Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Allan Austin Interview

 

I conducted this interview for the Leeds University Union Climbing Club Journal of 1973, the editor of which was Bernard Newman.It is fair to say at that date Allan was a (the?) leading pioneer of Yorkshire and Lakeland climbing.

Dennis Gray: Do you have any fondness for such interviews? ‘Allan Austin tells all!’ Do you think they serve any useful purpose?

Allan Austin: No I don’t think they serve any useful purpose whatsoever. They merely provide an easy way to collect a load of print for a magazine.

D.G. Much of my early climbing was undertaken with the now legendary ‘Bradford Lads’, who were at the forefront of British climbing in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I once made out a ‘family tree’ and was surprised at the links, some tenuous, but some close between that group and most of the leading climbers who followed on over the next decade. I believe your early climbing was done with one of the ‘Lads’ – Mike Dixon?

A.A. No, I used to climb with Brian Evans and Mike was a friend of his. The first time I actually climbed was with Ashley Petts, and the next on a Mountaineering Association beginners-course in Llanberis. This was organised by Robin Collomb-and that would be at Christmas 1955.

D.G. You were very lucky in having Brian Evans as a partner in those early days. In my opinion he was one of the steadiest and most under-rated climbers of his generation. When I first met you in 1956, I thought this guy will, either win fame of end up lame! Your climbing was characterised by strength, determination and drive, which often led you out of your depth!

A.A. There is a fair amount of truth in that! We used to climb as a team of three; we needed the third man to rescue the leader after he had run out of strength. We recruited Doug Verity-a big bloke, who could stretch out his hands flat, so I could stand with all my weight on them! I climbed with Brian because he was of my age group. I had transport and I was keen, and he was a good climber with no transport. Brian’s idea was to climb at Very Severe, and he was the only bloke in the club (The Yorkshire Mountaineering Club), besides Ashley who consistently led at that standard. They were not really hard you know, but with the aid of my transport we had a lot more opportunities, and therefore we became very good as a result.

D.G. So initially you feel that Brian Evans was the driving force of your group?

A.A. Definitely: Brian would say ‘We’ll do this route’ or ‘We’ll try up there’. The first big route we pioneered was Stickle Groove on Pavey Ark. Brian had said to me in the club hut at Ilkley, ‘We’ll go to the Lakes and repeat Dolphin’s climb Chequer Buttress’. It had not then been repeated. And then once there, he noticed a big gap near to this, and so we filled in this gap and also climbed Chequer Buttress.

D.G. In the late 1950’s you pioneered many outcrop climbs, but just like many others before, and since, you used aid which has been shown to be superfluous. I am thinking of climbs at Brimham such as Hatter’s Groove and the first pitch of Minion’s Way where you stood on your second’s shoulders!

A.A. No I didn’t. We had spent a month trying it like that, but in the end we climbed it free.

D.G. Well, that is as maybe, but today you are feared by young climbers who do make similar errors, for you will, and rightly so in my opinion speak out against such mistakes. But is this not a case of ‘the kettle calling the pot black?’

A.A. Everybody makes mistakes, and I think I have fewer pitons per foot climbed of any climber of my own time. Up to 1960 we had pioneered two hundred or so new routes, and I don’t think we used aid on any route on gritstone, except for Hatter’s Groove, and in the Lake District, out of a hundred new climbs-only half a dozen pitons. I am not proud of using these, for I am weak like everyone else; but having said that I will stand back and realise that utilising them was a mistake. I for one do not try to back my ‘blunders’ up.

D.G. Having read the recently published, Fell and Rock New Climbs booklet, I was surprised at the amount of aid the new generation of pioneers are allowing themselves to use in the Lake District. Do you think that some climbs are being forced today that should be left until standards rise further in order that they can be climbed without such methods?

A.A. Oh, hell aye! The prime example of this is Peccadillo. This had been tried by-Geoff Oliver, Les Brown, and several other outstanding, leaders; and they had all failed to solve this problem. But along comes a modern team, who also could not climb this route, and so they abseiled down and fixed an in situ sling, which they then used to get them over the difficult section.

I reckon this sling, marks the point at which they failed, and it has solved nothing. It was not a legitimate ascent and it should not be recognised. Climbers now seem to be picking a line up a cliff and using just enough aid to make sure they are successful in climbing it, without really considering if the climb would be possible without this. I am not in a position anymore to change things. Once I might have climbed such routes without resorting to aid, but I cannot anymore. Shouting is not enough; it really needs some very good climbers to be active in the Lake District again. An example needs to be set. If three or four of the areas leading climbers are using a lot of aid then other people are bound to follow their example.

D.G. Don’t you think in some of these cases a stronger line should be take by the Guidebook editors?

A.A. Yes I do. In the new Langdale guide, I have been fairly courageous and have cut out three routes, which had utilised excessive aid. If the artificial section of a climb is the main part, then we have not included it. For example-The Pod on Pavey Ark, that was ascended by John Barraclough, using seven pitons for aid. It has subsequently been repeated using only two. In general there is too much of a rush to climb a new route and then get it into print. This is a very bad thing for the sport.

D.G. Do you think the magazines, are to blame for this?

A.A. In part, the system of first ascent lists at the back of a guidebook is also to blame. I much prefer Dolphin’s system of a paragraph about each crag, picking out the historical highlights.

D.G. I can’t say that I agree with you there. You mentioned Dolphin; you never knew him but you have repeated many of his hardest climbs. In the early 1950’s there was nonsense abroad about Joe Brown having created a ‘new standard’ in rock climbing, a ‘breakthrough’. But I believe that Dolphin had already achieved this on outcrops, as also had Peter Harding before Brown and Whillans.

A.A. You are right, but it was only for a short period. When Joe started pioneering his new routes in Wales, Dolphin’s routes in the Lake District were of the same standard. But by 1953 Brown’s routes such as Surplomb and Black Cleft were of a new grade, but not his earlier climbs such as Cenotaph Corner and Hangover, which were only as hard as routes like ‘Do Not’ in Langdale.

D.G. Dolphin was improving every year though, and for example he had climbed a long way up Delphinus and examined many new possibilities on the East Buttress of Scafell before his death. But returning to your early career, you were amongst the first to try to prick the ‘Rock and Ice’ ‘Bubble’. I do remember your article, ‘The White Rose on Gritstone!’

A.A. Ken Wilson, the editor of Mountain Magazine, described it as one of the most biased articles he had ever read!

D.G. You were a little carried away in your attempt to break down the myths. I can remember you standing on Joe Brown’s shoulders when you got into trouble on the ‘Dead Bay Crack!’ This attitude did tend to grind a little with we Rock and Ice members after witnessing such a performance.

A.A. Well, Joe Brown had pointed Mortimer Smith and myself at this climb and then sat back and watched whilst we failed on it. He had to rescue both of us from the crux but I was the one who led it in the end. It took me four hours!

D.G. I led this climb a short while later and found it reasonable. Was it that you were psychologically embezzled?

A.A. No, it was the fact that it was at the limit of my climbing ability at that date (1956). The same day Mortimer and I had failed on Peapod.

D.G. Do you accept though, that some of your statements in that article were a little outrageous?

A.A. The article was written to be provocative. I decided years ago that if you were not opinionated in an article, then it was not worth reading, so I deliberately intended to annoy the reader. It seems I did not succeed in this, but I certainly did provoke some people! To be honest though; at that date there was no one to approach the Rock and Ice on gritstone. There were odd climbers like Pete Biven, Pete Hassell and myself who were trying their easier routes, but the climbs that they considered hard such as The Right Eliminate, we did not even look at. It took us a full year or more to catch up, and to develop the necessary techniques and standards, but in 1956, we were lucky if we managed to climb any of Joe Brown’s or Don Whillan’s routes!

