Wednesday 29 December 2021

The Waiting Game


 Idle thoughts from a tent in the Khumbu

Some years ago I was sitting in my tent high in the Khumbu Valley, snowflakes swirling through the bitterly cold air then noisily slithering down the flysheet; flimsy protection against the bitter elements. As we were unable to move that day I cast a few thoughts on this all too common occurrence for mountaineers. We partake in a sport which, by necessity, is exposed to the vagaries and often unpredictable elements which affect the weather wherever we happen to be. The mountains of the UK are of course exposed to the prevailing and often moist south westerly winds which generally brings a changeable weather pattern. Elsewhere in the world from the Alps to the greater ranges the general consensus is the bigger or more remote the hill – the more extremes of wind and cold should be expected.

The great debate, as a mountaineer, is to wait, or to go. A very difficult decision and, in the circumstances I found myself at the time, even more so. As leader on a Himalayan trip I had to make decisions not only for myself, but also for all the clients and the Sherpa staff. The safety of all was my responsibility

The decision has to be right, we live by the decisions we make - and make a decision to live by. To err on the side of caution is obviously correct but too much caution and we will not achieve. We must have adventure, and therefore risk, to be successful in the mountains.

Making an informed decision or judgement can become easier as you gain experience, however decisions will still be difficult as you become more aware of all the factors for consideration. If your decision to wait is because of danger to life and limb, then waiting must be the answer. However, if the adverse conditions are merely going to make things difficult, then the answer is a little less clear.

Consider now the words ‘awareness’, ‘judgement’ and ‘decision’. We supposedly gain more awareness as we grow older (or wiser)? Shouldn't this make it easier to make a judgement? The pressures on the professional are much greater because we are supposed to get things right! We make judgements for others often with no one to assist in the thought process. Where are the dangers? What is the avalanche potential? How bad will the weather be higher up? These are all questions that must be answered. In this I speak of the familiar problems facing professional mountaineers, instructors and guides, but we are a very small minority. There are many climbers out there who regularly climb in the Alps, Himalayas or even Scottish winter conditions. All, at some time or other subjected to the “Waiting Game”. How do you make your decisions? Experience, weather, avalanche potential, snow conditions or all that and perhaps a little “gut feeling”. 

Experience is obviously important, but how do you get that experience in the first place? Through the school of hard knocks and learning from mistakes in formative years? Perhaps from an older, more experienced friend or on a course at an Outdoor Centre. Either of these methods of learning is valid, but it’s like learning to drive, you only start to build up experience and judgement when you’re on your own in the car with nobody there to help in case you make a mistake. There are numerous Scottish Winter and Alpine Courses to go on (if you can afford them) and also some excellent training Courses Jonathan Conville Trust. There comes a time however, when you're faced with a decision regarding a particular slope, anchor, or indeed the descent route in poor visibility. What happens then when there’s nobody to help in that potentially dangerous situation?

I well remember my first two routes on Ben Nevis in winter, one resulted in an eighty foot slide base over apex (that’s arse over tit in non-metric language), followed by an incorrectly executed, but nevertheless effective self-arrest! No one had shown me how to do it. I just did it! My second route resulted in a lucky descent down into Glen Nevis. Lucky because many have come down that way and not survived. Those two dangerous errors happened because at the time I was not aware. I was naive and did not understand big mountains but I soon learnt! My first few escapades in the Alps would make your hair stand on end (it did mine, literally)!

The basic skills learned from experienced friends or instructors are invaluable, then we must go and arm yourselves with the all-important experience. That way you begin to gain knowledge which helps you form a judgement and get that “gut feeling” that is so important. In that way we can transfer our skills and knowledge to bigger hills, and perhaps gain a little bit of knowledge and know whether to play the “Waiting Game” or not. You may not always get it right, I don’t now, after 50+ years, but at least I’m still trying. In many cases like that day sitting in a tent high in the Khumbu trying to salvage something before we were due back at Lukla. There were pressures that day from myself as well from the group, but then again they may have been imagined.

There are many other waiting games, that elusive Alpine or the Scottish Winter route which is not often in condition, for instance. Alpine routes especially, with the recent series of hot dry summers, many of the “Classic” mixed routes are now safer in winter. There will be more difficulties, short days, long, hopefully snowy approaches and an ability to ski, combined with a little lateral thinking to avoid the avalanche prone slopes. There are however several distinct advantages. Modern layer system winter clothing is far more effective at keeping you warm and the technical advances in crampons, axes and protection make a tremendous difference on those long adventurous run-outs. Settled weather and a good snow cover will make the route safer from stone fall but more prone to avalanche, but at least the route will be there, which is more than can be said for some of the Alpine North Faces of recent summers.

We should call this the “Tempting game” where you may be tempted to try a route when it's not in perfect “nick”, you have travelled a long way, not much holiday, cost you money to get there, your mates done it, etc.

The difficulty arises when you have to make decisions and conditions are not quite right. There may be doubts in your mind about the weather or fitness, or lack of confidence in your abilities. Conflicting thoughts which persuade you to have a go interspersed with nagging doubts and fears, but it's still your judgement. We all take a risk, that is what mountaineering is about, but we must make these acceptable with the odds in our favour. When everything has been considered, it’s still that “gut feeling” which is often relied on. Sometimes in your head and your heart you know you’ve overdone things, you know you shouldn’t be on a certain route or in a certain place, but (sometimes) you are lucky and you get away with it, vowing never to return. We’ve all done that if we are honest and admit it!

