Saturday, 27 July 2019

Alan Mullin...'Crazy Sorrow' : An Extract


Alan Mullin: Image Ian Parnell

This is an excerpt from Atlantis Publishing’s forthcoming book. Crazy Sorrow is a biography of Alan Mullin, the UKs top winter climber of the turn of the 21st century. After surviving an abusive childhood, Mullin served in the British army for eight years before being invalided out.

Having been introduced to ice climbing during his military service, only two years later he was making first ascents of the hardest routes in the harsh discipline of Scottish winter climbing such as Steeple (IX,9) in 1999. A complex and often controversial character, he abruptly retired from climbing, and due to mental illness committed suicide in prison at the age of 34.

The editor, Grant Farquhar, has used the writings that Alan Mullin left behind and combined these with anecdotes from other climbers to create a compelling tale of Alans life including his childhood, army service, climbing career and final tragic days.

The book is told mostly in Alan’s own words but also includes contributions from Jim Fraser, Leo Houlding, Andy Kirkpatrick, Dave MacLeod, Kevin Mullin, Neil Morrison, Simon Richardson, Niall Ritchie, Guy Robertson, Ron Walker and photos from Kevin Thaw, Ian Parnell and Heinz Zak.

The excerpt below is Mullin's tale of his incredible on sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder (VIII-8) on Lochnagar during a blizzard in December 1999. It snowed so hard during the afternoon that Parallel B and Raeburn's Gulley avalached to either side of the Tough Brown Face. His solitary figure was captured by the lens of Niall Ritchie climbing the route while avalanches crashed down either side of him.He reached easy ground in a fierce storm, abseiled down in the dark and was back in his car, driving home by 9pm.
Alan Mullin on the first winter ascent of 'Death by Misadventure'. Photo Niall Ritchie

Death by Misadventure by Alan Mullin

When I wandered alone for what did my soul hunger in nights and labyrinthine paths? And when climbing mountains for whom did I ever search except for you on the mountains?

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

I arrived back from the Accident and Emergency unit three hours ago and my eye is still excruciatingly painful. I should have known better than to sharpen my crampons with the angle grinder without wearing goggles. Well, I paid the price for my stupidity: a shard of steel straight into the old ocular. I dont yet know what was more painful, the shard that was lodged in my eye or the needle that was used to remove it. Im lying in my darkened living room looking like a character out of Treasure Island. I still intend to go climbing though, as I can use one eye to climb with of that Im sure. I only have one problem: no bloody partner to climb with.

I had my heart set on Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar having looked at it with my binoculars the previous summer. Its an E1 rock route and to my knowledge no one has repeated it since its first ascent in 1982. It was an ideal target for a winter ascent being very grassy, wet and foul in summer and, surprisingly, it looked to me to be quite easy from the ground. I was sure it was climbable. I called various people about doing it, but as usual Id been let down with promises of, I will call you back, honest Alan.

As was the case on so many occasions the return phone call never materialised, and I resigned myself to another missed opportunity. The weather was looking fine albeit a bit stormy. I guess it was the thought of on-sighting this unrepeated E1 on a cliff notorious for its few weak spots that put partners off. I believe now that had I known how tough its armour really was I wouldnt have embarked on my appointment with fear. I dont consciously know what made me want to solo it. I guess it just popped into my head and seemed the right thing to do, but in retrospect there were probably subconscious factors at work as well.

First, I climbed Steeple a month before and I felt confident in my ability. Secondly, Id been having a particularly bad time of late due to much criticism of my ability in the media and by other climbers. I also had more than my fair share of personal problems which had turned me into someone even my wife could not comprehend. I felt that my life was one big bloody mess. Id suffered many setbacks such as losing my beloved job in the army, and at the same time losing some of my lower spine.

This, consequently, resulted in my addiction to painkillers and alcohol sending me spiralling into depression. Id fought so hard to overcome all these things, and more, and now this shite about me being a crap climber had really taken its toll on me. I made my mind up there and then lying in the dark alone with my thoughts — I was going to solo Rolling Thunder, and what better time than right bloody now?

Its 10pm and my eye still hurts, but as I say goodbye to my wife I can sense she is not happy with yet another one of my insane ideas. I reassure her that my eye will be fine by the morning and that if it still hurts I can always come home. I know this is a lie and even if it feels painful I will still climb. I know deep down inside that she worries intensely about me, but I am selfish at heart and always have to get my own way. Perhaps thats why I love her so much, because I guess she understands me better than anyone else and does not hold my selfishness against me.

The weather forecast is crap and the roads are almost impassable but that doesnt deter me. I simply take the long road towards Aberdeen, but even this is quite hazardous. Im missing out the road through Tomintoul as everything is blocked over that way. I struggle slightly with the driving as one eye is not as good as two. Its still dark when I arrive at the Loch Muick car park. I sort myself out, and although I have not slept since the previous night, I feel OK. I see a car arrive just after me. It looks like Pete Benson, but I dont bother to go and speak to him as Im in a world of my own right now and dont feel very sociable.
 Alan on 'Top Gun' Aonach Beag: Image Simon Richards

I have to wear my goggles for most of the walk in. With deep snow underfoot its tough going and the heavy sack soon starts to make my shoulders ache. I have no other thoughts in my mind except for Rolling Thunder. I can feel the wind pick up as I reach the Meikle Pap col, but I dont worry too much as cols are often blustery places due to the channelling of the wind. I cant quite see the Tough-Brown Face yet, as its shrouded by low cloud cover, but I can feel the chill in the air. This is definitely going to be a full-on winter ascent and no mistake. I carry on humping my load through the now thigh-deep snow in the corrie and am beginning to feel slightly tired, but one bonus is that my eye no longer hurts so badly, and I can now remove my goggles which have been misted over for the past three hours.

I eventually reach the first aid box and can now see clearly my objective up on the right of the Tough-Brown Face. Jesus, its wintry alright. I witness an airborne avalanche sweep over the top of Parallel Gully B. I still have to negotiate the slopes and the deep snow that lies in the bowl formed just below the face. Its hard work, and as I approach the foot of the route I can see other climbers over at the first aid box. I am sure they are wondering what the idiot over here is up to. I finally get the monkey off my back and have a well-earned rest.

