Tuesday 26 May 2020

Raven Seek Thy Brother.

When I was climbing constantly, from 1973 to about 1990, if I saw a raven cruising above the crag before I started up a route, I used to say. 'Raven. seek thy brother' — an Arab saying meant to ward off ill luck. Gavin Maxwell used it for the title of one of his memoirs. (it didn't work for him). The black silhouette of the mountain crow prints the sky above most Lakeland crags. The names say it: Raven Crag, Threshwaite Cove: Raven Langdale, where I teamed to climb: Raven Thirlmere, girdled by Peter Greenwood's excellent traverse, which I was about to climb with Peter and the route's co-author, Don Whillans, when Don died in August 1985. I finally did it with. Geoff Oliver in May 1990. We'd had some storming days, above all when we did his delectable little Penrod on Scafell East, then trogged back down to Seathwaite in Borrowdale and put up Maginot Line on Aaron Crags. He didn't relish the loose rock above the cave on Raven Thirlmere. We survived it. and it remains for me one of the most satisfying and varied routes in the country: a ladder of little holds up The Apocrypha (Soper and Allinson's variation on pitch I of Genesis/Anarchist); dizzy down-climbing on the big corner, where the perspective down the drop so unnerved me that it took me ten minutes to make the first steps- then stretching strides from hold to hold. Reversing part of Communist Convert, on the way to easier terrain above the yawning hollow of the Cave. 

All those bird associations mean a lot to me because, when I think about it, being amongst wild nature is my prime motive for climbing. You could hardly be closer to it. more in amongst it. You're grasping rock, sinking your fingers in moist moss, clasping lovingly at the roots and boles of trees. cursing bird-shit wonderful! You're smelling the struck-match odour of baking rock (especially in the scorching summers of 1976 and 1983). You're hearing close up the bark of ravens or the staccato squawk of angry peregrines. Especially if you're soloing and there are no calls from yourself or your partner to affright the birds and other animals.

When I was doing the field-work for the 1987 Buttermere guide, I got as near peregrines as I ever will. On Striddle Crag at the back of Fleetwith Pike. where nobody ever goes, I had almost completed pitch 2 of Mark's Route when I put my hand on the end of a shelf cut deeply into the rock. Just as I saw a clutch of creamy eggs with reddish-brown markings, a bird shot off like a bolt of lightning and grew suddenly smaller as it streaked away towards Green Crag with wing-wrenching zigs and zags. I quickly mantled on up the start of pitch 3 to give the bird peace to return. It was a falcon...a female peregrine. Next day, climbing Carnival with Rick Graham on Eagle, Birkness Combe, I was maintaining my position with some difficulty on the very steep face of pitch 4 when a pair of peregrines showed me how to be free and fearless amongst heights by plunging past me in some kind of ecstatic mating-play - pulling out of the dive with athletic twists of wing - plunging again in a blur before sheering off into the air-space of the combe. How we all play before the serious business of bringing up children closes in! Peregrines almost never nest in trees, although they occasionally use an old raven's nest. I almost trod on one when I was exploring outcrops in the Calf Flow area of upper Kentdale. One line claws up a green wall into a holly. Struggles painfully through the prickles, then heads for an exposed traverse and a final 'Amen Corner' which I've only once had the bottle to do on my own.

In the tree a clattering sounded and a falcon shot off through the branches, leaving a twig nest with eight eggs (instead of the usual three or four. It feels like an intrusion into someone else's domestic life when you stumble so closely in amongst them, and it was rather like that when I was in Longsleddale, going up to climb The Minotaur at the apex of Buckbarrow. On the skyline at the summit a tiercel was treading a falcon in clear silhouette. My mate Chris Culshaw and I often start the season on that crag because it is an appetising goal at the end of a saunter up a perfect dale (narrowly saved. I. believed. from being flooded to make a reservoir in the Fifties . Two years ago we were stopped from even setting a hand on Buckbarrow. As we neared the head of the scree, a fit-looking man who had been jogging down as we approached came right back up again and asked us, not all that breathlessly, if we would mind not climbing there that day. He was a member of the Cumbria Raptor Group and he was worried that ravens might be scared off their nests.

They had recently fought with peregrines for the tenancy of Goat Sear across the dale, the hawks had won, and the mountain crows had moved over here. Now a raven is not a raptor. For another thing ravens are so abundant in Lakeland that they hardly need protection. We backed down and went for a walk instead, amongst the labyrinths of man-made gorges and stone palisades where lead was mined at the dale-head. No doubt the Buckbarrow ravens are happily ensconced by now. The bird mates for life and usually occupies the same nest year after year. The finest example of this I ever saw was in Newlands, which Bill Peaseod 'gave to George Rushworth', his coal-miner partner, in the late Forties. When I was reconnoitring Waterfall Buttress for the Guide, I saw on the fellside above - - approximately where the number 6 is on the G.S. map north of Eel Crags and below the word 'Cairn' - a vertical yew trunk making a vee with a steeply-angled rockface. At least twelve feet of twigs had built up between crag and tree, green with algae at the bottom, bleached grey in the middle, and fresh brown at the top. How many generations of ravens have made this their home? 

David Craig
The beauty of the crags in Newlands - and of Buckbarrow. and Hutaple in Deepdale and Dove and Black Crag in Dovedale, and many another Cumbrian fastness - is that they are fairly shaggy, still more or less natural, and will remain so now that the likes of Spain have become fashionable. You can climb such Lakeland crags - often, admittedly, through dripping moss and waist-deep heather - and come into a little secret paradise. In Newlands at the right-hand end of Red Crag (Lower Tier there is a steepish Hard Diff. called Heather Entry I've only ever done it alone. In the early Eighties Bill Peascod never mentioned it, although we were trawling closely along what had been just Eel Crags until he and George Rushworth named the main cliffs - Grey, Red, Waterfall, and Miners. The Guide lists no date for it and no authors. You pull straight up on chunky holds, with faith (which is justified) that there is rock beneath the bushy heather. After fifteen metres you step out into a copse of mature rowans, dozens of them. No animals have been able to get here and graze them down. The heather has never been burned. I remember sinking down into it as though into a yielding bed and looking out through the grille of silvery trunks and lattices of fresh green pinnate leafage in a state of pure contentment. Hindscarth and Dale Head reared up on high. Forget them - forget the toiling up the screes that flank the dale. Right here an atmosphere of peat and honey folds you in and for an hour or so the anxious delights of climbing give way to the carefree bliss of doing nothing whatsoever in this perfect neuk of wilderness.