Taking falls on modern rock and mixed winter routes can be a non-serious affair, but what of traditional routes with minimal gear and much more to hit on the way down? An ascent of The Orion Face, Zero or Walker Spur calls for a much larger safety margin than some of the technically much harder routes. Perhaps then we must play the “Waiting Game” much better on these routes and not be tempted when conditions are not “right”. There is then, little difference between the professional and amateur mountaineer, we all play the ‘Waiting Game’ Tempting Game’ and hopefully the ‘Thinking Game, however as a professional you are expected to get things right much more so. 

These original thoughts were my way of filling time and waiting for the next event of the day, yes, you got it right - a brew!

Malcolm Creasey ©

All images supplied by the author.

Saturday 11 December 2021



John Redhead:'There but for the grace of God go I'.

Forty two years down the line the ‘art of knee maintenance’ fell upon me. From a youth playing football, and at home on the couch haphazardly clicking the joint to some geometric pattern and ‘strange lights’ in my head, or to the beat of the Rolling Stones track ‘satisfaction’ on the radio, whilst my Mother danced with a mop, plus the early forays of cragging in Yorkshire, the tearing damage in the ball-joint reached critical. Whilst on the famous mantleshelf move on Carnage at Malham Cove, without the rock n roll backing, or weird mop work, the left leg took my weight from an acute angle, and a final ominous click locked the leg into a v-shape. It said, ‘No no no’. From there, my one-legged finish to a break and right into a groove saw my injured leg arcing behind me, wobbling like a puppet’s appendage, in an effort to unlock the badly serrated cartilage.

The walk into the limestone cove is, for me, like the entrance to an atrium of vertical delight. Ceremonial stage lights are switched on and ethereal props arranged like a visceral palette, provoking a feeling of expected good news and of anticipated wonder as if awaiting a performance from the spirits revealing a testimony of wisdom.

Formed from glacial meltwater, the volume cascading over the limestone pavement must have been awesome. Its wings always provided a movement of joy in my soul in my early days of rock climbing. Its central, overhanging body and capping roof system captured the imagination of possibility as if thinking of a moon landing or core strength unknown. Always a glance and a dream, of possibilities, looking for a tenuous way, at this time, a revolutionary stage-set, unbelievable from the wings…and, strangely, almost unnecessary as if wishing that dreams are dreams and needed as such and kept safe in that internal world, where to know your limits is a curse of adventure and a stopper of those ‘strange lights’. As unbelievable as thinking in terms of climbing as a sport, and yet as time gathered, Malham became host to Britain’s first 9b sports route, Rainman.

The fearful air from the cliff’s cutting-edge to Malham Beck, a glory for water fed up with levels, heavy with the rock below, had not yet witnessed John Syrett’s desperate stirring, beyond reach, beyond limits, a whiskey fuelled fall or plunge, either or…test pieces indeed.

So true that the awesome wonder of the Cove and its curved, citadel, ice-age magnificence should also be the sacred ground, attached to that troubled void, that vulnerable balancing of dreams, hopes and desires, where that personal inner logic of despair weighs in heavy to become manifest to the endgame as the fun dries out.

Unlike John’s final act and dark theatre exit, this particular walk out of the Cove, however, became a series of painful hops to the car and the pondering of a solution. Pete Livesey’s steamy-windowed chat room and cafe with egg beans and chips was not yet on offer. Indeed, truthfully, painfully, can the climbing culture offer anything other than a leaning towards the pushing of luck, even suicidal tendencies…almost poetically accepted, acknowledged as brave sacrifice…a smarting of misanthropic joking with death? When the release becomes the burden, perhaps no horrors can be side-stepped…?

I never met John, but must have surely met his energy bouncing about on the Leeds wall. He seemed obsessive, competitive and nostalgic, a party animal, and judging by his gritstone essay in Extreme Rock, caught in a halcyon day. This is no criticism however, as I write this from the comfort of remembering the internal landscape of my own youth, my own memorable ascents, ground up, of Western Front, Wall of Horrors and Big Greenie at Almscliff, it is easy to be ‘unclipped’ and talk of ‘halcyon days’. My ground fall from over the lip of John’s ‘Big Greenie’, almost remembered with glee and pride. My subsequent solos of Wall of Horrors can only be compared to the obsessive Paul Williams, who met his demise on Brown’s Eliminate, a route he had soloed many times. So, halcyon? That the climber loves the pleasure of the body moving freely and fluidly through a series of moves, and is elated at the successful conclusion…of course this is wonderful, and style its icing…but how sad to rely on excessive hubris for one’s well-being. If only it were that simple.

A loving testimony of John by his friend Steve Dean appeared in Climber and perceptively concluded…

‘…the overall experience of climbing both physical and mental, is so powerful and meaningful for some people when they are young, that it can seriously disrupt the remainder of their lives…’ 

John Syrett: Photo - Gordon Stainforth

The language of ascent is very much concerned with the minutiae, in much the same way that poetry explores the detail of subject through the intense looking through a lens, pairing down the words for essence and effect. It is the nubbins and textures under the nose that moves the climber upwards, filtering the moves and joining the dots to the rhyme. But not just. I guess both forays are a primitive search for that which threatens, for meaning, for some enlightenment through the dark violence circulating in our joints…? So, like a dark art, when ‘burden’ transpires and consumes the text, how to step back from the edge, when the edge led us in from the beginning? Upon venturing here, do not be surprised at what sits on your shoulders.

