Friday 22 November 2019

Grandad Calling

I wake up to a video on Youtube of an old pal talking about climbing the crux of one of my routes in North Wales. It amazes me that anyone can talk their way up a route, move by move in retrospect, logged in fact for almost forty years. I try to mime-climb to the spoken moves like an ineloquent Marcel Marceau, comically out of tune to the speaker. Rewind, play. Rewind, play. But I am lost. I am lost in this time because this is not fundamentally the route of my experience. This is not because my memory has ‘passed away’, although his might have, but because it failed to see the significance in the first place, at source. I would always find it hard to remember where a route went even just after the event of climbing it. It gets me thinking as to why that was? That my conscious mind never logged such information presents an interesting morning ponder.

I have just had my leisurely breakfast at Lous Manes and picked 17 figs after the early morning raid by the male blackcap. The morning dew has bathed each darkening morsel and the white sticky sap from the stem tacks up my fingers like dabs of wood glue that sticks to the coffee mug.
I like the blackcap; he cannot contain his excitement among the tasty, juicy figs and he ‘clicks’ constantly, thereby giving away his game and his whereabouts. I allow a modicum of dainty pecks from this fairly tame bird but keep the greedy jays out of their feeding frenzy… as much as I can, because, as crows, they have ‘the knowledge’ that I am not a morning person. The early bird may get the ‘fig’ but I defend my late starts by knowing the early ‘fig’ gets eaten. Anyway, my blackcapped friend’s clicks inform me of a ripening taking place in the morning sun, and is rejoicing. Time to get up.
I cannot know what the blackcap sees or hears upon my morning approach of “get off me figs you bastard”, but I presume it has little to do with how I perceive myself to be. I cannot say that just because the bird is among the figs that I eat, I am contingent in what I see. Where am I?
And as my old friend’s memory chalks the holds like a ghost in the ether, I am nestled in something that I feel innately as ‘other’ and prior to what I hear. There is remembering here in a way that I cannot associate with. Where was I?
Fundamentally I know that the landscape of the blackcap and my friend’s narrative amount to a morning encounter, a connection, and I say ‘prior to what I hear’ because I feel there is a deeper, greater, older resonance to seeing and feeling. As I pause and look around the vast woodland that surrounds me I am often consumed by a blind potential…an infinite relationship to the animal…kinship…a simulacrum of a darker, dirtier arena and meaning. But this fullness is a momentary flash and then vanishes, and I fall back to an empty rationale, an invasion almost, increasingly more like a show than real life.

It is not nearly enough to appreciate in wonder the visual nature that surrounds us as if ticking an i-spy book of ingredients.
I think this a tangible premise and part clue to a previous life juggling moves on rock and memory loss. Another fully-loaded coffee offers no comfort. It is obvious that I cannot remember the moves because it was the moment that was moving me. This is a language greater than me, and as I have said many times there is greater significance to the experience than just a route. Climbing is nothing but a format for another encounter that collides dramatically with the force-fed, force-dripped, craft-manual ‘approach’, ecclesiastical in doctrine, colour-coded, institutionalized and authority-ridden; a pack-led approach that has become omnipresent in the world of sport climbing. But I am being far too polite.

Climbing walls are packed with believers singing hymns to a materially-sunk Demiurge whose teachings wrack the body with obediently followed codes of practice. A breeding ground for future robots and a training camp for the death of spirit as I know it, the world surely suffers in response.
John Redhead on his 'Demons of Bosch'

When tumbling joyfully through this loud, physical playground, there can be no ‘otherness’, the fulfilling essence for us to experience. That playground destroys, anulls thousands of years of potential… so who gives a flying fuck when we are strangers in a strange land? Nature is the urgent piss you have to stop climbing for. When we try to remember who we are and protect that which grows around us, climbing walls are a disease of the mind, denoting suffering and death. Adults should know better than to encourage children in a pursuit worth little more than colouring in with primary felt-tip pens, or chasing sweets.