D.G. It seems to me now looking back over these years, that contemporary climbing historians have a wrong view of events in Wales towards the end of this decade of the 1950’s. A recently published book has it that in North Wales in 1957, only one climber not a member of The Rock and Ice Club was climbing the hard, major Cloggy routes. I am sure you will recall Metcalf repeating some of these big climbs in 1956, and you yourself were making early repeats in 1957. Why do you think these reports are so inaccurate?

A.A. Because they were so parochial, I can remember John Disley telling me that when you had four climbers, leading Very Severes, in the Llanberis Pass, that they represented the climbing strength of Britain. This did not include people like Dolphin and his friends active in the Lake District, or the Creagh Dhu in Scotland who were actually climbing at a much higher standard than Very Severe. He could not see past Harding, Moulam, Lawton and himself. This attitude ran on into the late 1950’s when archivists like Rodney Wilson had prepared lists which included the first five or sixth ascents of routes like Cenotaph Corner. He’d never heard of Metcalf or Pete Greenwood! Rodney once informed me that I had done the second ascent of the Black Wall, but I already knew that John Ramsden had also repeated it four years earlier.

D.G. Why do you think you have always concentrated on rock climbing? You have visited the Alps, but you now seem to confine your activities to West Yorkshire and the Lake District. Why is this?

A.A. My holidays have always been short, a fortnight at the most, and working on a Saturday morning meant that I had to get time off to travel to Wales. Hence nearer climbing areas were of necessity my goal. One holiday I took in the Alps it rained and snowed for two weeks and I did not get up a single route. So we travelled on to the Dolomites, where a break in the weather would also because of that mean there would be no climbing for several days.

At one time however, it did seem that we concentrated and only climbed in the Lake District. But for a five year period before that we alternated weekends between there and Wales, and in fact I had managed all but two of the routes in Don Roscoe’s guide to the Llanberis Pass.

D.G. You never managed many new routes in Wales, but you were always out in the front as a pioneer in the Lake District.

A.A. I thought that the Lake District needed a spur to bring it up to the standard of Welsh climbing, and so I was prepared to sacrifice myself for that cause. We only travelled down to Wales to attempt Joe Brown’s routes. It seemed to me then, that there were bigger and harder routes in Wales, and so we concentrated on the Lake District to try to develop the same there. At that date, 1959, there were ten extreme climbs in Wales for every single one in the Lakes.

D.G. Did you manage to carry this policy out?

A.A. Yes, we pioneered some hard climbs but none as big as the famous Welsh routes. Unfortunately we never found any ‘Cloggy’s’.

All we discovered were climbs like those in the Llanberis Pass, so all the major classics in Wales are unmatched in the Lake District.

There cannot be a dozen climbs in the Lakes, which compare to the top 60 in Wales.

D.G. Can you still do one arm, pull-ups?

A.A. No. I could only ever do those at all on the door of the Ilkley hut, which was at such a height that I could start with my arm slightly bent.

D.G In the last few years there has been a tremendous increase in the use of indoor climbing walls. I have visited the Leeds University wall in the past and last year I became a regular visitor, but this year it bores me. Perhaps it is because I cannot compete against the youths one now finds there, climbers like John Syrett, John Stainforth, and that, long-haired yob Bernard Newman! The last time I saw you there, you were not exactly ‘number one.’ Do you mind being burnt off by the younger generation, or will you keep on going until you draw your old age pension?

A.A. No I do not mind them burning me off. I go to the wall mainly for the social side, to meet other climbers: they are not such a bad lot- really. I went there once on my own and spent twenty minutes before going home because I was bored. It is the people who go there, which make the wall an interesting venue, but it also might be the competitive element as well.

D.G. Climbing in this country is very parochial and I think West Yorkshire climbers are as guilty of this as any, including the Scots. Why do you think these attitudes exist- Lakes versus Wales, Yorkshire versus Derbyshire?

A.A. It is just nationalism I suppose. Everyone likes to believe that they come from a special area. When I first started climbing I did not care two hoots whether it was the Lakes or Wales, that was until I met Joe Brown. His remarks about Yorkshire and the Lakes tended to get my back up, and I guess it all stemmed from that.

D.G. Do you think that was a deliberate tactic on his part?

A.A. Oh, hell aye! Joe has spent his life knocking others; he never stops doing this. One-upmanship is Joe’s life.

D.G Do you think this is because Brown has a superiority complex?

A.A. No, I think he just likes to set people up. It is his form of humour. He hasn’t got a superiority complex and he is not an inverted snob like some of the other members of the Rock and Ice. A typical remark to me after I had failed on a route would be: ‘I always said you were the best climber to come out of Yorkshire, but really there never much good are they?’

D.G Of all the routes which you have pioneered, which gave you the most pleasure and which do you think was the hardest to complete?

A.A. The Wall of Horrors gave me the most pleasure. It had been a long-standing problem and the scene of many previous attempts. Climbing a route with such a long history is always satisfying, even more so than discovering a new line. I had been trying it for a couple of years. Nowadays one might resort to using aid, a peg or a sling, in case someone else came along and bagged it before you.

D.G. I remember Dolphin telling me as a boy, of his top-roped ascent of the Wall of Horrors. And he had decided to leave it to be led on sight by the next generation. He sensed that there was a change in climbing ethics, and considered that on-sight leads should be encouraged for first ascents. I personally was upset when you continually top-roped the route prior to leading it. I think it would have been better if you had led it on-sight. Do you still think that you were justified in your methods when Dolphin had already shown it was feasible?

John Syrett on Allan Austin's 'Wall of Horrors'
 

A.A. A top rope ascent does not show that the route is possible, and anyway in that era most of the hardest gritstone routes had been top rope inspected before their first ascent. I once saw John Gosling leading a new route at the Roaches in Staffordshire. He was able to clip into a piton, which had been pre-placed on an abseil rope without even looking for it. He made the route look easy! I agree that sight leading is the most satisfying way to climb, but on outcrops where standards have always been pushed, I do not think that top-roping will ever be abandoned.

D.G. You have climbed at Harrison’s Rocks in Kent, do you think that the routes there should be led as a matter of course, instead of being top-roped.

A.A. Yes, climbing at Harrison’s should employ the same technique as any other outcrop, for example Almscliff. The rock is generally quite sound enough.

D.G. Several of your friends have been killed whilst climbing. Do you think that such is worth the sacrifice?

A.A. Climbing is not worth getting killed for, but without some spur you just would not try. The reward in climbing is the intense personal satisfaction of having overcome a challenge with a certain level of danger involved. Without that danger there would be no point in going climbing, you might just as well be in a gymnasium or on a climbing wall! The only reason you go out onto a mountain is because it is such an unfriendly place, and you overcome the difficulties. Nowadays we make up a lot of rules, put them into a straight jacket, and call them climbs.

D.G. I have found that one, of the best aspects of climbing is the Friendships that you might make.

A.A. If you climb a lot you meet other people who climb a lot and who have the same attitudes as you. Under stress, even if it is voluntarily induced, you find a lot out about people and if what you discover is good, then they, become a friend.

D.G. Do you reckon this is why women have not so far fitted into climbing circles, because they are not in a position to strike up these kind of friendships?

A.A. Basically I think women are motivated differently, for they have no need to try. Man’s role has always in the past been the breadwinner, and up until recently women have never been in a competitive situation. I cannot think of another reason why women are not interested in climbing; they are only interested in the blokes, not even in the other women. The proportion of women who climb for ‘climbing’s sake’ is small.