My nearest stirring, beyond reach, was to push my luck by soloing the fourteen flights of the Hull Royal Infirmary, after my emotional and complicated first affair of coming of age. I was literally ‘beyond reach’ from the third floor of the building as the extending ladders from the fire brigade failed to reach that high. But I was never alone clinging to the concrete pillars, as floors of infirm folk from inside flocked to the windows and stared in disbelief. I had left a little note in my blue Renault 4 in the car park below explaining why my sudden ascent was such an urgent affair…death by battle. But I soon forgot this ‘urgent affair’ as a perverse optimism took over the controls of my life. The concentration needed became pleasurable and the movement easier and more stylish than expected and a banquet of self-preservation took over. Not suffering but observing. I had curiously become detached. A narcissistic, petulant and foolish enterprise maybe, as I stared at my fourteen reflections superimposed by the shocked faces of hospitalised inmates. Again, upon venturing, do not be surprised at what sits on your shoulders.

Foolish man, what do you bemoan, and what do you fear? Wherever you look there is an end of evils. You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty…do you enquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein of your body’ Seneca - teacher of Nero.

So, back to the limbs. The surgeon I chose liked my work as an artist and offered to do the deed for a painting. He had seen my work at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, and chose an exchange…a bonny number of a landscape, the view looking out from a rabbit hole, a perceived rabbit’s eye view. I came to see him hobbling into his surgery with the aid of an Interalp ice axe. He noted with nonchalance the little dents on his brown lino that led to his desk, like the dotted line of a route in a guidebook. Like Carnage was to climbing, this was my first historical landmark into injury. I just hoped that this pre-keyhole operation was not inspired by such a gnored-out, ivy-entwined, ragged view from inside the rabbit hole. I hoped his attention to detail and technique surpassed the trade off. Deal done, he gave me the sad, ragged, pale-cream cartilage in a plastic specimen bottle, like the canopic jar preserving the viscera for the afterlife…

Three, physically static months went by, painfully changing dressings and frantically facing the canvas with my leg propped up on a chair. Works poured out of the studio and my quads became stronger, and my leg bent a little more each day, inspired by the routes in mind. A trip was planned by the East Yorkshire Mountaineering Club to Agden Rocher in the Peak. Too keen for sure saw me cranking up a VS solo. I hadn’t realised how unfit I was as I indulged my appetite for rock. I became seriously pumped two thirds up with no strength to reverse. I had entered the arena too soon. Pain erupts from the end of my fingers and spreads into my core where mockery takes on a lead weight. My arms cannot hold on and I prepare to take an horrendous ground fall onto rocks. I shouted to the blurred figure of Pete above who was belaying his second. A loose slack of un-coiling rope flew over the edge as I departed from the rock. It somehow draped around an arm and leg unknown to me and dragged me sideways into a tree fifteen metres to the side of the climb. I fell chaotically through the tree and collected myself. It was a wonder. But my knee was a mess. It had opened up on the angle of impact and the internal stitches were all torn. This was carnage of a knee and not unlike the view out of the rabbit hole I had swapped, and envisaged for the operation.

Accidents and failures are remembered much more than a quick smooth ascent. Proven beyond doubt by a vast portfolio of adventure stories that have taken on epic movie status and captured imaginations at the box office. But there was more to this episode than met the eye. I mentioned to Chris who had been watching, “Did you feel that?


The wind.”

No, but you fell diagonally across the wall.”

It seemed to me, in my extremis, that this wind had blown me into the tree. It felt like I had been pushed by an invisible playmate. I took a deep sigh. And there I left it. Left my invisible playmate, licked my wounds, and retreated into my studio in Hessle, put my leg up on a chair, and painted. And I forgot the script as the canvas remembered something else.

So, for my fancy, my brief example of a ‘halcyon day’ involving no beer on the crag, this extremis was but a few seconds of my life, but as combustable as shaking hands with a suicide bomber. Like one of those occasions where one stumbles out and wakes up way beyond one’s limits, at the end of an era almost, into a mythic landscape. Limp-tangled into a random rope, a hopeless plummet, a significant breath of wind into the folding arms of the tree-scape. Now, there’s a sport!

I realise that it is not the act that is significant, but a means of becoming awake to a wider field of consciousness. Such an act can only be thought of as food for this purpose. Resigning to a fall was not a passive resignation - I had not put my head in the oven encouraged by the rancid fat of dead animals and turned on the butane to escape confusion and trivialities. No, the arena was entered with the innate faculties of an artist overriding the bad judgement of a climber. Nothing more and this is how I climbed. I call it otherworldly. It seemed that I merely became neutral and unconditioned, in the hands of whatever had the time or inclination for play. I call it evolving. I like that. My studio likes that. The heart that is receptive to cosmic knowledge and not the chimeras of the intellect, also like that. Whatever it is…it doesn’t serve or call the politicians, bureaucrats or corporates or those who do not serve the planet well. As far as any sport goes or any new Rainman goes, they’re bank-rolled ventures. The more they shit gold the more the planet loses.

it…calls for human beings who feel in their souls in fullest measure everything that can activate spiritual awareness…” Rudolf Steiner

Malham Cove, Yorkshire.

Well, there we have it, thanks Rudolf. But when it comes to this intimacy, I struggle with the narrative. And this is the most intimate struggle of humanity pressing heavily on world affairs. Direct mystical experience is not conspiracy theory, it is owned by the soul with evidence and identification at the deepest sense of being…but beware of anyone who has disciples. Call me a cynic, Rudy, but one hundred years on, the spiritual debate fluffs on and on with the ‘oracle seeking beings’, the mysteries for the brave, the cool thinking dudes meditating from Sprinter vans. This activation seems just another process, a pin code of acceptance, a means of commodification, to address nature as a named, fashionable miracle, a multi-million dollar miracle, style zone…washing its slaves passionately more than ever with the balms of self. Badges and scarfs all round. I maybe wrong but this awareness is lost more than ever in the bantering and bargaining with increased malevolence from the harmers and impotent yoga-mat vanity. To live or to die, no matter, murder it is.

