Thursday, 17 April 2014

Prisoner of War

Bill Murray,Bill McKenzie,Archie McAlpine after the 2nd ascent of Rubicon Wall-1937:Photo Douglas Scott/SMC

Mountaineering in Scotland was the product of three years in prison camps. It was hammered out in Czechoslovakia and Germany. The first year, under the Abruzzi mountains of Italy, saw only a preliminary stoking of fires.One of Rommel's panzer divisions had scooped me up from the desert in June 1942. The first year at Chieti had nearly wasted away before I shed lethargy. My imagination took fire at last from two slow-burning matches. The first was my daily view of the Gran Sasso's snow cap. It kept mountains alive in my mind. The second was the recurring thought of a German tank commander, whose capture of me had an element of comedy that Samivel the cartoonist, might have enjoyed. I had seen nothing funny at the time.My battalion of Highland Light Infantry had been whittled down in battle to fifty men. My brigade in the headlong retreat to Alamein was left astride the coast road south of Mersa Matruh to stop the 15th Panzer Division.

Their tanks came in after sunset twenty abreast. Our two-pounder guns hit them on the nose at point-blank range. Their armour bloomed red where the shells glanced off in showers of sparks. The tanks staggered, but came on. They machine-gunned the ground for five minutes till all was still. Then the crews climbed out to deal with any survivors. I was one of the lucky few. I rose to my feet and was faced by a young tank commander. He waved a machine-pistol at me. He and it shook. He had been rattled about in his tank like a pea in a tin can, not knowing what hit him. He was just as raw-nerved as I. In his position, with crying need to release tension, I could imagine myself squeezing the trigger. I held my breath while he took quick stock. To my astonishment, he forced a wry smile and asked in English, "Are you not feeling the cold?" The question was not daft. The desert is very cold at night if one is still wearing shirt and shorts, but not till then did I notice it.

I replied, "Cold as a mountain top." He looked at me, and his eyes brightened. "Do you mean — you climb mountains?" He was a mountaineer. We both relaxed. He stuffed his gun away. After a few quick words — the Alps, Scotland, rock and ice— he could not do enough for me. "When did you eat?" he asked. I reckoned, "Two days ago." He led me over to his tank and produced bully beef, biscuits, beer, chocolate, and an army greatcoat, all British. "Take them," he grinned. "Loot from Tobruk." We shared the beer and toasted "Mountains."

An hour later, he and his tanks clanked away, heading for Cairo (he hoped). I was left to the less tender care of Italian infantry. I often wondered about that climber, whose name I never heard. He had come unbroken from the Russian front. I wondered whether he survived El Alamein. The wondering kindled my urge to write, but that was stultified by want of paper. The urge became compulsive. The clincher was my receipt from the Red Cross of Shakespeare's Complete Works, printed on thin India paper. As I took this in my hand, I could not help reflecting what excellent toilet paper it would make, thus freeing my ration of Italian toilet roll for use as writing paper. I felt confident that William Shakespeare would approve. I sat down to work that very day, but the page stayed blank.

I had no doubt what I should write. I should write about good climbs, and these only. My zest for mountains was felt and expressed on hard routes, on rock, snow and ice, and not only in walking the hills. I wanted to share the experience. That was the first compulsion (others grew later). Mackenzie, Dunn, MacAlpine and I had teamed up in 1936, when the time was ripe for progress. Almost nothing had been done on ice, or on snow and ice bound rock, for twenty years. We had taken to the long ridges and buttresses on Nevis and Glencoe. Planning in advance was needed to catch the right weather-cycles and take the rocks under snow and ice of the right quality and quantity.

Our aim was to climb the routes not when easy but hard, and sometimes with massive accumulations of ice. We made mistakes, and our first attempt on Garrick's Shelf on the Buachaille was one. I had taken the lead high up when I landed on a run of verglassed slabs at dusk, just when the worst blizzard in twenty years was breaking. We took fourteen hours to get down in the dark. We turned this defeat to good account — always thereafter we carried pitons and karabiners and maybe a sling to secure retreat. We never drove a piton as direct aid, but occasionally did for belays. Another lesson we learned was the practicality of climbing by torchlight if the winter route was known. Thereafter we devised head-torches, and proved them invaluable on the longer climbs when conditions would otherwise have stopped an ascent.

Apart from head-torches, the main equipment changes were the slater's hammer and long ropes. The normal ice-axe had a 33-inch shaft. The wrist strain of prolonged, one-handed cutting above the head was severe, and a slater's pick with a 14-inch shaft eased it greatly — the climbing time on a pitch could be almost halved. I reckoned that the ten shillings I paid to an ironmonger for my first pick was the best-spent money I ever laid down on a counter. I have rarely enjoyed anything in life more than cutting up a long, high-angled ice-pitch where the balance was delicate. The craft used had to vary with the quality of the ice: white, green, blue, black, brittle, and watery, each had a quirk of its own, which had to be learned until one could tell them apart at a glance and cut accordingly. We still used the adze of the long axe to cut handholds on white ice, for that was faster.