D.G What is your opinion of solo climbing? I refer to the sight soloing of hard routes, because your maxim has been, ‘sane men only lead on sight where there is some protection’.

A.A. I would like to be able to solo, really hard routes. If it gives a climber a kick to solo a climb, then I have nothing against it, because we go to the mountains basically to enjoy ourselves.

D.G. Who-do you think has been the most outstanding climber of your aquaintence?

A.A. The most impressive climbers I have ever climbed with were Joe Brown, Pat Walsh and Don Whillans. Of them all, I think Whillans impressed me the most. I could not understand how Joe climbed, but Whillans climbed like myself only better. I do not know what made Walsh climb, but he also climbed better than-me, although he did not have any sense of dedication as far as I could see. He did not seem to have any drive, his techniques were not marshalled, he-just walked up to the foot of a rock face and ascended it. Whillans climbed just like I did, he thought about a route and arranged protection like I did, only better. Joe’s style was completely different; he never climbed like anyone else I have ever seen. He had a style all of his own and I could not assess how he achieved this.

D.G. I think this was the basis of Joe’s ability to psychologically embezzle the people he climbed with. Moseley failed to follow him on the first ascent of the Boulder, which Ron himself was capable of leading quite easily.

A.A. True, Brown broke almost all the men he climbed with as regular partners. When you think of how good they were when they first started climbing with Joe, they were almost without exception climbing worse when he stopped climbing with them. The only climber who did not was Whillans, presumably he was good at the beginning of their partnership, and he ‘grew up’ with Brown.

D.G. To switch to a lighter tone, the subject of climbing names has always fascinated me. It has been a social commentary almost on the development of our sport. I think you have been one of the climbers who has continually managed to produce excellent names. I am thinking of such as the ‘Ragman’s Trumpet’ and ‘Man of Straw’. How do you keep coming up with names like that?

A.A. Well, generally I am told by other climbers that my names are poor. The people who climb with me generally title the routes; they do not accept my names.

D.G. So someone else deserves all the credit?

A.A. Ragman’s Trumpet was a particular line on Bowfell. The Tomlin team rolled up one day and they declared, ‘We will climb that one day, by God, and we’ll call it the Ragman’s Trumpet!’ They were getting at me I suppose. The Man of Straw was myself; I just did not like placing that peg. I have done the route since without it and there is not much difference in standard.

D.G. Mass circulation climbing magazines are here to stay, and their Circulation’s continue to rise. In my opinion you are no mean writer, some of your articles over the years must be amongst the finest to appear in climbing journals. Why is that you have never contributed to any of the mass circulation climbing magazines?

A.A. The effect that these magazines have on climbing is a bad one. They foster the desire to get into print to the detriment of the sport. For example, if you cannot get up a climb then overcome this by using a piton for aid because you do not get your name into the magazines by failing. The other thing is that it takes me so much effort to write an article, I would rather it went into a journal, where it is kept historically, than a magazine which is thrown away! As for the money they offer, which is not much, I might just as well offer my articles to club journals. I am not interested in forwarding the interests of these magazines; any contribution I can give to climbing is free. The only proviso is that I direct where the article goes-and it must not go to these periodicals.

D.G. I must disagree, for I feel that a good climbing magazine can fill a very useful purpose. Getting back to your climbing, do you consider that your hard routes of today compare with the climbs you were pioneering ten or fifteen years ago? Or do you feel that you reached your peak with climbs like High Street and Astra and although your new routes now might be harder, it’s just the fact that you have become more cunning?

A.A. Modern protection methods enable me to still climb at a high standard. If 1972 were 1955 I would have by now, given up all thoughts of hard new routing. Dolphin thought he was at his peak at 27 and I agree with him. I do not think that a climber can climb past his youthful enthusiasm without good protection on routes. It is guts and stupidity, which makes a climber lead, hard bold routes- and you, can only do that when you are under 30. It’s not a question of being married with a family; it is just that after that age you start slowing down mentally. Modern protection methods are like whiskey, when you are going to try a hard move; you put a nut in.

I would certainly not have been able to make the moves today which I did in 1955, regardless of how hard they are. Until your middle thirties your muscular ability is still good, but after that age, your peak performance begins to drop off, though your stamina might improve. Yet with the aid of the new protection devices you can still make such hard moves, which can only mean in your earlier days you were climbing well below your top standard. The margins of safety then meant that one needed to rely on having good technique, and not to be bolstered by rope work and modern protection. My climbs of today are a lot easier to pioneer, and mentally they only take me one tenth of the effort they once did. It has been years since I was frightened that I was going to be killed.

D.G. You have always been the absolute amateur, climbing mainly at weekends and during short summer holidays. Have you ever been envious of climbers like Bonington and Brown who have managed to spend so much of their time climbing. Do you think that professionalism with its inevitable train of commercialism will in the end be a very bad thing for the future of climbing?

A.A. I think professionalism is bad for climbing. Climbing is essentially a pastime and not a competitive activity; hence the more that professionalism develops the worse it is for our sport. Am I envious? If I had my time over again I would most certainly spend four years at a University, doing a subject that involves the minimum amount of work, and a maximum of spare time. Expeditions-no I am not interested in. The effort involved seems to me to be so great I do not think I would enjoy it. The pinnacle of my desire would be a three- month holiday in the Alps.

D.G. Do you think that you ever give up climbing?

A.A. I hope that I will always climb. I cannot say whether that will always be so. I will find it difficult to drop my standard, but I ought to be leaving a lot of easier routes to climb in the years to come. I think I will always climb. I hope to be like some of the old Fell and Rock Club members, like the present President on his meet at 65 years of age. Borrowing a pair of rock boots to be taken up some Very Severes-that is how I hope I will be at 65, borrowing somebody else’s magic boots and being led up an Extreme climb.

D.G. Many thanks Allan. I think we need to enlighten a new generation of climbers as to why ‘Ragman’s Trumpet’ was in your case so apposite, for your weekdays are spent working in the family business, as wool waste merchants (Once a traditional historical activity in Bradford?)

Update: In later life Allan due to injury turned away from climbing to sailing and his family opened an outdoor retail shop in Bradford, using his name as the identifier. Brian Evans was a founder along with Walt Unsworth of the Cicerone Press, which they sold on at their retirement. 

 

Dennis Gray: 1973 


 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Robert Mads Anderson's 'Nine Lives'....reviewed

 


Nine Lives’: Robert Mads Anderson. 208 pages black and white plus 32 pages of colour photographs. Perfect Bound Paperback. £14.95. Vertebrate Publishing.

You have done a very hard thing, but you were lucky’ Reinhold Messner commenting on the Anderson led expedition, which climbed Everest’s Kanshung Face in 1988.

This book recounts nine ‘trips’ to Mount Everest by the author over a period of eighteen years, resulting in a gripping read, full of both triumph and tragedy. Imagine the world’s most massive pyramid, with three faces, replete with rock, ice, snow, altitude problems and avalanches then thinking along the most simple of lines, you would have Chomolungma. Which to climb successfully by any route requires the necessary technical knowledge, almost inhuman perseverance and as Messner observes above, lots of luck, with clement weather and on occasion grim determination.

Everest is a mountain which when discussed by today’s mountaineers, receives either derision by some when considering the South Col, original 1953 route and its many thousands of commercial guided ascents, or keen admiration for such as the ascent of the Super Couloir on the mountain’s north face by the Swiss, Loretan and Troillet in a single push without oxygen in 1986. And though some climbers claim immunity from Everest’s siren call, the list of those whom Anderson met on the mountain or actually climbed with reads like a who’s who of high altitude climbing in the last four or five decades.