I survey my intended route above: a series of steep slabs and grooves finally ending at a big roof. I am sure I can climb this route on-sight, but I have no idea what gear I will need. I have just brought my normal soloing rack which consists of four pegs, which are all I own, along with my trusty Hexentrics, a few nuts, quick draws, and a few cams. I have come to rely heavily on my Hexentrics as they can be hammered into icy cracks where nothing else will suffice.

I sort out a peg belay and anchor one end of the rope to it with the free end running through my Soloist device and am now ready. I start climbing up the initial overhanging roof that is harder than it looks. I clear the snow from the groove on the left-hand side of the roof only to be confronted with a horrible blind crack. Damn! This is quite confusing as it looks just like the cracks normally found in Cairngorm granite in other words quite accommodating. Sadly this was not the case here, as the cracks seemed to be horrible, blind and misleading. I hope this is not normal on this cliff otherwise I could be in trouble.

I manage to get a semi-hook in the groove which allows me to reach a little higher and get some turf and strenuously pull over the roof. Im now on a nice terrace. I go right under a small roof and climb another unprotected blind groove. After ten metres climbing on reasonable ground I eventually find somewhere to place a decent hex. I thank God for this as Im beginning to get seriously worried. I make a small traverse out left and pull up onto a half-decent ledge below what looks like a hard slab with cracks running up it. Im sure this will certainly constitute the lower crux as it is steep, and as it leans left I cant seem to get straight on it without doing a barn door out leftwards, which is throwing me off balance.

I’ve now searched for protection, in vain, for half an hour. I finally get a small nut at the base of the slab in a very icy crack that I know is shite, but its better than nothing. I survey the slab above. Two crack runs up the middle of it with a smaller corner crack on the right-hand edge of the slab. I try to convince myself that they will be nice deep Cairngorm cracks. Wrong. They are bloody useless, shallow and crap. I now know that when I attempt to climb the slab I will not be able to stop and place proas there is no possibility in this blind rubbish, and anyway its way too strenuous and looks technically awkward to boot. I eventually manage to place a lousy copperhead at the base of the corner crack. I dare not test it as it has fallen out twice already. However, it does give me the confidence to work a few moves up the slab.

Jesus! Its technical and theres nothing much for my feet, but more worryingly theres nothing in the way of protection at this point to stop me hitting the ground should I fall. This makes for a very hard decision. I must give it my all if Im to commit. I focus on the moves, remembering everything Ive ever learned about technique. I make my mind up and decide to take the gamble.

OK, get psyched and go. Left tool hook in the crack and flag left foot out onto the slab. Hook the right tool in a small corner up right. I bring the right foot up for a mono in the crack. Now, high step up; left tool up above head and crap hook in the crack; right tool again in the corner. Now, quickly heel-hook with my left foot on the ledge above. Man this is bloody mad: no gear and well mental. I remove my right tool and thwack into turf and mantle on the heel-hook. I feel great. I am amazed; I did it. That took total concentration. I actually climbed in a trance; I really felt no fear nothing but the moves coming together. I feel a sense of elation.

Sorting myself out and calming down a bit, I look up at the next section: a small groove leading to a ledge. No problem, or so I think. I manage to place a decent nut at the base of the groove, but its choked with ice above so I know I wont get any gear there. I get a hook for my left tool and move up, getting a thin one for the right in the ice above, but as I try to pull up into the groove my hook rips sending me flying backwards down the slab Ive just climbed. Im also upside down. I pull myself up and immediately check myself for movement of all limbs. Phew, I am OK. No injuries and I can now pull myself back onto the ledge. Well that will teach you to be so cocky you dickhead!

This time I get a slightly better hook that allows me to pull onto the ledge above. The guidebook description, which is firmly implanted in my memory, says go out right on a grassy ramp, but I can see a better line directly above. I look up and can see that its a thin groove leading to another slab. I manage to get another nut at the base of this groove; its small but its better than nothing. I start up the overhung groove, and bridging out I can at least maintain balance on this one. 

I really wish there was some prohere but its all blind shite, only good enough for small hooks and little else. I pull onto the slab above and just as I get a decent hook my feet come off. I fall all the way back down to the ledge somersaulting in the process. Im very lucky that the back-up knot stops on my Soloist and, unbelievably, the nut has held — just. I dont feel scared just annoyed and even manage a deranged sort of laugh to myself. I stand up and go again as there really is no time like the present, and this time I am successful. I climb the thin groove up the slab and reach a really nice ledge above, thank God!

I’m really hoping for something bomber here as I need to go down and pull my rope up. I manage to get a good thread and a half-decent cam. I sort myself out, rapback to the base, and get ready to remove the bottom belay. I cant believe what Im seeing here: the bloody peg that Ive been belayed on has fractured and as I hammer it outwards it snaps off. Well, once again that was bloody lucky Alan, I think.

The weather has now turned really bad with strong winds and a chill thats eating away at my very bones. However, Im more determined than ever as I know deep down inside that Im a good climber and can deal with this. I refuse to give in despite the atrocious conditions now prevailing. I re-ascend to the belay above. I have a 60m rope so it should be enough to link the final two pitches together. This section looks hard as its a 20m slab, and Im guessing that I will be getting no protection due to the totally unaccommodating bloody granite. I climb up a shallow groove and look at the ground ahead.

Theres a bulging arête to my left with a shallow crack running up its right-hand side. I scrape away at the crack in the hope of finding just one deep weakness, but, predictably, its another useless shallow load of pants. I can see some small clumps of turf higher up on the arête, and if I could just reach them then Im sure I can link the moves above to the ledge which is tantalisingly close now. I can just put my left foot on a sloper on the arête. As I try to stand up on it my foot comes off. I have no bloody tool placements, so Im catapulted backwards through the air. The next thing I know Im dangling upside down again on the slab below the ledge.

Once again Ive been stopped by my back-up knot. The Soloist does not work on upside down falls so I have to rely on my back-up knots, which can be difficult to tie or untie in extremis, but they are my only fail safe. I have one tool in my hand but cannot see the other. Is it on the ledge above, or has it gone to the bottom of the cliff? I really hope not; this is all that concerns me at this point. All I can think about is where my other tool is. Without it I will have to retreat and there is no bloody way I am giving up on this route for anything. I pull back onto the ledge only to break out in the loudest fit of insane laughter Ive ever known. I see my tool lying on the ledge and thank God once again for his kindness. Predictably, I cant believe my luck. What a jammy bastard Alan; not a scratch or mark in sight.

