Friday 29 March 2019

Tony Howard's Quest into the Unknown...Review

Di on the first pitch of The Beauty, Jebel um Ejil, Wadi Rum, late 1980s. © Tony Howard

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, a race that can’t stay still’ Robert Service

This book is a life affirming read, confirming the joy of life. Few other climbers have led such an existence or known or had experience of so many lands, peoples and cultures. Howard’s story is of one that happens to climbers as horizons expand, at first it is the meeting of challenges on rock and mountain faces that is the raison d’etre of their being, but travel begins to widen their mindset and becomes ever more appealing.

The author’s life is laid bare in 68 short chapters; and the sheer breadth of place and event these reveal is impressive. His story begins in Greenfield, on the edge of the Pennine moors in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was born there in 1940, at a crucial date in the history of this country for in the May of that year, the Dunkirk evacuation was under away. It was also in 1940 that rationing of food and petrol began, and continued for some years after the end of hostilities. It is interesting to speculate how these constraints affected all of us who lived them, for many British climbers active in the late 1940’s and 1950’s once it became possible, travelled ever more widely to pursue their mountaineering ambitions, but I am getting ahead of myself, although Tony Howard is an exemplar of such a theory.

Greenfield is probably a good place for a future climber to grow up, for it is ringed around with crags, Wimberry, Ravenstones, Dovestones etc set in the Chew Valley, and over the moors is to be found Laddow and Shining Clough. Initially it was the immediate Pennine countryside that became the author’s childhood playground, but then longer excursions and inevitably seeing climbers in action on his local outcrops, intrigued him and friends to have a go. There was a group of climbers some of whom lived in the area, The Chew Valley Cragsmen, which morphed into the Manchester Gritstone Club, and the author became friends with Roy Brown one of their number who lived in a converted chicken hut near to the Wimberry rocks. 

Di on the committing sixty-metre abseil into the Hidan Gorge. Once the ropes were pulled, there was no way back. Jordan, 1998. © Tony Howard

By then a schoolboy at Hulme Grammar School in Oldham he was influenced by Roy’s enthusiasms, and began to travel to Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. Quickly moving up the grades, and including meeting some of those he would in later years enjoy exploratory trips with to Jordan and the fabled Wadi Rum area. I guess the author was lucky to have started to climb when he did, for the area he lived in was rife for development and by 1958 he and his friends had pioneered almost 200 new routes in that district. Leaving school that year with three A levels, he was determined to follow an adventurous life, school was over and he was going climbing! With his group of local climbers they formed their own Club, the Rimmon and this like other such small groups of that era were to have a major influence on the forward progress of British climbing and exploration.
But life is a succession of accidents, and via a family connection he obtained a job on a Norwegian whaling ship the ‘Southern Venturer’. In 1958 environmental concerns were not what they are now, the International Whaling Commission decided on how many and what type of whale might be caught, and as the author points out he was ignorant then of the human impact on such species. In 1975 when Greenpeace began a campaign against whaling the author was one of the first to join up for he had seen the slaughter. However this Antarctic journey had a real impact on his thinking, and it must have been educative for someone so young. He had volunteered to act as assistant to the Doctor and this meant a real emergency when a crew member fell from the Crow’s nest resulting in severe internal injuries, which needed a nine hour life saving operation, during which the author was the one acting as the nurse, handing into the hands of the operator the instruments he needed to cut, stitch and stop the internal bleeding.

Returning via South Georgia once back in Greenfield he picked up where he had left his climbing days, travelling at first on an ancient Royal Enfield motor bike (which he crashed) hitching to Llanberis, off to the Lakes, and winter climbing in Scotland. In 1962 the Rimmon organised its first expedition to Arctic Norway, five took part in this journey which included pioneering some new routes in Lofoten, inspired by Per Prag’s guidebook to the Island. The author and another Rimmon member Jonah ran out of money and from then on to get back home meant working on the way in a cafe and a hotel, jumping ferries and hitch hiking. This was a life style that was typical of the 1950’s/1960’s climbing scene, peopled by some truly memorable characters like Barry Kershaw. Who along with Don Whillans was the most talked about figure then around, and well framed in the author’s anecdotes, but who tragically succumbed to cancer whilst still a legend for hard climbing, and bar fighting! 
Once home again the author had to earn a living, and for this he began to work towards qualifying as a guide. He started his instructing career at Plas y Brenin, then moved on to a post working for the Mountaineering Association based at their hut, above Llanberis. Working alongside Eric ‘Spider’ Penman, Rusty Baillie and his old Chew Valley friend Roy Brown, he instructed beginners in the Pass, at Tremadog and in Ogwen, later he worked at the Outward Bound Schools in Ashburton, and Tywyn. A useful skill he learnt there was canoeing, making what he and his fellow instructors believed was the first crossing of Cardigan Bay and in 1965 he passed the then guides test. 
Back in the Chew Valley there occurred in the big winter of 1962/3 an unprecedented event in the modern era, a huge avalanche. Unfortunately four climbers who had been out on a nearby hill climbing up the Wilderness Gully were caught in this. The two in the lead Graham West and Michael Roberts were buried deeply, and the two below not so. They managed to extricate themselves and go for help. Arriving back from Wales the author set out immediately, and helped to dig, but by the time West and Roberts were found the next day it was too late. Like the author: I knew both of them, and they were climbers who had made their names known by their pioneering, particularly on Peak limestone to which West had written a guidebook.

