Friday, 28 October 2016

Things to do in Lleyn when you are daft.

I do believe that areas like the Lleyn could represent a facet that has all but disappeared from British climbing”, Steve “the general” Mayers commenting on the on-sight ethic in the early 90s. Al had said that the crack “looked about severe”, the tide was out and we stood beached between seaweeded rocks, cannon ball shined, wet from the outgoing tide. Having descended via a grass ridge into what was later described as Three Caves Zawn, such were the obvious topographical features undercutting the cliff that towered for fifty metres or so above us. Here then beyond Rhiw's lonely village and its queer crocodilian edge, where Bardsey Sound’s tide race conducts unknown depths with awesome power round the mouth of hell, cutting off main landmass from a small mysterious island bearing its name, where in 1188, Gerald of Wales had noted, lived an order of devout coldei monks (pilgrims, I knew, still journeyed there). We set out to worship at the vertical shrine of our won cult, watching our companion figures morph over far headland as we did so. Pure in line, our route lay in devil disguised disfigurement which, austere in its fractured neutrality soon proved a tortuous path where better judgement on a different day might have countenanced retreat.

Peculiar indeed were the seldom visited regions of unsoundness for which the Lleyn retained a certain infamy amongst rock climbers. Take for instance “Craig Dorys” where Stevie Haston had told a bemused farmer working fields above the cliffs abrupt drop, “Do you realise that the best route in North Wales in on your land”. Perhaps not a consensus view, the route in question “Tonight at Noon” features a severely overhanging crack composed of exfoliating mudstone at a modest E7. Longer expeditions are to be found at what might be described as the begging of the Lleyn on the massive earthenware buttresses of Trwyn y Gorlech and Craig y Llam. On the latter anyone climbing the 600' 'Fantan b' can suck in exposure when hidden jugs above a small roof on crux pitch 5 obligates a pullout waymarked by an unbroken plumbob drop straight back to sea level.

Rock type hereabouts is granodiorite and typified by a compact lichenous nature. It makes runners and belays difficult to arrange without pegs, though it generally provides solid holds. Thus the true heart of multi pitch adventure in its most testing form requires travelling further out down the peninsula’s long arching arm. Only then can one become familiar with the great orange slopes within the vicinity of the lead itself. Cilan. “No one goes too often to totter down the nightmare slopes- recuperative periods to re-temper frayed nerves are of an almost alpine necessity”, Dave Holmes commenting on the Cilan experience after the first ascent of New Moon (a four pitch E5) in 1989 with Ray Kay.
In fact if a mention of Cilan Main did not cause momentary shudder chances are you hadn’t yet experienced the bizarreness it represented, or were trying to forget it, perhaps in general withdrawal from everyday world. Big and serious, Cilan is where grit and shale horizontal bandstakes the eye before craning neck muscles allow a gaze to take in the massive capping black roofs two hundred feet above a tiny beach at the crags undercut base. Ray Kay said “It was as if holds were colour coded there”, red / yellow suspect or snappy; black / red for solid enough, yet even with such discernment, routes might not easily succumb, especially when suspicious holds combined with poor protection induced harrowing paranoia on ground that did not lack technical difficulty.

Indeed finding himself spread-eagled in a bluish black groove on Crow's second pitch, Ray had at one point considered simply jumping off, so untenable had his situation become. John Toombs, ever level headed under pressure, once informed of this strategy, counselled “Wouldn’t do that if I were you, Raymond”. Which then allowed Kay to gather himself and complete the pitch which left a lasting impression on both climbers. A clue as to what such an excursion might be like can be found in Crow’s description where on the introductory pitch it reads: “Go round the bulges on handfuls of slate”.
First climbed in 1971, remarkably with only one aide point, by Keith Myhill, Crow attacks the wall to the left of its perhaps more well-known neighbour, Vulture and received a free ascent in 1978 from Mick Fowler and Mick Morrison, one of the very few teams to seek out the Cilan atmosphere at this time.

Mostly the work of Jack Street and Chris Jackson circa late 60s, Cilan consciousness in the form of routes like Central Pillar (a HVS with a difference), that along with Gangway no longer exists in original form, gradually confronted the handful of climbers that went to repeat them with a growing respect, “these routes on the cliffs of the Lleyn Peninsula are perhaps the loosest and most serious yet discovered in Wales”.

World Climbing, 1980

By the late 80s and into the early 90s the roll call of climbers making exploratory routes or repeats began to increase and whist the Peninsula did not experience a trendy ‘place to be’ scenario a few Llanberis based teams initially spearheaded by Ray Kay and Dave ‘skinny’ Jones in the company of John Toombes and Lee McGinley did much to arouse a curiosity in other that would increase the Lleyn resume. Pat Littlejohn with various partners had also been quietly operating in the area for some time and thus with a Culm Coast seal of approval it was clear that those entering this lonely realm would be ill advised to do so without a certain apprehension. Sparsely documented, there seemed a magnetic charm purveyed by the only guide book, a slim off yellow paperback, published by the Climbers Club in 1979 and compiled by Trevor Jones, who after editing known information into forty eight pages reminded would be acolytes that “the descriptions and in particular the grades should therefore be considered as provisional and treated with some respect”. It was good advice.

After using this tome on a number of bitter sweet occasions, we had found a number of zawns apparently untouched by previous explorers. To reach these there were a times difficult sea level traverses and unfeasibly treacherous fishermen’s paths. It was in one of these arenas that I now confronted the so called ‘severe’ looking crack in the zawn of the three caves. 'Bytilith' it was marked on OS maps, yet a most defining feature signing our approach centred on a defunct pipeline emanating from a short red brick wall atop and left of the cliffs when looking out to sea. This forgotten edifice plunged in decay down a disturbing couloir for over a hundred feet ending its fall on beach boulders, from where at low tide it was also possible to get round in to the semi cauldron zawn in which rested out point of interest, a crack line whose apparent ascetic charm was difficult to ignore.

Anyone venturing out on short climbs offered by the ‘grit stone’ edge at Rhiw might be forgiven for thinking that sea cliffs in the vicinity might display a similar, generally solid, nature. Yet, this form of false consciousness, would be, above all hope, swiftly be annulled unless concentrating solely on sea rumbled boulders. Thus the crack once engaged rendered a gear shift on my part so that  the mind, hit with information, after architecture each side of the alarming fissure which saw designated footholds explode or de-laminate when nominally weighted, returned to Cilan mode. I think therefore I jamb, or, in a less than grand philosophical sense, which might nevertheless have great repercussions on a personal level, I thought how best jambs should be placed. It wasn’t that baffling technical difficulties suddenly caused a long pause in proceedings, but that typically such ascents rely on a slow probing up and down after securing, at least psychologically, any available protection. Of this, deep inside the crack’s mud butter, better crystallised rock gave home to a couple of friend placements and a big sideways hex biting the fracture’s doubtful outer edges backed them up. It was enough.

When leaders hardly move for half an hour, it might be no surprise to hear second shout in encouragement ‘go for it’ which whilst possible galvanising action in sound rock settings with bomber gear the matter in hand was more likely to succumb after a long mental war of attrition and knowing this Al, maintaining a silent vigil shuffled atop the highest boulders as turning tide began cutting off escape. Cruel were the impediments barring way to the imagined haven promised by a beckoning ledge where steepness was temporarily postponed. This was the belay out sloper, proportioned with a horizontal crumble line taking a friend and some nuts on which I overkilled the snug and braced to bring up the Ruper. A shipwrecked monk lamenting the stone boat’s sinking, no longer paying out.

Crouching and lashed in, maybe eighty feet from where the rock ended at the cave lips and their hollows underneath blew out wave wash over and over, the situation was dramatic. A grey rock pillar dominating the cliff’s upper reaches resembled in appearance Pembroke limestone yet its nature would probably diverge considerably when tested for the properties which Pems is famously known. To the left, the zawn’s concavity bent it round in windscreen flex where it rubbled in ghoul shapes and deep brown death blocks lurking and hanging like gargantuan bats roosting. It lent together in disturbing bulges threatening to drop. Al toiling with the revelation brought on by the crack’s true gravity at one point implored me to give assistance since a deeply seated friend, now inverted, required in a typical case both hand for trigger release least  it ‘walk’ towards loss in the crack’s innards. With great regret it was my solemn duty to inform him that no such assistance could be advanced. I did not like to say it, ‘that the belay might pull’. Yet, not long after this heart breaking news arrived, the friend, aided by a forceful extraction pull, think Popeye opening a can of spinach, and with something like flurry of blows Al soon exchanged jambs at the crack’s finale for a creaking welcome on the shelving perch and we hurriedly plugged in the extra cam shoring up the anchors.