Nature in Lakeland is a matter more of plants than of animals because the centuries of hill farming have driven away the creatures. Eagles died out (and have had to be reintroduced near Haweswater, although there were a fair few once and had crags named after them in Birkness Combe, Borrowdale, Grizedale, Otters are rare, and making a comeback. Badgers tunnel out their dens in softer ground near crags, e.g. on Nab Scar north of Rydal Water and on the eastern slope of Whitbarrow a mile or two from Chapel Head Scar. I saw red deer just once, in Swindale, amongst heather and blaeberries on the ridge above Gouther Crag. Frankly, the commonest animals on the crags are ants. My son Peter and I actually called a route Red Ant Motorway because an army of them kept filing up our brand new purple rope. That was on Jura in the Inner Hebrides and I mustn't stray outside Cumbria. The ants all over the forest floor below Gowder Crag, on the east bank of the Lodore Falls in lower Borrowdale, are hateful, like black-peppercorns with legs. They love swarming into rucksacks, no doubt foraging for the chocolate-covered Kendal mint-cake which I always carry. Their smaller, redder kinsfolk, who seem to prefer human flesh, invaded our sleeping-bags when we bivvied at the summit of Raven Thirlmere and we were wakened at 2 in the morning as though our whole bodies were afire.

The only ants I've ever viewed with affection, or at least interest. were scampering up and down the rib on pitch 2 of Jackdaw Ridge on Shepherd's (where we found a black jackdaw feather lying heraldically on a greenish slab near the start). As I sized up what was clearly a gymnastic pull-up over an cave, I saw that the rock was alive with ants. It was chastening to see how fearlessly they clambered up each grain and wrinkle of the slate, even when the angle was beyond the vertical But then, they have six points of contact and an enviable power/weight ratio. The crags are hanging gardens, luxuriant with thyme and harebells and foxgloves, roseroot and yellow saxifrage and bell heather, in spite of ruthless rooting-up by us lot. What we euphemistically call gardening. Bill Peascod, miner that he was, quite revelled in tearing mats of turf off the likes of Beth's Crag near Grange in Borrowdale. When we were putting up Stingray, he wrenched off square yards of grass and flung them off into mid-air. Graham McPhee and company had to wear goggles when they were putting up The Crack on Gimmcr in 1928 because their scraping and tearing at vegetation made so much dust. I would rather give the plants a chance and leave them to root and flower and seed on all those well-watered ledges. I saw the Sadgill Wall area of Buckbarrow in a new light when I went up it with Geoffrey Halliday, author of' ' Flora of Cumbria'. A doctor from Hawick. Climbing there in the Nineties he had reported finding purple saxifrage at the right-hand side. somewhere near the grassy bay. Geoffrey hadn't climbed for decades and he came up the broad. gullied face with an air of stunned bewilderment at the precariousness of it all. We quested left and right along ledges upholstered with dewy blaebcrry. No luck. Perhaps the vivid flower, so plentiful on the western cliffs of Penyghent, was just too scanty hereabouts.

A different kind of frustration awaited me when I went up Dandle Buttress and into the wild garden on its crest, hoping for a feast of blaeberries. Too late — every outcropping rock was plastered with purple birdlime. Blackbirds and stone-chats and perhaps the rarer ring ousel, which I usually see there fleeing of up the steeper watercourses, had got there first and treated the place as their orchard. The flowers are invariably beautiful. exasperating when they hold moisture or cloak holds, but it's worth it. You just have to be more canny, and possibly wear socks over your PA's, which gives amazing adhesion. I wore out an entire pair on Black Crack. Bowness Knott. Ennerdale. which Bill Peascod (its author) and I enjoyed intensely- although the Guide calls it 'repulsive even when there is no water spouting from its lip'. Another of his, Y-Gully on Haystacks, gave us an epic day in the teeth of the tendency to abuse it because it supports `too many flowers'. What else can you expect of a gully? The lower pitches are rich in what botanists call flush vegetation. 

Water has been sluicing down them for thirty or forty thousand years and the only visible rock is so slicked and rounded that it is unclimbable. Tiptoe through flowerbeds then,sinking your fingers in pillows of sphagnum moss to find holds, any holds. The gully banks are a slow-motion avalanche of flowers ...fragrant meadowsweet, star-flowers of mountain saxifrage, clumps of alpine lady's-mantle which is used in Switzerland to flavour Gruyere. Two hundred feet above, your goal can be seen, a slot framed by heather tall as broom .... Well, if you don't like that kind of thing. keep well away. I can only say that after six hours of slithering and burrowing, and seventy feet of classic 4c bridging up the central chimney, I felt as renewed as I have been by any route at all. Bill, Chris. and I had been immersed in the shaggy stuff of nature itself, unaltered by the - how many? - by the few dozen people who will ever have been there. Unless, of course, the star we gave it in the 1987 Guide has turned unexpected numbers of climbers onto it.

I say 'we` because Rick Graham seemed resigned to my peculiar tastes. The Guidebook Committee were clearly dubious. Ever since the 1949 edition, written by Bill Peascod, nobody has had a good word for the place. Bill wrote that his own route was 'hardly to be recommended because of the poor rock'. By the time of Soper and Allinson words like 'evil' could be used (of neighbouring Warn Ghyll) and 'unattractive' and 'very poor'. For my part I hope I made things clear when wrote that the climb `hides a fine hard pitch in its oozing innards' and has 'areas that make Lego look solid'. Not every route can be as clean as Gimmer Crack. Whatever your opinion of all those pulpy flowers and funguses, who would agree that trees are wholesome and sturdy, and at least as reliable as rock.

