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