So the artist once again gets to play in the mortuary of souls and more and more realises that the best thing for spiritual awareness and the planet is the spilling of blood on earth.

Thanks John and bless.

John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges. November 2021.


Monday 1 November 2021

Paul Pritchard's The Mountain Path....Reviewed


The Mountain Path: Paul Pritchard. Vertebrate Publishing £24.

192 pages hard back, case bound with 8 page art paper colour section.              

Live it up, fill your cup and be merry, sow your wild oats whilst you may, for the toothless types of tomorrow, they were the tigers just yesterday!

Tom Patey

This is the most unusual mountaineering book I have ever read, a combination of the philosophy of risk, the psychology of why we climb, and how it may unexpectedly change our whole being. I should have been warned as to what was included by Hazel Findlay’s outstanding introduction in the foreword; a committed climber she confessed that most climbing books she finds rather boring, too full of machismo but not in the writings of Paul Pritchard!

In the style of Dylan Thomas, let us begin at the beginning. Paul grew up rather hedonistically on the moors of Lancashire, favourite occupations were setting fire to them, spitting competitions and cutting school, but a master at the latter introduced him to the life affirming activity of rock climbing in the local quarries of Wilton at the age of 16 and he was hooked. From then on climbing was to dominate his life. I know from personal experience what a vibrant climbing scene there was at that time in the rather low key climbing environment of those quarries; Anglezarke, Houghton, the various Wilton ones and that boulder-freakies delight, Brownstones and Paul quickly became one of leading pioneers of the area.

In 1986 Paul moved to Llanberis, to what was to be one of the most innovative scenes of British climbing history, with totally committing new routes on the sea cliffs of Gogarth and desperately run out climbs in the Llanberis slate quarries. There was besides the climbing scene the wild partying and this unfortunately led some of its participants to the dead end of drug use and a promising climbing career snuffed out, but fortunately Pritchard was not to be one of these! It was the time of the Thatcher revolution, the rundown of heavy industry and the coal mines, leading on to mass unemployment but Paul, who had sacrificed a joinery apprenticeship happily became a full time climber.....on the dole. Going climbing every day the standards of these dole boys went through the roof and I recall giving a lecture in Sweden at that time, being asked at its end ‘as to why there were so many hard free rock climbs in the UK?’, and the reply was ‘we have to thank Mrs Thatcher for this!’ which rather confused the questionnaire by this answer.

Climbing the Rainbow Slab once again for the film 'To the Rainbow'. Image Bamboo-Chicken Productions

Paul was to experience the first of his brushes with death at this time whilst repeating a route on the back wall of the Wen Zawn at Gogarth. When he reached what he expected to be the crux, it was seeping water, but he was not too worried for he believed he had good protection below him. The inevitable happened and he slipped off, but to his surprise the wired nut just below him broke and this led onto a chain reaction and his whole line of pro followed suit and he landed in the sea. The fall had rendered him unconscious, and he was under water for many minutes before his partner, the Australian climber and photographer, Glenn Robbins managed to climb down, fish him out and pull him onto a ledge above the high tide mark. Glenn then gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation and Pritchard came back from the dead, but remained injured by the fall. Robbins then tried to climb out but failed and things were looking serious when another climber appeared at the lip of the Zawn, who was alerted to Paul’s predicament, and a rescue helicopter was eventually summoned and the injured climber ensconced in Bangor’s accident and emergency. But you cannot keep a man like Pritchard off the rock/mountain for long.

A few years later Paul was winter climbing on Creag Meagaidh, via its route the Centre Post Direct, when he came upon a section of egg shell ice, a frozen exterior but soft snow underneath. This is a rare occurrence in Scotland but it happens, and inevitably in trying to climb this he was in difficulty and was sinking up to his arm pits, breaking through the surface ice into the powder snow beneath. He tried to retreat, to descend the steep ice below him but the inevitable happened and he took a monster 50 metre fall, severely injuring his back. Fortunately a fellow guide was on the mountain that day, Nick Kekus who took over and arranged a lower to the valley floor and the eventual arrival of the Lochaber Rescue team in their shiny, yellow helicopter which deposited him in Fort William Hospital. Besides his back injuries the ice hammer he was carrying hit him in the face as he was falling, injuring an eye and making his face look like he had tussled with the Terminator. You would think after such a close call that Pritchard would seek some solace on a couch and watching TV, but that was not for him. The mountains called and he was off to Patagonia, the Himalaya and still wending his way up extreme rock climbs. But this was all to change at his third near death experience on Tasmania’s Totem Pole, but that was in the future.

Paul had begun to write about his climbs and journeys, and from the first the articles he produced received wide acclaim. In 1997 a collection of his writings ‘Deep Play’ won the Boardman/Tasker prize and though this was so richly deserved, set in motion the most challenging of Paul’s mishaps whilst climbing. Along with Celia Bull he used his prize money to fund a world tour of climbing and in 1998 arrived on the Isle of Tasmania with an ascent of its Totem Pole as their objective. This incredibly thin sea stack looking almost as if a strong wind would blow it over, poses a challenge that Celia and Paul could not resist. What happened that day in 1998 was fully described in Pritchard’s second 1999 Boardman/Tasker prize winning book ‘Totem Pole’, and the Mountain Path informs and educates us that though this left him hemiplegic, he has somehow crafted a life of adventuring and doing, albeit of a different style and objective but none the less worthy. In fact he writes in his latest book that his life, enhanced and enlarged spiritually by the experience of this tryst with the grim reaper.