Who has not felt relief on arriving at the holly on Holly Tree Traverse, Raven Crag, Langdale, after the prolonged exposure of pitch I ? Anybody who has climbed it since about 1990, unfortunately, when the slender grey trunk and little flourish of polished leaves lost its grip on the crag at last. Climbers love trees to bits, ring-barking them by abseiling off them, treading the ground bare until the tree has no turf to root in. A small pine on the second stance of Brown Crag Wall on Shepherd's was charred fatally by a climber's stubbed-out cigarette. The yew on pitch 3 of North Crag Eliminate, Castle Rock of Triermain, has had its top worn to a naked spike by the rough usage of people stepping of it to regain the rock. Is this the only classic route in which a tree is an integral section of the climb? Once I was climbing Overhanging Bastion in that same wonderful area with one finger bandaged after a dog-bite had turned septic. The dressing came off as I was stepping diagonally up pitch 4 with the help of the yew roots that jut over the rock shelf like a burnished abstract sculpture.

I left a streak of blood on the brown wood. As I coiled at the top, I heard the next climber after me call out excitedly. 'There's blood here, as though he had found the trace of a climbing accident. Those venerable, slow-growing yews are the soul of stability, coming so soon after the daredevil swing along a vertical face on creaking flakes. It's supposed to be daft to hug trees. That's what l feel like doing, and sometimes do, when I arrive at them after a stirring or frightening pitch. The birch near the end of the traverse on pitch I of Cleopatra. Buckstone How, for example, or the oaks on the ledges of Trinity Stabs on Wallowbarrow, Dunnerdale. 'Can you use the tree?' a young climbing partner once called up to me. Of course you can: use anything whatsoever on the crag as long as you do your best to co-operate with wild nature and don't leave it irreversibly trashed. 

Davig Craig: First Published in the F&R Journal 1986.
Republished by kind permission of the author. 

Monday 18 May 2020

Pen- Y- Gwryd...The Early Years

The history of the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, founded nearly one hundred and forty years ago is closely interwoven with the development of rock-climbing and mountaineering and with the great figures responsible for those innovations. It may be argued that few individual places in the world can claim a longer or more honourable connection with the sports. In the same manner that the Wastwater Hotel became home for the Lake District climbers, so the Pen-y-Gwryd was to become for the North Wales school. The location of the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel is singular, and interesting enough. Perched high above the Gwynant valley, it stands alone below Cwm-y-ffynnon, in the shadow of both the Glyder and Moelwyn peaks. There is some confusion concerning the correct derivation of the inn's name. One plausible and attractive explanation put forward by Nea Morin in her book, 'A Woman's Reach' proposes that when the Hotel is viewed looking from upstream, or better still, from Moel Siabod, the twists and turns of the Afon Mymbyr resemble the links of a silver chain. 

The area to the fore thus taking on the Welsh " Pen-y-Gwryd", meaning simply, "head of the chain". Long before the formal construction of the Pen-y-Gwryd, the Romans occupied this vantage point. The large four-square earthwork bestriding both roads in front of the existing hotel bears testimony to their one time presence. The remains show it was a temporary fort, similar to those found near to Hadrian's Wall. This one, decidedly high and exposed for Roman tastes, dictated by the harsh surrounding terrain and the severe climatic variations. The interim following the Roman evacuation saw only pedestrian traffic traversing this location.

The divides separating the Snowdon, Glyder, and Moelwyn massifs were long avoided by the route-makers. There was only a drover's track permitting transit between the coastal plains and Anglesey and the English markets to the south. It was trodden by shepherds, livestock, indentured apprentices and the sons of rich landowners who moved with the drover's for adventure and security of travel. The mountains were a veritable haven for brigands, thieves and footpads. With the revival of scientific inquiry and the proclamation of philosophies by people like Jean-Jaques Rousseau pointing out the superior value of things simple, natural and wild, men's eyes were opened to the appreciation of savage landscapes. The number of visitors to the mountains of North Wales increased. 

The first access road to the areas was opened in 1805. The Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel began life soon after the road was completed over the Llanberis Pass in 1830. Its founder and first landlord was John Roberts of Pen-y-Bryn, Llanberis. On offer was a small parlour with half a dozen hair-bottomed chairs and a mahogany table, an upstairs kind of cock-loft which was divided into two compartments, one for the family, the other for the travellers. In 1847 Henry Owen, whom for some reason everyone called "Harry", took over from John Roberts. With his wife Ann he was to run the Hotel for the next forty years and more. Little is known about those first tentative years, most of the details in the visitors' book were destroyed. However the records do show that the Owens were hosts in their first year, to two of the most influential men in the development of mountain exploration in Britain.

The first was Fitt Bowring, a compulsive hill-walker. Regarded by many as an eccentric, he maintained his enthusiasm long enough to introduce Walter Parry Haskett Smith to Lakeland scrambling in the early 1880's. The second was C. A. 0. Baumgartner, one of the pioneer "Pillarites" of the Lake District, and the first man known to have traversed the airy Crib Goch crest of Snowdon. The year 1886 saw the cleric and novelist Charles Kingsley at the Hotel, also playwright Tom Taylor who was later to become editor of Punch, and author Thomas Hughes who was soon to find literary fame with his work 'Tom Brown's Schooldays'. Kingsley had been to the Pen-y-Gwryd before. He was a man of sound constitution, who embraced wholeheartedly the cult of physical fitness. Born in 1819, he is reputed to once have walked from London to Cambridge, a distance of some 52 miles in one day. With Taylor and Hughes, Kingsley enjoyed the fishing in nearby waters. They also clambered around on Snowdon and Glyder Fawr, and found pleasure in their activities in a way particular to successful Victorians. 