No climbers carried crampons on Scottish hills; they were not reckoned worth their weight, for the tricouni-clinker nailing gave a non-slip grip on hard snow, allowed much neater footwork than crampons on snow and ice-bound rock, and allowed too an occasional 'miracle' to be pulled off on thin brittle ice that ought to have peeled. I used to call such moves levitation for want of a better word — nothing so crude as a step up, but rather a float up, with no weight placed anywhere so far as humanly possible. It worked if you hit top form, and got Mackenzie and me up some nasty places on Garrick's Shelf, Deep-Cut Chimney, and the like.Hardly more than a dozen climbers in Scotland were involved in such work. The rest had little notion, and most none at all, of what Scottish rock could offer in winter. Many had the idea that our climbs were 'unjustifiable' (then a fashionable word for damning hard moves and routes). A few, when I first produced my slater's pick with its 14-inch shaft, had called me a poseur, for they had no conception of its use. I wanted to dispel ignorance of the rich harvest available on winter rock, and to propagate the fierce joys of fetching it in — I say 'fierce' in deference to Scottish weather.

Such were my limited thoughts when I first put pen to to paper in Italy. Without diary, maps, or books to refresh memory, I feared I should lack detail of the climbs, which could not be spun  out to chapter-length. I was right, but the daily concentration of  mind in trying to remember, continued day after day for weeks,  I gave at last a most astonishing result. Memory began to yield up what it held more and more freely, until it came in a flood. Every detail of experience was suddenly there, and in full colour. Nothing  had been forgotten. I discovered that memory safely holds all experience in minutest detail, and that what fails (from disuse) is the ability to pull the record out of its pigeonhole. The deprivation of reference material became a gain. Every climb had to be re-lived, which in writing terms means re-created.

I have since believed that the main reason for the dullness of many an expedition book is the author’s too easy access to diaries and printed matter. These allow him to write without re-living—a trap all the more easy to fall into when time is short and distractions many. The book, then, was going well when the Allies invaded Sicily late in 1943. The Germans dropped parachute troops on ' Chieti. We were herded into cattle trucks and trundled over the Brenner pass to a concentration camp in Bavaria. The place (Moosburg) was infested with fleas and bugs, and packed with 20,000 starving Poles and Russians. They fought over any black bread we passed to them. Writing was impossible for the next two months. I had no paper.

 We were moved at last to a camp in Czechoslovakia, Oflag ' VIII F at Mahrisch Trubau. I fell foul of the Gestapo on arrival. In a personal search they found my MS. The fact that I was secreting it on my person, not carrying it openly, aroused their worst suspicions. (A coded record of things seen in Germany?). l was photographed, finger-printed, interrogated. When I said what it was, and that I carried it under my shirt only for safer transport, they dropped their eyes to the desk and believed not a word. These were the first men I'd met who could put a shiver up my spine.They looked hard-eyed of course, but not mean or nasty, for that implies an element of humanity. I had not before appreciated how much good there is in the common criminal. The Gestapo agent was a man from whom all good had been wrung out, and the result was an animated corpse. My flesh crept. Not till then did I understand why this war had to be fought. I had known only Rommel’s  Afrika Korps, and they had my respect. The tank commander had won more than that from me.

War, I had felt, was a bloody lunacy. I Now I knew that this one had been inescapable. They had to let me go, but I never saw the MS again. Its loss hit me hard at the time, yet proved another blessing in disguise. At Mahrisch Trubau I began afresh, this time screwed to a new frame of mind by worsening conditions.The thousand bomber raids were unleashed on Germany. We 
were living on frosted turnips and potatoes—often only their peelings—a starvation diet of 800 calories a day. The guards dared no longer turn their Alsatians into the compound at night, for they went straight into the pot, and the skins would be hung over the fence before morning. Stray cats went the same way.

The Russians were on Rumania’s frontier. We had reports that the SS were under orders to machine-gun camp inmates on Russia’s path of advance. We agreed that no escapes should now be allowed. Our escapers I were invariably caught by the Gestapo, truncheoned, incinerated and the ashes returned to the camp of origin. The tunnels we'd made had to be freed from the searches that escapes entailed, and  so kept for emergencies. I no longer believed I’d climb mountains again, but felt blindly determined to get the truth about them on to paper. I no longer wanted to write just of hard climbs, or to enlighten anyone. I was writing because I must, all humbug shed off, and with it all understatement of difficulty, all exaggeration of danger, all reticence about feeling. The whole mountain scene was vivid in mind and detail. I now had good paper, had learned how to ignore distractions, and could write fast. I had in mind to say what I’d found of beauty, effort, fun, and delight. I would try for the truth only, and while knowing it could never be said, still I would try.

I finished the first draft on my birthday in March 1944. It was the day of the war’s greatest air raid. 4,000 planes had bombed Frankfurt. The fall of Rome and invasion of Normandy followed. We knew all this, for the engineers had built a wireless set and we published the BBC bulletins daily. When the Russians burst through Rumania that summer we were evacuated to Germany, and imprisoned in a former Luftwaffe barracks in a wood near Brunswick. I returned to the MS again and again at Brunswick, trying to get it right. My main anxiety was at first the Gestapo. They had still to be dodged, for their searches went on. They were maddened by our daily publication of the BBC News, to which their own people were not allowed to listen. They searched everywhere but the right  place. The set was plugged into the power line vertically under the electrified barbed-wire fence. The tunnel entrance was right out in the open compound, where they never thoroughly looked (the trap door was invisible). Random interrogations continued, but I would not again be caught with the MS on my body.A greater risk was soon bomb-blast.