When I take my kids to the wall, we take a few lego men and I put them on holds about ten feet off the deck. They have to climb up and save them. This way they are climbing, and learning how to move, without realising it. Quite a good method for getting kids climbing for fun and not just for the sake of climbing, which may seem quite pointless to some.’
That’s my little Mimi up there. She’s only eight. She’s on a 6a. That’s the red one with the awkward sidies. So much faster than her friends. She refused to warm up and that’s my girl. I’m so proud.”
But enthusiasm is often fostered when there are games and prizes involved. Kids can pretend there are dinosaur fossils at the top of the wall or parents can hide treats in some of the holds. One of the reasons George was so excited about his project was simply because the holds looked—with the power of his imagination—like Mickey Mouse.’
Coaching kids by Ary Shreider.

To me this is abuse. It is conditioning. This is no ‘power of the imagination’ but corporate Disney getting you hooked like addicts on garbage and consumerism. This is Daily Mail climbing, dumbing down the senses to simple soundbites, so indoor climbing walls, UKC, the BMC and narcissistic coaches and sport psychologists can extract your money. Sign up or fall short of fame and ‘fitness’. These are economic considerations that need a healthy consumer base and local government support. The truth of ‘sport’ is the age-old, usual propaganda system of control, where the fears, stress and injustice of a disordered society create and encourage the appetite for a belief that we exist as beings in and of ourselves…the selfies are a creed of ghosts and you cannot see yourself, because you are kept in the dark, performing in bright lights, collecting holds and sequences you remember. No wonder we are paying lip-service to nature deficit disorder. This is toxic thinking.
Competition doping in ‘gym climbing’ comes with Olympic glory, money and prestige’. Well, Fancy that! But of course, these arguments go a lot further than the nonsense of simply climbing for your country. They are manifest in every aspect of society.
when the rock climber understands the nature of ascent he will have no need to climb rock……and one for the crow.

Red Croc Rebel
I hope I have passionately articulated my response to not remembering moves on a climb? That the climb has a physical nature does not mean that the moves cannot take you to that blind potential, to another more ethereal connection. There is no manual for this apart from the words pause in nature by getting out into it.
I guess what I am saying is to never base your identity on this pursuit, because if you do, you do little more that ‘hire’ yourself out of yourself…pimped to the highest bidder.
I can have a laugh and play and work out in the gym but my challenge to others is how seriously they take it. That the psyche can fill up with this shit is worrying. Make no mistake there is a voracious, malevolent background, bankrolled, sitting in high-rise offices planning another wave to suck you into and dumb you down in.
Authentic Desire, Margins of the Mind, Shaft of the Dead Man, were stalked through as if behind enemy lines. One was prepared to die. I cannot remember the moves but there are paintings to prove I returned to my studio. Almost ‘indigenous’ in its primary impulse, nothing but ones own volition energized an ascent. Nobody could take an advantage, or seek to control, or make money from such nature inspired endeavors. The body and soul and psyche are so repleat and nourished there can be no opportunity for ‘foreign’ takeover, they have native immunity. This I call divine and I feel lucky to have experienced and survived it. This approach, almost like an erotic sacrament, sustained a life, is not in the least romantic, it is more pagan in its sensibility. But make no mistake, I am not in the ‘adventure’ game either. This stalking was not adventure. The adventure waits in the studio terrain.
On my third fully-loaded coffee I am well enmeshed. The clicking is persistent like a ticking clock. Again I call, “get off me fucking figs.” I pick another five as they seem to be ripening in front of my eyes. I think of Father Time. I am reminded of my Grandad who instilled a very spiritual respect for all that we share the planet with. But I always criticized him for trying to get me to learn the piano. ‘I don’t care’ I would retort. And to take up his passion for golf; ‘I don’t care’. And walking long distances; ‘I don’t care’. Growing tomatoes; ‘I don’t care’. Card games and crosswords; ‘I don’t care’. Everything and etc etc; ‘I don’t care’. I am my grandfather’s age when I rebelliously and petulantly refused to acknowledge his offers of advice and caring. He is here now smiling, looking at the woodland and appreciating the vegetables growing on the reclaimed terraces. Of course I care. I always did. And now I have become my ‘own’ grandfather, and still as angry as I was at six, concerning the way the world moves. Fighting on the side of ‘otherness’ came early.
It is very hard in this verdant, green wilderness that blesses me each morning, listening to the living earth, to imagine the extreme decay and negligence that humankind have allowed their psyche and the planet to be infected by. That the ‘dark ages’ are still upon us is obvious, that we have fallen and are failing as a species is undeniable. The Kali Yuga, in Hindu mythology may be near its end with a new consciousness, but it wrestles with what I see as the genocide of humanity with…
a hundred generations of dominant pathological affliction and perpetrator religion in global society’. John Lamb Lash.