In 1887, Kingsley included a colourful account of the Pen-y-Gwryd in his novel Two Years Ago. Oscar Eckenstein, regarded as one of the most formidable characters the early climbing scene produced, came first to the Pen-y-Gwryd in the Spring of 1887. Particularly fascinated by the classic mountain lines of Lliwedd, Eckenstein partnered most of the leading men of the time. A man of superb ingenuity and inventiveness who applied his engineering skills toward the design and manufacture of original climbing hardware. He was perhaps the first great theorist of rock-climbing. Like Dan Tyson's  Wastwater Hotel in the Lake District, the success and reputation of the Pen-y-Gwryd flourished on the strength of the homely and welcome atmosphere created by "Harry" Owen and his family. The popularity of the place rose especially amongst the public school and university elite. Holiday and reading parties were fashionable in those days. Regular visitors to the Hotel included a group of masters from Winchester College. 

The lawyer C. E. Mathews came to the Pen-y-Gwryd in the opening months of 1854. Although a great deal more creative during his forays in the Alps, Mathews was remembered amidst "Gwryd" circles for his amiability. It went on record that during his lively career he climbed Snowdon and Cader Idris more than a hundred times each. The list of distinguished guests staying at the Pen-y-Gwryd grew rapidly. The Pendlebury brothers, Charles Pilkington (a pioneer of guideless climbing in the Alps) and Frederick Morshead, whom Geoffrey Winthrop Young described as, "the finest and fastest Alpinist of the day." H. G. Willink, the artist and Clinton Dent were also of the band. Included in the convivial gatherings came Horace Walker and A. W. Moore, the latter accompanied Mathews on the original ascent of the Brenva Ridge in 1865. Christmas 1860 witnessed Professor Tyndall, Professor Huxley and Mister Busk taking up a stay at the Hotel.

Significant though it was, Tyndall's motivation was overshadowed by the sustained interest of C. E. Mathews in making the Pen-y-Gwryd's name. From 1861 onwards he went there almost every year. Forty years later he was still coming to the rendezvous, but on a more occasional basis. The arrival of the Alpinists, especially their coming outside the normal tourist season, established the Pen-y-Gwryd, and made it both possible and necessary to expand facilities. In 1859 a coffee room was built, and the existing pension was given a new roof. During the 1880's a complete new wing was added. Come 1890, the Owens were prosperous enough to be able to install a hot water facility in each bedroom — considered an advanced feature at the time! 1889 saw the premier visit to the Pen-y-Gwryd of two men who were to play essential roles in shaping the development of rock-climbing in Snowdonia. A. W. Andrews and James Merriman Archer Thomson. The latter had lived in Bangor, only a few miles distant, but previously had paid no attention to the neighbouring mountains. Several years were to pass before he began his pioneering climbing. Sadly, in May 1891, after forty-four years as landlord, "Harry" Owen died. From that point forward the Pen-y-Gwryd embarked upon a period of disturbance and decline. With "Harry" dead, his wife Ann struggled to keep the hostelry a going concern. Regrettably the standards once known were to be a thing of the past.

Deterioration in the house facilities were equalled by the decline in the health of Mrs Owen. In 1896 she died and joined her husband in the churchyard cemetery at Beddgelert. The closing years of the Nineteenth Century brought fresh recruits to the Welsh hills. Just some of the quality names included amongst them were W. R. Reade, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, and Owen Glynne Jones who in turn introduced his very able friends from the Lake District, the Abraham brothers. For the most part, the Abraham brothers were not made to feel welcome at the Pen-y-Gwryd. Resentment from the regulars stemmed from seeing the steady flow of choice first ascents put up by the brothers. The class difference helped to aggravate their case. The situation was further exacerbated by their own character and approach to the sport. Hostility reached a climax when the Abraham's business and commercial sense took hold of things. As impressive photographers, the prospect of a book in preparation met with outright condemnation from the conservative quarter. Even with the Pen-y-Gwryd as home of the Climbers Club (Formed there in 1898), the raging Abraham brothers' controversy, progressed out on to the crags.
Lakeland Artist Alfred Heaton Cooper's painting of Yr Wyddfa from just below the PyG.

In the summer of 1901 the Pen-y-Gwryd went up for sale. It never reached its reserve price at auction and so was withdrawn from the market. What remained of the trade succumbed to the acumen and superior accommodation just a mile up the road at Pen-y-Pass. This establishment in turn took on and embraced the great names of the day. It followed an equally colourful advance. The Pen-y-Gwryd was to stand in awe of personalities and events at Pen-y-Pass for many years. Drained of enthusiastic management and climbing world patronage, only with the passage of time was there to come a change in circumstances. Another chapter in the hotel's life was to be opened with the spread of climbing as an activity for the "working" and artisan classes. An era of new "Hard Men" and "Carpet-baggers" was on its way . . . 

Eammonn Dolan: First published in Clinmber & Rambler-September 


Monday 11 May 2020

Ode to Covid 19

virus daisy (Girona flower festival)

For sure people are in need of a melody. Have you noticed the tunes of nostalgia on the radio? Rousing eighties rock to energise the soul and fortify the spirit with sounds of hope and vitality and thoughts of better days and rosy futures… like Vera Lynn rallying the troops during world war two, ‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where don’t know when but i’m sure we’ll meet again some sunny day…’. We have blindly and greedily reaped the rewards of being shielded from war, hunger and pestilence, while for other nations it is the daily state of play. We are ahead with designer potato peelers, polishing new electric cars and postulating the authenticity of a Banksy, but, as the planet chokes making our bric a brac and goods across the globe, we are way in deficit when it comes to handling pestilence and death.