The British and American armies were through France, and the Russians in Hungary. Day and night, the Allied air fleets were overhead. During these last nine months we saw neither sky by day nor stars by night -all was obscured by a vast pall of dust and smoke rising off the burning cities all around. Brunswick, Magdeburg, Hanover,and most others were engulfed. One daylight raid wiped out our German garrison, but we were unaware of it. Stupefied, we could see nothing through the wall of flaming trees round the barracks. I carried the MS under my tunic at all times, for the Gestapo menace had gone. They were off to more congenial tasks. A big purge was on following the attempt by Rommel and others to kill Hitler. Each time a general surrendered on the Russian front, public notice was given that vengeance had been taken on his family and friends. Earlier reports of the SS machine-gunning prisoners in eastern camps were confirmed. We knew it could happen here at any time.

Our twelve new tunnels running under the perimeter wire were kept A strictly unused. There had to be a last-minute chance of mass escape— supposing we were strong enough to make it. We had been given too little food for too long. TB was rife. My finger-nails were corrugated from vitamin-lack, and my hair thinning. l could no longer walk around the camp without feeling dizzy, nor climb stairs without palpitation of the heart. Hopes of survival had dimmed a bit. Day and night we dreamed of food; otherwise not once over the last year had I felt imprisoned. I lived on mountains and had the freedom of them. I waited on the machine-gunners without concem. Most of us had found our own ways of doing this. But we did prepare ourselves. At the end, the American 9th Army beat the SS to the gates. l remember still my first ration of one chocolate-bar—the swift run of heat through the body as if from neat whisky.

In May l945, I returned from the freedom of prisons to the chains of civilised society. Dent took the book. They asked for changes where I’d expressed myself too openly. I could see their point, but refused. The book had to be as it was, written from the heart of the holocaust, and not as if written on home ground.

WH Murray: Mountain 1979

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Eric Gill: to the Mountain

IT WAS during the long cold winter of 1923 that the renowned artist and craftsman, Eric Gill, arrived on a dark and snowcast night at the head of the remote Vale of Ewyas, deep in the Black Mountains. Gill's journey of discovery with his young family on this most inhospitable of nights, brought him to a deeply secluded derelict dwelling which was to be the artist's home for the next four years. Arriving around midnight, Gill and his family entered the rambling Victorian Gothic monastery of Capel y Ffin. Gill later described his first vision of Capel y Ffin as "a weirdly exciting business." The old monastery stood in splendid isolation in the heart of the Black Mountains and offered Gill the opportunity to recreate his vision of an independent and self sufficient artistic and religious community living a life of creativity and spiritual fulfillment, gloriously divorced from the humdrum if hectic urban life.

Today Gill is best known as a sculptor and typographer of international stature. One of his best-known works is that of Prospero and Ariel which stands above the entrance of the BBC's old Broadcasting House. As a designer of typeface, Gill created the universally accepted Gill sans-serif and Perpetua, among more than half-a-dozen typefaces produced by this,the most versatile artist/craftsman since William Morris in the mid 19th century. There is a fine example of Eric Gill's work in North Wales. Gill was a frequent visitor to Chirk Castle on the Welsh/Shropshire border. In the early 1920s he designed and carved the town's war memorial, which stands in the centre of the bustling little village just off the busy A5. How many motorists travelling into North Wales must have passed by the monument without ever realising its significance and stature of its creator?

When Gill and his family moved into Capel y Ffin in August 1924, Gill had a dream to create in this "wondrously beautiful valley" a home and work environment that would attract an artistic colony of kindred spirits. He imagined that Capel y Ffin would soon become a rural idyll that would sustain and nurture a bohemian community of artists and crafts-people, drawing in the brightest and best of its contemporary arts movement. Coincidentally, 60 years earlier an Anglican clergyman, Father Ignatius, had held a similar dream. His vision,like Gills',was to transform Capel y Ffin into a centre for spiritual awakening and contemplation, sustained by a self-sufficient lifestyle. It was his dream to revive the Benedictine monastic lifestyle within the tranquil setting of the lovely Vale of Ewyas. The remoteness of the valley, sheltered geographically from the harsh realities of the outside world, seemed an ideal location to revive the high principles of the Benedictines. However, for Father Ignatius the remote position of Capel, with its uncompromising winter climate, defeated his quest and with his handful of followers,he was forced to abandon the valley.

Although Gill had intended Capel y Ffin to become a place of pilgrimage and high artistic ideals, his Spartan home failed to lure the host of like-minded artists and craftspeople from their metropolitan comforts. Despite his growing reputation in the arts movement, the flood of artistic creativity into Capel y Ffin was never more than a trickle of talent. During the early period of Gill's residency at Capel y Ffin he was joined by his friend, the highly regarded printer, Count Kessler. Kessler, however, was unimpressed by the monastic lifestyle that Gill had adopted and soon departed. After Kessler's return to more hospitable climes Gill was joined by the soon-to-be-acclaimed artist/poet David Jones. Jones's stay at Capel y Ffin from 1925 until 1928 was to be the Welsh artist's longest period of residence in his native land. It was at Capel y Ffin that Jones met Rene Hague, the printer. Hague was later to print Jones's epic poem In Parenthesis. In his poetry and art, Jones betrayed a deep fascination with the Arthurian legend. Capel y Ffin provided the artist with a rich source of Arthurian inspiration, for on his native hills and valleys Jones drew deeply, and readily transferred the inspiration the land gave into words and brush strokes.