On the lunatic fringe of the next pitch a crack / groove took a rock four, biting in solid first go. Bridge out- lean in- left shouldering and a reach with the right gains faulty finger locks. Moving in reptile shape I make a position under an overlap, where things- as Glenn Robbins was fond of saying, and George Smith would later name his Shale City test piece- were 'getting ugly’. Some wall shadows tell the sun is losing us and I can’t pull over.A man hanging forms the gallows of his own making. This surplomb was half mud, half biscuit, half past dead Whymper.... earth, and stuck below it, excavating fragile layers with one hand sapping, exposure bites as an invisible pig suckles strength away. But here now is the animal in most savage form and with survival its only goal, half standing amidst the left arête’s museum porcelain I commit, chest first, to a gaiter roll mantle and twist body parts over drip fed Hammer House horror, emerging a white faced phantom on the uber steps as uncloaked rock grass becomes airborne, famous amongst the shearwaters.

With our compadres return there are two figures forty feet above peering over and I shout them to fix a rope for the exit shoot at the only conceivable belay, a block diagonally distanced some forty feet away, it would have to do, we have no head torches and the overlord on the incubus steps is waiting. I the kick back before the top it feels like I am tread milling a smashed escalator and with the sky empty of birds I find a grim oasis, but there is no warning and suddenly you’re dead. Double vision? No, blood, only a little, but the hard baked pudding stone had struck me a direct skull hit and its bass rhythm sent a shock wave through the jaw, attempting to dwarf me,stunned, the torso as my knees buckled and I stepped for a moment off the round world’s edge... deaf.

'Relaxing after the climb':Image-Martin Crook

But I am okay apart from rope snag on non-extended runners, causing a final crawling technique which gains relief only after clipping in under the rim on the cold cliff, as Rutger Hauer says ‘not yet, not yet’ clenching his Roy Batty fist. Alive. In sort of muck lined crevasse formed by banks, rabbit warren honey combed, I face out towards the Irish Sea, ready to bring up Al from the cirque of the unclingables, and he comes on like a medieval abbot surveying monastery ruins. Schwarzenegger big in his coat, ‘an insensitive oaf’ a girlfriend once called him, but he picks a way through the Herculean jenga pillars without causing collapse when the merest indelicate touch would have caused regret. With wind blast, hoods go tight on the draw cord and below a crusader zeal fuels the oxygen of escape as he passes over the fairy-tale roof with hands hard grasping. ‘Extremely Severe’, he would later say. But then we are there avoiding the head landers, where there are none except those captured in memory. Burdened only by the hillside’s incline we must set a zig zag course away from the pipe wall and taking a breather, become conscious of the slopers at dusk in the R. S. Thomas necroscope night. Down in the dark the end of Wales.

An account of The First Ascent of Headlander 100 metres XS, April 1992, Martin Crook, Alistair Hughes

Martin Crook: 2016: Previously Unpublished.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Reiff Uncovered

What if I live no more those kingly days?
 their night sleeps with me still.
 I dream my feet upon the starry way
my heart rests in the hill.
I may not grudge the little left undone;
 I hold the heights - I keep the dreams I won.

            G. Winthrop-Young

            (Last stanza from “I have not lost the magic of long days”)

Summer 1976, a year that was purgatory for river canoeists and fishermen, but one continual party for rock climbers and crag rats, and of course, I was proud to be both so it was a great opportunity for me to indulge my passion over the long summer break, before I finished at Uni and entered the rat race.

Sandy and I decided to go to Achiltibuie for three weeks before moving north to Cape Wrath for another few weeks, where she would pursue her passion – painting and sketching, and me mine – being alone in contact with rock as I moved up and across it.

I woke on the morning of the 23rd June (my 32nd birthday) and had a great breakfast sitting outside the lodge with binoculars in hand, seeking potential sea cliff routes on the Summer Isles, and noted some possible areas in my climbing log book for another year.

We had decided the previous evening to go for a long coastal walk northwards towards a point on the map called Rhu Coigach, as we were told by the local postman that otters were frequently seen among the kelp in that area. This was ideal, as Sandy was studying them with the intention of opening an otter rescue centre somewhere in Sutherland or Wester Ross when I finished my course at Durham.

We left the lodge expecting to have a long day out, hoping to be inundated with spectacular views along the way, and of course, to see some lutra lutra*.

As we approached the small hamlet of Reiff, just along the road from where we were staying, we met the local postman again, who when we told him where we were going, replied: “Old Tam MacPhearson, a local fisherman, was in the Am Fuaran Bar, near Altandhu last night, and said he saw a large family of otters, playing in the kelp just south of Rhu Coigach around 6pm” and suggested that we should time our arrival, mid to late afternoon.

We parted, feeling good that our day would a good one.

As the day was dry with a slight warm breeze blowing, the clear blue sky with its small fluffy clouds high above, added to the pleasure we got whilst walking northwards along the coast line. The waves were big and clearly took great delight in smashing into the rocks, sounding like a full orchestra tuning its instruments before a concert, no order, no synchronicity, just a jumbled yet pleasant thunderous noise. 

After fifteen to twenty minutes of ambling along, Sandy sat on some rocks whilst I inched my way out as far as I could, so that I could play dodgem with the waves as they try hard to soak me and I tried hard to prevent them from doing so; I was happy that the little child in me was still alive and well!

Looking up stopped me in my tracks, when I saw a line of sea cliffs further on some of which were of considerable height. I knew that there were no recorded climbs in this area and with my little boy to the fore, I ran back to Sandy to hurry her up so that we could get to the cliffs I had seen. 

The tide had just started to turn and the first cove we passed had some unusual blocks standing guard and were obviously resting sites for cormorants, shags, and a host of other sea birds by the look of white droppings that covered the rocks. Jelly fish were in abundance in all the coves although they all looked dead, but I had no wish to test out this theory so we walked on a little further until we came to a cove which definitely had great potential. I could not resist it so climbed down to the sea line and played around on the rocks, first climbing up then down several left ward slanting grooves, then ambling over to a large cliff face which sported a nice crack before moving around the cliff arête to find my birthday present. A large wall towering out of the sea and with the tide on the way out, it looked even bigger. This was rock to climb.

I talked it over with Sandy, and despite wearing an old pair of flared corduroy trousers and well-worn trainers, we agreed that as I was climbing at my best, it was well within my limits.

As I climbed down and across to the tidal area, noticing that at least ten to fifteen feet was covered in limpets and barnacles, Sandy sat down with a view of the cliff face and agreed to take photos of the climb for posterity.

The rock was firm to the touch and although the surface was rough on the fingers, I knew it would offer my trainers superb friction. As I slowly made my way to the high tide line, I looked up at the inviting rock face, and traced in my minds’ eye, the line I was going to follow up to the skyline and sensed that this was another moment in my life that I would remember all my days. 

I put my left hand out and took hold of some small protruding rugosities, placed my right toe on a large barnacle and stood up. My gazelle like movement thrilled my senses as I slowly eased my body upright so as to gain a higher hold for my right hand. I braced my muscles as I brought up the other foot to meet the right one perched precariously on another small protuberance which thankfully took my weight. I stood at this position and listened to the sweet music of the waves as they met the rocks behind and below and I knew, no I believed that this was where I should be at this moment in my life. Synchronicity of life, movement, belief, desire and truth, what more could a mere insignificant human being ask for!

I searched above for the next hand hold and moved in a slow rhythmic movement in tune with my heart beat, as it pulsated nectar of life around my sinews and muscles that were being tested to their limits. I was now on clean rock, no more limpets or barnacles as footholds, just the rough texture of the rock and my own ability to remain in contact with it.