I listen to a Spanish radio station called Rock FM. It plays non stop English and American rock and has the household dancing like kid demons in between three minute bouts of BBC doom and gloom news updates digested with chocolate biscuits and a soap opera mentality. We sing along, knowing all the words like sacred nonsense consigned to memory, ’Alright now, baby it's alright now…’. But it isn’t is it? It feels like a war out there and fear is your greatest enemy. Stiff upper lip. Peanut butter, flour, nuts and chocolate are ordered online and stashed in the spare room, which also acts as a ‘decompression’ chamber for incoming goods and packaging. Overnight, the house operates with a different protocol, like having a mad aunt locked in the attic. A bucket of bleach is placed next to the pot of nasturtiums at the front door. I make nettle and goosegrass soup. The knives are sharpened with thoughts other than chopping veg. The car is recognised as the mobile carrier of the invisible killer. Overnight we are stormtroopers on a mission to deal with the tiniest, tiniest of movers, that can bring us down to size.

In France, we were ‘locked’ down one week before these measures were slowly implemented in Britain. Curfews and heavy fines were introduced and the armed police guarded the borders into Spain. It became obvious that government guidelines were spurious, information random and contradictory, that there is no safe distance between people and that all surfaces should be dealt with as if hiding ninja assassins. If this pandemic is a dress rehearsal, it is a shambles.

Everything coming into the house is isolated and bleached. Measures seem extreme. Fortunately we live in a remote, liminal landscape among favourable rocks and crannies, its’ radiating ‘rat-runs’ are still embraced within a local, market community. We grow a lot of food and to all intents and purposes life for me hasn’t really changed. I am fortunate, it seems. Within two weeks of the lockdown the smugglers’ paths are once again operating with the contraband from Spain. Life goes on. Shekels change hands and watch your back. It doesn’t take long for the bandits to re-emerge, put on the old gear and grow larger moustaches.

My friend John Appleby living in what is again Blighty, informs me of the ‘lockdown agnostics’, and here in Catalunya, there appear overnight the ‘mask deniers’…still trying to be cool in the pool, untrusting of systems. President Macron calls the virus ‘not a friend of the French culture’, where hugs and kisses sit with the group mentality. Back in North Wales it doesn’t take much for the nationalist bigots to denounce the ‘outsiders’ of their tongue with ‘tourist’s out’ signs.

But why should I feel so guilty at celebrating a virus? As ‘my followers’ know I am very much at ease with climbing walls being empty and all ‘sport’ coming to a virtual standstill. Yippee. The skies and roads are empty. Local communities and markets have moved back into the human psyche and folk ponder what they really, really need. There is silence. And through silence you find things. We are eating less junk. The planet takes a deep breath. Pause, be still, rejoice. How can anyone not feel the favours bestowed by this tricky little fella? Ah, if only eh. Easily said. Having self-isolation enforced upon us brings out some interesting behaviour, and adversity, the worst and best in us and the feeble struggling with emotional management. It seems our biggest problem in dealing with this is our childish need for distractions, ‘perfume and pose’, entertainment, trinkets and illusions. Metaphorically, grown men kicking balls around…I guess, which can be both clever and absurd. This brings me to sport, the ‘notion’ of adventure, and of course religion and a perspective!

For me this is the interesting bit. Mankind has been re-wired to need a release, for something bigger, for some faith, a hero, a jolly, a holiday…a cuppa with a biscuit at least. The gladiators still roam in our psyche. We sanitise cutting the throat of an enemy and it becomes entertainment as we scoff a sausage roll. But the truth of sport and the business of ‘fitness’ is the age-old 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. it encourages narcissism and the selfies are a creed of ghosts which you cannot see yourself because you are kept in the ‘dark’, performing under bright lights, against the clock, measured in heartbeats, calories and millimetres. For this, we need the mirror held up close and not to the indigenous folk saving the rainforest who are now dying of Covid in unknown numbers.

And so to climbing walls, the favourite ‘gob mouthy’ backstop for my gleeful vitriol, to be ridiculed and torn apart by the climbing press. What a great opportunity to challenge the habits of moving robotically on pre-placed resin holds, working through grades, colour-coded, and designed like a Disney fantasy advert. Climbing came from rock, often wet and cold, often loose, with grass, lichen and wriggly stuff, unpredictable and full of doubt. Moving on it is an experience in harmony with the natural world, multifaceted and holistic. It can be a reminder of when mankind conversed with other animals on earth. Gyms are graveyards to any link we may have to the biosphere. Saying that, I recall an ascent of Left Wall on Dinas Cromlech, trying to avoid the blood stains, after someone had popped a finger tip or two. In my mind these red-coded holds contained some terrible disease, like Aids, the avoidance of which made the route two grades harder - the Aids variation.

In my thinking, sport, like religion, is a psychological virus far more insidious than Covid. No wonder we are paying lip-service to ‘nature deficit disorder’. The toxic thinking goes way back. And the more you think about these issues the more you realise how much stuff mankind needs to forget who they are. Football stadiums should be growing food not profits for the few who breed addiction for their own wealth. How many people can be fed from Wembley? But, it seems that the clever, brave hero who side-steps the ball into the net and averts revolution, or at least boredom and depression, is far more important for social cohesion. All sport is corporate and talent is bought. The banks are happy with this social orchestration. The biggest problem now facing humankind is how to combat the virus of these belief systems, not Covid. I would rather be a ‘green dictator’ than an escapee from my innate human values. Fitness and health are one thing, but what a divine time to rethink your training from core strength to core values.

But only three weeks into this world changer, Easyjet are already trying to sell me summer flights to the Canary Islands, for hiking, for sport and for leisure. Photos of cool, slick and trendy folk buying adventure. Shame on them. As if there is going to be business as usual. It is obvious it cannot be and should not be. Aid to airlines puts everybody at risk. Ryanair’s mogal, O’Leary, if he were a noble man would be setting up a fund to combat the damage low cost airlines have caused to the world’s problems, to which Covid could be linked. “Hands up, sorry world, I will make amends”… as if! There can be no truth or integrity where business is involved. Mammon is sticky, pollution its’ seed-bed and lifestyles and laws have to move with the times. Buying ‘stuff’ must be thought about and habits considered. This structural shift is not a simple task for most. I have written all my life about humankind running away from its’ own soul and it seems people will do anything to avoid contact with the essence of their being.