We have been hammered. How can we reclaim what we have lost when we are so full - full of dubious outside influences that seem joyful and life affirming? What a privileged life. We are not fleeing slavery in Africa or paying human traffickers for a better life somewhere else. But wait! As the media pumps out the horror from the world stage, another, unknown, silent horror that writhes in everyone, slave, migrant, banker, is the ignorance, the fatal ignorance of having forgotten how to read ourselves in the planet and the cosmos which is our home.
We climb out of ourselves and home.
We run out of our selves and home.
We work out of ourselves and home.
We escape out of ourselves and home.

The anchor was severed long ago by serpents unknown.

Do not believe, but know, you are the craftsman of yourself…

John Redhead

Talywaenydd, N Wales. October 2019

All Images JR.

Friday 1 November 2019

Roger Hubank's North Wall...Reviewed

140pages: Perfect Bound Paper Back £12.99; e-book version £4.99.

Roger Hubank is one of those seminal figures whose writing en-riches the climbing scene. He has published five novels so far, and North Wall which was his first such, appeared over 40 years ago. His greatest success so far as a climbing novelist was Hazard’s Way, set in the mountain fraternity at Wasdale Head in the early years of the 20th century, a volume which won both the Boardman/Tasker award and the Grand Prix prize at the Banff Mountain Festival.

I had read Hazard’s Way before I was invited to review the re-published edition of his Alpine climbing novel, ‘North Wall’ and most interestingly in this he has penned a Foreword explaining the stories genesis. And how it is actually set in the Bregaglia Mountain Range, and that the fictitious village of ‘Molino’ is actually Promontogno at the foot of the Piz Badile. I found resonance in his story as to the actual happening during the first ascent of the North East Face of that mountain, which was led by Riccardo Cassin. They were caught high on the face in a terrible storm and two of those who joined up with his party they met on the climb, whilst pioneering the route, died in similar storm conditions to those faced by the main characters in North Wall.

The author also explains in this Foreword why because his novel contains a certain autobiographical element, he was persuaded that his two main characters, Daniel and Raymond should be French and not English, lest the originals be too recognisable. Although the mountain Piz Molino does not exist, at the preface to the novel he has also included a topo and route description for ‘the direttissima on the north-east face of the Piz Molino’. Sufficiently like the real thing for some to have claimed to have ascended this climb!

The story appears to be well set in its era of Alpine exploration, now changed beyond recognition by the advances in equipment and technique. To fully appreciate this one has to know that the author began his climbing career in an era of moleskin breeches, jammed knots and long run outs. And though some of today’s super Alpinists may find the whole premise of such a climb too far-fetched, the plot is sound; two climbers, Raymond a hard case professional mountain guide and Daniel a talented amateur set forth to take up the challenge to climb the 1200metre north-east face of the Piz Molino; a fearsome route that has not been repeated since its first ascent twelve years earlier in 1954, by a team of four Italian climbers, two of whom perished on the descent in the inevitable bad weather of storm conditions.