There can be no doubt that when a climber chooses to climb alone, he cannot afford to make the slightest error of judgement, for there is no climbing partner and no rope to assist or arrest any possible slip or fall, let alone have someone to offer encouragement to make a daring move when upward movement appears impossibly. In essence, the end result of such an error would almost certainly lead to severe bodily injury or even the forfeit of life itself.

I had already made the conscious decision to risk everything on this climb, and although I had no death wish, I knew I had to climb well, safe and within my own limits. The problem was, that I had no idea what those limits were, which is what made solo climbing so appealing to me in the first place - the unknown, the potential danger, the ability to experience being truly alive on  all levels, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

As I passionately and purposefully moved upwards a little further, I saw above me a small scoop which had a sloping base, narrowing at the top. I made for it not knowing where I would go from there. This was exploration at its boundary limits of my human capability and it made me realise that right here, right now, I was doing what I was born to do, at least, this is what I convinced myself as I thought about my next upwards move.

As I rested in the scoop, I heard my heart beat as it increased to the sweet familiar adrenalin rush, as it coursed faster through my body. The temple muscles throbbed a delightful tune to the music being played within my veins, and I was loving every minute of it, especially when I felt that the crashing waves of the returning tide, were playing in tune with my very senses.

Trying to get up and past this scoop was both difficult and awkward, and at one stage I was spreadeagled in the shape of a crucifix, (which is what I eventually called the route). Whilst I was fleetingly enjoying being in that position, it became all too clear that I had no idea how I was going to extricate myself from such a precarious position. It felt like many minutes had passed before I came to a decision on what to do next, but in reality, I knew that it was only a few micro seconds as over the past twenty-three years of climbing, mostly alone, I had become attuned to be as one with the rock, so that movement came naturally, quickly and automatically as it had to do when soloing.

An awkward move using a knee, allowed me to gain another fault line leading off to the left and upwards and this gave me two choices of topping out. One route went direttissima that is taking a direct line straight up to the top and the other veered leftwards to some large angled steps then a short wall to the top. Both looked inviting although the direttissima route was without a doubt, a very severe undertaking.

I weighed up both routes and settled for the direttissima route which is what I expected my decision to be. However, when I saw Sandy across the cove taking pictures, I realised that sometimes being selfish and egocentric in my decision making, was not the right thing to do and that any error leading to my possible demise was not fair on her, so elected to do the easier finish.

Movement across to the steps on the left was done in a gazelle like fashion, as all my senses and my limbs became one unified movement of beauty, whilst a cacophony of nature’s sounds tried to sing in harmony with my movements. Upwards movement again, then a little more, a few grunts and groans, and I topped out to applause from Sandy. I felt chuffed at doing what I considered to be a first ascent on what I believed to be an unknown climbing area. Both Sandy and I were confident that I was climbing well and so I continued to climb another few routes nearby. 

When this was done, I climbed back down to the water line and traversed around the small jutting headland to the left. Some good friction was available and I made good progress climbing up, then back down and then traversing a little. At one point I was out of sight of Sandy, and whilst I was negotiating an awkward archway, I felt a wave of nostalgia flood over me. The wind went silent. The waves made no noise as they crashed constantly onto the rocks all around me. The hairs on my arms stood on end and my fingers tingled. I stopped moving across the rock and waited for whatever was going to happen; to happen.

Nothing happened so I tried to start climbing again, but my movement was sluggish as if some force was pulling me back and although I was in contact with the rock, I could not feel it under my finger-tips or with my toes. It felt like I was just standing there in the air, free from all contact with the rock, cocooned in a pocket of total silence.

Suddenly there was a thunderous noise as a huge wave crashed into the base of the cliff face making me leap out of my cocoon. The noise echoed, deafening me for a few seconds and without thinking, I started to climb upwards, across the arch, up a short wall and topping out. I was pleased to see Sandy sitting nearby, gave a wave and walked over to give her a long embracing cuddle.

I was taken aback when she asked where I had been for the past hour. I said I had been nowhere and had only just left her to climb down the rock face to the archway, when a huge wave crashed into the cliff so hurried up and finished the climb. Sandy assured me that I had been away for over an hour and was starting to get worried as she could not see or hear me.

As this was not the first time I had experiences such situations whilst solo climbing, I shrugged it off as just being another unexplained occurrence, and so we moved on further northwards where more rock presented itself, so much so, that I was spoilt for choice and was unable to settle on any particular cliff face. I climbed around a few more coves on our way to Rhu Coigach, but I could see that Sandy was getting bored with me going off to climb continually, so gave up and we walked together in silence to our destination where as we had a break, we peered intently into the kelp beds for signs of otters searching for crabs and fish.

Sandy did some sketching whilst I played around on the small cliffs around the headland, and whilst they were not as big as those further back the way we came, they offered me plenty of sport for which I was most grateful. 

Having to walk back to the lodge past the cliffs at Reiff was purgatory for me, but the sun was now hidden behind some dark clouds and the wind had turned cold and breezy and we wanted to get back before it started to rain. I asked Sandy how many photographs she had taken and was disappointed to find that after the first climb the film ran out and we had forgotten to take a replacement.  Ah well, memories remain.

* Sea Otter 

Frank Grant: 2016 (Previously unpublished)

Friday, 14 October 2016

Electric Letterbox

Craig yr Ysfa: John Petts engraving on wood

Of a mind to plunge my hands into Thomas Firbank's, 1940 novel- 'Bride to the Mountain'- to ooze potential clues of the events of the Giveen climbing incident in 1927 not conceded to in 'I Bought a Mountain', but almost thwarted by a holiday chlorine wash. It would take longer to reveal the three climbs, which, if accurate, could provide evidence for this local man who was perhaps privy to secret information from an adjacent Capel Curig valley resident. If the descriptions of the three climbs bore any resemblance to the Great Gully, Craig yr Ysfa, perhaps it will be prudent to consider his fictional twist with this opportunity to refresh the Giveen story.

Turning to Chapter 2 to focus on Grace, a man of modest private means of no occupation, a superb climber, delicate as a cat, strong as a bullock who travelled to the Alps or the Dolomites each year or if less fiscally flush, to Skye, the Lake District, or North Wales. Staying with his friend, Peter Prospect, son of a northern landowner, at the 'Clamberers' Climbers' Club hut in November. 'Late in the year for climbing' they were joined the next morning by a local man, Jim Dunne. Two hours walk over the 'Cader' range they reached 'Black Arete', a climb of a thousand feet, described as extremely difficult and rendered slippery by a thin drizzle. Grace's companion, as of 'novice' experience is likened to be exercised of his skill as inexperienced people are on such difficult rock-pitches by his own personal efforts.

Firbank regales why 'everything went wrong'. A late breakfast that delayed the start from the hut, an unhurried walk and a late lunch. Prospect, burdened of having a bad, off-day, held up the other two badly as he fell off twice. Soon cold and with climbing difficult the last pitch was completed in near darkness, where they collapsed, wet to the skin on the summit.

Grace had an alpine lantern and compass, necessary as the drizzle had turned to heavy rain driven by an icy wind; the night pitch black. The candle in the lantern gave out half way down but the three men 'knew the lie of the land' and stumbled on, falling over often. Unexpectedly Dunne fell into a small pond, where he splashed out to the side helped by his companions and collapsed on the grass, unconscious with Prospect little better. Grace, 'in a quandary' decided to save one and dragged Dunne to shelter behind a rock, and then half dragged, half carried Prospect down the valley. They reached the boundary fence of the valley road after midnight, with the hut still three quarters of a mile away. They struggled into the teeth of the funnel wind.

The key to the hut, usually hidden under under a stone, was not readily found by Grace in the wild blackness and he smashed the window, gained entry and then dragged his companion inside. He lit a fire, wrapped Prospect in blankets before the stove, while both drank some brandy, kept in the hut for emergencies. Grace changed his clothes whilst Prospect slept and went into the night to find Dunne's car, which eventually started. It was not until near dawn that he drew upon help when they returned to the valley, on the way knocking on the doors of three farms leaving word for men to follow for help. Dunne's body was found lying at the edge of the lake where he had fallen, the inquest on the next day credited Grace’s actions but for a short lecture on the impropriety of rock climbing in the winter.