Once we have departed from the soil - once the fertility of the imagination has departed from the fertility of the land, once we have plundered beyond the pale the source of nourishment and well being - once, in short, we have left what is sacred, our home, can there ever be a return? How can the soul of man be sustained without the land?’

If you mess with the landscape, the landscape will mess with you. If you put holes in the earth, needles of junk will make holes in human limbs’. soft explosive hard embrace

Whether we like it or not we are technological beings, from the moment we cracked nuts with a stone, and that revealing of potential, perversely, has become the utmost challenge to our survival. The’Holy Grail’ of our poetic imagination has become the plastic ‘tippy’ mug we drive to work with. We have fallen into property and carelessly and wantonly filled our lives with the earths fluids. Our lives must not ‘go back to normal’. Let us embrace this fresh air and bury our dead with affirmations of biodiversity and renewal, with respect for all creatures of the planet, including Covid.

For God’s sake, I fell four metres backwards over a terrace the other day. Should I take tablets to stay indoors? The outcome was lucky, hilarious and made it possible to write this. Assassins are everywhere, and climbing informs and pushes that language, and there is a time not to survive and to graduate.
awakenings (JR oil on canvas)

When you understand that death is just a moment in life, (and I am not side-lining the human cost and heartbreaking sacrifice of the carers) Covid 19 is a reminder, perhaps at the tip of the iceberg, that we are utterly and solely responsible for challenges to the earth. Whether this clever little bug was manmade in a sterile laboratory in the name of science or profit, or is like a grinning, mutant tadpole that’s jumped from the muddy swamps of prehistory, or from neglect, filth and harm, it is no matter, and time will tell; whatever its’ origins, they belong to the same disrespect and disregard for our home. We are swimming in our own shit, above and below, and our resources are finite. It is arrogant, and too late to presume we are guardians of the planet. I would like to think that the planet is pulling us back from error, and her remit is to take some of us fukkers out.… but there are too many idiots out there with money and power just doing what they want…operating as economic predators.

As regards other world changers like the so called terrorist attack of Twin Towers in New York, it doesn’t take long for our imaginations to kick in and flourish with conspiracy theories and alternative rationales not discussed or aired by the mainstream. That we disbelieve this mainstream reporting, disbelieve the payrolled, media puppets, and commerce-dependant scientists, disbelieve the professional, governmental and institutional agendas stating ‘facts’, is our healthy paranoia and distrust of the system. ‘Democratically’ we vote these clowns in and all these agents have been proven to lie for power and effect.

Administrations were faulted at having no imagination to predict such circumstances. How ironic then that the conspiracy theorists have all the imagination after the ‘crime’. How odd then that sci-fi directors and artists and designers have thought it all before…seen it, made it and sold the popcorn.

And, as a tangent from Rock FM, my conspiracy headlines today for Covid 19…

Extinction Rebellion, as eco warriors, finally did something fierce in defence of the planet? A virus man-made in a big-pharma laboratory where a vaccine has already been made to sell to the world? A ‘boomer-buster’ genocide operation, isolating the snowflake youth, already hallucinating with interfaces and tablet games, to progress into becoming robots and slaves for world corporations? 5G (at least) mobile coverage messing with the biosphere and our heads, in much the same way as bees become diseased and disorientated, our juices mutating at a cellular level? Would you put your head in a microwave? Will we obey the Dark Lord and give him information? A radiation connection? The planet is a sentient being and knows what to do? And bats? Are we hallucinating from wheat, sugar and Mars Bars to make us insulin resistant so some malevolent off-planet ruler can take over our senses? The little blighters are hitching a lift on airborne pollution to a post-code near you? You can believe any one of these and they can all be used by that proverbial 1% of the population that would profit from the harm. Cartoon sketches indeed? All blockbuster hits for your entertainment. Your contagion, clothed in designer gear from China, soaked in sweet perspiration with a hint of Chanel, will be rattling and contaminating the gyms again soon.
World of Tat-Llanberis

Vaccines are not the answer. We need an empathic approach. If we need drugs to stay on this planet, we have no right to be here. Covid 20 is already being incubated in the hearts of those who put themselves before the planet.

There is mystery here too, of course, because the reality is that we don’t have a clue who we are…we only know the shit we produce. May the force be with you. And be kind…and fierce.

John Redhead. Lous Manes, Costoja, Catalunya Nord. April 2020 

All images supplied by JR.


Tuesday 5 May 2020

Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage: Vertebrate reissue reviewed

Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage: Hermann Buhl (translation by Hugh Merrick).
448 pages; Perfect Bound Paperback: £9.99. Black/White photographs.

My thoughts, my dreams, my whole life were nothing but the mountains’ The author.

When this outstanding autobiography was first published in Germany in 1954, by an act of serendipity I was in Innsbruck the following year, the home city of Hermann Buhl and learnt from some of the locals, that he was admired by them in that era, rather like George Best or Zatopek were back in the UK. We were not used to climbers receiving that kind of recognition but once we learnt about his other ascents besides the Nanga Parbat climb we understood what the ‘gush’ was all about, and in 1956 the publication of ‘Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage’ in an English hard case bound edition made his story widely known both in Britain and the USA. A book which became an instant classic despite its grammatical short comings, for its is brim full of cliché and aphorisms, but it is also full of action and incredible achievements, and none jarring romantic observations of the wonders of the mountain environment as its subject, Buhl ascends up through them in the ongoing yearly seasons. So I am writing about a book that has inspired more than one generation of mountaineers by what Reinhold Messner; one of Buhls keenest admirers reports with its ‘total alpinism’.