With the above foregoing the author was now set on a life of adventure, in 1963 a trip to the Dolomites, and then a mind expanding journey in Morocco the following year, ascending Toubkal in winter conditions then heading to Tafraout in the Anti Atlas. My memory had failed me on this, for the author points out that this was the first visit by any British climbers to this, what has become one of the most popular rock climbing venues. I thought I was the first in 1987, returning the following spring with John Beatty and Ron Fawcett but I stand corrected. But of the climbing he had done up to 1965 it was dwarfed by the authors and other fellow Rimmon club member’s successful ascent of the Troll Wall in Romsdal, Norway. This the largest wall in Europe was thought to be unclimbable, and the fact that this ascent was achieved in good style by a team of mainly unknown British climbers really figured in Scandinavian and European climbing circles. Joe Brown noted having climbed in Romsdal himself that this was ‘one of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers’.

This ascent led on to the author more or less living in Romsdal for quite some time, he wrote a Cicerone guide to ‘Walks and Climbs in Romsdal’ and continued to make first ascents there, but then life overtook him, for he fell in love, married a Norwegian girl Mille in 1969 and later became the father of a daughter Tannith .Meanwhile a spin off from the Troll climb was that the webbing belts and other equipment they had designed for the climb became much in demand. With Alan Waterhouse, Paul Seddon, and the author the Troll Company was formed and in 1970, after prompting from Don Whillans who suggested the original design, a sit harness was developed, the first of what is now an essential piece of equipment used worldwide by rock climbers and access workers. The Troll Company became legend, and any time we had an event at the BMC I would call them, and they would donate a barrel of beer to make the evening flow with bonhomie. I recall one outstanding ‘Mountain Literature’ evening we held with Harold Drasdo, Tony Barley and Ivan Waller as the speakers whilst their donated beer flowed!
 Exploring Zubia Cave, then pristine but much of it now damaged by tourism. North Jordan, 2007. © Tony Howard

But the author would not sit still and the call of the wild he could not resist and soon he was packing and off to the Yukon, working in extreme cold in an opencast mine and eventually moving his wife and daughter to join him. Whilst in the Yukon he took on with another novice a 1000 mile canoe journey following the gold Miner’s trail of ‘98’,from the Mackenzie Delta to Dawson City, a journey which took six weeks of hard and dangerous paddling. They stayed in Canada for a couple of years, but then returned back to Greenfield and Troll. The author’s ongoing adventurous life was set, designing and promoting Troll equipment, but off whenever possible to explore and climb in remote areas of Greenland, Iran, the Sahara including the Hoggar, Morocco once again and the Sudan.

Putting strain on his relationship with his Norwegian none climbing wife, who left him but agreed to the author having custody of their daughter. So ends the first half of this fascinating story, with enough action to justify being a standalone book, but there is more, much more to enjoy in part two, beginning with the discoveries in Jordan initially around the Wadi Rum area but then further afield in that country.

The idea to visit this unexplored region for climbing came about through the author watching at Christmas 1983 a viewing of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with some of its settings being in the Rum Mountains of Jordan. And so in September 1984 the author and companions set out to investigate the climbing potential of this area, and found in the Wadi Rum one of the best desert climbing destinations in the world. An extra bonus being its friendly Bedouin people, who for generations had climbed to the summits of some of the areas peaks whilst on their regular hunting trips; and their help and advice was crucial to the author and his friends in their ongoing successful explorations, which they have carried out now for over thirty years, including eventually developing a long distance ‘Jordan Trail’; which took its first completers 39 days to follow this challenging trek. The author published in 1987, supported financially by the Jordanian Tourism Board a Cicerone guide to ‘Treks and Climbs in the Mountains of Rum and Petra’ which encouraged climbers from many countries to visit. 

Desert travel is a unique experience and having spent time and journeys myself in parts of the Sahara, the Gobi and Taklamakan I think I understand how the author became so enamoured of such exploration. He also had a new soul mate, Di Taylor who could climb and hack it as well as the author and his friends, who eventually was to become his second wife. A criticism here about the eleven Jordan mountain chapters, a map would have been helpful to orientate the reader, for I became lost in the Rum canyons.

The success of the author’s explorations in Jordan led on to invitations to explore in Oman, Egypt, Libya, and Palestine. In the latter the development of a new trek ‘The Nativity Trail’ partly in Israel lead the author on a return visit, to become openly critical of the political situation that pertains there. But between times he was also off trekking and climbing in Thailand, India, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mali. Having sold the Troll Company he along with Di are now free agents, and I note from a post on the Internet last night they are back in the Rum mountains. This despite the difficulties posed presently by Middle Eastern travel and the Syrian tragedy.

So this is a book to savour, and the second part with its myriad of travel stories stands comparison with the writings of such as Dervla Murphy, Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. It is also an important historical document, covering the development of life and climbing in this country during the immediate post war years. The only weakness for me is a lack of character delineation, for not a few of those who appear within its pages such as Graham Desroy, Andy Perkins, and Don Whillans their personalities and histories are known to me but I have no knowledge of the lives and fates of many of the authors other companions. 
 Di and me exploring the Jordan Trail, 2015. © Tony Howard

Sadly I read near the end of the book of the death of Bill Tweedale one of the participants in the Troll Wall climb, who I have no knowledge of his character and life. But that apart this is a volume to dip into again and again, for it is an inspirational read, well illustrated by over a hundred colour photographs in three inserted sections, and of an overall quality of production that is now of the high standard set by this publisher. 

Dennis Gray: 2019 

QUEST INTO THE UNKNOWN : Tony Howard. 440 pages perfect bound paperback. Published by Vertebrate £14.95.