One of the climb descriptions begins in Chapter 3. 'Craig Ddu', which started by a fairly direct route. To the west of the highest point a V-shaped nick 'Hollt Y Cawr' (Giant's cut), an eastward course was taken to reach the crest as the map revealed that the ridge, which ran back to from one wall of the 'Hanging Valley', was more accessible from that side. At the foot of the precipitous mountain, the slope, almost all of firm rock at an angle of fifty degrees or so, striated horizontally to give excellent holds. The ascent, no more difficult than a staircase was easy and the terraces were wider than they looked from below. It took two hours to climb the two thousand feet from the 'Marchlyn Valley' to the 'Craig Ddu' ridge. The next ascent was that to Craig yr Ogof, which started with a field of boulders at its foot. The next stretch was eight hundred feet of unbroken climbing, the top nearly sheer,at  eighty degrees.

The cave was found via a chimney, eight hundred feet above a turf ledge, where a rest was taken and then a slab afterwards to a Rowan tree. About eighty feet of good holds, then a traverse to the right. A nice arete, an easier angle and maybe another hundred feet, and an easy lot of slabs afterwards with plenty of quartz. Large holds then grass afterwards, within a hundred feet of the cave at the end of the grass. The foot of the climb was split by a great fissure. The chimney was not wide- two to three feet . The climber wedged himself inside and wriggled up and sometimes the chimney narrowed so much that he came right to the outside and used holds on the jagged edge. Out of the fissure on to a steep-sloping shelf had proved hard work.
Although much steeper the slab strata ran easily with moves afforded on three holds. A shelf was reached and with an arm on a Rowan tree a rest taken before the next long Arete. Here the cliff folded and left a sharp angle with a void beneath and also to right and left. The rock was sound, the holds sufficient in size and frequency. The entrance to the cave had to be approached to the east or above the bulge in the cliff which appeared to form a broad ledge until it merged into the floor of Hollt y Cawr. There was a stretch of three hundred and fifty feet, which lay back at an easier angle with areas ingrained with quartz and others of turf that overlaid the rock.
A crack then fifty feet up, only two or three feet wide, possibly good for hand holds which passes the end of ledge and by the side of the cave with no way across.

The only way forward was on up the crack until above the cave where the slope eased off and was easily scrambled down. The last pitch proved far different with holds far apart and small. A crevice to take the first joints of the little fingers, a wrinkle of the rock that gave a friction hold for the side of his stockinged foot and but too rarely forming solid rock for a healthy grip. The crack led westwards and upwards at an angle of forty five degrees across the vertical face with no footholds beneath. Almost a hand-traverse. There was little chance to relieve the weight with the feet. Level with the cave with twenty feet to go to the ledge the crack petered out and recommenced after an interval of two or three feet. Somewhere above the cave, pressed hard to the face just to the left there was a small niche, which allowed the toes to be inserted and a stretch across the blank space to where the crack opened again to fall onto the ledge in front of Ogof y Cawr.

In Chapter 7 another 'Craig Ddu' climb is described, that of the 'Great Wall'. Eight hundred feet climbing a huge rock slab, reached by a ridge between a great cleft and the peak, broken but twice by large terraces. The first eighty foot pitch- the steepest of the climb- ended on a ledge. The initial part of the next pitch- an awkward place at the continuation of the slab- fifty feet up, the few holds petered out with only a vertical chute on the right, as if a giant had sliced a 'ten-yard sliver of rock with a semi-circular chisel'. A smooth, shallow gully known as the Slide. Ahead was the smallest of rock areas, large enough only to take the toe of one shoe and giving time only to secure a handhold. The distance across the Slide precluded a tentative essay with the foot and once launched, there was no going back onto the opposite foothold. A second or two of balancing and a grab for the handhold followed by the short climb up to the terrace . The next long pitch, with no secure place to stop and belay, needed the full run of the hundred foot rope between each climber.

A stop was needed at a point half way up the great slab between the terraces, standing in a small projection whilst the next climber's rope was belayed over a blunt spike of rock, between the knob and the slab. A long chimney above with a fold in the face like a partly opened book, had so obtuse an angle as to allow the back to be wedged against one wall and the feet against the other. In the very angle of the groove the rock was spilt, a thin crack ran right the way up where the chimney gave on to a long, easy-sloping slab studded with white quatrz.

In places the crack in the corner allowed the toe of a shoe, in others a stone jammed provided a hand hold. The walls of the chimney, smooth, with occasional footholds and not difficult, gazed over a void below. At the quartz area a firm rock knob allowed a rope tie. Enough to belay a man around his own body and call for another to come along. The first of the next two easy pitches of the Black Slab was studded with quartz, which provided gargantuan holds, and part of striated rock. The last pitch, difficult initially but straightforward to within twenty feet of the crest of the ridge, followed by a bulge in the rock, which made a very slight overhang. Standing on a small foothold below the bulge, a hand slid over to seek a hold above it. Careful not to lose balance in the attempt. Pressed tight to the face and straightening up in small increments and then boldly to capture the hold above.

The 'Black Arête' climb of Chapter 12 associated with the accident earlier in the book is on the north side of the 'Caders'. Of one thousand feet it started in a dark, wet gully, steep enough in places to be called a chimney, lined with loose stones and patches of turf. The gully took up nearly half the climb before being forced on to the face. The steep arête, sometimes not far off the vertical then appeared for some three hundred feet. The climb on the apex of the angle with three parts very thin. The arête eventually got very smooth with work needed to work back into the three or four feet wide gully. The only way up was the ‘chimney’ by using feet on one side and the back of the neck of the other up a gap of about four feet. Forty feet later the top of the pitch led to a ledge, a foot traverse outwards to work out above the gully and a look down the way already climbed as if you’re seeing through the wrong end of a telescope. The ledge led to the mountain ridge between 'Cader Gwynt' and 'Cader Fronwen'.

Firbank's account of this 'accident climb' begins with Grace the leader who worked his way up the right wall of the gully close to its floor, which lay at seventy degrees. Several holds were cleared of earth or moss by him and a belay reached at eighty feet. The next pitch, a ‘beastly greasy wall' was ascended as if it were a staircase and then off again on a hundred foot lead where he belayed and then led upwards. There was a repeat of things for the rest of the gully part until they reached foot of the Black Arete. Here the gully had become a rock chute with damp sheer sides. There was no way forward but by climbing out on to the Arete. About five hundred feet up the ground at the foot of the climb fell away so sharply that looking outwards did not 'light on level ground' for perhaps fifteen hundred feet. The Arete was thin, steep, the rock beautifully sound, horribly smooth and an exposed place because when they moved out from the gully there was an overhang below the point where the Arete was joined with a clear view between the legs into clear space. The area subject to the full force of the wind.

A rope was looped over a little spike on the edge of the Arete, the belay not much more than a matter of form and it was dusk as they reached the last pitch. They worked their way back into the gully from the great wide chimney pitch. There was a grass ledge at the base of the chimney and Dunne backed his way up six feet, then horizontally he lay across the chimney and moved one boot at a time, no more than a few inches. With his feet a little higher than his head he pushed behind his back with his hands until his head was above his feet and then he reached the top. There was only the foot traverse left and the turf of the hillside sloped to meet the end of it in no more than twenty feet.

Mark Hughes:2016 
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Friday, 7 October 2016

Rob Collister's 'Days to Remember'....reviewed

Without ever becoming a household name in the wider climbing/outdoor world, Rob Collister is well respected by those who are aware of his climbing achievements and his passionate involvement in all aspects of conservation and environmental protection. A long term mountain guide and explorer of his native peaks,the Alps and the Greater Ranges, Rob has always managed to balance his professional role with an active position championing the protection of our wildest places. Not least here in the mountain region of north Wales.

Commuting between his family home above the Conwy Valley to fulfil his professional responsibilities as a mountain guide in the Alps and beyond, the environmental impact of global warming and its dramatic effects on glacier erosion combined with a growing awareness of his own contribution to the problem through his frequent use of air travel, has led the author to a Damascene conversion in recent years, towards greener forms of travel. This ‘think globally-act locally’ approach to environmentalism has drawn him to not only reshaping his own lifestyle to lessen his carbon footprint but opened his eyes to the myriad ecological problems brought about here in Wales through national and EU policies which have effected real and lasting damage on our fragile ecosystems.