I quickly regroup. Fully confident that I, at least, have a totally bomber belay. This time I stick the foothold on the arête and precariously reach up high to moss and turf which allows me to climb the arête and mantel onto the ledge above. I now arrange some rubbish runners under the slanting roof which is the junction with the route Crazy Sorrow. The guidebook says you carry on straight up, but the weather is really foul and I dont like the look of the way ahead or what little of it I can see through this horrible blizzard. Instead, I opt for the guidebook tip of possible escape out right’.

Christ, it looks no better. A large roof blocks the way with yet another slab below it. Im fed up with all this slab climbing as I find it all rather thin and more to do with good footwork than strong arms. I traverse up right to below the left-hand side of the roof and look below. Cool, there is a load of ice under the roof, but I cant see any way of protecting it, and the ice means that there is not even the chance of a psychological runner.

I manage to place a Spectre hook in the turf on the left-hand side of the roof, and now I can step down to reach the slab. It feels steep and a fall here will send me smashing down left for a bad landing. I really need to focus my attention and stay nice and calm. I traverse under the roof delicately; no room for mistakes here. Now climbing mainly on my feet, Im grateful that they are sticking for now. Finally, after much heart-in-mouth I reach the right-hand end of the slab and can get a torque under the roof, which allows me to reach high with my right tool and get some turf and, thankfully, reach a ledge above. Phew!

That felt weird but only after I climbed it not during. Quite bizarre this climbing game. The weather has really taken a turn for the worse now and Im now being blinded by spindrift and the wind feels fiercely strong. I carry on traversing for a while; the ground is friendlier here, and Im getting better gear at last albeit not where I really need it. Im forced to make a slight descent then more climbing straight up takes me to the crest of the Tough-Brown Ridge, or what I believe is the ridge anyway. Sadly, I cant see where the hell you are supposed to abseil from. There was something in the description about a block with a sling around it, but as I can hardly see my hands in front of me, I dont think Im going to find it.

I switch my head torch on and look again: nothing but bloody spindrift blasting in my face. I think Im going to panic, but, wait, what about the way I have just come? I know where everything is, and I have belays that will allow me to descend. I mean, whats the difference? Descend here providing I find said block which is looking more unlikely by the minute, or go back which I will have to on the last pitch anyway then descend. I have made my mind up, and its back the way I came and descent for me.

I pull my way across my rope, and eventually Im back at the roof. Im not keen on the traverse but its this or, in my mind, confusion over on the ridge trying to find a lousy block in this shite. I manage to place my tools on the turf and step back down to below the roof. I know the ice is good enough so I just have to remember that. I traverse again tenuously and thinly but my feet are doing all the work and theyre sticking to the thin ice here. I seem to be willing my monopoints to stick and theyre doing it.

Almost being blown off several times, it feels like the longest traverse of my life. I begin to feel sick. I can now reach the turf on the other side of the roof and pull onto the ledge. I throw up all over the ledge. The retching has made my eyes water, and my tears are freezing straight onto my cheeks. I also discover the Spectre hook has completely ripped out of the turf. I rapfrom two nuts sideways under a roof then decide I would be better rapping from the in situ thread lower down. Well I have tested the thread fully and at least I know it’s bomber. I rap’ from the thread to the ledges below. Another rappel, and Im safely back on terra firma. But, I have problems seeing in the white out and know its far from over yet.

I put away my frozen rope but cant remove my harness as the webbing buckles are totally frozen stiff. I put my sack on and try to get out of this nightmare. Im having a horrendous time descending as I cant see my compass properly and the snow is waist deep in the corrie. I dont know if I can carry on. My body is exhausted, and with no sleep for two days, or decent food, Im at breaking point. Im not even at the first aid box yet, and Ive been floundering here for more than an hour. I sit down. Blasted by spindrift and freezing cold, I start to cry – it’s hopeless. So this is how it ends for those stupid enough to defy common sense and all that goes with it in the mountains.

I drift off to sleep; somehow it no longer seems important to move. I think Im dreaming, remembering my time in the Army remembering how many times Ive had feelings just like this. But when I was at my lowest ebb, tired, starved and feeling hopeless, I never ever gave up. I always managed to keep going; that was my spirit, and I needed that resolve right now. After all, I had everything to live for: a great wife, lovely kids, and an insatiable lust for life.

I open my snow-encrusted eyes, get up and start moving. Im thinking: as long as I dont descend I will get out of here. Up and right is the way home, and thats where I put my head. Four hours later, I eventually reach the Meikle Pap Col after what can only be described as the basic struggle for survival in the mountains when they are venting their fury. Im weary of body and mind, but I keep moving with the enduring thought that I must get home foremost in my mind. I reach the track going towards Glen Muick and can rest.

Thank God its finally over; with just a walk down a long track I will be there. I rest my aching body and have the strangest feeling. I start to shake uncontrollably and break down in tears. Im filled with unknown emotions. Wait a minute, I know what they are now. They are feelings of remorse and fear. I am remorseful because I could have easily killed myself and that would have been selfish as I know my wife deserves better. Thats it. The feelings I should have been having on the route were those that Id repressed. 

AM on 'Rudolpshutte' Austria: Image Heinz Zak

Thats why I felt a profound sense of calm after falling so many times, but now all the feelings of fear and common sense that I had ignored are suddenly filling my mind, flooding back like waves. It feels like a wake-up call. Im suddenly intensely aware of my own selfishness, yet it feels too late. I pull myself together and carry on down the track. I get the frozen clothing off and get in the car, anxious to get back home and see my wife. I feel content and am slowly warming up. I feel a strange kind of satisfaction. I know that I no longer have to worry about what people will say about me. I can climb, of that I am now certain.

Death by Misadventure’ by Alan Mullin was originally published posthumously in the SMCJ, 2007.

Crazy Sorrow will be available on 1 August 2019 from Amazon as paperback (£28) and ebook (£8).

Grant Farquhar 2019 

Friday, 19 July 2019

The French Napes Needle

Two identical needles a 1000 miles apart???