Buhl was born poor in 1924, and his mother died when he was four and he spent some of his early years in an orphanage. He was a frail child and the older stronger children when he decided he was going to be a climber, declared to him that ‘They’ll never make a climber of me’. But he was not to be denied and fortunately for him two factors helped him in his quest, the situation of Innsbruck with mountains ranges surrounding its place in the Inn Valley, and there was a junior section of the Austrian Alpine Club based there. It was with the members of that organisation, some as young as himself he learned ‘the ropes’ and made friends that remained and joined him in his ever more ambitious ascents in the nearby limestone ranges already replete with challenging ascents pioneered by previous generations. In the Kalkogel, the nearest major climbing area to Innsbruck during his novitiate, the Wetterstein, the Karwendel, and further afield the Wilde Kaiser. During those early years Buhl was limited very much by lack of funds, for his father was a poorly paid working class artisan, and his friends came from equally materially limited backgrounds. But just like the working class climbers in the UK they became adept at ducking and diving, sleeping in hay ricks , unable to afford to stay in the climbing huts when visiting areas like the Wilde Kaiser, but building up their expertise and moving up through the grades of the climbs they tackled. 
Surprising- to me is that he managed to keep climbing through the early years of the war, but he was only 15 years old at that start of that conflict. Over those years leading up to his being called up into the Army in 1943 at 18 years, he had already achieved many major ascents with climbs such as the Schusselkar east wall in the Wetterstein, this a route with the highest grade of that era, a V1+. It was not until British climbers started repeating some of these routes that realisation was made of how imposing they really were. For instance the Lalider North Wall in the Karwendel is 3000 feet in height and was first climbed by Hias Aukenthaler and Hannes Schmidhuber in 1933. Both these two were climbers from Innsbruck, with the first earning his living as a chimney sweep. Ian Howell and myself learnt the hard way that a route like the Schmid/Krebs on that face was not to be dismissed lightly, as we had also found epic the Schmidhuber on the Kleine Ochsenwand in the Kalkogel; both of these grade V1 routes were also pioneered in the 1930’s.

When first into the Army in 1943 it seemed Buhl enjoyed a cushy posting in St Johann at the foot of the Kaisergebirge ,training in the Army Mountain Ambulance School, but being such a dedicated climber, and with a like minded fellow recruit, they bunked off and pioneered the first ascent of the Mauk West Wall. The hardest climb then in the Wilde Kaiser range, for which on returning to barracks he was court-martialled, and the result of which was of him being transferred to an infantry regiment. There follows in the book a blank climbing history of the next three years; with war, bullets flying and a prison-camp behind barbed wire. My memory from Innsbruck friends is that he took part in the Italian campaign, and was captured by the Americans, so it was the summer of 1946 before Buhl was back to climbing. And as he makes plain in his book, this was then in a country where everything was scarce, especially food, and it really sorted out the dedicated climber from the mere dabbler. I can empathise with that, for when I started climbing in the late 1940’s we faced a similar situation, maybe not as bad as the Austrians but we were supposed to be feeling victorious as the winners in the conflict? Readers might be interested that even in 1955 when I was in Austria it was still occupied, and Innsbruck was in the French zone.
Post the war, Buhl worked at odd jobs, but eventually he decided to apply to become a mountain guide. In order to even qualify for taking the tests for this, he had to spend two years as a hut porter, carrying goods from the valley to an alpine hut. Which he undertook; but he was also climbing as much as possible and eventually he qualified as a guide. Soon he was notching up major ascent after major ascent, the North Face of the Cime Ovest, the Royal Wall of the Civetta (the Solleder/Lettenbauer) , Furchetta North Wall, Marmolada South West (in winter) etc for he had managed, by initially crossing the border illegally and then later when normal relations were resumed and he had gained a passport, legally travelling to climb in the Dolomites.

In 1948 the Austrian Alpine Club received an invitation for four climbers to visit the Ecole National e in Chamonix. Hias Rebitsch, Luis Vigl , Erwin Schneider and Hermann were chosen for this. The weather was bad that year in the Mont Blanc range, but Rebitsch, Vigl and Buhl managed the North Face of the Grand Charmoz, with Heckmair’s Direct finish, and Buhl and Vigl ascended the North Face of the Triolet. After which no more climbing could be achieved for the weather was truly atrocious.

So Buhl’s life was set, climbing and guiding, and his ascents became ever more impressive, he made some outstanding winter ascents, and even more impressive solo, often achieved in inclement weather or at night. The outing for which he was most known before his Nanga Parbat climb, was his solo of the North East Face of the Piz Badile. This began with him catching a train from Innsbruck to Landeck; then he cycled the 100+ miles to Promontogmo via the Maloja Pass, and reached the Sciora hut under the Badile that evening. Next morning he started climbing at 6.00am and he gained the summit of the climb at 10.30am. Four and a half hours for a route on which previous parties had needed to bivouac, which stunned a group of well known Italian climbers who met him on the summit, but he was not finished for he then traversed this and descended the North Ridge of the Mountain, a creditable route in ascent. He then descended to Promontogmo, mounted his bike and cycled back to Innsbruck, but in fact he didn’t, for he nearly drowned in the River Inn. Arriving in Landeck he fell to sleep on his bike and ended in that fast flowing river. Fortunately he could swim and the cold douche woke him as he was about to be swept downstream. He then caught the train from Landeck back to Innsbruck. If you have climbed the Badile, driven the Maloja Pass with a 3000 ft climb back up from Promontogno to its summit, you will I am sure like me feel that this outing was something else? Actually carried out because of a lack of funds to travel otherwise, but sadly resulting in his bike being damaged beyond repair. 
As possibilities to travel improved and Buhl was able to do so, he notched up an impressive list of ascents; the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, the North Face of the Eiger, this latter ending in a fight for life, whilst caught in a blizzard, and with him in the lead of a rope joined together of nine climbers who had met on the climb by chance. By which time he had married, Eugenie and despite his dangerous impecunious life style they were happy, for she was also a skier and climber. Eventually they had two daughters and though never well heeled somehow they managed mainly by Hermann guiding; among the mountains of the Otztal Alps. He also was in demand for film work although on one assignment he escaped serious injury by a narrow margin, when the film crew he was with were not paying attention to his rope and he fell dozens of feet down a crevasse. It taught him to make sure post that experience that the film crews he worked with had sound belaying methods. I think from action packed to action packed climb, one of the observations I would make is he was also fortunate in the support of his rope mates; Sepp Jochler, Manfred Bachman, Luis Vigl and many others but most of all Kuno Rainer. With whom he shared many of his most outstanding ascents; the Grandes Jorasses North Wall, a new route on the Laliderer North Face, a first traverse of the whole of the Chamonix Aiguilles and much more. He seemed to complement Buhl; quiet, careful and sound of judgement, and someone who had been badly affected by his war experiences, being invalided out of the Army, due to suffering a serious stomach wound.