The mountain now owns a hundred years plus of history, and so many books, films and videos have appeared bolstering this that it would be possible I am sure to make a good living, following on from Elizabeth Hawley, who based in Kathmandu was a keeper of the Everest record, but now deceased leaves the way open for a new Everest archivist/story teller to take over. If you think on the early attempts of the mountain by the many British pre-war expeditions, attempting the North Ridge route and compare how Anderson approached the climb in 1992, declaring it a magnificent and natural line, a fun snow climb lower down leading to the North Col followed by some even better scrambling up high, except for that rather tricky Second Step on summit day. A great off-season or winter route (this has not yet been achieved!) which is heavily populated in the spring season.

Mallory must be turning in his grave, but as Mummery observed it is the fate of all such climbs to go from the hardest to an easy day over time. And this book does chart the change from the large, extremely expensive expeditions of the early decades post the war to two and four climbers, making ascents in Alpine fashion. Acclimatising on lesser peaks or frequent swift trips to altitude, with even swifter descents, and a wait for a window opportunity and then GO. Many equipment innovations, coupled with the ever increasing knowledge of how best to acclimatise, to avoid Hape and Ace the two oedemas, with a comfortable Base to retreat to in the case of bad weather. And with improved forecasting,; this a crucial element whilst such inevitable waiting occurs.

Anderson admits that he is obsessed with Mount Everest. I think he is the only living mountaineer to have climbed routes on the mountains three faces. Starting out in 1985 with an attempt on the mountains west ridge direct, one of the most convoluted and longest ascents on the mountain, which can be reached either from Tibet via the Central Rongbuk glacier or from the Khumbu(Nepal)side with a 400 metre climb up to and over the Lho La into Tibet. In Nine Lives, Anderson makes two attempts on this ridge climb, reaching 8300m on his first with Pete Athans and 8600m with Jay Smith on a second. This expedition was made up of a large party including some of the big names of American climbing of that era, climbers who had made major ascents in Yosemite, and other USA destinations but who had little or no Himalayan experience and Anderson concluded they really were a rag tag bunch including himself. There was so much to learn because high altitude Himalayan climbing required a different Mind Set. He wanted to try out his own theories of how to approach such ascents, with a small party of climbers, not making use of oxygen to climb which had been the case on this first trip.

Reading Nine Lives I had to think why I never had heard of Anderson and his mates before, for some of them, based in Colorado are cutting edge with new routes in Patagonia and Alaska. Somehow he manages to hold down a business career as an advertising executive, for some time he was based in New Zealand, followed by a sojourn in Norway with some new routing there, then back to the Big Apple (New York). And so his next Everest venture the Kanshung Face in 1988 was to be really something, with just four climbers; three Americans, Paul Teare, Ed Webster, Anderson and one Brit.... Stephen Venables. How the latter came to be involved is surprising, in typical USA fashion Anderson took on a Public Relations expert to help with fund raising and she contacted John Hunt for it would be the 35th anniversary of the ascent by the 1953 team, and he informed that they who would be very supportive if they took with them a British climber, and he then went on to suggest, Stephen Venables! It must have been a shock to Stephen to suddenly find himself so centre stage, but he played his part and fitted in and justified our faith in him. The climb up the Kanshung Face from the Tibetan side, finished at the South Col and the lower sections Venables compared to the Eiger North Face. Unfortunately Paul Teare had to retreat with altitude problems, but Webster and Anderson arrived with Stephen at the Col and then set off up the classic Hilary and Tensing route to the summit. But only the Brit made it and he became the first from our country to do this without oxygen. I guess they thought that they were home and dry, but the descent became a nightmare. With forced bivouacs out in the open, frostbite, storms and spindrift avalanches, it adds up to one of the great escape stories, and I went especially to London to hear about it first hand, with Ed Webster (an outstanding photographer) telling the story at an Alpine Club evening, supported by Stephen Venables. One did not like to pry but Ed’s damage to his hands told their own story.

Post the Kanshung Face climb the author could rightly have rested on his Himalayan laurels, but no once into the 1990’s each year for half a decade, he went back to Everest. In 1990 the Super Couloir, in 1991 a new route, on the same North Face as the previous, but climbed solo and now known as the Anderson Couloir. In 1992 the North Ridge route, in 1993 the Great Couloir route, another climb on the North Face and in 1995 another attempt on this route. On none of these climbs did he and his partners summit, but they often finished at a point where they joined up with a traditional existing route and on one attempt on the Great Couloir, climbing solo he reached 8,400metres. Stephen Venables has noted about the authors optimistic outlook on life and this must have been tested to its limit in the winter of 1999.

His hope was to be either the last person up Everest in that century or the first in the new. For this he chose the North Ridge route, a one man expedition which in the conditions he did well to even reach the mountain. Stymied by high winds and deep snow he made it as far as The North Col! Truly a remarkable achievement in temperatures that the loss of say a pair of gloves could have spelt disaster; the coldest temperature ever recorded near the summit of Everest in winter is almost off the scale at minus 70C, which might be a good temperature to store vaccines, but not to try to climb in.

The writing in this book is of a high quality and there is a spirit of fun and chutzpah throughout. There is however some truly sad events recounted such as the death of a Catalan Doctor, swept to his death in an avalanche on a nearby peak. One that Anderson had climbed just a few days earlier whist acclimatising. He and his climbing partner set out to scour the avalanche debris near the foot of the mountain, and they did find his body. The writing about this and the burial ceremony attended by the climber’s teammates and the author plus partner did bring a lump in the throat. The list of Anderson’s friends and acquaintances met during his nine trips to Everest are listed in an addendum in the rear of his book, which besides reminding me of so many friendships but also some of those who like the Catalan died whilst climbing. One was Hans Christian Doseth, someone who Anderson met and climbed with on his sojourn in Norway; and who I also knew from him visiting the UK on a BMC organised visit. I climbed with him at Almscliff, Malham and the Roaches, seconding him up the Sloth. He died after completing a new route on the Trango Towers in the Karakoram on the descent. Anderson writes of bouldering with him in the fjords and pioneering new routes in the Romsdal Valley together. As fluid and enthusiastic as anyone he had ever climbed with. Sentiments I can only echo.

The story finishes with the author agreeing, against expectations to guide a group of clients for the British tour company, Jagged Globe up the South Col route, during its fiftieth anniversary year 2003. This with all the trappings of a large support team of Sherpas and with another British guide David Hamilton alongside him on the summit day; but even the South Col route can be serious despite all, and having reached the top in glorious still weather, with fabulous views to Shishapangma , far out in the distance, and Cho Oyu, Pumori closer by an epic was about to develop. One of their party; he had stopped a little before the summit complaining of sight problems, and on descending to him the two guides became stunned to find he had developed blindness and could not see. From there on the descent back to the South Col was a nightmare, with one guide behind him and the other in front placing his feet, hold by hold as they descended. This ended successfully back at the Col, but hours later in the dark and as near to disaster as could be. And Everest never gives up being a challenge, for on the descent first the authors party was held up in the ice fall, by a group of Indian climbers, aided by Sherpas towing a body bag through this most difficult of challenges, for they were carrying one of their party who had died in a crevasse fall, and then they watched transfixed as a large Russian made helicopter crashed below them near to their Base Camp. It rolled over and its whirling blades shot off and killed two people nearby. Thankfully the temporarily blind client partially recovered his sight as they descended, but as Anderson notes he was down to the last of his ‘Nine Lives!’