Though in the story of the climb, four climbers are involved, for they meet up with two Czech climbers, Tomas and Jaro on the face, only Raymond and Daniel really matter to the story. I found it difficult to get into the story, which starts during the two climbers walk in to the base of the climb. Within these early Chapters we learn something of their characters; Daniel a practising Catholic but confused about his beliefs, a pious domestic orientated man, who when not climbing attends at Mass on Sundays, and who worries about his wife and child back at home, with a partner who has never understood his need to go and challenge himself in the mountains. Raymond is the wise old guide, who has seen it all, but is haunted by his previous participation in a Himalayan expedition, during which several members of their party were deceased in an avalanche, and the death of his brother whilst climbing on the Aguille du Plan.
Once the climbing actually starts it does become page turning, the mountains face is split by a huge diedre, and the line of the ascent is always obvious. Access to this feature becomes one of the cruxes of the ascent for it closes above the first bivouac and necessitates a daring pendule across the face to reach a parallel flake crack. This is followed until it is possible to regain the upper diedre, which once achieved it is better to press on to the summit than to attempt to retreat. Unfortunately during this Raymond is hit by stonefall, which shatters an arm and renders him unconscious. The Czechs catch up and help all they can and eventually agree to climb on and go for assistance. However once Daniel is alone with Raymond he begins to realise how serious their position really is. Retreat is not possible and the weather is closing in, their food and fuel are running out and though Raymond is now conscious he is limited by his injuries and cannot lead on up the climb.

So the scene is set for a climbing epic, for above Daniel and Raymond are several hundred of metres of difficult climbing some of it grade six, and in part with sections of high standard artificial ascent. But with no way of communicating with anyone else, and believing that the Czechs must have perished high above in the storm, after a couple of days waiting they realise they must try to ascend to be saved. Daniel must become the leader and Raymond with his one good arm must somehow manage to follow him.I will not describe the climbing further but I believe the story from thereon, written in short sentence syntax, is carried forward by some truly, great evocative writing. The perspective in this is also enhanced by moving from character to character. You get to know what Daniel is thinking and likewise Raymond.
North Wall is much more than a gripping survival story; it is one that examines the nature of climbing itself? Why trade earthbound comforts for the allure of the mountains, risking all to achieve something in climbing terms which might be extraordinary. But which to the average none climber could mean something akin to a madness. As an aside is it now Quo Vadis for climbing, set against such as an ascent as described in North Wall? Will new generations of participants be more enamoured of relatively safe and cosseted gymnastic performance, via artificial walls, and competition climbing and its outstanding ‘winners’ at an Olympics, than my generation were of the ascents by Bonatti, Cassin, Heckmair, Robbins and our own Joe Brown?

I have already noted the quality of Hubank’s writing in ‘North Wall’, it received many plaudits on its first publication. It achieves something extraordinary in its relationship between the climbing and the writing, highlighting the mental impact on its participants of dedicating one’s life to such an activity as North Walling! However in this it exemplifies that mentally there is no way you can ‘method’ your way out of such a predicament, you adapt as you go on. Interestingly someone who really knows about such is Mark Twight. In his collection of short stories/articles which also won at Banff; ‘The Confessions of a serial Climber. Kiss or kill’ he notes this aspect found in the pages of North Wall and quotes from these.
Roger Hubank: Image-Boardman Tasker
Expanding on such the book highlights more closely the context within which climbing takes place, the lives of parents, wives, girl, and or boy- friends. And families as well as the larger cultural, social and political worlds, for often they do not appear in the pages of mountaineering books. Finally, Vertebrate are to be congratulated on the re-publication of North Wall, for it has brought to attention once more the writings of Roger Hubank, a former Loughborough University English literature lecturer, who is heading the judges this year at the Boardman Tasker award; an outstanding commentator on our sport. 

Dennis Gray: 2019