when young, but I was surprised about how little description there is in ‘tides’ of the people’s who inhabit the countries he has been to. I have been three times to Tibet, and for me the local people I travelled with and met are important to remember. But maybe that is why I never climbed anything like the route that the author pioneered there. He has now followed this vagabond lifestyle, totally dedicated to a climbing life, living in a van for over a decade.

It is interesting to speculate how climbing might develop in future. Bullock notes that young British climbers do not seem to want to go on expeditions anymore? I am not sure about that, for the Mount Everest Foundation is still making many grants each year to such. And not a few of these are made up by parties of University club climbers and I am sure this book will inspire many young climbers to widen their horizons. ‘tides’ includes 37 black/white photographs of varying quality in reproduction. However they do give more insight (if it were still needed) into the life Nick has led; obviously his late start as a climber was bolstered by his PE background, and he was a ‘trainer’ from the word go. But one is left to wonder at what he might have achieved if he had started climbing as a teenager?

So this is an inspirational book. It is a must read for anyone thinking of becoming a professional climber, for though climbers such as Bullock have a few sponsors which help them stay alive and active, he is not cruising around in a Chauffer driven Bentley. With Olympic recognition the pullers on plastic might end up being comfortably numb, but the mountaineers will probably always be ploughing their own lonely furrows. And Nick Bullock is a prime example of that, and his honesty in this respect is humbling and makes ‘tides’ an outstanding book. 

Dennis Gray:2018

 ‘tides’   Nick Bullock.  Vertebrate Publishing 264 pages £24.

Images supplied by Vertebrate Publishing