Image: Robert Mads Anderson  

The author has continued with his Everest love affair, returning again to guide the South Col route in 2010. In between times he has climbed many other mountains including the now well known challenge of the 7 Summits, the highest mountains on each continent, except that he managed to do this solo and it is the subject of another of his books. One that I am now enthusiastic to read, for Nine Lives is by a writer with a rare talent for telling it as it really is! The Foreword is by one of Anderson’s closest friends, Peter Edmund Hillary and in that we learn to our surprise that the author is a dedicated family man, and together with both of their families they have trekked to the Everest Base camp. The book is all we have come to expect from Vertebrate Publishers, and it is one to savour and I will read it again....soon. 

Dennis Gray: 2020 


 

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

An Escape to Snowdon

Llyn Llydaw; Sidney Richard Percy-1972.

We arrived,shivering, at Bettws-y-Coed. Only some three hours late, with memories of Euston Station at dawn and some thousands of people—mostly troops going on leave—stamping their feet to keep some warmth in them—waiting ever patiently for a relief train—over an hour late. A car drove us surprisingly swiftly up into the mountains. The newly-widened road narrowed to its more familiar form perhaps a mile and a half out of Capel, and we bumped along towards Pen y Gwryd. Leaving the carefully dimmed lights of Pen yr Gwryd, we started the ascent, up into the heart of Snowdon herself- it always seems—to Pen. y Pass. The hotel was empty of guests besides our four selves. Mr Owen came to greet us out from the porch into the starlight. Jocelin's naval uniform was soon cast off for other clothes. The large bear in the corner had a mask of Father Christmas thrown over his face which gleamed and smiled at night and looked just the least bit shadowy and unreal next day. 

I went up to my room—mine for so many years now—with its windows free of all blackout contrivances—still looking down the pass. How we slept ! In the last war I thought ' Shall I ever get there again ? ' I had been only twice to visit Snowdon and the Welsh mountains as a child. The possibility of return seemed very far off but on a certain day on the Italian Riviera early in 1919 we made out a list of those whom the war had spared and who might come again, and so we met once more at Easter 1919 . . . and ever since. Next day we all started out into the hills, two climbing on Lliwedd and the others making a much-loved and familiar round to Llyn Llydaw—and around the lake and over the tops on the skyline home. The lakes all lay stiller than I had ever seen them and the reflections gave the appearance of the whole landscape having fallen into the water. A friendly raven wheeled above us, calling us surely on. Geoffrey's well-worn brown cap and coat and breeches became more than ever a part of the rocks and hills themselves. 

A very perfect mountaineer's camouflage. There was hardly a human being to see though later a cheerful and strong party of young climbers who had been disporting themselves on Lliwedd unknown to us, joined us at tea. The rain fell softly in the night and the cliffs looked blacker than ever next day. Menlove Edwards appeared and took Jocelin off to the Columnar Cliffs and the rest of us walked where we wanted most. The reflections in the lakes had gone but the clouds steamed. off the hills and the solitary raven called out his Christmas greeting. Flying from Lliwedd over Crib Goch. Here at last is peace ! I kept on saying to myself—it's so hard to believe in war up here. Some draggled remains of barbed wire occasionally reminded one of the years of '14—'18 '—a humorous relic though. No air-raid wardens put their notices on the garage doors. Even the radio crooning in Owen's room behind the bar had a far-off sound. 

No one can ever really interfere with this country. Wars may arise and boundaries in Europe be changed but the hills round Snowdon stay the same. In the friendly trickle of many streams I caught my courage once again. In the laughing talk of Helyg, climbers forgot the rumours of wars, and upon the ridges themselves I vowed I would try and believe in immortality.And once more to bed with the windows looking down the pass and a murmur of west wind and a memory of a song that is always sung at Easter here Come back mountain friends to your rest on the Pass... Come back mountain climbers to me. And in a day or so we shall go off to Southern England again, and one of us shortly will be on the high seas—but we cannot forget the comfort of those high hills—and our great easing of the heart. (Boxing Day, 1939) 

Eleanor Winthrop-Young 1939 


 

Friday, 2 October 2020

Coledale Force- 1985

 

Ullock Pike-the First Snow. Bill Peascod oil/mixed media

The winter of 1984/5 developed into a hard freeze. Elsewhere Britain suffered under heavy blizzards. In the Lakes there was little snow. For some weeks the roads were relatively clear and free of ice: the sun shone brightly most days and water everywhere on the fells froze hard to the valley floor. It became a classic season for ice climbing. Bill Birkett and I were into it fairly early. I had hacked my way in other years, up many a snow-ice gully. Most times with an ice-axe (once with a sharp stone) — never with crampons! Now it was to be standard 1980's style: front point crampons, ice hammers, ice screws — the full regalia. With such devices the ice we climbed was more vertical than anything I had ever done before. When I saw the first ice pitch on Newlands Hause I gasped. "We'll never get up that!"... "Rubbish' said Bill or words similar in sentiment. "It'll be easy ! " And it was! 

By the time we had reached the crest of the Hause I was completely hooked on this, for me, new-fangled technique. Even though the crampons I was wearing had been given to me because they were no good by a chap who'd been presented with them ten years ago by someone else, for the same reason. At the end of nearly a week of continuous climbing (we were out six times in eight days as it turned out) mostly on ice, Bill rang me: "'Do you fancy Coledale Hause Force up above Force Crag Mine? The 'word' has it that it's the best pitch in the Lakes this year' he said.

''Oh Aye!... Downer says so! !", he declared. authoritatively. "It'll be right then if Downer says so.... When are you leaving'!". "I'll be there in an hour' he told me and hung up. I reached the car park at Whinlatter just a couple of minutes before Bill and his mate, Pat Duffy, arrived. The ice, when we got to it, looked fantastic. The stream was frozen for something like seven hundred feet. In the lower half there was much easy ice scrambling before the bed reared up into a pleasant solid ice wall of 60 feet or so. Above this we entered into a small amphitheatre. The ice forms were incredible. Huge bosses and corded icicles. 

A massive chrysanthemum of radiating ice petals (obviously containing a small bush. All these ringed the cirque and down the main wall plunged the linked columns of vertical ice, a thick hollow sheet separated from the rock wall to form grottos and caves of breathtaking beauty. It was up this our route lay. Bill rampaged up the wall. Ice flying, front points and ice hammers banging into the vertical knots of ice. In 80 feet the steepness relented and the thick solidified stream fell back into icy slabs and another small cirque and more grottos and ice bubbles and blisters. Pat followed Bill, then it was my turn. It was all joy and heave and disbelief.

The next day my wife, Etsu, my small daughter and I spent most of the daylight hours skating on Derwentwater and that evening we went to visit Chris and Wendy Bonington. I told Chris about the icefall. "Gosh I'd love to do it — but I'm tied up tomorrow and Tuesday:' he sighed. "How about Wednesday?" "No. it's out for me:' I answered. "But Friday's O.K " I'll be on the way to Everest then — we leave Thursday" he said quietly. "but I'd still love to do it!" Then suddenly. "I know! What about a pre-dawn start tomorrow morning? I could pick you up at six; we could be back by nine — and still get a day's work in!" It was dark as we drove alongside Bassenthwaite Lake, with hardly the faintest hint of dawn in the night sky. By 6.30 we were at the foot of the falls, with just sufficient light to enable us to fasten on our crampons. This time I had swiped Etsu's good pair and adjusted them to fit my old and massive Galibiers .With these and another second-hand axe, (acquired from Bill) which felt nicely in balance with my own, my confidence ran high.

