Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Seven Climbs....Reviewed

Seven Climbs by Charles Sherwood. With 192 pages, including 2x16 pages of colour plates plus black/white photographs. A Perfect bound paper-back, £14.95.

The whole thing is little more than a delightful ruse for having a very good time’ The Author.

The quote above is I found on reading this book, the real raison d’etre of the quest it follows, an attempt to find the best climb on each Continent, eschewing the traditional seven summits challenge which is to simply reach the highest point on every one of them. This round was first completed by the American mountaineers, Dick Bass and Frank Wells in April 1985. But ever since, climbers being climbers there is some dispute about which are actually the ‘real?’ seven highest peaks, particularly in Australasia/Oceania. Books have been written about this quest, starting with its originators, and one by Reinhold Messner, and there is a comprehensive web site with companies queuing up to help you make your travel and climbing/guiding arrangements to carry this out, but you might need access to big bucks to take this on !

The author is having nothing to do with that list which includes of course Mount Everest and tramps up such as Kilimanjaro and Elbrus and the very difficult to reach, Mount Vinson(16, 050ft) in Antarctica. No; Charles Sherwood decided to put his own stamp on summit collecting, beginning with the North Face of the Eiger by the 1938 route. It was on that ascent he decided to undertake his particular seven summits challenge, which he somehow achieved in a five star way, and in keeping with having a good time throughout.

The author began to climb as a student at Cambridge, including the traditional night ascents of its buildings. He has subsequently climbed widely in the UK, the Alps and Himalaya, ski-toured avidly and participated in a range of other outdoor adventure sports, including paragliding, diving (he is a qualified PADI dive master) and cave diving which in view of his responsibilities, with a wife, three children and as a senior executive in a City finance house he has now retired from. Somehow he has combined a thirty year career in the risk capital industry, becoming over qualified with Master’s degrees from Cambridge, Harvard and the LSE with taking part in some high risk activities. Later in this review I will try to return to that subject.
His first ‘fine’ climb was as previously noted the 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger. This took two attempts to be successful for him, and ten such for his guide Mark Seaton, who has lived and worked out of Chamonix for over two decades, and who is also a Children’s author, writing as ‘Mark the Guide’.

Traverse of the Gods
Their first attempt ended somewhat embarrassingly when Mark, desperate for a pee relieved himself but in oncoming bad weather and caught in a spindrift avalanche did not replace his privates and suffered frost nip in this most sensitive region. It was an education to me that Charles and his guide could keep in contact with each other by way of a two way radio, and how easy it was to summon a helicopter rescue, simply with a mobile call. It was however with typical British reserve that once deposited safely in Alpiglen, and confronted with a charming young Swiss female paramedic, Mark opted to be flown directly on to hospital in Interlaken rather than an on the spot examination of his frost bitten parts. A year later they were back (September 2007) and on this occasion with four days of struggle, and hard but stable conditions they completed the route. But I guess few who have done this spent a night in a bivouac high on the face, discussing Sartre and existentialism, moving onto Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. To be fair to the author he does put into context the history of the climb, and we ascend with them up the Difficult Crack, across the Hinsterstoisser traverse, up the first and second ice fields and on upwards to success. 
His second climb, the south-west ridge of Ama Dablam (6856 metres) reads as a client on a well organised commercial ascent, embracing all the cultural wonder of Nepal; Sherpas, Tibetan Buddhism, Om Mani Padme Hum etc. In the 1990’s I led three commercial trips in the Karakoram Himalaya, and I had previously climbed and trekked in Nepal and India, but never experienced on these outings such luxuries as warm showers at Base Camp, wifi and mobile connections. Ama Dablam is a beautiful mountain but remains for me the resting place of two climbers that Joe Smith and I met and climbed with in Britain, the weekend before they set out for that then unclimbed peak in 1959, George Fraser and Mike Harris who disappeared high on that peak.
Number three of his climbs, The Nose of El Capitan is so well known, with the Stoveleg Crack, The King Swing, The Great Roof etc so written about that maybe it is best for me to remember some of the characters that are a part of its story as does Sherwood. 

Warren Harding who pioneered the first ascent I did know and even climbed with on Yorkshire Gritstone, Royal Robbins likewise, and its first British ascent was by Mick Burke and Rob Wood, the latter from Leeds and another old rope mate. In ‘Seven Climbs’ the leader on the route is Andy Kirkpatrick who perhaps we might refer to as ‘Mr El Cap’ for he has made so many ascents of that Big Wall he might be worthy of such a pseudonym? Surprisingly though this climb was his first of The Nose. Andy is from Hull and there must be something in the water there for producing iconoclasts? Joe Tasker was also born there and John Redhead, whilst the poet Philip Larkin might not have been born there but his creative life was mostly spent there, and certainly he does seem to have caught the local’s lingua franca with ‘They fuck you up your mum and dad’.

Leaning Tower
Sherwood’s fourth climb is set in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, via the south-west face of Alpamayo, once voted in a 1966 poll of readers of the German climber’s magazine Alpinismus , ‘The Most Beautiful Mountain in the World’. He describes the mountains history and of how it was first climbed in 1957 from the south by a German party led by Gunter Hauser, who wrote a fine book ‘White Mountain Tawny Plain’ about this ascent. And also attempts to climb the mountain from the north and how a British party finally succeeded in 1966; a party of which I was the leader. Our film of this climb won at Trento in 1967. But back to the south-west face, this had seemed to us to be impregnable in 1966 but an Italian team proved us wrong in 1975 and now it is a classic ascent, on the itineraries of many of the commercial operators. And the one the author joined, led by qualified American guides, seems to have been well led, but something that is another surprise for me is the range of participants now taking part in such enterprises, for on Sherwood’s trip the youngest was 16 years old, whilst he was the senior at 54.