On a wet and windy day in March 1908, a day far from being conducive for climbing, Rusty Westmorland, [Lakelands’ last climbing pioneer and founding father of Keswick Mountain Rescue Team in 1946], entered the photographic shop at the top of Lake Road, in Keswick, where he met George Abraham. They liked each other instantly and became lifelong friends. A year later, in March 1909, George and his brother Ashley, invited Rusty to join the newly formed Fell and Rock Climbing Club. Soon after joining the club, George invited Rusty to accompany him and his brother Ashley, to North Wales to do some climbing. This was to be for Rusty, his first time to Snowdonia and his first ever to ride in a motor vehicle - George’s open top car which just happened to be missing its front windscreen. Both new experiences were to make a lasting impact! 
Twelve months later, George, Ashley and Rusty, took the train from Carlisle to Folkestone, boarded a ferry to Calais, then boarded a train for Paris and another to Geneva. During the train journey from Paris to Geneva, George persuaded Rusty to have a beer in the dining car. Given his temperance background, this was the first-time alcohol passed through his lips and he was to note later in his memoirs, that he enjoyed the taste although he never became a regular beer drinker, despite liking a wee-dram of whisky or two, now and then! They first went to the Engadine, a long valley in the Swiss Alps, located in the canton of Graubünden in southeast Switzerland. It follows the route of the River Inn from its headwaters at Maloja Pass running northeast until it flows into Austria, 63 miles downstream. The Engadin is protected by high mountains on all sides, many of which had never been climbed. However, after a week of foul and unsettled weather, they had two choices. First was to return home via Dover, and second, was to move south to the Dolomites. The latter choice won the day and they duly made their way to the Dolomite region of the Italian Alps, near Cortina d' Ampezzo where they found ample accommodation given that they were the only tourists there at that time. 
The following day, they set off with all the camera equipment, making their way up past the foothills across Alpine landscapes, until they came to the shores of the Dürren See, a lake amongst the Limestone monoliths with the Alps in ruins due to erosion by countless storms that rage in and around the area. Such was the vista being presented to them that George wanted to take a picture. Ashley and Rusty set about getting the tripod and camera set up, when they were unexpectedly visited by some disgruntled Austrian soldiers, who whilst not speaking the English language, made it clear, that no photography was allowed and if they did not desist immediately, they and their equipment could well end up in the lake. They complied and later when ensconced in a Pension, they set about hiring a suitable guide - Sigismundo Mendari. Rusty admired the tenacity and endurance of both the Abraham brothers as climbers, and especially George who he said of him later in life: “George had a temperament which was equable and good-natured yet he could show strength and determination.”

Whilst taking photographs as they climbed the Cima Piccola route, the hardest of the climbs on the Tre Cime di Laveredo, they noticed a thunderstorm was gathering. Their guide wanted to make a retreat off the mountain but George said in tourist German; “No Zsigmondy Kamin, no pay”. As it turned out, they went on up despite the onset of the thunderstorm and ignoring their guides feelings on the matter who doubtless thought he was working for an English lunatic and that he was going to be made to earn his fee!

Reluctantly, Mendari led the rope with Rusty following, whilst George being the ablest and most competent climber of the two brothers, led Ashley who had the task of carrying the tripod and camera and other associated equipment as he climbed, in order to leave George’s hands free to lead the climb. Once George decided on a place to take a photograph, he would belay Ashley up to him so that George could be held on a tight rope whilst he got the equipment ready and took the photograph when he was happy that all was in order.

Rusty recalls on one occasion, seeing George high on a ledge with his head under the cloth cape with only two of the three legs of his tripod touching the rock, whilst Ashley held his brother tight with the rope as George took the photo. George’s photos were not action shots, which meant that Mendari and Rusty would have to stay still in a posed position for at least 40 seconds or more until George was happy with the pose, before taking the photo.
Not all their climbs went smoothly. For example, on the Great West Face of the Conque Torri, Mendari was leading a high pitch up a loose chimney when he lost hand contact with the rock face, causing Rusty who was belaying below, some consternation as he himself was not tied into the rock face which meant if Mendari fell, so would he!

Both George and Ashley (who were climbing below Mendari and Rusty), knew something was amiss when they heard the loud plaintiff cries from above accompanied by a hail of rapidly falling stones. George described the incident: “A minute or so later there came from above a terrifying sound of falling stones due to our guide losing his head and his handholds simultaneously, but fortunately he slid and jammed in the narrow crack, whence he was yelling promiscuously the most dreadful language.”
The outcome was that George lost an inch of skin to one of his fingers when he automatically reached his hand out to shield his camera lens from the onslaught of stones whizzing past. 
The photographs from that trip were world class, and some of the first ever seen from high up in the Dolomites. It is just a great pity that as Rusty and Mendari appear in a great number of the images, they are so far away that their features are indistinguishable. It is also a great pity, that in George Abraham’s book: ‘On Alpine Heights and British Crags’ (1916), not once does Rusty get a mention by name unlike Ashley and their Swiss guide. He is instead referred to as “our friend”. Perhaps this was George’s way of paying respect to Rusty by calling him ‘our friend’ rather than by name?

The area Rusty and the Abrahams were climbing in 1910

Without any shadow of a doubt, all four climbers made a significant number of routes during their time in the Dolomites, many of which historically, are only attributed to George Abraham and to a lesser degree, Ashley and Mendari. Rusty however, does not get any recognition for his daring climbs which when you view them in one place, is both impressive and worthy of such recognition: West Face Cinque Torri at 7,746ft (2,361m); Croda da Lago at 8,887ft (2709m); Kleine Zinne Traverse at 9,373ft (2,856m); Rosengartenspitze at 9,780ft (2,980m); Grohmannspitze at 10,255ft (3,125m); Langkofel at 10,436ft (3,180m); Sella Joch Haus at 7,349ft (2,240m); Weisshorn at 14,783ft (4,505m); Aigulle Blaitier at 11,555ft (3,522m); Monch at 13,474ft (4,106m); Torre Grande at 7,709ft (2,349m); Croda da Lago at 8,907ft (2,714m); Torre Inglese at 7,415ft (2,260m) and the Zsigmondy Kamin route on Cima Piccola standing at 9,350ft (2,849m).