What light there was bounced off the ice as we soloed up the lower easier slopes then dawn leapt across the sky. By 7.30 we were in the amphitheatre and Chris was leading up the main ice wall in beautiful style. A hundred and fifty feet higher, with all the rope out he belayed. It was my turn. In better crampons, a couple of good axes and (be it said) a comforting firm rope from above. I set off. At one point some sixty feet up the wall I became too confident (or it could have been tiredness!). The right ice pick, inadequately placed. came adrift and the shock loading on the other caused the ice to burst off around its point. I did an exciting "yo-yo– due to rope stretch as all four contact points ceased to become such, but I was soon away again. It was just 8.15 when we were sitting at the top of the climb. The dawn had reached the valley. Away to the east. Over Helvellyn. a rosy pink suffused the sky. Above our heads the east face of Grisedale Pike was tinged with the same warm hue as the shadow-line moved rapidly down the face. It was all peace and calm and hope. 

Bill Peascod: Dedicated follower of climbing fashion!

The morning was held in a breathless hush of pinks and hazy blues and a dusting of white in sheltered combes — nothing moved. The only sounds were of our quiet conversation and the tinkle of ice-gear as Chris wound up the rope. As he sat there I thought of another dawn. Nearly fifty years ago. In the early summer above Loweswater — a dawn full of promise and discovery to come — and of the young impressionable coal miner who, coming out of the dark and stink and sweat off night shift. Up into God's clean air, had felt compelled to ride out on his bike to find it. But this dawn here, even in the winter, held its own wonder. And the promises were still there to nurture the questing spirit. 

 

Bill Peascod: First Published in the F&R Journal-1985.


 

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

The book of Trespass....Reviewed

 


The Book of Trespass-Crossing The Lines That Divide Us. Nick Hayes. 464 pages Hardback with Dust Cover and illustrated with Black/White Linocuts. Bloomsbury Circus £20.

The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, to prove the upper classes have still the upper hand’. Noel Coward (1938).

I believe this is an important book for it would be hard to read without agreeing the case it makes for the need to change and enhance Public access to the English countryside. The vast majority of our country is entirely unknown to us because we are banned from setting foot on it! By law of trespass we are excluded from much of the land and even less from its waterways. Blocked by walls whose legitimacy is rarely if ever questioned, behind which lies the history of the enclosures of what was once common land leading to exploitation and a dispossession of public rights of way.

The history of landowning in England is detailed in eleven chapters in The Book of Trespass, each one is illustrated with a double page linocut and is named after an animal the author believes characterises the history that is told within; Badger, Fox, Dog, Sheep, Cow, Spider, Pheasant, Cockroach, Hare, Toad and Stag. These take one on a journey over the walls of England, and into the thousands of square miles of woodland, hills, rivers, lakes, and meadows that are blocked for public access. By trespassing on the land of the media magnets, Lords, politicians and private corporations that own most of England, Nick Hayes argues that the basis of social inequality is the uneven distribution of land? He does this by weaving together the stories of poachers, vagabonds, gypsies, witches, hippies, raves, ramblers, migrants, and protestors, charting acts of civil disobedience that challenge orthodox power at its heart?

The author decides chapter by chapter to trespass in one of the private estates and stately homes that still dominate large areas of England. Sometimes with a colleague, most often alone, he identifies a weak area of access into these forbidden lands, quietly and with no worry he finds himself a comfortable hideaway, sketches the area, spends-a night, then retreats the way he came in, making sure he does not leave any litter/sign of his presence. This works well even when near the end of the book he takes to kayaking and following the Thames downstream, and includes a trespass (or not) into the Royal estate at Windsor. A little more information I guess is needed about who Nick Hayes really is; a well reviewed writer of four previous novels, a cartoonist, an illustrator, and a print maker, the list of the publications that have published his work is impressive; Time Out, Literary Review, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Guardian etc, and he has held several exhibitions of his artwork in galleries across the country including at the Hayward. In a recent video he has made for the land justice net work about the need to reform land use and improved access, he still appears frighteningly young, to be such a high achiever.

The large landowners in England are still a privileged cohort, some are old money, descendants of the 180 Barons who arrived in 1066 with William, who kept a third of the land for himself and then parcelled out the rest to his henchmen. What these Norman aristocrats did with their time was hunt, and to do this deer forests were set up. And this was the real beginning of enclosure, the commoners who had previously had long-established rights, to graze their animals, to take wood, dig peat and fish the lakes were moved out, and within a hundred years there was 2,000 Deer Parks in England. This was the real beginning of exclusion, and trespass for commoners either had to do this or starve, poaching became a national sport, but the penalties for those so caught were usually severe.

Moving on the new money estates and stately homes came from lucrative service in countries of the Empire or the slave trade. I have winced at some of the anti comments I have read on the Internet about The Black Lives Matter campaign, even on some of the sites followed by fellow climbers; the demonstrators supporting this might be unsettling but sadly their cause is just. In The Book of Trespass there are so many instances of barbaric cruelty meted out on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, at the behest of slave owners, by men who garnered riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Across England the wealth of the sugar plantations was injected into English society, into buildings and infrastructure which remain to this day. And a similar story is true of the money that was transferred from India by men like Sykes, Clive, and Hastings. The scale is truly impressive for there are hundreds of estates and country houses that came from the wealth levered from those two sources. It seems what you had to do was go out to India as a young clerk, climb up the ladder of promotion, become governor of a Province or area, rip all off in bribes and back hander’s and come home with enough money to build a stately home, and an estate which you could then enlarge with help from your mates in parliament by enclosing land round and about. Once that was done you became an MP through a rotten borough (or Lord Mayor of London), then you became titled with a seat in the House of Lords. The history of the Slave Trade is truly awful, so anyone reading this who thinks the story of what happened might be exaggerated should read the sections about this in The Book of Trespass. And as an indication of the looting of the wealth of India when it became the Jewel in the Crown it enjoyed almost 27% of world trade, by the time it was handed over this had diminished to 3%!

Inevitably the Kinder trespass of 1932 is well covered and in fact the book begins with the story of a young climber from Preston, George Beattie Elliot who on the weekend of that event spent the night before in the cave at Laddow, and set off early the next day to walk over Bleaklow and then onto Kinder. Reaching its summit he started to descend but was astonished to see below him a large crowd of young ramblers, singing and shouting out loud and advancing towards a line of keepers. He had known nothing about the Trespass and although he was only a teenager he knew he was trespassing, and suddenly he was surrounded by a ring of keepers. He was punched to the ground but some of the crowd arrived and the keepers were hauled off him and George by then totally bemused was pulled to his feet, slapped on the back and praised for his heroic work for the good old cause. The scene ended as quickly as it had sprung upon him, the crowd moved on and poor George was left, as before, to the silence of The Peaks. Bruised, utterly stunned, with stars spiralling around his head, George continued his walk as planned, descending into the Goyt valley and out of history. Entirely unwittingly, George had fallen upon one of the most notorious protests in English history, the Kinder Trespass.