Within four short years Capel y ffin was again empty. Eric Gill's dream-like Father Ignatius before him- had foundered on Capel y Ffin's geographical remoteness and a harsh winter climate that  deterred all but the most hardy. When Eric Gill crossed over the border into England he left behind him more than a gothic homestead; he left behind a dream that still draws people into rural Wales today. In his heart Eric Gill never left Capel y Ffin and the rugged land that so captured his imagination. He returned in the early 1930s to stay with one of his daughters, who had since settled in the area. It was during this period in the Black Mountains that Gill wrote his remarkable biography.

Throughout this work Gill refers to the rural idyll that had so inspired him in the Vale of Ewyas. Although factors outside his control had defeated Gill's inspiring plans for Capel y Ffin, he always remained true to his ideals and always regretted his failure to inspire others to join him in his artistic heaven deep in the Welsh mountains.

Today Capel y Ffin is a private residence, although the chapel built by Gill is open to the public. Above the altar is a painting by David Jones. An image of spiritual awakening within a building that resonates with Eric Gill's sublime vision of artistic and spiritual fusion.

John Appleby: First published as 'The Sublime vision of Eric Gill' in Country Quest Dec 1991

Friday, 4 April 2014

Carpetbagging on Lliwedd

A few days later came news from Holland and I. A. R. that made me jump. There had been great doings after I left. More ascents of the Holly-Tree Wall, a new and apparently hair-raising climb—the Oblique Buttress—on Glyder Fach and a series of climbs on Lliwedd. It was the final episode on Lliwedd that gave me the shock. Holland, always very adroit with knee-jam methods in climbing, had been destroying the knees of his breeches at an alarming rate. Blodwen, the chambermaid at Pen-y-Gwyrd, used to get half a crown from him for each repairing job she did. This was becoming, since he tore them through every second day, a serious drain upon his pocket, so he gave her instructions to find something to patch with that would be guaranteed not to wear through again. What she found was a piece of excellent Axminster carpet, and for a while Holland was very proud of a red and green decoration that distinguished him from all other visitors in the region. It had its disadvantages, however, and from these derives my story.

He and I. A. R. had been climbing without a pause through a long spell of fine weather. Perhaps they grew stale. Whatever the reason, they were suddenly attacked by a fit of 'out of form' mistakes that nearly put an end to them both. One evening after a long day on the East Peak—up and down the Shallow Gully, the Great Chimney and Route II—they had gone up the Central Chimney as far as the Summer House. Puzzled, as others have been, by the route ahead, they came down with the intention of working it out thoroughly on another day. And next morning they were back early at the foot of the climb. The Central Chimney Route starts with a steep fifty-foot groove, then comes a traverse to the right with a tricky step up over a very steep exposed corner. Now the evening before they had been twice across the passage, up and down, without trouble or hesitation.

This morning, however, I. A. R. when leading found himself suddenly and without warning at a loss in the very middle of the tricky movement. As he wrote to me, the experience was utterly unexpected, something he had never known when leading before. It was like forgetting a familiar name. In a flash he forgot everything about the pitch, he didn't know where any of the holds were, or what he had done, or what he should do, and this in a position half-way between one balance and another, a position in which it was impossible to stop and wait. He was just beginning to fall off when his hand, wandering over the rock behind him and out of his sight, happened on a hold and saved him. Now unexpected holds are not common on such pitches on Lliwedd. He lost no time in rejoining Holland in the Chimney and explaining that he was 'off' leading for the day, and they agreed that they had better go to something easier.

They chose the Far East Cracks on Lliwedd's Eastern-most peak, partly because Holland had lately been fre­quenting it with Odell and others, and it was new to I. A. R. Holland had invented a special direct finish of his own that he was anxious to demonstrate. So down they went; I. A. R., still rather shaken, going first so as to have the rope above him. He had hardly come to the first halting-place when, with an exclamation, down came Holland sailing through the air on top of him! What had happened was this. He had begun his descent by curling his carpet-clad knee into the recesses of the groove in his favourite fashion, quite forgetting that it was not as his knees usually were. It slipped out, and, as at that instant he had no other holds, off he came. He landed luckily astride I. A. R.'s neck and the two of them managed to stay where they were. Though the distance they had to fall is not very great, it might have been quite enough!

It has often been remarked that mischances tend to come in threes. They agreed that they had better be very careful indeed about the third as they walked over to the Far East Peak. All went well up the climb, Holland leading, until they reached the beginning of his new direct finish. The whole thing is a long V-shaped groove, of the type so characteristic of Lliwedd, like a slightly opened book and very steep. It is punctuated by little patches of grass in the back of the V, which make ledges on which the leader can rest and the second man join him. At the top, the groove is closed by a wall, but there are ways of escaping to easier ground on the right and left which are usually taken.

Holland's direct finish went up quite straight for sixty feet or so, very exposed and even steeper than the groove below. The crags underneath plunge down for 400 feet and the steep screes at their foot make the height seem much greater.I. A. R. was placed in the last reach of the groove, standing on an earth patch which is about the size of a dinner plate, playing the rope round a belay as big as his thumb. Holland went on to attack the wall above. He had climbed up about fifty-five feet when I. A. R. was alarmed to notice that the method required for finishing the pitch was that very identical knee-jamming that had led to the' mischance in the Central Chimney. The rope meanwhile was finding the belay most unaccommodating and kept slipping off as it was paid out. The leader's progress now came to a halt and I. A. R. became more and more uneasy. Holland was stretched out, his hands high up on what were evidently none good holds. The carpet-clad knee was writhing and writhing in a shallow furrow, the other toe at full stretch wason a small hold below. Then it was brought slowly up to a sloping nick to the side; it slipped off; and. I. A. R. could see Holland's whole body shake with the extra tension.