But first things first; ‘Days to Remember’ is not just a green manifesto, it is brim full of evocative essays drawn from a lifetime of mountain activities. From his time as a young student at Cambridge, taking his first steps in the Scottish winter scene; early forays in the Alps and adventures in the greater ranges of the Himalaya and South America. Figures like Dougal Haston and Dick Isherwood slot into his outdoor life and like so many young tyros who took their first steps in the outdoor world in the sixties, the envelope is well and truly pushed on many an occasion. Adventures springing from boundless enthusiasm in those early years rather than gradually honed experience and natural ability. Surviving through luck rather than skill as when climbing in Zanskar he pulled a rock the size of a football onto to his bare head when abseiling and had to be lowered back to base camp by his companions.

‘Days to Remember’ is neatly sliced into three distinct sections. The first part ‘Home Ground-Wales’ really captures the spirit of place. Anyone like myself familiar with the Welsh uplands will instantly recognise with the areas described in the author’s peregrinations. The ancient church of Llangelynnin above the Conwy Valley; if it has grown out of its craggy surroundings; the fragile and ancient land of the Rhinogydd. An area of cascading streams,hidden llyns and described by legendary climber and archaeologist, Pete Crew as ‘one of the richest ancient landscapes in Britain’. The lonely Arans, in recent times an area of bitter conflict between farmers and outdoor folk who risked incurring their wrath by stepping a millimetre off the courtesy path over the summits, and wo betide anyone who walked directly to climb on Gist Ddu!

These evocative descriptions of our homeland are each framed within an activity which has opened to door to the imagination. The aforementioned Aran essay springing from an impulsive decision to complete a circular expedition of the Arans on foot and by bike. In another essay, the author wanders over to Craig Ysfa one fair morning and solos up Amphitheatre Buttress and then on to the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn;  whose summit beckoned and it was much to fine a day to ignore the summons. A winter climb above Fynnon Caseg in the Carneddau when... a projecting sphere of rock on Carreg y Garth Isaf was tipped gold by the sun, as if freshly drawn from the molten core of the world. Within each essay, Rob’s love of both the natural environment and those activities which bring him close to that fragile theatre of dreams-running, climbing,skiing,winter climbing and cycling-shine through.

Part Two, 'Further Afield’, as previously mentioned, describes the authors' further adventures across the world. Essays which encapsulate the essence of foreign travel. The bureaucratic frustrations,the frisson of excitement that being totally alone in a wilderness brings. Coping with illness and stress and of course, the very real pressure that comes with confinement. Trapped with companions for weeks on end, when even the closest friendships are tested and relationships inevitably become strained.

In Part 3, ‘Issues’, Rob returns to many of those subjects raised in Part One. Matters of environmental concern which have impacted on the author both in a physical and spiritual sense through human mismanagement of the land. Sadly, many of these depressing ecologically degrading elements, whilst being carried out by individual landowners, are being driven by political factors both home and abroad. Even the most enthusiastic EU-rophile cannot fail to see the negative impact that many EU agricultural policies have had upon the countryside. The subsidised overstocking of the uplands with sheep, leading inevitably to previously diverse eco-systems become bare monocultures. The erection of giant agribarns, the gouging out of tracks over the mountains, the draining of ponds and wetlands, the grubbing up of hedges and copses. All subsidised by an EU agricultural policy which has placed profits above environmental protection.

Nowhere is this more vividly seen than in the area of stock fencing. As the author says of his north Wales uplands home, ‘appearing where no fencing has ever appeared before’. It is a phenomena that I have noticed on my travels. Shiny green fencing topped with pointless and in the circumstances useless barbed wire! Winding and rolling across the undulating hillsides in even the wildest bleakest landscapes which are devoid of sheep. Why is this happening? As the author points out, farmers can receive £9.00 per metre in EU subsidies for erecting fence yet they can hire contractors who will erect fencing for just £3.00 a metre. As you’ve guessed, fencing is not just taming and aesthetically despoiling the uplands, its a money making scam to boot!

As touched upon in the second paragraph, the final essay ‘More Adventure- Less Impact’ we find the much travelled author now fretting about his Doc Marten Size 12 carbon footprint! As someone used to flying here there and everywhere, both in a professional and recreational capacity- like the travel writer and BBC Coast presenter, Nicolas Crane who now refuses to use air travel period-without totally following in the umbrella man's footsteps and going completely 'Cold Turkey', Rob has decided, as far as possible,to dramatically reduce his flying time. Instead using rail travel to reach places within reach like The Alps, and totally abandoning any future trips to remote places like Antarctica.

In conclusion, Days to Remember brings together a wonderful collection of essays by a seasoned outdoor campaigner at a stage when his mountain career is winding down and he can take stock of new horizons. Although far from collapsing into his rocking chair, the essays convey a sense of both contentment at a life lived to the full, tinged with a wistful melancholia which springs from a love of the natural world and his observations that the land lies bleeding. In this his essays act as a signpost for those who care to look. Pointing the way towards a better way of living.

John Appleby:2016 

Days to Remember is published and available to buy from Vertebrate Publishing

Friday, 30 September 2016

Wild Country : Two Reviews.

Image: Vertebrate Pub
To business that we love we rise betime,
And go to it with delight.’

Despite an impressive back story, Mark Vallance has not figured other than rarely over the years in this country’s outdoor media. This despite the fact that he has been responsible for some of the activities major developments in equipment design, retailing and a lead role in the setting up of the first modern style climbing wall in the UK, The Foundry in Sheffield.

To start at the beginning of his book to set the scene, The Prologue, for whilst rock climbing in Spain at Pedriza north of Madrid, he first realised that he had  physical co-ordination problems, returning to the UK the symptoms worsened. This led on to a diagnosis of an early onset of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 54. For many this would have meant a retreat into a cosseted existence; a drug regime, pipe and slippers, but not for Mark. Despite the ongoing problems the condition imposed, he still managed some impressive climbs, particularly in the Himalaya over the next decade. But it has inevitably led to a long term physical decline, a real personal tragedy in that he had by the date of his diagnosis divested himself of his business responsibilities, with the intention of a long term active retirement, the diagnosis was in his own words a ‘bugger’. 

Vallance did have a silver spoon childhood, and schooling. His parents were Unitarian ministers, both mother and father, his maternal grandfather was a standout figure in that religion; who like Mark’s parents had graduated from Oxford, he even was the recipient of an honorary degree from Harvard. Mark was born in Cheshire in 1944, but the family moved to Chesterfield early in his life, and this was later to be crucial in his development as a climber. He was inspired in this by a viewing of the 1953 ‘Ascent of Everest’ film, and at his public school Abbotsholme near Ashbourne, his headmaster Robin Hodgkin had been an outstanding climber in the 1930’s, but who had suffered serious frost bite injuries on Masherbrum in 1938, yet he continued to climb despite having lost toes and fingers in a harrowing descent off that mountain in a storm.

Abbotsholme is seen as a progressive school, and Hodgkin ran as part of its curriculum outdoor pursuits, including climbing. At the school Vallance made friends with Nick Longland, the son of another outstanding pre-war climber, Jack Longland, and he like Mark was hooked on to becoming a climber. The early chapters of the book recount the days they spent developing their skills together in the Peak District, and further afield in North Wales. It was not like the working class introduction to the activity of the previous decade, ‘nowt but pluck, beginners luck, and his mother’s washing line’, but cycling out from Chesterfield into the Peak District, Mark was soon making some impressive climbs, leading such as Brown’s Eliminate at Froggatt Edge and later Cenotaph Corner on Dinas Cromlech whilst still a schoolboy in his gym pumps. These were very creditable leads in the early 1960’s. Through his friendship with Nick Longland, he became for a while firm friends with the latter’s father Jack, who welcomed him regularly into the family home in Bakewell, after a day spent climbing with his son. This friendship was to be badly damaged later over the Mountain Training dispute, when Mark sided with the BMC against a rival Educationalist group led by Jack. Longland did not speak to him again for many years after this, but in writing about this in his book, Vallance has the facts wrong about how this fractious debate was resolved. An independent arbitration group was set up by the Alpine Club, whose findings/recommendations were accepted by both sides to the dispute. John Hunt had no part in this as wrongly reported by Mark, but he had before the dispute escalated undertaken as head of a committee (of which I was the secretary) formed by the BMC, carried out an investigation into mountain training. This resulted in the publication of a booklet, known as The Hunt Report and it was the recommendations within this that so upset the educationalists, in that mainstream mountaineers through the BMC should play a much larger role in developing the policies surrounding mountain activities. The real reason why this had become such an acrimonious debate was there had been a succession of accidents involving young people on training schemes, culminating in the Cairngorm tragedy in 1971 when five young participants had died whilst taking part in an organised youth outing. This alerted the-none involved climbing world as to how serious in mountaineering terms some of these programmes really were.