It seems that few in the modern climbing world know much of the struggles for access that have occurred over the years. For instance the late Dave Cook, organised a trespass at the MOD Castlemartin Range in Pembroke which although criticised at the time by some of the older generation of climbers, did draw attention to this area of world class sea cliffs, and eventually led to today’s individual access agreements. And I can bear personal witness to access difficulties at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire before it was handed over to the National Trust to avoid death duties. When I returned to Leeds from my National Service in Manchester in January 1956, I persuaded my friends in the Rock and Ice Club to visit Brimham. We used to camp at the farm down below the Cubic Block, but from that base wander freely, climbing around the estate. I was one day gob smacked to receive an injunction from the landlord, via his solicitor forbidding me and my friends from visiting Brimham Rocks. We simply ignored this ban and kept on going there, the real reason for his intervention was he felt we should pay him for our visits, although we always did this to the farmer who allowed us to camp on his land. I am sure all will acknowledge the importance of access and conservation, for without the first it is not possible to freely climb, and thinking further about this, when I was at the BMC we obtained from Peter Boydell QC, an opinion as to whether rock climbs could ever be registered as ‘Rights of Way?’. He advised us that if a climb has existed for 20 years or more, it might be. This would be crucial to gain such a legal agreement. We decided not to go ahead and set up a test case to prove this at law, but we would keep it in mind if ever a long traditional climbing area was threatened as to having access removed. And unfortunately the access battles of earlier years might now to be revisited with the present government plan to make Trespassing a criminal offence, allied to a recent ruling in a High Court case that the defendant had the right to develop their property in any way they felt the need to do so!

I do remember when I was Secretary of the Hunt Committee on Mountain Training, when John Hunt and I were drafting our final report he insisted that we include a statement advising all our readers the need to observe and recognise the rights of landowners. I was not as sure as he was about that but obviously as he was the Chair, I demurred. But in retrospect reading The Book Of Trespass one realises that many who do own the land in England obtained it against the wishes and well being of their fellow citizens by using the previously mentioned process of enclosure. What happens to the land is of immense public significance, but in England it has always been categorised as private information. A recent book by Guy Shrubsole ‘Who owns England?’ contains much material which should make Joe Public take note, of how many of the large estates and landowning’s are now registered ‘Off Shore’, pay no tax yet have received large taxpayer funding for many years. And abroad for instance in France if you wish to know the history and who owns certain areas of land, all one needs to do is head for the local Maire. The same is true in some of the States of the USA and in a State like Montana this is available on line.

Nick Hayes is a keen supporter of what he believes are ‘good and rightful’ historic causes; the ladies of Greenham Common in their fight against a nuclear Armageddon, the former migrant camp at Calais where he was a voluntary worker and supporter, the tree huggers in Sheffield fighting to save their wooded street environments, the poor flooded inhabitants of Hebden Bridge, who blame their situation on the management of the moorland above the town by the Walshaw Estate. Extensive burning takes place there each year, to encourage new plant growth to feed the Grouse, ready for the next shooting season, but in doing this it depletes the lands ability to retain water. Which flows off the moor and down into their homes. In the last twenty years, six serious floods have occurred in Hebden, in 2015 over 3,000 houses and businesses were so damaged.

The author’s major cause now is for a new ‘Right to Roam’ campaign. Along with Guy Shrubsole they are promoting this as vigorously as they are able. In countries as different as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, Estonia etc this is the law, and in the Scandinavian countries it is one of long standing. It could have been so here in Britain if the Atlee government of the 1940’s had managed to get such through the House of Lords. They were deflected by the landowners who agreed with the setting up of the National Parks, but who refused to support a general ‘Right to Roam’. Nick Hayes is not calling for a revolution and for landowners to be dispossessed, but he points out so succinctly that the CROW act of 2000 is very much inferior to the Scottish Land Act of 2003 in allowing more and easier access for wild camping and onto hills and rivers. The late Alan Blackshaw played a major role in the drafting of that legislation, and it seems that to win access and or conservation campaigns you need a good acronym! The one that impresses me is STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Group). I think over the CROW act I should remind readers that 2026 is the cut off point for registering footpaths, access routes and rights of way.

 

Author-Nick Hayes

I return to my belief of the importance of this ‘The Book Of Trespass’. Besides its claim of a need for improved access, it also enhances the way one sees and appreciates landscapes, whilst noting the health promoting effect of direct contact with natural environments for all human beings, bolstered by examining the belief of the Japanese in the beneficial effects of walks and stays in a wood or forest....shinyin yoku. This is a work of great erudition, the research it required is staggering and I must congratulate the author on the finished thought invoking result! 

 

Dennis Gray: 2020 


 

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Winter 8000: Climbing The World’s Highest Mountains In The Coldest Season: Reviewed

 

Brief encounter!

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear beginning to live!’...Marcus Aurelis

Bernadette McDonald continues to mine the rich history of the Polish ‘Ice Warriors’ of the 1970’s and 1980’s. For almost twenty years Polish mountaineers dominated the Himalayan winter climbing scene. Surely the most demanding form of climbing physically, and of the fourteen 8000 metre peaks, eight were first ascended by Polish climbers in that season, and a fact that is true, it was the example of that countries mountaineers which inspired other nations to enter this arena. One that is still the case, despite the improvement in equipment and technical knowledge, a form of mountaineering that can only be successfully overcome by those well versed in the art of suffering, whilst facing up to potential wind speeds in excess of 150 kph and temperatures as low as minus 50C.

But why was this type of climbing so suited to Polish-mountaineers? I learned first- hand in 1967 during a visit to their mountain range, the Tatra how hard physically they were. History had dealt them a challenging hand, for in the last war and the subsequent Cold War they were victims of ruthless neighbours, first Nazi Germany, then-Stalinist Russia. In 1967 camping with some of their climbing fraternity one realised how hardy they were, for their equipment was rudimentary, and some had no tent and just slept out covered by a blanket, living mainly on beetroot! This in a mountain area with less settled weather than the Alps; a higher rainfall and in winter almost Himalaya type of conditions.

The Polish climbers were as I learnt on a lecture tour post climbing in the Tatra, very good at ducking and diving and milking the communist system to their benefit. McDonald makes a good job of setting the scene in her introduction to ‘WINTER 8000’ , and she has already made an outstanding contribution in recounting Polish climbing history, for her two previous books ‘Freedom Climbers’(2011) and the ‘Art of Freedom’ (2017) were both Boardman/Tasker prize winners. However the Chair of the Judges at the first of these mused ‘how come a Canadian is writing the history of another-countries climbers?’I guess it is because despite the geographic separation Bernadette finds this history so compelling, and to be fair she is the author in total of eleven books on mountaineering and mountain cultures, the majority of which have little or no Polish connection.

Andrzej Czok and Przemys┼éaw Piasecki, on their way to Camp 2 during the Polish 1985–86 winter Kangchenjunga expedition. Photo: Krzysztof Wielicki Archive.

The story of this book comes to life with the Polish climbers Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy summiting Mount Everest (8,848 metres) 17th February 1980. The leader of this expedition was Andrzej Zawada, and if anyone can be cited as the grandfather of Himalayan winter climbing it is Andrzej, someone who I personally counted a friend and who in 1975 led a party of Polish climbers to visit Britain as guests of the BMC. I remember lively discussions between Dennis Davis and Zawada about if it was possible to climb 8,000 meter peaks in winter, and why any climber would wish to risk such an ascent in the inevitable extreme conditions. Dennis was well versed in Polish climbing for he had lived and worked in that country in the mid-1960’s, based at Oswiecim near Krakow he had climbed regular weekends in the Tatra, including with Kurtyka and Rusieki making the first winter ascent of the super-directissima of the North Face of Mieguszowiski. 

A climb still held in high regard by the Taternik’s. Before the success on Everest, Zawada had built up winter experience on other mountains with a successful climb of Noshaq (7,492) the second highest Peak in the Hindu Kush range in February 1972 and led an attempt on Lhotse in the 1974/5 winter season. One has to agree with the author that he was some kind of visionary, and he had learnt that above all one needed patience for success on such ascents. With days and weeks spent at a lower height and or in a Base Camp waiting for a window of settled weather. But ready to make a summit bid if radioed in with a good weather forecast; such support especially provided for each expedition. By the decade of the 1980’s much was to change for the Polish climbing fraternity, with the political developments brought about by the Solidarity movement, they were now living in a democratic capitalist country. One of the ways that they were able to better finance their climbing was by what we call ‘Access’ work, especially painting and pointing the high factory chimneys around such cities as Katowice.