His own position was then that described by Archer Thompson, a connoisseur in exposed situations, as follows...

 The spot thus reached is hardly a landing-place—it accom­modates one foot only, but the desired rest can be obtained by leaning well back against a projection; in this half-recumbent attitude above and athwart the crack we are in a good position to enjoy the circumambient air, a wide view of the face, and an unobstructed outlook over Cwm Dyli 

He was beginning to expect bad trouble and fortunately just then caught sight of a flange of rock on the right of his groove at about the level of his shoulders. Quickly he levered himself across the groove until he was lying braced with both feet on one wall and a shoulder on the other. Then he looked again to see how the leader was getting on. Holland was still in the same position wrestling with the same problem. Up again came the toe to the sloping nick, wavered on it, then the whole body lifted and the toe slipped off! Out came the carpet knee that should have taken the weight and the jolt plucked his straining finger-tips from their holds. Without a word Holland slipped down a little, then fell out backwards and came like a loose sack, head-over-heels, down the wall. At this instant I. A. R. noticed that the rope had again worked off the belay.A body is travelling fast by the time it has fallen fifty feet down cliffs of the angle of these. I. A. R. avers that Holland was making quite a loud whizzing noise in his fall before he caught him, and that he swerved a good deal in his flight. There was no use now in worrying about the rope, the thing to do was to catch the climber. Actually he landed, head down, face out, between the cliff and I. A. R., who clutched him wildly round the thighs. Then a moment passed during which, rather slowly, they realized that they had not gone; they were still on the crags and alive; and
then Holland began to climb up round the outside of I. A. R.'s bridged body and re-establish himself right-side up on the little grass ledge.

The first thing now was a solemn lighting of Holland's pipe. I. A. R. says that Holland's hands were absolutely steady as he sheltered the match. Then the vitally important question of the plaster-cast round Holland's arm had to he looked into. It proved to be a good deal chipped, but the arm inside was all right. Holland now was for having 'another shot' at the pitch. He always seemed to me not to know what fear is, and this was an example of his indomitability. But I. A. R. had been watching and had had enough. So he vetoed the motion. They went down instead, as quickly as they knew how, to easy ground. This evidently was right, for in ten minutes' time the effect of the shock showed. Though Holland remained as cheerful and composed as ever, puffing his pipe tranquilly as he worked his way down, every muscle soon began to shake and shiver. They were glad to get off the climb, coil up the rope and go off to Gorphwysfa for a soothing drink.

Later I came to know the scenes of these adventures better. Easter days, when there were snow-banks at the foot of the gullies, Whitsuntide days, when hawthorn whitened Cwm Dyli and overhung the bathing-pool. Odd week-ends whenever I could fit them in, framed between night journeys in which the endless serried lights of Crewe shunting-yards seemed the great gateway to the hills. Through a week of cloudless June weather, with Holland, with H. M. and Pat Kelly, I almost lived on Lliwedd's East Peak. We would get to the foot of the Avalanche Route or Paradise while it was still early, go up and down all the summer day, and would be lingering by the summit cairn late into the dusk. The sea-gleams turned from gold to silver, ' Siabod and the Glyders grew smooth and blue with haze before we ran down back to Pen-y-Gwryd for a specially arranged cold ten-o'clock supper. It seemed impossible to go down while the shadow of Crib Goch was still creeping up and the crest of Lliwedd glowing in the last sunshine.

How could one sit at a dinner-table through the most beautiful hour of the day? We went up most of the well-known Lliwedd climbs, though not the Far East Cracks! I remem­ber once the string of Holland's sack breaking, while I was struggling to move quickly down the Shallow Gully, and thinking my last hour had come as a shower of missiles began to bound and whizz past me. There is not much room to share with an avalanche in the Shallow Gully. But they were nothing more than oranges and we picked them up `good and juicy' on the scree.

Halcyon days, sunny, windless, the rocks dry and clean under our rubbers and Holland climbing tirelessly and magnificently, up the most hopeless-looking reaches of the slabs. His air of a Roman legionary fitted well with his iron con­fidence and grim cheerfulness. I shall never visit Lliwedd without thinking of him. I owe him some of my very best climbing days. To each group of climbers who are exploring Lliwedd extensively for themselves for the first time, its climbs—with their own variations—come to seem in a sense their possession. No mountain seizes hold of its devotees more strongly, and the bond is capable of appearing reciprocal. The very diffi­culty of identifying many of the routes, exactly, makes a climb seem more one's own, and it may reasonably be wished that detailed descriptions of them did not exist. Then every fresh visitor would taste more fully the savour of exploration.

Mallory once remarked as much to I. A. R. Coming from one who had put so many splendid new climbs on the crags, and in the. Climbers' Club Book at Gorphwysfa, he had to admit that it was perhaps Satan rebuking sin. This was just before he left for that last time for Everest in 1924 to reach, as Odell, who saw him last, still thinks possible, the supreme point of any climber's ambition.

Dorothy Pilley: Climbing Days-1935

Friday, 28 March 2014

Mo Anthoine Remembered

Original Photo-Jim Curran
Mo Anthoine was just 50 years when he died at home in Nant Peris on August 12th in 1989. Words I never imagined would ever have to be written, by me or anyone else.