In November 1975 when Rusty was aged 89 and his memory was starting to fade, he gave a tape-recorded interview over several days with the late Alan Hankinson, journalist and author from Keswick. When Rusty was asked about the 1910 Dolomite trip, he mentioned a story relating to Napes Needle that Haskett Smith climbed solo in 1886 (the year Rusty was born), and that the Abraham brothers made famous with their iconic image which prompted O. G. Jones to visit the Lakes to climb, and later, became the logo for the Fell & Rock-Climbing Club in 1907.

It appears that during a respite from climbing and photographing in the Dolomites, they were sitting at the bar of a guest house, having a pleasant evening with some Austrian climbers, discussing of course, rock climbing. During the discussion, one of the Austrian climbers produced a picture post card of a rock spire, described (in French), as being the Ascension d’une Aiguille in Chamonix. He commented that: “Surely the photographers who made the picture must be frauds” as he had visited Chamonix before and the Chamonix Aiguille looks nothing like the postcard. In fact, the rock spire shown, according to the Austrian, was called the Aiguille de la Nuque!

George and Ashley grinned like the proverbial Cheshire cat as they looked at the postcard, knowing that the Austrian’s comment was true in part as there is such a rock spire called Chamonix Aiguille, but it looked nothing like that on the postcard and of course, it was not the Aiguille de la Nuque!
It transpired, that some enterprising French (or Swiss) photographer, felt that by taking an original photo of Napes Needle in the Lake District and “rechristening it and slightly tweaking the image”, he could earn some money from the tourists that visited the Alps believing that the tourists would not know any better!
Mendari belaying Rusty on the Great West Face of the Conque Torri,
the pitch above the chimney where Mendari slipped.

Rusty finished his story by adding: “George and Ashley said nothing but continued to smile sweetly, knowing that at least it was a compliment towards their own original ‘English’ specimen.”

Frank Grant

Note: This article was taken from Rusty Westmorland’s unpublished biography by the same writer.

Friday, 5 July 2019

What to Do?

Sojourn in Harm.

I could be black I could be white
They put a hot wire to my head
'cause of the thing I did and said
And made these feelings go away
Model citizen in every way’ – Public Image Ltd.

What to do.

The affiliation fiasco of belonging or not to Europe is like a punch and Judy sideshow on the approach to a gladiatorial arena. I guess okay for those selling hot dogs and watermelon, but… Meanwhile, every day the horror of what man does to man and the planet multiplies, escalating horror to a new level. When my five year old stepson saw images of the ocean drowning in plastic, he said, “What, no way, its not me, I haven’t done this, what are they thinking of…” He understands the gravity of what he sees and feels collective guilt. He knows nothing yet of suicide bombers or children starving to death in Yeman. What to do?

So I tend the land, get the composts going, sort out the waste, minimize the water use, grow as much bio food as possible, shop in the local markets that are plastic free, recycle, re-use and mend. My footprint is small, and if I were Mr Average the businesses that employ people and produce commodities and stuff on a non-stop-continual-growth-sell-model, would cease to exist, including the popular ‘green washing’ eco-show. Would the collapse of the economy, mass unemployment and the probable disintegration of retail outlets be a truly bad thing, considering the return of donkey fields and allotments? But I use the car and take flights, my trousers are made in China and every time I turn the radio on I slump helpless into some horror acted out on the world stage, and like a five year old, say it is not of my making. But it is. My small footprint is no solace in the face of this harm.

So I return to the land and the crops, and try to forget the problems of the day. I amuse myself with the thought that there is a strong possibility that a warlord does not grow spinach. I remember saying once that Owain Glyn Dwr, the Welsh fugitive hero, fighting for land, had no time for growing parsnips. And even Popeye had spinach from a can. But whilst surrounded by nature and all things organic in the biosphere, nature has its deal. Each inch of soil is a battleground. Everything is programmed to take advantage, to seek a foothold and survive; from a sapling seeking light and excreting toxins to deter predators, to a snake with a toad in its mouth or the bacteria in your belly. I notice blackfly in the spinach. I observe an ant colony that has moved in and is busy on the leaves. I think that perhaps this is a good thing and they are feeding on the blackfly. But no, this army is no normal predator like the ladybird, who is also present. What is actually happening is that the aphids excrete a waste called honeydew that has a very high sugar content. The ants rub their antennae on the aphid’s bodies to encourage them to release this elixir, which is actually their waste material. Apparently some aphids can only ‘go to the toilet’ by having an ant rub itself on their bodies. 
Margins of the Marrows; JR's Veg patch.
Surrounded by the clever trickery in nature, which is almost ‘corporate’ in its symbiosis, I can be amused and amazed. But every time an act of terrorism occurs, usually of a religious nature, it is not remotely symbiotic and it is not the voice of the earth that is directing. It is another voice. Such violence against people and the planet leaves me at a loss. So I pause a lot and, more and more, to think about that voice… From feelings of angst and borrowed time and horror at disintegration, to man just getting on with it ‘as if‘ things will just get better like ‘soup of the day’, accepting lies and fictions for a peaceful life, and then on to the engaged artist addressing harm in a poetic sense. So I sit on one of the many pondering stations on the food terraces surrounded by my green ‘stuff’, not only racked by hypocrisy but also by a powerful sense of vitality and awe. I look at the rocks, placed to form the tall terraces, some the size of a small car, as if in a dream. The communal relationship between the land and trees and the soul of man is omnipresent, is inspirational. It is like hanging with giants.

I ponder on my recurring anathemas of belief systems, creed and belonging. I rewind two thousand years to take in the devastating accountability of this ‘creature’, this voice, called belief.


And this is the burnout that the Gnostics, or rather the telestai predicted a long time ago. Their indigenous European culture, rejected the incoming salvationist beliefs. They were perplexed, but tried to engage with these alien concepts that were polluting their psyche: an ‘off planet’ landlord, being God, bringing redeemer ideology wrapped in a victim-perpetrator cult complete with effigies of suffering for sins and narcissistic prophets with tricky cards up their sleeves making miracles…and of course, latterly, crusades and genocide and corporations making a stack of cash. This is not metaphor but murder in the backyard. This was not their tolerant, nature inspired voice and experience of the world. What on earth allowed all that righteous rage in? The Gnostics called this new Judeo-Christian religion a disease. That is a tolerant appraisal from the wisest that Europe has known. So facing the garlic and potatoes I call it a story to literally die for and its interpretations total bullshit that allow radicalization to end the world. Everyone who follows the Abrahamic religions, even the passive colluders with welcoming, gummy smiles, serving Sunday tea and cake, are guilty of all the horror and violence enacted, now and throughout its history, in the name of the story.