In, what was to be his closest call!

After a long period of rehabilitation in the UK, learning to deal with his inevitable reduced physical ability, he returned to Australia, to Hobart in Tasmania where he now resides, having married and become a family man; but the spirit of enquiry, and wide reading on every subject from psychology to philosophy, to which the pages of Mountain Path strewn with observation and thought pay tribute. This I can sympathise with, recovering from a Stroke and a serious infection I have found one lives in thought and mind rather than in physical roustabout, and it is not surprising that Paul became enamoured of this, especially whilst practising meditation, Vipassana, originally also by the Buddha.

A chapter I found so interesting because of personal experience was ‘Pilgrimage’. This describes first the train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa, then Paul and friend’s challenging journey by tricycle beginning in that City to the Mount Everest Base Camp, then on to Kathmandu. Whilst lecturing at Sichuan Da Xue (University) in Chengdu, we had relations with the Tibetan Da Xue in Lhasa and thus I was able to visit Xizang (Tibet) without the usual difficulty surrounding permits etc. I was one of the first to ride on the train which runs from Chengdu to Lhasa, surely the finest mountain train journey in the world, running at over 5000 metres on the section Qinghai to Lhasa, which equally impressed Paul and his female companion. As did the visit to the Sera monastery and its Tangkas once they had started out on their multi-day challenge, and I posit that nobody can travel in that country without it affecting them spiritually, and it certainly did Pritchard who was more than intrigued and then committed to the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism. A word of warning here though, I have travelled that country in the company of educated locals, fluent English speakers and they paint an entirely different picture to such as the organisation ‘Free Tibet’. Whilst acknowledging the uniqueness of their culture, they wished to move on and not be held in aspic by their past. 

When I was first recovering, I never imagined that I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to the highest mountain on earth. Image Sharyn Jones

The final chapter is about Paul’s return to climb the Totem Pole, 18 years after the accident which nearly cost him his life. A jolly team assembled on the promontory above this and belayed by Steve Monks, he set forth. Steve is English ex-pat and I well remember him in the south west, burning up the classics and pioneering test pieces. But a journey to Oz, and fetching up at Arapiles made for a change in this viewpoint and he has become a local to what in Paul’s book, is in his opinion ‘the best crag in the world’. Steve who had climbed the Totem Pole before led with his usual flair despite the advancement of years, whilst Pritchard prussiked up behind achieving one arm pulls with his one good hand. Two long pitches and the summit was reached and Paul could finally put to rest his Totem Pole ambitions, though he was as we say in the north, completely banjaxed physically.

Mountain Path is like the writer unique. I would recommend it as a read to all who love, and aspire to climb in wild places. But I would also place it on a list by anyone studying the psychology or philosophy of risk. The reading list at the end of this volume illustrates where the author is coming from and is comprehensive. Vertebrate, its publisher is to be thanked for the courage in publishing such an impressive work.


Dennis Gray: 2021 


Wednesday 20 October 2021

A Feeling For Rock...Reviewed


Sarah-Jane Dobner's ,A Feeling for Rock, is in many ways, a tricky little book to review. It's not a Bio/Autobiography, technical guide, travelogue or philosophical treatise on the subject of climbing rock. It's a scrap book - in paperback form- recounting experiences in the field, sprinkled with poetry, polemical essays, cartoons and contributions from friends who offer their thoughts on what climbing means to them. I was going to describe it as something of a smorgasbord of writing but flipping to the rear cover upon finishing the book, I see that Natalie Berry of UKC got in first with that description so lets plunder Hemingway and call it a moveable feast. A book that weaves this way and that without following a discernable path.

The author writes from the perspective of feminist and politically aware observer. Offering strong opinions on issues within the climbing game but never falling into the pit of zealotry. In an early essay she contemplates which activity she prefers, Sex or Climbing? A subject first broached by Geoffrey Winthrop Young I believe!  Which to choose? After all these years I'm still not sure. I figured I might plump for climbing if push came to shove. In another essay she contemplates the patriarchal structure which has always held the activity in a vice like grip. Shaped and controlled by men and where women were until fairly recently only grudgingly accepted by the climbing establishment. After all, many of our established climbing clubs operated like London gentlemen's clubs until relatively recently. I believe I am correct in stating that Ken Wilson was a key figure in pushing for female emancipation within the Climber's Club for example.

However, that historical stain on climbing history aside, the author does take a detour occasionally into 'Right On City, Arizona'! In 'the decolonisation of climbing which is part of a wider essay, The Perfect Line, Sarah-Jane offers the suggestion that when it comes to naming and claiming routes in developing countries, then it should perhaps be left to the indigenous communities to name these routes. Why not leave marked up topos with,say, the village elders, the school, the local women's cooperative and ask them to name the lines?' I sense a flaw in this suggestion. First off, climbing is essentially an activity carried out by comparatively wealthy westerners. For the majority of people in the developing world, climbing must be seen a pretty silly and pointless activity. Enjoying a passion for climbing is a luxury that even in the UK, only those with money can afford. For many people, flying off to the Alps or Spain for a few days climbing or buying a new pair of rock boots for £130 is not an option when you are living on benefits and struggling to survive. Taken to the next level, in a place like say Mali, then if you are having to walk ten miles a day to collect water or firewood then perhaps the honour of naming a westerners' rock climb will not fill your bosom with pride! 