To write about a close friend is not easy at the best of times. To do justice to Mo is impossible. For those who knew him these words will be no more than a shallow substitute, or will fail to strike the same chords. For those who didn't it is far beyond my skill to paint more than a shadowy outline of a figure so much larger than life. But I must try and pay some sort of tribute to the man I was so lucky to know and whose friendship, loyalty and generosity I valued so highly for 15 years.

  Who was Mo Anthoine? Well, he was a mountaineer, equipment designer and manufacturer, especially a raconteur, an adventurer, film maker, builder, husband and father, and much much more. He was also the funniest person I have ever known, whose sharp tongue and devastating brilliance with the spoken word could charm anyone, from diplomats to dustmen, from dowagers to dinner ladies.

On occasion his biting wit and Rabelaisian behaviour could sound horrendous when reported second-hand. Live and in person Mo rarely caused offence and over the years many pub-fulls of complete strangers walked off into the night, sides aching with laughter at the stories and antics of the short, broad shouldered, bandy-legged man with the Kidderminster accent, who had burst upon them. Mo could, and did, get away with it again and again as he unleashed his stream of stories, black humour and devastating analogies to captivated audiences.

 He lived the life of which most climbers can only dream, centred entirely around mountains, expeditions and equipment. Apart from a mild flirtation with teaching in the 1960s. Mo's entire adult life was based in North Wales. In 1959 he became an instructor at Ogwen Cottage; two brief years in which enduring friendship were formed. One such was Cam (Ian Campbell), who accompanied Mo on his best new route, The Groove on Llech Ddu in 1961, which became a classic. Mo's uncompromising honesty about the amount of aid used on the first ascent caused a few hypocritically raised eyebrows at the time After Ogwen Mo took off with another instructor and close friend, Fox (Ian Cartledge) and together they hitched round the world in a series of improbable and hilarious adventures that Mo still relished 25 years later. One of the best, in Australia, involved Mo's short-lived debut as a jazz drummer at a party he had gate-crashed under false musical pretence; a career which lasted less than a minute. The ensuing fracas involved the demolition of a Welsh dresser along with all its china, a double bass that Mo put his foot through, and a neighbour who had a heart attack.

He returned to Wales in 1966, and bought a derelict cottage and married Jackie in 1969. He set up Snowdon Mouldings with Joe Brown who was to become his closest friend and with whom Mo shared the vast majority of his expeditions. Initially they made the famous Joe Brown helmets but over the years Mo designed and manufactured several brilliant items of gear, including the Curver ice-axe and the Limpet tents, both of which have proved their true value on innumerable expeditions.
Their concepts came from Mo's own hard won experience and were tested in precisely the conditions for which they were designed. The Limpet is the strongest tent I have ever owned and it is almost impossible to break the fibreglass poles. It has a tent bag that is actually made too big. "I got really pissed off trying to pack a great frozen mass of tent, flysheet and poles into one of those glorified paper-bags that manufacturers try and kid you are the right size" Mo explained. "It might be a bit bigger than it needs to be, but when your striking camp in a storm at 20,000ft the last thing you want to do is fart about trying to put a contraceptive on an elephant"

 Mo's expeditioning started in the early '70s. A near miss on El Toro, in Peru in 1970, an early ascent of Fitzroy in Patagonia in '72 and a small expedition to Langtang Himal with Jackie, Cam and Malcolm Howells, were the precursors of 18 years constant expeditioning. After the ascent of the Prow of Roraima in the South American Jungle in 1973, with its stories of tarantulas, centipedes and horrific antics abseiling and jumaring on fixed ropes high above the jungle, Mo became captivated, then obsessed, with the Karakoram.

 In 1975 and '76, Mo led two contrasting expeditions to the unclimbed Trango Tower, the great vertical granite spire that dominates the Lower Baltoro. The first was a failure, a series of setbacks culminating in Martin Boysen's famous knee-jam epic high on the Tower. The second was a complete success. Mo, Martin, Joe Brown and Malcolm Howells reached the summit with Tony Riley filming just below. I was also a camerman on the expedition. Even allowing for my own one-sided view it was surely Mo's greatest mountaineering achievement. For Martin it was: "The happiest moment of my climbing life"

After the funeral, at Mo's wake Martin fondly remembered: "Just shoving Mo up the last few feet, a great grin spread over his face and he looked around at the great peaks of the Karakoram, the Mustagh Tower, K2 up in the clouds. Masherbrum and the West Face of Gasherbrum IV... just fantastic."
Mo returned for a brave attempt on Gasherbrum in 1978 but the year after Trango he went to The Ogre with Doug Scott, Chris Bonington, Clive Rowland, Nick Estcourt and Tut Braithwaite. The events of the expedition are well-known. Doug broke both his ankles in a pendulum abseiling from the summit, and Mo, Clive and Doug had an epic retreat in a storm. There is little doubt that without Mo and Clive's efforts, Chris and Doug would probably have died. Since then, Mo's annual jaunts have taken him to India (four expeditions to Thalay Sagar) to Ecuador (twice) with Hamish MacInnes, Joe and Jackie to search for Inca gold! and 1986 and '88 to attempt the unclimbed North East Ridge of Everest.
But it was at home in Wales that most people will remember Mo. For many years I have returned from Welsh weekends to be greeted with the same inevitable question "Did you see Mo?" Then I would have to dredge the recesses of a hungover brain and try to remember just a few of the endless one-liners with which Mo had regaled his friends in the Padarn or the Victoria. "You've become the self of your former shadow" he greeted me a few months after I had returned slim, if not sylph-like, from an expedition only to regain the lost weight immediately. "Look at your chins, in serried ranks" Being in his company was like being a member of an exclusive club, or party to a huge unending joke. His mirth was infectious wherever he went. When he was holding court in the pub, at a Trade Fair, in a Base Camp tent, or at a party, he was the catalyst that made everyone else tell better stories or jokes than those of which they were normally capable.