Direct, nature oriented experience needs no interpretation or self-diagnosis or weird subjective twists. It is self-controlled. There are two tiny words that capture the essence of our Earth…it is. It is not ‘as if’. The reality is now an ailing planet, as the armed newcomers, centuries ago tore it up, regarded themselves in ‘glory’, persecuted the Mystery schools and those of a nature-inspired mind and made more stuff. The will to violence through creeds of suffering and redemption leads to ever more destruction of the planet, ecocide and, commodification: stuff. Hey ho! Isn’t it about time we recognized the harm and had a serious word with the perpetrators…? The problem is that we are all involved in various degrees. I talk to myself a lot. Do I really need my milk-frother and a nutmeg dispenser for a perfect designer cortado? What to do?

Europa barbarically wiped out its highly intelligent, native culture of tolerance and harmony with the biosphere. This was a genocide against deep thinkers and what is now known as ‘deep ecology’. On a universal scale it pales even the Jewish holocaust. It continues today. The extermination of the Europa Cathari and their ‘book of love’ was also genocide against deep thinkers. It continues today.

We are in a state of chaos between political, religious and racial tension. Bluntly we are in the hands of the haters and believers. They seem to be in control: ‘put a hot-wire in your head’ limiting the range of thought, keeping people almost blissful in shallow waters. The bottom line confirms to me that none of this nonsense and hate that confronts us on the world-stage can happen if the planet is loved. It isn’t I am afraid…it is hated! The hate is due to the effects of false promise that is a belief in something or other, and uncontrollable greed. But wait, this is not strictly true, and this is the rub: it isn’t hate for the planet as such, but devotion to a cause. The causes make the planet invisible so that it’s health is ignored and side stepped for loyalty to a belief system, to a creed and to the need to belong and have. This affair, I am afraid, is all too human. And this is the state of hypnosis. This is the abyss AE is talking about in his dreaming, and I think is part of the ‘democratic process’ we are used to.

Mistrust it. Its messengers are prophets of the darkness. As we sink deeper into the Iron Age we are met by the mighty devils of state and empire lurking in the abyss, claiming the soul for their own, moulding it to their image… We need a power in ourselves that can confront these mighty powers’. AE

The belief business is not just a religious tag or a political party or an ethnic intolerance, it is also a corporate mentality and financial strategy that kills and harms for profit. It is also Mr and Mrs Average blindly going about their daily routine. Belief in something is bought cheap every day without awareness. Media headlines, special offers, sport, self-reflective therapies and designer coffee all work to annul the stupor. It is big business. We are all culpable. What to do?

Back to the sideshow: I live in Catalunya, the self-declared new European state, but not quite, already in Europe as the wealthiest province of Spain. I am in Europe and I am European, so the question is not how to vote (as if) but how to act otherwise. Being pushed to qualify a stance, I would like to contemplate advocating non-action in the socio political order. This guy said it a long time ago,

a man cannot solve social problems, but he can forsake them’. Lao Tzu

In Homage to Catalunya, George Orwell wrote a cautionary tale that for me draws on the deep insanity of the schizoid human condition. Mr and Mrs Republic versus a military dictatorship. Socialists versus the fascista. Man verses man. Breath versus breath. All very well; but, when institutionalized, the group mindset fails in its thinking; it favours duty and doctrines, and then obedience to hell, as the order from above goes out to harm and destroy.

Is the worst that could happen any bad thing? Surely, both time and death equalize.

Orwell was ‘dug in’ too deep. He was morally and ethically obliged to fight on the side of the socialists, the communists and anarchists against the fascista regime of Franco, ‘the bad guys’. His ideological romance was about the working class and ‘the good guys’; his notion of ‘liberty’ and truth only concluded in fighting a war amongst the institutional political factions of the ‘good guys’, an insider battle of who’s who in the political arena of left, right or wrong. 

This will always be a battle lost and the fascists will always be better tooled up. If you oppose a regime you are merely the opposite side of the coin. Oppositions need oppositions, they need you, and a revolution means exactly that, to revolve around this ‘devil ruled hell’, constantly with heads full of conflict and war. This is not the life of the ant and the aphid or the tree aggressively seeking more light or the maggots in a carcass. This is the terrain of Armageddon as depicted in Revelation and it dominates our culture today. The planet can do nothing but seem to suffer. This world paranoia keeps people in a ‘futile’ bubble trying to save themselves from the enemy or protect from this or from that, or to make a few more pennies, getting and spending and supporting the party giving the most. Politics, like religion fails to negotiate with man’s inner being and it ties with nature; it is a busy, dreary, man-made construct, directing and entertaining the world with no vision of the ‘divine’. To be free one must be free of rigid polarization. Fighting wars for whatever cause is not a supple business…it is Auschwitz and Gulag and misery. It is not Earth first. Remember? We need a united Europe. But more importantly, we do not need the ocean warming up.

Each man is in the spectre’s power

Until the arrival of that hour

When his humanity awakes

And casts his spectre into the lake… Blake.

My own ‘Homage to Catalunya’, regardless of its political or economic climate – is to be rooted in the Catalan earth, because this is where I live, and where my creativity runs free of any political or ideological agendas. Beyond the growing ‘independencia’ graffiti, my imagination is my home, and is always a safe haven for ambiguity and metaphor. It is always on the go. As an outsider artist I am totally aware of the spectre and delusion, the almost hallucinatory grip that politics and religion have on man. It is a shadow. This shadow of economics and politics fulfills its role in suppressing nature in man. The shadow is man-made. All are capable of visionary pleasure with every breath of wind or birdcall or raindrop, because nature has no economy or politics to keep its species under control. To live fully and harmoniously at one with nature, nurturing and protecting humanity outside of any institutional system, is the only form of democracy there is, and the planet wins. Nationalism is always a threat.

I spin the globe and randomly pinpoint a place on the planet. The nearest city is Jakarta, in Indonesia. I Google for info and find the sprawling township and its poor farming folk forced to seek work in its spiraling economy, sinking slowly into the sea under fashionable and arty high-rise concrete and ‘stuff’ impossible for me to comprehend. An example of what could never be sustainable and surely the ocean is waiting… A silly game, but the random point surely has a high probability of empires lurking in the abyss?