Photo: McKenzie Lloyd-Smith

Taken as a rule, I don't think that the naming and claiming of new routes is an issue or has to be controversial. But that's just to pick out one of around sixty short pieces in the book. The majority of which veer from practical technical advice to poetry which escapes the damning critique of being described as 'interesting' by virtue of their undoubted quality. In fact, its nice to see poetry within a climbing work as since the decline of the paper media when climbing writers like David Craig and Terry Gifford were not afraid to strut their stuff in the mags and journals from 40 years ago, climbing poetry has receded into the less visited world of personal blogs these days it seems.

While there is no doubt that the author is passionate about her subject matter and offers strong opinions laced with humour, she nevertheless remains on the right side of the divide between the climbing enthusiast and the climbing fanatic. The latter being somewhat trapped in a world of punishing training schedules, strict dietary regimes and an obsession with achievement. Rather than just enjoying the ride as the author clearly does.

Photo- SJD

So....overall a scrap book of thoughts, feelings, memories and advice which was pretty unique in its way. There have been similar collections of writings published in the past. Such as Jim Perrin's climbing articles lifted from magazine and club journals, but A Feeling for Rock is nothing like works like this through its range of subject matter. I've no doubt that the book will not be to everyone's taste. Certainly for those who like their climbing literature to be structured in a style which they are used to, the book might seem discordant and a bit too edgy for their liking. Certainly the pieces don't follow a clear trajectory in the way they are set out. There is almost a nervous energy here which usually works but occasionally, like a hex dropped from the top pitch of a climb, the piece ricochets down. Glancing off rocks until you lose sight of it in the undergrowth. But then, who asked for perfection in a climbing book. Its a personal odyssey which will always mean more to the writer than reader. The pleasure for the reader is when there is a meeting of minds and emotions with the author and many of these pieces will I'm certain, chime with the reader.




John Appleby: 2021 


Wednesday 29 September 2021

Sir Leslie Stephen: Spirit Of The Age


Father and Daughter : Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.

Fleetest of foot of the whole Alpine brotherhood’ Edward Whymper

This country is almost unique in the number of climbing clubs that exist throughout Britain, unlike other countries where the sport has a major presence, France, Italy, Germany etc; almost every city in the UK has its own climbing club. There are also the long established organisations which draw their membership nationally, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, the Climbers’ Club, the Fell and Rock, and the Alpine Club. The BMC has 280 clubs in membership and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland 160.

How did this come about?; it really has its origins during the Victorian era when so many organisations were formed and the world’s first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club was founded in 1857. The men (and they were all men in what was then still a most patriarch society) who were responsible were all from the upper/professional class. They were the ones who had the income and leisure time to follow what was then seen as a new sport; a new challenging activity in what they believed themselves to be the experts. It was a Golden Era for many of the peaks were still unclimbed in the Alps, and the Public’s interest was aroused by the 2000 performances over 6 years by Albert Smith in the Egyptian Hall Piccadilly, of his illustrated ascent of Mont Blanc which began in 1862, and was attended by thousands of people.

One of the earliest mountaineers to join the Alpine Club was Leslie Stephen, the year after it was formed. He was already a mountaineer, who with the Mathews’s had pioneered ascents in Austria and North Italy. He was educated at Eton and Trinity Hall Cambridge where he had also been ordained as a priest. At school he had been somewhat sickly and physically weak but at Cambridge he took up rowing and this built up his physique and he started to visit the Alps.

The first ascents which he made in the years 1858 to 1871 stand out, especially in the Valais and Oberland, and mark him out as one of the outstanding early pioneers, but he did not always win favour with his fellow alpinists, who believed in his writings he gave his guides too much praise who he credited with so much of his success. Melchior Anderegg born near Meiringen was one such, who was lauded as the ‘King of the Guides’. In 2014 a statue of Anderegg and his adventurous ‘Herren’ was unveiled in that town.

I suppose Stephens success in completing the Eiger and Jungfrau Joch’s in 1859 made his fellow Alpine Club members aware that a new force was in membership. The number of first ascents he was to make over the next decade highlighted this, Mont Blanc from St Gervais, the Schreckhorn, Zinalrothorn, Alphubel, Wildstrubel, Monte Disgrazia, Obergabelhorn, Bietschorn, Rimpfischorn, Mont Mallet, and he made many second ascents the Weisshorn, Obergabelhorn, and the Fletschorn plus many other successful climbs. He was elected Vice President of the Alpine Club 1863 to 1865 and President 1866 to 1868.

In 1862 he had a personal rejection of being a clergyman; he resigned his position at Cambridge, his fellowship depending on this. Eventually he was to publish a book on this change in belief, ‘Agnosticism and Aetheism’ confessing he had never really believed in the Christian message, swayed by his family, who were evangelicals of the Clapham sect. His father had been the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies for which public service he had been knighted. Stephen moved to London and from thereon was a journalist and editor of some renown, initially contributing to the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette. 

1865 occurred, the accident after the first ascent of the Matterhorn when four of the party were killed on the descent. Alan Lyall’s impressive book of almost 700 pages gives full details of this, especially the aftermath; the enquiry, the main figures who were involved and the media reaction. I do not think any event in mountaineering history has received such coverage, even the Monarch was reported to comment as one of those who died was distantly related. Much of the media coverage initially was anti, so much so that Whymper the sole survivor of the amateur climbers had to defend himself and write a full account of the disaster in the ‘Times’. Stephen, who was then a Vice President of the Alpine Club spoke up for the sport, and he defended the role of the senior guide who to survive was accused of either cutting the rope, or purposely using a weak one to save his own skin.