We are all products of our environment and though Mark grew up in such a religiously inspired background, other influences persuaded him towards atheism. A great uncle had been Hermann Woolley, a pioneer climber at the end of the 19th century, who became a founder member of the Climbers’ Club and a President of the Alpine Club. In these early chapters he is honest in accepting he was privileged, and also that he was no great scholar academically, but the stubborn streak in him which was to emerge so strongly in his later business ventures and dealings, was honed by his early experiences as a young climber. This also led on to a desire to travel, to experience other worlds’ and so on leaving school he took a gap year in India. He was inspired to go there in part by reading Somervell’s autobiography ‘After Everest’, who after taking part in the 1922 and 1924 expeditions to that mountain, spent most of the rest of his life as a missionary surgeon in south India.

Through connections he obtained a post as a teacher at the Ramakrishna School near Calcutta. This was at a time in the 1960’s when the hippy trail and flower power led many westerners to visit India one of whom, the writer Christopher Isherwood fetched up one day at the Ramakrishna centre. Isherwood famous as a novelist recorded his views about meeting over lunch Mark and several others in his diary; about Vallance he wrote ‘met a handsome and sexy nineteen year old boy from Cheshire, named Mark Vallance who has come here to teach English-or rather, his no-shit Midlands accent’. Being an innocent abroad at that stage of his life, Mark had not realised Isherwood’s sexual orientation. India had a seminal influence on him and he found himself comparing the Unitarian faith with Hinduism, and having an enquiring mind attending with the students at the temple, their puja prayer ceremonies, but he concluded this was not for him. He also managed a trek up into the Kanchenjunga foothills, and the view of the Himalaya was to stay with him from thereon.

Returning to England in January 1965 he enrolled at Goldsmith’s College in London to read for a teaching degree. It was there he met his future wife Jan, a drama student, but the paths of true love were a roller coaster for them due to taking on subsequent challenges in far flung regions of the world, but a few years later they were to be married in the Falkland Islands. Whilst waiting to start his course in London Mark returned to his first love climbing. To do which he needed to earn some money, especially for a forthcoming Alpine season; he took a job drilling blast holes in a quarry, then another pouring concrete to help build a dam project in the Goyt valley. His alpine season was successful with routes climbed such as the Frendo Spur, the north face of the Lenzspitze and the north face on the Triolet, back then before the development of modern ice climbing equipment still notable ascents.

The pace now quickens in his book, with a compelling chapter on his two years experience working for the British Antarctic Survey, in Halley Bay, first as a general assistant, but ending as the Base Commander. He admits that living in the Antarctic changed him, with its raw beauty in such a challenging environment and in managing a group of dedicated individualists, mainly scientists from several different disciplines. It was to be for him truly educative. Finishing his BAS sojourn and en route to the USA via the Falklands, there he met his wife to be again, and Mark and Jan were married in Port Stanley. But climbers like Vallance need to move on with life, and leaving her there to finish a work contract, he took off to Colorado and the Outward Bound School for a post as an instructor. During which he also managed a lot of climbing in Colorado, and later in Yosemite where his wife joined him at the end of her contract. It was in Yosemite that the event occurred that would eventually change his life, the meeting and climbing with Ray Jardine the inventor and developer of the camming device which he named ‘Friends’. Jardine reads like a very brilliant but demanding character, in his day one of the best rock climbers in the world, pioneering the first 5.13 climb Phoenix, and a computer engineer who had worked in the aero space industry.

Returning to the UK with his wife, after a three years absence, Mark needed to find a job, and to his surprise after applying he was appointed to a post working in the Peak District National Park. I remember him well in this period, for he not only chaired the BMC’s ‘Access and Conservation Committee’, he also working with myself organised a symposium on these topics in North Wales. He seemed very happy in this work, first as schools officer then as the volunteer organiser, but an incident which happened on one of the latter courses soured his view of the work and he decided to move on. Undecided what to do next unexpectedly a letter arrived from Jardine, offering Vallance the possibility to manufacture his camming devices in the UK. I know from other sources that this was no act of charity on Jardine’s part, for he had arranged with Bill Forrest to manufacture them in the USA, but the arrangement fell through at the last moment. Forrest was also involved in developing outdoor equipment, but others such as the Lowe brothers had tried to design unsuccessfully camming devices, and this had led to a view in the USA which rather coloured against them. And so Jardine who had been impressed with Mark decided to try to persuade him to take this on, which he did with enthusiasm, obtaining a bank loan and a second mortgage to do so, and eventually setting up Wild Country to manufacture Friends.

This was in 1977 and few such innovations can have taken off so quickly, although the setting up of the manufacturing processes, were fraught with difficulty for a none engineer, but within six months sales had rocketed. Later to be assisted by an appearance on the BBC’s popular technology programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’, where Mark so confident in his product dived off the top of Millstone Edge to be stopped by his belayer, held by Friends placed as protection devices in a crack after a fall of many feet.

In an effort to globalise his business he took part as a member of a six man party of British climbers to Japan, fulfilling an invite to the BMC to send such a group to that country by its climbing Federation. In his book he describes near the end of the meet an incident on the killer mountain Tanigawa, on which almost 900 climbers had died in the years before this visit, but he has not go this quite right, for the Japanese climber who fell was away across the flanks of the mountain, and did not fall past Mark as he described. I know because I was there on the stance alongside him, climbing with a Japanese companion, Takao Kurosawa, but we did all go to the rescue of the injured climber and we all did agree that this was the most dangerous mountain any of us had ever been upon because of its looseness and constant rock falls. However the visit worked out well for Mark, for he set up a Japanese distributor for his products.

Much of the rest of the book is dominated by Vallance’s business story, for Friends were the platform for Mark to go on and build the ‘Wild Country’ brand, eventually developing into several other areas of outdoor equipment manufacturing tents, nuts and some clothing items. An illustration of his ability in this field was his design of another climbing protection aid, which he named Rocks. Probably the most successful range of nuts ever produced in this country. Business is an obsession like climbing, and over the next decade Vallance became the man with the Midas touch, developing further the Wild Country brand into the USA, setting up the Outside retail shop in Hathersage, and being one of the moving forces behind the setting up of the first modern indoor climbing centre in this country, The Foundry in Sheffield in 1990. An innovation which has now spread the length and breadth of the UK, and no one can forecast presently how this will affect the long term development of climbing. Vallance is sanguine about this, and writes that ‘if some participants wish to solely climb indoors this is OK by him’, but I am not so sure that this is a wise decision, for the recent debacle at the BMC over a failed attempt at re-branding, was caused I believe in part by an attempt to cajole into membership an ever growing number of indoor wall exercisers, with a swinging new name change, ‘Climb Britain’.

And writing about the BMC, surprisingly despite his diagnosis of Parkinson’s, Vallance took on at a time of crisis, the Presidency of the Council in 2002. He was a reforming figure head, and needed to take a firm line with the staff and members to achieve some of his goals. One, which I could never understand why he made such a big issue of was his wish to give the individual members a vote; he called this doing away with the ‘block vote’, but in any major issue in which a vote was demanded, the clubs still have votes to the size of their paid up membership. The Alpine Club 1400, the Climbers’ Club a 1000 and so on, that is if you have a one man, one vote system. The majority of individual members join the BMC for its services, and to support its aims, but few wish to involve themselves in the Council’s committees and such as the AGM. The current membership is over 80,000 more than half of which are individual members, if these did all of a sudden become politicised and keen to attend such as the AGM of the Council, it would need to hire Old Trafford for the event, but as it is, just a 100 delegates attended at the last such meeting. Mark did make a great contribution during his Presidency with a development along with Harvey’s, the specialist maker of maps, especially for mountaineering to popular climbing areas, e.g The Lake District. These have been a big success and have come to be used by many other groups besides climbers.