Post Everest the doors opened for Polish winter climbers, and next was to be Manaslu(8,163metres). An expedition led by Lech Korniszewski, and the summit reached on 12th January 1984 by Maciej Berbeka and RysardGajewski. Followed by Dhaulagiri(8,167 metres) 21st January1985, on an expedition led by Adam Bilczewski and summited by Adrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka. The latter someone who became famous in his quest to be the first to climb all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks. He was the second to do so, and his ascents were notable in that they either were by a new route or in winter. Cho Oyu (8,188 metres) was also ascended in the winter of 1985 and Kanchenjunga on 11th January 1986. Annapurna was to be climbed the next year by an expedition led by Kukuczka, who summited with Artur Hajzer.

Simone Moro on the summit of Shishapangma, having made the first winter ascent with Piotr Morawski on 14 January 2005. Photo: Piotr Morawski.

Post these six winter expeditions, the Poles joined up with other nations climbers to mount expeditions. One of the reasons they did this was because of the need for some hard currency, for the Zloty like the Pound had real difficulties in the 1980’s. Lhotse (8,516 metres) was climbed on 31st December 1988 by a joint Belgian-Polish expedition led by Krzysztof Wielicki (who also summited Everest as above and Kanchenjunga with Kukuczka). Shisapangma (8,027 metres) was climbed on 14th January 2005 by a Polish-Italian expedition, with the summit reached by Piotr Morowaski and Simone Moro.

This latter marked the end of Polish dominance of this field of climbing by the so called ‘golden generation’ of their mountaineers. Adam Bielecki was to observe later, ’Our Winter domination was the fault of Stalin and Beirut because they locked us in a cage. When others were doing the first ascents of the 8,000metre peaks we remained trapped behind the Iron Curtain. When it finally lifted we jumped out of the cage. We were very hungry’ (Beirut was a Stalinist style first President of Poland after the war). It also was the start of a new style of expedition, smaller, more compact, more in the style of Alpine ascents. This was only made possible by improved weather forecasting, and equipment. Makalu (8,485 metres) was the next to be climbed on the 9th February 2009 by an International expedition led by Simone Moro, who summited along with a new 8,000 metre star Denis Urubko. The same team climbed Gasherbrum 11 (8,034 metres) on the 2nd February 2011.

A new Polish winter programme initiated by Artur Hajzer fired up a younger generation of their mountaineers and on the 9th March 2012 during an expedition led by him, Gasherbrum 1 (8,080 metres) was summited by Janusz Golab and Adam Bielecki. Unfortunately Hajzer died in a fall during the expedition. The following year an expedition to Broad Peak (8,051 metres) led by another Polish winter guru Krzysztof Wielicki which was successfully climbed by Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Artur Malek and Tomas Kowalski on 5th March 2013. Finally Nanga Parbat (8,125 metres ) was climbed after many attempts on 26th February 2016 by Alex Txikon, Ali Sandpara and Simone Moro. Included in the new Alpine style of expeditions was a more comfortable life experience whilst waiting out for good weather windows in Base Camps. A generator became de rigeur, providing access to the outside world, with phone connection and social media. Simone Moro it seems is a star on these latter with so many likes and followers he could be a part of a cutting edge Rock Band.

Only K2 (8,611 metres) remains of the 8000 Peaks to be climbed in winter but this is not from want of trying. Polish, Russian, Italian and International teams have all tried. Zawada inevitably was drawn to this mountain of mountains and put together a joint Polish/Canadian/British attempt in 1987/8 where the realities of the geographic situation of this mountain, being further north than Everest, and its higher reaches swept by winds emanating from Sibera have made it the most challenging of all the winter objectives. However the Poles have announced they will make another attempt in the coming winter 2020/1.

Climbers on the Polish 1979–80 winter Everest expedition in base camp, listening for messages from their families and friends back home. Photo: Ryszard Szafirski.

There is so much more to McDonald’s book than I have so far intimated, in some aspect it is a grim ‘thanatos’ story with death a possibility looming on almost every other page. In Appendix A at the rear of the work is the list of the climbers involved in this story. And of all the climbing games, attempting the highest peaks in the Himalaya in winter must be the most dangerous. More than a dozen have died in this form of mountaineering some of whom were well known names to British climbers: Anatoli Boukreev the elite Kazakh alpinist died in a winter attempt on Annapurna on Christmas Day 1997, Jerzy (Jurek) Kukucska one of the stars of Himalayan winter climbing died on Lhotse in 1989, and Wanda Rutkiewicz disappeared on Kanchenjunga in 1992. Wanda was one of the key note speakers at one of the BMC National Conferences in Buxton. And her mountaineering record was impressive, for she had climbed eight of the 8,000 metre peaks, including the first female ascent of K2, and when she was in the UK we intended to do some climbing in the Peak but as usual the weather in mid-March, the time of the Conference it was too bad.

There is however much that it is uplifting in this story not least the rescue by four climbers taking part in a winter K2 Polish expedition which also included Denis Urubko, who left that mountain to take part in the rescue high on Nanga Parbat in 2018, of the French female climber Elisabeth Revolv. Her partner had died and through a super human effort, Adam Bielecki and the ethnic Russian Urubko raced up thousands of feet to reach her, for she was too high for a helicopter rescue. Revolv eventually made a complete recovery and returned to Himalayan climbing.

Inevitably in such a demanding arena there are personality clashes, and though McDonald does not over egg these she does cover them with some diplomacy. One dispute is to whether winter ascents in the Himalaya should cover the Calendar winter, starting on 21st December and finishing 21st March, or the Meteorological –winter, starting 1st December and to be completed by the end of February. Simone Moro who has made first ascents of four winter 8000 metre peaks is a proponent of the latter view, and he has carried out quite a strong campaign over this, disputing winter ascents made in March! This has not enamoured him to those making such claims.

8000 WINTER is I believe the most outstanding work of McDonald’s three Polish mountaineering history books. Her research and detail is so thorough, the only weakness is in the writing up of dialogue. It seems that Polish mountaineer’s in particular only talk to each other in platitudes? ‘Have you put your down trousers on?’ is a typical example of a Base Camp call to a climber at a camp higher up the mountain. I suspect that like British climbers in such a stressful situation the language would be more- fruity!

I will finish by quoting directly from WINTER 8000, as a tribute to those climbing friends from that ‘Golden Generation’ of Polish mountaineers including Andrzej (who succumbed to cancer in 2000), Tadeuz who died on K2 and Wanda who disappeared on Kanchenjunga in 1992; ‘These imperfect tales are all that we have and in sharing them, we can try to understand the souls of the Ice Warriors, those men and women who find the greatest fulfilment in the highest mountains in the coldest, shortest, darkest days: the cruel days of winter’

Climbing on Manaslu, winter 1983–84. Photo: Lech Korniszewski.

Everything about WINTER 8000 is excellent, as someone who once studied graphic design I think Vertebrate have excelled themselves on this production; and it is for me their best yet.

Winter 8000.Climbing The World’s Highest Mountains In The Coldest Season. Bernadette McDonald.256 pages black and white text including some relevant pictures plus 2x8 page inserts of colour prints, case bound with dust jacket cover. £24.

Dennis Gray: 2020