In 1871 appeared two books which had a large affect on the subsequent development of mountaineering. Edward Whymper had published ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ which included his many attempts to climb the Matterhorn and his eventual success, clouded by the accident on the descent, and the ‘Playground of Europe’ by Leslie Stephen both of which became instant mountaineering classics and played a part in popularising the activity. The first of these ran to five editions in little more than a decade and both books are still in print. In 1868 Stephen became editor of the Alpine Journal, and he was well suited for such a role, his knowledge of the Alpine ranges was probably unsurpassed at that time in Britain, for in 1861 he had translated from the German the best selling, in that country a book which also covered widely many of the less visited areas, ‘The Alps’ and may have led him on to make the first ascent of Monte Disgrazia? He was an early enthusiast for winter ascents, but he made it obvious that he took a very serious view of the dangers inherent in mountaineering, besides the enjoyment and challenge of the sport. Many of the early pioneers suffered serious accident or death who had become friends or rope mates with him. Most of the volumes of the Alpine Journal he edited are still available on the internet.

During the Victorian period the Alpine Club gained in numbers and influence, some of those who joined were enthusiasts for mountain scenery, and commented on this but preferred to view this rather than climb to summits; John Ruskin, Mathew Arnold and the well known publisher John Murray (Byron was one of the poets who he published) were some of these. Stephen became editor at this time of the Cornhill magazine and the writers for that organ were amongst those who were to become household names; Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray. Stephen married one of the the latter’s daughters, known to everybody by the nick name ‘Minny’ who bore him four children, two who were to become more famous than him, but who cruelly died whilst the children were still young.

Stephen is best known now as the founding editor and contributor to the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ of which he edited many of the volumes. This incredible academic work is still being updated and published by the Oxford University Press and is referred to almost daily, particularly in our University and Public Libraries. The original publisher was the same as the Cornhill magazine, and that explains Stephen’s involvement in the whole project? an editorship which was to lead, amongst his other works to a knighthood. At the death of his first wife, Stephen eventually married a lady, a close friend of his wife, a widower who also had four children. One can imagine the noisy atmosphere at his house in Hyde Park Gate, now a blue plaque site, with so many children growing up there. But he did employ several maids to look after this brood.

Obviously with such domestic demands and sadness at the loss of his first wife, plus editorial work, his involvement in the world of mountaineering was limited. But every Sunday along with like minded friends he took off on what became legendary long walks amongst the South Downs and further afield. His band of Ramblers became known as ‘The Tramps’ and 20 to 30 miles were often covered on their outings. In a history of walking in this country, ‘Ramble On’ by Sinclair McKay full detail of ‘The Tramps’ can be found. What is memorable about this was a list of all who took part in these walks, everyone from those who made their living by their pen to Judges and Queen’s Councils.

Stephen died in 1904 but the family’s fame was to rise, and rise for two of his daughters eclipsed his memory. His oldest Vanessa married Quentin Bell, and moved to Bloomsbury, where they were joined by Virginia who had married Leonard Woolf. And this was the beginning of what became known as the Bloomsberry set which included E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and so many other prominent figures of that time. Vanessa Bell and Virgina Woolf in their respective fields are lionised for their achievements, Vanessa in the field of art, particularly abstractions. Virginia is one of the most famous novelists worldwide, a leader of modernist fiction and an archetypal figure in the feminist movement. I was surprised to learn that now her biggest fan base is in the USA. Her father is very much caricatured in her most famous work ‘To the Lighthouse’. He is the Mr Ramsay who leads his family on an adventurous holiday to the Isle of Skye.

Leslie Stephen was very much a product of his time, when everybody had beards like the Taliban, and Victorians of his background did not worry too much about their privileged existence. But they did leave a society that was capable of change. The Alpine Club is a prime example of this, to be a member now depends on ones climbing record, not social standing. And so Sir Leslie Stephen set the sport on its path for which today’s climbing fraternity should be grateful.


Dennis Gray: 2021. 



Tuesday 7 September 2021

Olympic Dreams

It's climbing but not as we know it! Photo- Eddie Fowkes.

Citius, Altius, Fortius’

To represent a country at the Olympics is the ultimate dream of a games player and a participant in the athletic events. I am still in awe of the Czech athlete, Zatopek who won the 5000m, 10000m, and the Marathon at the Games in Helsinki in 1952. I was privileged to meet him when young and this feat stands as likely to be unrepeated. I am a supporter of the Games, but I believe the inclusion of ‘Sports Climbing’ at the recent Tokyo Olympics begs questions at least with the old timers like me.

The modern Olympics were brought about by the initiative of the French nobleman, Baron de Coubertin, and the first of these was held in Athens in 1896. Mountaineering was one of the physical activities that he envisaged should be recognised as an Olympic discipline and the members of the 1922 Everest Expedition were awarded a gold medal at the 1924 Winter Games held in Chamonix. Awards continued until the Dyhrenfurth’s in 1936 for their Himalayan explorations but were then discontinued. It is interesting to report how climbing was seen by commentators and artists to almost modern times, let us be dog in a manger about this and Ernest Hemingway could opinion there are only three sports; ‘bull fighting, flying and mountaineering......the rest are merely games’. I guess what brought him to such a view was that the sports he nominated were undertaken for keeps. The obituary section in the Alpine Journal at this time would illustrate where he was coming from?

In my own times I have to ponder on the many who so felt ‘the romance of mountaineering’ that they pushed the boat out, were caught out by a run of bad luck and they paid the ultimate price. But we survivors paid our respects and kept alive their feats and memories. One of the salient facts being there was little or no money in it, recognition such as it was, mainly was by one’s own peers. I still think of how we all, in our milieu greeted the news that Brown had climbed the Boulder on Cloggy; and he had run out 270 feet of rope in a single lead, on sight because none of his companions could follow him because of the conditions. So how come that such a committing activity can be cut down to racing up an artificial wall, on plastic holds, safe because such ‘climbing’ is done on top ropes.