After the kingfisher’s wing

Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still

At the still point of the turning world… T S Elliot

Two migrants asking for money engaged me in my local café the other day. Upon a meeting of tongues, they sat down, and bought me a coffee and lunch from the ‘slummy’ they had made that day! It was brought to our attention that we are all migrants, that is, floating on a mythical migrantship in potentially losing the planet to idiots… Easy for me to say having a home, but the question depends on how you negotiate and rationalise the concept of home. For me, as declared in Colonist’s Out, a home is conjoured through the need of creativity and imagination, manifesting a virtual space of connectedness. Being ‘dug in’ to a negative, literal mindset gave them the impression they needed more than I did.

As regards Europe, the folk that make the politics habituate and create gain in a world of fear, war, plague, famine and pollution. Such visions of doom dominate the world today. It is fuel. We are used to it. It is a script born from long ago when the wise shuddered in dis ‘belief’. It is the group mindset. The collective imagination is fuelled by terrorism, and manifestations of mass-hysteria. This is not, nor ever was, a democratic tale. As regards a vote, what the hell do people know about Europe? Most only want more stuff. This is about choosing how to act.

The Europe ‘vote’ is a foregone conclusion. It is not ‘real’. It is a game, a spectre, with a curse of agendas that conceal more important issues. I think it important to give thought and imagination to more life affirming possibilities and thereby to bypass the insidious takeover, the ownership of our psyche as commercial property belonging to the state or a prophet or a television series. That the earth is alive and intelligent is surely contrary to the apocalyptic pathology of the last few thousand years of weird religious creeds. It is an infestation massaged by the State.

Ghost bird.

It was because I was motionless that the bird landed so close in the fig tree beside me. Like the white flash of a shooting star, I glimpsed its entry blur upon landing. I remained motionless, but my eyes were upon it. It looked at me, as if focused on something odd or out of place. My brain scrolls down for the measure of its bird knowhow – silver-white-grey, pale tawny crown, size of a plumpy robin, insect eating bill – my eyes recorded something odd and out of place. Birds of a feather? I had never seen anything like it. Perhaps the bird was thinking the same. It was too early for juveniles and visitors and with dark eyes not an albino or leukemic. It lingered and we looked at each other and in five seconds it was off, a silver dart vibration beating through the budding chestnuts. My books offered no clues as to species. It was a mystery bird that became the phantom creature, and from thereon it became a geomantic symbol of the feathered messenger in myth, legend and folklore. But I am also aware that the phantom could be me. Five seconds was enough for the white creature but hardly enough for me.


I return to my Europe and to the external stonewall that I am restoring at the old mas where I live. Some of the stone lower down is of poor quality, some kind of gneiss that is very friable. This is the first stone you find close to the surface of the land. The old lanes gouge through this soft material and some builders dig from the edges and sieve to 6mm to make coarse sand. These easy pickings do not make a stable structure but are mostly used for terracing and as an interior fill between better stone. It may suggest a previous structure or perhaps just poor building practice when money or labour was short.

Red conglomerate sandstone, of various qualities predominates, and again is found close to the surface of the land forming the slabby cliffs in the valley. Tall, leaning slabs of this rock stand aloof from the holm oaks and look like hooded pilgrims’ eager to journey to the many chapels that furnish the land. When eroded, pink quartz pebbles protrude from the stone like gems. This reminds me of climbing at Montserrat, where every move made using a pinched pebble is balanced by a hollow sloper where a pebble used to be. This rock is identical to my own slab found from nearby Bryn Celli Ddu, a Neolithic burial mound on Anglesey. Slithers of this stone are curiously placed, slanting to curve across the wall in what appears to be an arch from a previous vaulted building. Some of this stone disintegrates to the touch, liberating its hold on the pebbles, scattered like marbles in the fissures. The stone more deeply buried in the wall has become like red mud. I love this ‘visceral’ business. It is a reminder of time; you can almost read its secrets, in your face and on your fingers, demanding attention. It affirms how little of your life you own… ways of maintaining it, or patching it… and how indeed it falters and fades.

The lime mortar is friable, dusting to the touch, migrating into my lungs with each raking of its tenuous grip. I expose chunks of solid lime, placed deep inside the ‘rat runs’ where the edible dormouse is heard on an evening scampering with apparent glee after taking a few hazelnuts. It’s a sleepless night when she decides to play marbles in the roof space. We once heard the chilling, croaky cry of what sounded like a baby coming from deep behind a kitchen unit. Apparently this is its incredibly human sounding snore. In a dreamy tangent, Alice and the White Rabbit come to mind…

In a Mad Hatter sketch, he fails to remember what the dormouse said of the stolen tarts, and the dormouse denies nothing being fast asleep. In the lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane song, the dormouse vehemently says, “Feed your head, feed your head.” With creativity, tarts or drugs or what remains undecided? Funny, I don’t associate the dormouse with sleep. I count hazelnuts.

In my builder’s head, fed by the groggy dusts of history, I begin to understand that this building, or part of it is much older than previously thought. Three hundred years was a good initial guess, but sections of this wall are medieval if not prior. The pottery found on-site may prove it. I also understand that these stones were a precious commodity and were reused as structures fell into disrepair or were replaced by other structures as needs dictated. I face many cultural and social accretions by analyzing and restoring this old wall, not only the external make-up with its odd array of different rock, but the inside business holding it together. I am just the latest human being in a long line of humanity holding on to the land for shelter and use.

There are larger, faced volcanic limestone blocks as quoins, the masonry blocks at the corners of the wall, and the same stone is used to step up from the supposed dome, a little like steps. This beautiful creamy-white sedentary rock is pocked with a myriad of holes and honeycombed vents adorned with fossilized leaves, which I think is the holm oak. The locals call this stone ‘tosk’. It is very light and easy to face into any shape. Some sections have worn better than others. Poor quality tosk can disintegrate into little more than soft cheese. Granite, in speckled grey, yellow, pink and a collage of all three colours is spread across the wall like strong statements. A stratered ferrous black and quartz rock appear like sparkling, glam make-up, and totals the collection of stone types used. This stone may have come from the many old gold mines in the area. In between some stones have been placed broken roof pantiles to chock or balance the stone. These are called snecks and are an old technique to avoid using too great a thickness of lime mortar, which would crack. Where the soft rock has latterly disintegrated, the broken tiles have been packed into the gaps as a fix and rendered over. This is not the handiwork of a mason however; it looks shoddy and has a limited life span because of different strengths and densities; is always a sign of trouble. Stone should always replace stone and should be well raked out for a key. This kind of working is not sustainable as the rigid concrete shuffles as the building moves. Primitive, makeshift and ‘needs must’ are the solutions used as occupiers struggle to ‘make good’ in times of poverty and need. C’est la vie doesn’t work for me.