Although business dominated his life for the next two decades, Mark did keep on climbing whenever he could get away, including trips to the Himalaya when he ascended Shishapangma ( 8046m) and some other mountains and the Nose route on El Capitan. The latter with the late Hugh Banner; but once again in buttering up his companions climbing CV before their ascent, Mark repeats the old canard that his companion had made the first ascent of Insanity on Curbar, a route that Rock and Ice leaders had failed on. Whillans climbed this on sight in 1958, in the same year as Banner, the only matter in dispute is who made the first ascent, Brown had been part way up the route and swung left to create the harder climb L’Horla, and Martin Boysen and myself both led the route on sight in 1959 as recounted in his recently published autobiography, so all the Rock and Ice leaders involved were successful on that climb, Whillans, Brown and myself.

The chapters in the book dealing with the machinations around running his businesses are enough to put anyone off starting out on a similar road, sometimes they are so involved they are difficult to follow, as to who was taken over, who sold their shares, who sued who. The litigations, the lawyers, the argumentative falling outs, it all could make for a gripping TV drama series. Talking to others who have been in a similar position, running a medium size business, it seems de rigeur in an era of litigation that inevitably you will meet such challenges.

The book ends in a fine winding down sort of way, looking back on a life so vigorously lived, for I have missed out so much of the action including his later membership of the governing Peak Park Board, a successful completion of the Bob Graham round in the Lakes, the ultimate 24 hour challenge in that district, other long runs such as following the Marsden to Edale route, and a charity bike ride from the Lizard to Dunnet Head in north Scotland and continuing on to ride from the northern most tip of Ireland to the southern-most to raise funds for Parkinson’s research. 

For me reading a book in which so many of my own friends and acquaintances appear was a joyful experience, Dez and Ann Hadlum and John Evans in Colorado, Eric Beard, Johnny Cunningham and Eric Langmuir in Scotland; Peter Boardman, Steve Bell, Robin Hodgkin and Jack Longland and so many more. This is an outstanding book by an outstanding personality and it is a tragedy that it needs to end on such a sad note with failing vigour, decimated by a presently incurable disease, however he assures us that he is ‘still fighting gravity and always will’.

Dennis Gray: 2016
Original 'Friend'.Image Wild Country

Wild Country - The man who made Friends

Mark Vallance – Vertebrate Publishing

People had been telling Mark Vallance for years that he should write the ‘story of Friends’ – I know, because I was one of them. And what a story it would be, telling how a somewhat esoteric mechanical engineering concept was explored by a hotshot American climber who, by chance, met a climber from Derbyshire who was able to turn this into not just a commercial success, but probably the most influential climbing ‘gizmo’ since the rope was first used.

However Mark, being Mark, went several steps better than that and wrote the story of Mark Vallance – the man who made Friends. It’s a good thing that he did as there is far more to Mark’s story than the ‘simple’ development of Friends as a commercial product.

He is the slightly dyslexic son of a family of Unitarian Ministers – grandfather, mother and father all being in this profession, and all highly intellectual, gaining degrees from Oxford. He failed to match their prowess in his early academic life and didn’t ‘make the cut’ into his father’s old school, Sedbergh. As Mark notes - if he had gone to Sedbergh, he would have spent his school time unsuccessfully playing catch-up with those to whom academic learning came more easily. Instead, he won a bursary to Abbotsholme school near Ashbourne where an alternative approach to education and an emphasis on outdoor pursuits suited him better.   Here he formed a friendship with fellow pupil Nick Longland that is still close today and, through this, an entrée to the social and climbing world that Nick’s father Jack inhabited. When Mark applied to join the British Antarctic Survey some years later, the interviewer asked “How the hell did you manage to get references from Jack Longland and John Cunningham?”

His referees and BAS were astute – Mark excelled in the post and completed his time in Antarctica as Base Commander at Halley Base!  His time in Antarctica was followed by work at Colorado Outward Bound School and a meeting and much climbing with Ray Jardine, at that time one of the best climbers in America. Over the next few years Ray fiddled with and tweaked various home-made camming devices as potential assets for improving his own climbing through better protection. It was at this stage that Ray’s bag of secret prototypes acquired the name that was to change rock-climbing – a coded “Have you got your ‘Friends’ with you today?” Nudge..nudge…   when met at the crag. A much better name choice than Ray’s which was ‘Grabbers’.

Mark moved on from Outward Bound to return to the UK and took a job in a National Park, but it seems that he had been the only person who Ray believed to have understood both the functioning of Friends and their potential for changing climbing. Eventually this appreciation led to an offer from Ray of a world-wide manufacturing licence – a challenging prospect for a full-time officer in the Peak District National Park! What followed would indeed have made a good book in its own right as many technical design problems were overcome, patents acquired, sub-contracts arranged, marketing and sales begun and, eventually, a company name, Wild Country, was selected that, today owned by Salewa, is still one of the strongest brands in outdoor equipment.  Other ground-breaking [not literally!] products followed – ‘Rocks’ off-set nuts and ‘Quasar’ geodesic tents amongst them.

But there is much more to Mark’s life than this. Outside the demands of Wild Country, he started Outside gear shop in Hathersage, opened The Foundry climbing wall in Sheffield [the first of the modern walls] and continued to climb at a very high level. His fell-running too was serious stuff and he completed the Bob Graham Round. He climbed an 8,000 metre peak – Shishapangma – and, years after the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, got almost to the North Col on Everest. Later he cycled to the geographical extremities of Britain and Ireland in a one 1,600 mile push in order to raise awareness and research funds for this debilitating disease. Somehow, in between these activities, he found time to serve on the Peak District National Park Board, to become President of the Climbers’ Club for our Centenary year and later to take on the Presidency of the BMC. 

The man himself:Image- Wild Country

Mark writes with fluency and humour, even about the devastating diagnosis and consequences of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of only 54. This, for anyone, would be a crushing disaster and Mark’s sometimes brutal honesty puts his later achievements into a perspective that none of us would wish to face.  The story of his life flows quickly and engagingly – he has achieved much, but attributes his many successes largely to ‘luck’.  It is a good inspiring read which covers not just the life of a remarkable man, but gives a unique view of some of the developments in our world of climbing that these days we take for granted.

David Medcalf: 2016

David's review will also feature in the forthcoming Climbers Club Journal. My thanks to Dennis and David for their contributions

Wild Country is published and available to buy from Vertebrate Publishing



Friday, 23 September 2016

Voices from the Past

I stand and peruse the multi-faceted stacks, each calling for me to go to them and expose their treasures held therein. They look tired, dusty and have been ignored for far too long. They yearn for the touch of human hands, they long to be of value again, and they have a need to be seen, wanted and loved. I notice that some stacks are leaning to the left whilst others to the right but was relieved to note, that some were standing firm and resolute after all their years of being ignored. It was always my intention to visit the stacks to sample their delights in whatever shape or form that may be, yet every time I set off to carry out my intentions, I talked myself out of it and went off climbing somewhere.

One particular Sunday, I was not feeling too good and decided that this was the day I would go and visit the stacks and do what I had promised myself all these years to do. So there I was, standing in front of the stacks, shades of brown, rough, smooth edges, some higher than others and whilst others were more inviting than some, I forced myself to go to the one that was always the one that I thought about; standing alone on my far left with its wide base tapering into the small block that was its summit.

My hands started to shake at the expectant desire and fear that could well be my reward for daring to be here once again after so long an absence. Desire because I knew what delights I could experience and fear because of the possible outcome if I had made the wrong decision all those years ago.