During the eighties, Mo's interest turned to films and television. With Joe he worked on several outside broadcasts including 'Freakout' in Glencoe with Jackie, and 'The Old Man of Hoy' with Zoe Brown. He worked on several feature films particularly 'Five Days One Summer', 'The Mission', 'Live and Let Die' and 'Rambo III'. Mo's roles ranged from assistant cameraman to special effects, doubling, (for Jeremy Irons and Sylvester Stallone) and most important of all, safety officer. In all Mo's expeditions and films there was never a single fatality, a fact Mo put down to his utter cowardice! In January 1988, I heard that Mo had a brain tumour and would be operated on immediately. Distraught and fighting back tears I rang up to wish him well. As usual Mo was his incorrigible, hilarious self. "Village idiot speaking" he greeted me. "Don't worry, there's only three things that can happen. Either they'll remove it and I'll be okay, or they'll turn me into a vegetable." He paused "What's the third?" "If they bugger it up completely I'll have to get a job at Plas y Brenin"

The operation appeared to be a complete success and, undeterred Mo went to Everest with Brummie Stokes, and a huge team including Joe, Bill Barker, Davy Jones, Ian Nicholson and, at the last moment, me as cameraman. Mo,with most of the equipment, got to Base Camp three weeks before the main party and greeted us with delight when we at last caught him up. He looked thin and drawn, though his humour was undiminished and as macabre as ever. "If I get really ill Jim, I want you to film me as I throw myself down the Kangshung Face, doused in paraffin and burning like a Viking warrior" Despite performing well (and, incidentally, doing the lion's share of the filming himself when I was ill) Mo's health had deteriorated by the end of the year. He bore his illness, and another operation, with a courage and humour that was moving beyond words. Many visitors came away from the house still laughing through the tears. Even near the end a small part of me hoped, irrationally, that Mo could somehow manage to find a way out and he would turn up laughing in the pub, but it was not to be.

As long as there are people who knew him, Mo will live on in a rich kaleidoscope of images, words and events. In 50 hectic years Mo lived a complete life that few people could attain in one hundred.The writer, Al Alvarez, wrote a profile of Mo, 'Feeding the Rat' which was completed before the onset of Mo's illness. The book ends with a curiously prophetic soliloquy from Mo himself, the last words being

 ... to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of .... I can't think of anything sadder than that.

Jim Curran: First published in High 84.

Friday, 21 March 2014

In at the deep end....Gorge scrambling in north and mid Wales

Gareth in the Coed y Brenin-South Snowdonia
I was alone and halfway up a steep mountain gully in Wales.  Not one of the good kinds of gully; covered in reassuring neve or inviting ice, or consisting of solid and entertaining rock steps.  No, it was late April and the sun was shining (at least, it was shining outside of the claustrophobic confines of the ravine), and the gully was filled with moss and rushes and soil.  Where rock appeared it was wet and covered in slime.  Above the right hand wall towered an imposing and vegetated mountain face.  I was halfway up Esgair Gully; a deep gash that burrows below the north face of Foel Goch in the Glyderau.  Ahead things seemed to be getting steeper and looser.  It finally seemed time to admit it: I had a problem.  I had become obsessed with the obscure and esoteric world of Welsh gorges, gullies and streams.

How did it all start?  I moved to Bangor in 2004 to start university.  One of the major attractions was the mountains.  I’d always loved mountains and the wild places.  With the University Mountain Walking Club (Bangor UMWC) I started scrambling the classic Snowdonian grade 1 ridges, and after getting hooked on that started ticking off the grade 2 scrambles in the Glyderau and Carneddau.  I never had the head for heights or the bravery to tackle the top scrambles, and so soon ran out of new routes to explore.

It was one August day in 2007, heading with three friends out of the Llanberis Pass to upper Cwm Glas, aiming to go via a grade 1 described in Scrambles and Easy Climbs in Snowdonia.  I can’t now recall who had the idea, but we took to scrambling up the easy-angled watercourse of the nearby Afon Gennog to avoid the tedium of the steep approach.  It was pleasant: dry, grippy rock, water burbling under out feet.  Eventually the gradient relented and we walked over to the dripping wall of Craig y Rhaeadr.  The scramble we aimed to do threaded a way between Craig y Rhaeadr and an adjacent gorge.  Once again, someone suggested that we ignore the description and follow the water instead.   We set off into the gorge; steep sides, waterfalls, the occasional deep pool.  I recalled something A. Harry Griffin had written about gill scrambling in the Lake District.  He followed a set of self-imposed rules to maximise the fun: stick to the watercourse, traverse pools (rather than wade), take the hardest possible route.  An hour later we emerged near Llyn Glas, soaked to the skin and covered in bits of slime, but smiling.  With this, I was hooked.