At the 1972 Olympics held in Munich was the first time that ‘speed climbing’ was a demonstration sport. This by a group of climbers from Soviet Russia, wearing on their feet what appeared as galoshes to us western climbers who witnessed this, on a limestone crag outside the city. It transpired that the climbers had spent some days practising the route/s and their ascents were at speed on top ropes. All who witnessed this (including many different nationalities) thought this style of climbing was rather pointless and preferred to climb the excellent traditional routes that were on offer at this cliff. One can understand a group of climbers, moving fast up routes in a friendly, rivalry, but to make this an Olympic sport/discipline is surely bringing such an activity down to a questionable level? And yet some of the-none climbing commentators thought this was like the wacky races, and conferred on some of the participants instant recognition, and liking. 

Shauna Coxsey in competition mode.Photo- BMC

I suppose it will go well when those involved are collared by agents and sponsors. And that is a problem for those so involved, are they to declare that this really has nothing to do with ‘real’ climbing or do they milk this surprising turn of events. For the first time real amounts of money is involved, when one is apprised by UK Sport that one of the Olympic programmes of the National sports bodies was under-written by £27 millions. And any of those who might win a medal, their day to day living is being under-written, as are their coaches, medics and dieticians. It is being estimated that each gold medal is costing around £1 million and the athletes involved can if they wish it become full time professionals. Such designation leads on to sponsorships, deals with equipment firms, and large amounts of money changing hands.

A worry is how this came about without the traditional defenders of the British way of climbing not really taking an interest. Their attitude being if a group within the mountain world wish to do this, ‘let ‘em get on with it’. Without at least discussing how in the long run it might affect the activity, which as recent as the 1980’s was a new kid on the international climbing scene. We came to accepting organised competitions after months of argument and discussions at the BMC in 1988, but we were only willing to accept them as long as they were held on artificial walls and not on the natural outcrops and crags. This decision was influenced by what was happening on the natural cliffs; Ron Fawcett was despatched to competitions held in Russia and reported back that many of the routes involved in these, were chipped and manufactured and visiting CzechSlovak climbers who had taken part that year in competitions held in Arco reported that the final route of that event was similarly prepared specially for that competition.

Despite the above what finally swung the then British climbing fraternity behind supporting competitions but only on artificial walls was the attempt to hold a major competition at Malham. Those involved were leading climbers of that era, the BBC were interested in covering the event and this was in opposition to the wishes of the locals, the RSPB and the National Park. The view we came to at the BMC was this could damage climbing in the future and I was tasked to contact all concerned and use what argument we could against such an ill thought initiative? Pointing out that if it rained and conditions changed the whole competition could become unfair and farcical; to say nothing of the safety of the inevitable spectators roaming around an area like the Cove. We had to go almost to the head of the BBC to head off the interest in covering the event. Fortunately our arguments were soundly based and eventually all came round that competitions should be held in the UK only on artificial walls. Since when the growth of competition climbing and climbing walls has being impressive with over 400 noted in the last complete survey. Many run bouldering competitions in the winter, and the Leeds Wall did that when I was the Chair of its Board.

However we never expected, but it is now a fact, that some of the attendees at climbing walls never climb outside, and for their own personal reasons have no wish to do so. If I was still an active climber, selfishly I would declare ‘good on ‘em! ’ for that would mean less traffic on popular crags but frankly they do not know what they are missing, a special activity that as the web master on this site has opined is life enhancing going to the hills to refresh ones soul. Easily dismissed as romantic gibberish but it is true as those who experience such feelings bear witness.

International Competition Climbing became a fact in Leeds in 1989, this organised by the BMC and DMM the equipment firm on behalf of the then recognised body, the UIAA for such an international event. It was in Leeds because that is where I live and friends interceded for us and we managed to obtain the Queen’s Hall, which previously had staged massive rock concerts and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Who had strutted, their stuff on its stage. The women’s event was won by the American, Robyn Erbesfield and the men’s by Jerry Moffat. It was very much a learning event for such a competition, and it made me think that whilst the finals were electrifying the events leading up to them were so boring that I could never believe it a spectator sport. In fact one of the sports journalists collared me after some of the preliminary rounds to declare ‘he was departing......this was like watching paint dry’. I could understand this as the majority of the participants did not get very far up the routes. It is a mystery to me that climbers can sit and watch such a competition whilst close by, for instance at Arco is excellent climbing on natural rock. But as Cyndi Lauper warned us ‘money changes everything’ and I suppose there is a vicarious pleasure in watching the winner and losers. 

Malham Cove. Venue for a proposed speed climbing competition that thankfully never got off the ground.

Finally my reaction to the Olympic climbing is ditch, the speed competition, it is a cuckoo and not only has no place in such, and in the long run it may damage the sport? None climbers will think that is how we proceed on the natural crags and outcrops and the land managers may react in ways that no one has yet experienced. The walls should be designed like crags to be more realistic, I have been lucky to climb at such in dozens of countries and have never found features as those that were a part of the Olympic bouldering competition. Dali would have been exercised by their design. I am very aware that by expressing such views that I will be the subject of criticism and gales of laughter, the wish to compete is part of the psyche in a lot of humans, and we must accept that climbing is changing and a part of mainstream sport, no longer the preserve of a band of clubbable types. But we have to point out what is worth preserving, and that the rock faces and mountains of this world we expect will always be there posing a challenge and enjoyment to those who answer their call.

Dennis Gray : 2021