Besides his group there were others on roughly the same route from similar commercial organisations. It seems the hills are alive with well heeled clients, who wish for low level risk, home comforts and to be fair, obviously love the experience. The whole scene as described by the author is so changed from 1966 and it is as Lao Tzu advised ‘the only certain thing in life is change’.
The author’s fifth climb is the traverse of Nelion (5,188m) and Batian (5,199m) Mount Kenya, again in the company of Mark Seaton as his guide. The author is intrigued by its unique flora, and as someone who once lived in that country, and a former member of its mountain club, so many of the names now associated with that mountain highlighted by Sherwood; Ian Howell, Rusty Baillie, and Phil Snyder who first ascended the Diamond Couloir (alas no more with global warming) were once my rope mates. We would have been amazed by someone turning up on the mountain, setting up a Base Camp, with a cook and bearers. We used to drive up to Naro Moru after finishing work on a Friday night, sleep there and go up through the Forest at first light. I was on the mountain once with my wife, and met two Germans at the end of the day who insisted on going down through the forest that evening. Dangerous in the dark to do that and they were trampled to death by elephants; if you get in between them and their young they can be terminal. To return to the author and his guide traversing Mount Kenya, this is a tremendous outing which to be honest reading Sherwood’s account was carried out in exemplary fashion over a long day. 

Half Dome
His sixth climb is Aoraki/ Mount Cook (3,754m), set in the Southern Island of New Zealand. Initially he was not certain whether to climb Titea/Mount Aspiring or the former for it boasts via its south west ridge a classic ice climb. So he decided to ascend them both, and Aoraki /Mount Cook by its equally classic Linda Glacier route. For the first he teamed up with a Canadian guide Erich Ostopkevich, from the Bugaboos and the latter local guide Dean Staples, a veteran of more than twenty expeditions to peaks over 6,000 metres and including nine ascents of Mount Everest. The author explains the naming that is now prevalent in the South Island mountains- in that from 1998 Maori names must be placed alongside Europeanised one’s. The Linda Glacier route is the original route up Aoraki achieved in 1894, and two important factors about the ascents made by Sherwood are the geographic situation of the Southern Alps, mean they are exposed to highly variable weather conditions, and that the approaches to such routes are now made by helicopter lifts.

One may ponder with global warming what will be the attitude to such in the days ahead. The reader may also wonder if they have never climbed with guides, how easy it is to contact such and how to recognise their status; most now hold the carnet, issued by the UIAGM (the international body of mountain guides), but in the UK there is beside the guides, holders of the MIC qualification, Mountaineering Instructor. Most professionals have their own web sites.
The author’s final pick was to travel to Antarctica to take part in a sea voyage and coast-to-coast traverse of the Salveson Range in South Georgia. This on a trip organised by Skip Novack and Stephen Venables in 2018, and one that must be put into the historical context of travelling so far to the south, and the famed names of previous explorers; Cook, Weddell, Ross, Admundsen, Scott, and Shackleton etc. This seventh choice was more about adventuring than peak bagging and although I have never been to South Georgia, I heard from friends such as Tom Price, and George Spenceley who had what an amazing island it is.

Its wildlife, its mountains, and its demanding weather conditions. On Sherwood’s journey, a couple of easy mountains were climbed, but it was the twelve day journey across the island, which made it so memorable as to be his final choice; number seven of the world’s finest climbs.Throughout the book’s emphasis it is always on having a good time, but however one approaches rock climbs and mountains there is always the risk to be calculated. In 1979 I was invited by UMIST, Manchester University to give a public lecture on ‘Risk Taking’, a subject that academics in the Psychological disciplines are forever investigating? The driving of cars and accidents, investing money, Space Exploration etc. 

It seems to me reading Sherwood’s book that those who take part in commercial, organised climbs and journeys do not wish to escalate the risk beyond a level where they will be in any real danger of being injured or dying? In order to keep risk below this level they are prepared to engage expertise, which can now shepherd them up climbs that were once ‘cutting edge’. When we climbed Alpamayo in 1966 the idea that some years down the road, many clients would be taken up its south west face each year, we would not have believed it. But as with those still out in front, pioneering the hardest new routes, with ever improving new equipment, perhaps the level of risk taking will always stays the same?
Seven Climbs is well ordered; it is illustrated by some outstanding colour, and black white pictures plus some topos to orientate the reader. It is a fun read, but maybe it will start a new craze for others to seek out their seven favourite routes, one on each continent? If mountaineers can ever travel freely again, hemmed in by the coronavirus and from here onwards the need to meet and overcome the challenges posted by global warming.

Andy Descending From Leaning Tower
The book is once again of the standard we have come to expect from its publishers, Vertebrate and it should be noted that the author’s gross proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Himalayan Trust UK, supporting the mountain people of Nepal. So if you have ever climbed and trekked in Nepal, or intend to do so in the future dig deep, lash out and purchase this book to aid the deserving poor in the mountains of that country. 

Dennis Gray: 2020.
Images supplied by Vertebrate