Clocaenog Forest's secret waterfall
Autumn 2007 slowly unfolded.  At this time I couldn’t drive, but fortunately a friend, Pete Early, had both a car and a desire to get off the beaten track.  We explored Nant Gwynant and its surrounding valleys, always beautiful when the oak leaves turn and the rowan berries gleam. Above Llyn Dinas we discovered a gem of a scramble, following an open and unthreatening stream through a hillside scattered with conifers and rhododendrons.  Beyond this we ventured to Craig Llyn-Llagi, that sprawling heathery crag on the northern flank of Cnicht.  In thick mist we squirmed and slid up an algae-ridden stream-way, before retreating it and dismissing it as worthless.  It wouldn’t be until 2012 when I returned and discovered that the stream gathered itself into a narrow and enjoyable scramble higher up (albeit still on the slippery side).

The obsession grew over time, and in 2008 with various friends I searched our routes around Gwydyr Forest, Nant Ffrancon, Mynydd Mawr, Nant Gwynant, and the Llanberis Pass.  Possibilities seemed endless and everywhere, and each new look at the map suggested that more routes were waiting to be found.  I found the Geograph website a brilliantly useful tool to bring up photos of likely looking streams and gorges, and to decide if they were worthy of closer investigation.  The discovery of some usefully placed bothies then facilitated some trips into south Snowdonia, away from our usual stomping grounds, where we unearthed scrambles on Cadair Idris and in the Coed y Brenin. 

So what is the appeal?  Certainly, the deep gorges are a relic landscape.  There is no agricultural use for them and so their vegetation has been left intact whilst surrounding woodland has been felled.  This is part of the appeal of the big Snowdonian gorges; they are atmospheric and evocative places, untouched by the hand of man.  Apart from a handful of routes that the outdoor centres use, it is likely that you will be alone once you enter.  However, the open, sunny slabs of the gentle mountain streams also have their attraction.  On a hot day in summer there can be few more enjoyable pursuits then following a watercourse up onto the tops, perhaps with an optional swim on the way.  

Exploring Craig y Rhaedr Gorge
Of course, during my explorations it hasn’t all been fun.  A handful of scares are fresh in my memory.  I recall a day in the Vale of Ffestiniog with Gareth Harvey, when we went to scope out the Ceunant Llennyrch, a huge ravine formed where the Afon Prysor leaves the dam at Llyn Trawsfynydd and flows down to the Dwyryd estuary.  It was October 2010, probably a bit late in the year to be doing the big gorges that involve getting wet, but it should have been relatively trivial.  For a start, we knew the gorge got used by outdoor groups.  We entered the woodland along a riverside path, and opted to stay on the path until the gorge became interesting.  Unfortunately, we made the ridiculous error of walking too far, and the path climbed high above the river.  Being too lazy to retrace our steps, we decided to descend direct down the slopes to the bed of the gorge, Gareth leading the way.  This was possibly a mistake.  The ground was wet, covered in blankets of thick moss and dead trees, and deep holes waited to ensnare angles. 

After proceeding gingerly down the slopes I came around a tree to see Gareth standing down in the river.  Between me and him was a cliff of brown rubble, but no obvious route down (and to this day I’m still not sure how he got down so fast).  I slithered around on my mossy ledge, trying to find a way down, but nothing was obvious.  The drop was perhaps only four metres, but with a rough landing, and it certainly looked nasty.  I remember standing there, shouting obscenities at poor Gareth for several minutes, for leading me into this predicament.  I had the bright idea to throw my rucksack down to lighten my load when I eventually tried a descent.  Shit. I realised I’d just thrown down my helmet and several long slings that might have extricated me.

 After several more minutes of gibbering around I gracefully climbed/tumbled down into the river, emerging with a few light scratches and an apology for my bad language.  An important lesson learned: the entries and exits to some of these gorges can be trickier than the navigation of the gorge itself.

Other memories of days that slide more to the unpleasant end of the enjoyment spectrum.  An adventure away from usual haunts into Clocaenog Forest, where the map promised a huge v-shaped ravine, but suggested no waterfalls existed.  Gareth was in attendance again, and we’d been joined by another friend, Chris Earing.  Another day with a difficult start: our first attempt was to descend from the road through forest slopes, but thick, spiky gorse barred our way.  Attempt two involved climbing down an adjacent stream, but this lead to impossible waterfalls and collapsing bracken.  Our third, successful, attempt, entailed bracken-bashing followed by a light jog as we trespassed across a few farm fields to the river. 

As we headed up river we found a series of beautiful waterfalls, hidden to the outside world by the trees, and presumably seen by very few people.  The going was tricky as the rock was incredibly treacherous; both friable and slimy.  Impossibly steep waterfalls forced us to the sides of the gorge where we climbed up steeply through a combination of bracken and brambles.  Agonising progress, using brambles to pull up on, and with deadwood collapsing under our boots, but no chance of a retreat now.  Eventually the steep v-shape of the gorge relented and we could breathe a sigh of relief: escape was possible if we needed it.

For every one of these testing days, there must have been at least ten days of perfection: scrambling in solitude, unencumbered by ropes and harnesses.  Summer evenings were particular favourites, when a quick post-work hit could be had; the mountains even quieter than normal, with cuckoos calling from the valleys below.  Eventually 2013 arrived and I left Wales for Oxfordshire.  Over the years I drafted the explorations into a guidebook that now contains 70 routes or so.  More remain to be investigated, especially into the great desert of Wales.  Deep in the Cambrian mountains all sorts of gorges and streams lie ignored and unknown.  Will the guidebook ever come to light?  I hope so, but no publisher so far has decided to take the project on.  I do remain hopeful though, and long to see other people get as much happiness out of these lost landscapes as I have. 

The Author 'new routing' at a secret location in Snowdonia
Mike Peacock:2014 
Photos: Author's Collection