No mountain has more history than Nanga Parbat in the German speaking world. Although the first attempt to explore the mountains approaches was by a party led by Alfred Mummery in 1895; throughout the 1930’attempt followed attempt, and 31 climbers died during these, and it became for the Germans ‘unser berg!’ Yet Buhl’s book only takes up the last two Chapters to write about his successful climb, alone for the last 4000feet. If you read the history of the previous attempts unless you go to the mountain, and stand at the Advance Base, above the sad memorial to the deceased climbers and study the Rakhiot Face of the mountain it is hard to get a real handle on why such as Willo Welzenbach, one of the finest mountaineers of his generation could perish in such an environment. I think it has become clear in the years since Buhl’s amazing climb, why the Rakhiot route is such a challenge, because so much of the ascent is at high altitude. It is three times the length of the now ‘popular’ way of ascending the mountain, via the Kinshofer route on the Diamir face. Which makes Buhl’s ascent all the more impressive. For Nanga Parbat, 26,620ft is unlike most of the other 8000metre peaks, for it stands out alone on the rim of the Karakoram range, and the Rakhiot route faces west, open to the weather roiling up from the Indus Valley below. The other faces of the mountain are more sheltered; the Diamir and the Rupal which at 17,000ft is the largest mountain face in the world.

If you do read the history of those five German expeditions in the decade of the 1930’s, they belie the belief that the members were other than keen mountaineers driven by the mountains challenge, unfortunately some commentators believe they were politically motivated and government financed . In fact their organisers had real problems raising the necessary finance, and members often had to part underwrite the expeditions themselves. We have been in the UK so fortunate to be able to apply for expedition funding and support from the Mount Everest Foundation, but nothing like that existed in Germany in 1953 and so when an unknown figure Dr Karl Herrligkoffer appeared on the climbing scene in that country, and who was said to be the step brother of Willy Merkl who had twice gone out to Nanga Parbat, but not returned, announced he would organise a memorial expedition to the mountain, the German climbing world became infused with interest. Although Herrligkoffer had no mountaineering background, he seemed to be a master at promoting his cause in the media. Several of those who were invited to join his expedition refused; Heckmair, Rebitsch, Harrer, Schneider but Peter Aschenbrenner did agree and he was appointed to be the climbing leader on the mountain. One thing that Herrligkoffer insisted on was that all the participants had to sign a legally binding contract, which Buhl did without much thought when he was invited to take part in the expedition, something that in 1953 was not normal practice on climbing expeditions?

From the first on the mountain the climb did not precede well, and though in other areas of life and sport, German organisation is noted for its efficiency, it seems that the 1953 Nanga Parbat expedition did not meet that criteria. A group of Sherpa’s who should have participated in the climb, were not met and after much waiting for instructions travelled home again. Local porters were recruited, but some had never been high on a mountain like Nanga Parbat. The story unfolds in Buhl’s book below 26,000 feet, then above that height. Badly supported the astonishing facts are that, singularly ill-provided with food and drink, he took off on his own after all the other participants had more or less given up on reaching the mountains summit. He climbed the final 4,000ft of a Himalayan giant which had previously claimed thirty-one lives, undertaking some technically difficult climbing over completely unknown ground at an altitude normally precluding such physical effort, without the aid of oxygen. He reached the mountains summit late in the day, after seventeen hours of effort and was forced to bivouac on the descent. Returning to CampV at 22,640 after forty-one hours out in the open, he was met by Hans Ertl the camera man and Walter Frauenberger the old campaigner who had only agreed to take part if Buhl was in the team. He had done his best to organise and help with persuading the Hunza porters to carry as high on the mountain as Camp V, and was dubbed by them as ‘the kind sahib’. For the rest of this strangely administered expedition it is a sorry tale, for by the time Buhl reached Base Camp on his frost bitten feet, the climbing leaders had already left for home with most of the supplies. For a celebration dinner all that was left to eat was some noodles.

With the passage of time Buhl’s completion of the Rakhiot route on Nanga Parbat sensational when it was done, is now confirmed as one of the greatest mountaineering -feats. This expedition was the first to be headed up by Karl Herligkoffer, and in the years that followed his name became synonymous with trips that ended in some acrimony and legal argument. Buhl continued to climb and despite his frost bite injuries in 1956 he solo climbed the East Face of the Moine (Contamine route) and the Aukenthaler route on the Lalider wall. The following year he made the first ascent of Broad Peak, with a small four man party, becoming the first climber to make the first ascent of two 8000metre peaks. Soon after this momentous event Buhl died whilst attempting to make an ascent of Chogolisa. In a sudden squall a cornice collapsed and he fell and was never seen again.

His memorial, are his outstanding climbs and the memories recorded by his companions who shared his climbing life. One I wish to record is when in 1964 I met in Kathmandu’s Royal Hotel bar Erwin Schneider, and I ventured to ask him ‘What was Buhl really like’. He smiled, thought a moment and replied, ‘Beside his outstanding climbs he was a fine singer and guitar player, so he was good company!’ For me a wonderful portrait and this is confirmed in his book ‘Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage’. If you have not read this I envy you the experience, but if you did read it when it was first published in translation in 1956, I recommend you re-read it! Hugh Merrick the translator (he also translated The White Spider) I met on occasion, besides the fact that he had never then heard of the word ‘etrier’ and the march of progress in climbing was passing him by, nevertheless his translations were outstanding. I finish with thanks to Vertebrate for re-publishing this book, which despite the passing of time is still inspirational. 

Dennis Gray: 2020