A ‘mas’ is like a small hamlet under one roof. Community living is a working practice, with its own home-produced economy, pre-commodity existence. This makes me aware that the old mas is a living, breathing entity, a home, a factory, a farm holding a wealth of human and animal-kind, a one-roof extended family, the life and death of community soul. Part of its furniture is a sleepy dormouse that must have snored here for over five hundred years. I have to stop my work for a while as I hear the alarm call of a nuthatch, nesting in a hole higher up the wall.


I cannot know what an alarmed nuthatch or a snoring dormouse would mean to Sebastian Bernabast who lived here in the métier, the workers’, bakers’, caretakers’ domain, that is now my studio. I cannot know his relationship with the stone and wood that sheltered him or the land that fed him. I cannot know his ecstasy or fatigue at the end of a laborious day or his response to desire and sensation. I cannot know his moments of quietude or rest or revolt. I cannot know the hidden ‘god’ visiting in his sleep. I cannot know more than what history, fact or fiction, wrote of him and his times. I cannot know for sure…

Around 1840 a famous group of bandits lived and roamed in these hills. They were the Trabucaires, originating from the Spanish Carlista soldiers who became brigands and formed allegiances with their French cousins. Their name refers to the metal-shot rifle that they used. This was a safe house for the Trabucaires and their symbol is etched in the tosk stone that surrounds a tiny window. This window was used to signal with a lantern when the coast was clear of soldiers, police or douanes. The Trabucaires were notorious for kidnapping people of wealth and holding them to ransom for gold. They dealt violently with their human trade and held command in this remote, fecund terrain on the frontier between Spain and France.

I have my Peruvian bowl with fertility beads, a large clay penis and a Buddha in the ancient bread oven that ‘Tia’ must have baked his spelt loafs in, spat in and got dressed by. I paint where he slept, snored and fucked, probably on straw. Linseed oil and turpentine have replaced the wood smoke that must have billowed through the room, judging by the blackened oak roof beams. A digital synthesized Eno has replaced the pastis-analogue breath of song and squeaky brass. The heartbeat of a fugitive’s life lies just under the surface of things. I feel like a hologram in a time machine jukebox.

The smugglers footpaths that snake from the house were the highways of commerce and subterfuge, at one with the blood and adrenaline coursing through veins. The remains of the day are scattered around the remote habitations in various stages of dereliction now claimed by vegetation and fed by the rot and rust and rag within the dense woodland. Everything not needed was thrown out, which was at least bio-degradable, but if plastic had been invented I imagine it would have buried the houses. One particular mas called El Palla, took two years to find and is less than half a kilometer from the house on the Spanish side. Although now physically lost, older locals remember it with mischievous glee as a place to dance and make merry. They remember the music and the brave, fiery-eyed smugglers evading capture. It was never regarded as being in a remote location, but part of the interconnectedness of a working community. This den of iniquity, this seedy bar by all accounts, provided the human animal with the lascivious platform of the day. It is now a burial chamber under beams, planks and tiles holding memory of dancing shoes, joy and freedom. This was a woodland central club keeping rhythm with the green world and the heartbeat of the soil, released from its agricultural past.

Hideaways, caves, lookout points and nooks and crannies of the landscape are joined to the soul of a man’s existence as the rutting and breeding locations are to the life of the wild deer. The energy of the predator as a participant of nature is ancient and part of the land telling its story. As the Golden Eagle scopes for life to be taken, so, as in a notion of freedom, the bandits robbed and killed. The green world is red and just so. There is sanctity here. But of course, there is also criminality here. As the notion of freedom from the restraints and the slavedom of society have been romanticised, so the robber fulfills the balancing role inspiring those who feel suppressed as human animals. For those who were losing the land, the Trabucaires were seen as holding it. As man’s instinct is sanitized by permanent work for the devil’s purse in the townships nearby, and an easier life, the symbolic, macho creature that is the fugitive hero plays out a colourful life as a sell-by date caricature. I associate with the anti establishment ethos but cannot reconcile to the taking of life for cash as opposed to for food.

As tenants in the property where they lived, the fugitive heroes tend not to fix a chimney or a fallen down wall or to grow parsnips. They tend to be on the run or looking to move to a better ‘crib’ with better food and comforts. Of course, there must have been a wider communal collusion among the poor tenant farmers; they must have benefited from the activity like the mutual support of cottage industry…tickling the farmer’s bellies with a little gold in exchange for silence, shelter and food…

But times change, sell by dates arrive and not everyone can be bought. They were shopped and stood trial in Perpignan. A wealthy man had been kidnapped and later found dead with an ear cut off.

Later on, during the second world war, local conscripts for the French army were perplexed as they hadn’t realized they lived in France and didn’t speak French.

Catalan Resistance

Orwell’s communist and anarchist Republicans, torn, tired and starving, arrive in Vichy France via the smugglers paths through no-man’s land, destined for the pre-Nazi camps of hell…

And so, beyond plastic, beyond hate, cruelty and stupidity… I find a stag’s antler after days of barking and roaring heard nearby. Our nine month old puppy dies of a snake bite. A tethered goat is engorged and eaten by a wild boar. The box moth devastates all the box trees.

Soon, the cosmic hologram jukebox will be on a different shuffle.

Perhaps we are fighting nature in addressing what we construe as harm and horror. Is it relevant? As the medieval anchorite Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love, ‘sin is behovely’… the harm, the horror is the way ‘it is’… and all too human. Perhaps all the harm I feel is actually self-controlled and what I witness is little more than potato blight?

And continuing the wise dame’s thinking – looking upon a dusty hazelnut in the wall… this little thing… it is all that is made… shall not be forgotten… it is loved.

John Redhead, Los Manes, Coustouges. June 2019