I took a series of long deliberate breaths before reaching out my hands to the stack standing before me, it appeared to be leaning towards me as if to greet and old friend. I lifted the top cardboard box off the stack and blew off the dust that had slowly accrued on its summit surface, it had begun; the attic was going to get its first clean out and the contents of the boxes, would once again be revealed to my eyes. Excitement levels rose as I ripped off the sellotape, wondering why I had placed there instead of putting them in the bin as I was asked to do by my good lady wife who said my study resembled a magazine warehouse that had been hit by a hurricane.

A grin that would shame any self-respecting Cheshire cat, spread across my face as I saw the pile of old climbing magazines. As I sat down beside it, I knew this would be the only stack that would see the light of day, the rest would have to remain where they were for another forty odd years!

Excitedly as a child opening their Christmas or birthday presents, I lifted out the first magazine and flipped through it. The next magazine had a picture of Everest on its front page which invoked a memory going back to 1953 when I was nine years of age.

The school took us all to the local cinema in Fareham to watch a film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which included a few minutes of the first ascent of Everest. It was at this point that my life suddenly that day, had purpose – to be a climber.

As it turned out, within two weeks of seeing the news film, I was climbing on the rough walls of Portchester Castle and exploring the local area for rocks to climb, which came in the shape of old military installations and chalk quarry walls.

A few more magazines later, there was a picture on the front cover of the Eiger and I recalled that on 15th birthday, I got a copy of The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer, and after reading it, I wanted to be the first Englishman to solo climb the Eiger North Face. My heart rate had increased as the tsunamis of childhood memories came flooding back, not just the good, but the bad through the loss of so many good climbing partners and companions – Chalky White killed in the Alps – Tom the Milky Bar Kid killed in Snowdonia – Geordie Brown killed in Cyprus – and recently, Rup killed on Ben Nevis in Scotland. At this point, I decided I had had enough of clearing out the attic and what was needed, was a quick drive to Headend Quarry on the Caldbeck Hills to celebrate the lives of those friends I had lost, and of course, to satiate my desire for climbing rock.

As I started to pile the stack of boxes back up, one slipped out of my hands and fell to the floor where it spilt it contents like the Langdale Scree slopes. I got a plastic box and started to put them in. The last item I picked up was a toned copy of a 1975/76 Durham University Mountaineering Club Journal which I had totally forgotten I had. I carefully stacked the boxes back up, shut the attic door and with the booklet in hand, went down to my study where I intended to read it to refresh my memory banks of my time as a student at Durham when I spent more time climbing on the Belling, Causey Quarry, Bowden Doors, Shittlington Crags, Crag lough and Peel crags, Simonside crag and a host of others, rather than in lectures.

Sitting in my study with the coffee machine spluttering into the pot, I started to read the Journal. Names of my fellow committee members invoked smiles, grins and images of them and what we looked like back in the 1970’s with our long unkempt hair and couldn’t-care-less attitude.

I immersed myself in a world of memories as I read every word that was typed, smiled at the matchstick images that represented the world of climbing mishaps, and felt very nostalgic when I read my own articles and and interpretations of the psyche of the ‘student climbing scene’.

Then towards the end of the small A5 stapled Journal, two articles struck a chord and which related to my earlier mentioning of the loss of so many good climbing companions. The first was an article titled ‘Alpine or Siege’ by Pete Boardman (pages 23/24), and the second article was titled ‘The Dinner Climb’ by Trevor Jones (pages 48/49).

I had forgotten that they had contributed articles to our small and insignificant Mountaineering Club journal, and realised that these were lost gems of voices from the past. I decided to share them with you, by reproducing them exactly as they were written.

Frank Grant: 2016

Pete Boardman:Vertebrate
Alpine or Siege
Climb Everest in September, be at home by October’. So read the graffiti on the boudoir walls of the camp II superbox. and all the climbing team of the British Everest Expedition South West Face 1975 were agreed – we were there because it was Everest and we wanted to climb it soon and go home. Alpine style is the ethic for the Himalayas of the ‘70’s, and the ascents in 1975 of Dunagiri and Gasherbrum proved this. Nick and Chris thought of their ascent of Brammah I, Doug thought of Baffin, Tut and Ronnie thought of the Pamirs, I thought of my climbs in the Hindu Kush and Alaska. It’s a matter of as much how you climb as the peak that you climb, how you draw the line between the possible and the impossible, between adventure and safety, impulse and planning, irresponsibility and spontaneity.

And yet there was the South West Face of Everest,8,000ft looming up to a plumed summit. Access to its secrets had only been achieved after a 2,000ft ice fall and a two mile walk under the dangerous flanks of Nuptse and up the Western Cwm at 21,000ft. Yes, in September 1975 looking up at the Face we felt humbled and that our big expedition was justified and that we were only capable of puny ant-like scratchings. For I was to discover that, beyond the end of the fixed ropes, there is a sense of total alpine commitment. It seems worthwhile to describe that sensation.

“Mount Everest, the Highest Point of Earth”. As a child I had two favourite picture books. One was written in the 1930’s and was called “The Winder Book of Wonders”. It had a picture of Everest, white- an ethereal rising in the distance out of the great brown plateau of Tibet. The caption beneath it briefly, enigmatically, described the disappearances of Mallory and Irvine on the summit slopes in 1924.

 The second book, “Adventure of the World” had a painting of the summit of Everest as the only peak visible, thrusting out of an endless sea of clouds, with the tiny figures of Hillary and Tenzing standing on the summit.

The 26th of September- the day I reached the summit with Sherpa Pertemba- started with a scene just like that second picture – it was as if a forgotten bell in a distant room in the picturehouse of my mind had been rung. We were moving across the great traverse of the upper icefield above the Rock Band, towards the gully that led up to the south summit. We had left the end of the fixed ropes and were now moving free and unroped, committed to our attempt. The cloud layer was up to 27,800ft, for the weather was changing. Below us there was an infinite cloud sea. Above us the wind was blowing ice particles off the summit ridge that were shimmering in the sunlight.

Our summit day ended in the tragic death of Mick Burke and Pertember and I having to get back in the dark to Camp 6 – a painful memory. But that morning traverse for me held the key to Everest magic.

Peter D. Boardman
December 1975  


The Dinner Climb

“You are old Father Jones” the young maiden said “and do you really expect to lead our young heroes up Praying Mantis?” “Of course dear child for I have 28 years of skill, experience and bullshit”.They twirled around the dance floor, alcohol slopped into his eyeballs and caused a qualm about trying a hard climb after a five month lay-off.

 By this time the young heroes were wrestling on the dance floor. Father Jones remembered the two bones he had broken whilst fighting. The broken leg over a disputed 17 year old beauty. The broken nose over being in bed with a young lady in circumstances which probably should not be explained in a journal as pure as this. Next morning, Fred, Chris and Andy together with Father Jones looked up at the leering crack of the first pitch of Praying Mantis, a rotting bootlace sling hung limply half way up.

Father Jones rushed at it in a bridging sort of layback. Just before the bootlace his dentures became dislodged. A vast National health bill seemed possible. He retreated. Fangs in position, he rushed again and lodged in a niche with a compression on a quarter of a cheek; feet flapping and trembling aimlessly. A high step and it was done.

Fred, Chris came up like wing gazelles but Andy lost interest and decided it was butty time.The last pitch was overhanging in its middle part the holds were all wrong. Suddenly he remembered Joe Brown’s advice “when its ‘ard, get yer leg right oop about yer ‘ead”. This Mancunian advice resulted in Jones's foot shooting off. The resultant heavy breathing was heard in Carlisle. It started to rain on the final few moves, but with one quick bound he was up.

Sunday night conversation:-
"Did you have a nice time with the young people dear?'....'Yes.'

'Did you hit anyone?'.....'No.'

'Did you crash the car?'....'No.'

'Did the police get you again?'....'No.'

'Were you sick?'....'Certainly not'.

'Where did you sleep?'....'In a tent.'

'What about your arthritis?'....'No reply.'

'Were there birds?'....'Er, can’t remember.'

'Did you climb?'....'Yes.'

'Did you fall off?'....'No.'

'Sounds as though it was a bit of a bore. Oh and by the way, I left the dinner dishes for you to wash up.'

Trevor Jones

The sorrow of death is not in the passing, but what could have been in life