Friday, 27 May 2016

Hay Dream Believer: Under the Tump....Review


Oliver Balch’s ‘Under the Tump’- the tump in question being the mound in Hay on Wye, upon which sits a fortification-is a lyrical tour of that quiet land twixt England and Wales...The Marches. A pastoral ribbon of border country which straddles English Shropshire and Herefordshire to the East, and Welsh Powys and Monmouthshire to the west. Within this nebulous lost domain of Princes and Lords lies the former county of Radnorshire- formally the smallest and least populated county in Wales- and almost tipping out of Wales into England, at its very fringes is the market town of Hay on Wye and the neighbouring village of Clyro.

Today, Hay is feted as the world first book town. The Hay on Wye book festival began in the 1980‘s and continues to go from strength to strength, attracting international figures from President Clinton to Mario Vargas Llosa.(In fact,with remarkably good timing I discover that the festival actually begins today) The town's cerebral reputation beginning in the early 1960‘s when Richard Booth opened the first of Hay’s many book shops and sowed the literary seed which flowered into the Hay we know today.

However, The Hay Festival is but a small part of Oliver Balch’s work. Essentially, the author offers a socio/cultural investigation into areas’ evolution from a virtually unknown small market town and farming community up until the 1960‘s, into the rather upmarket bohemian idyll it has become today. A place where the past struggles to keep its identity and values against the increasing tide of wealthy incomers from the cities who apart from snapping up properties and thus pricing locals out of the market, bring with them a swaggering self confidence and an urban mindset which to the chagrin of the areas’s indigenous population,threatens to overwhelm the town’s quiet rural character.

One of the areas most famous residents,the curate and rural diarist Francis Kilvert whose roseate observations of the area and people written in the mid 19th century has never been out of print since it was first published by Jonathan Cape in the 1930‘s; and it is to Kilvert that Oliver Balch looks to to guide his journey through a land which is ‘Not quite England, not quite Wales’. Using Kilvert’s zealous thirst to explore both the land and its people, the author adopts a forensic approach to uncovering the real Hay and its environs. A search not made easy by virtue of the areas’ multi layered character.

Oliver Balch’s arrives in nearby Clyro via London and Buenos Aires with his family and immediately seeks to discover if he and his kin can truly belong to an area to which-apart from childhood holidays-he has no connection? With a dogged determination, he latches onto just about anyone who will tolerate his investigative presence. Given the highly detailed references and observations of the people he meets, I have an image of him whipping out a notebook every few minutes and saying..’So that was 1963 you married your second cousin then’? Whatever the author’s methods, it provides a highly readable and fascinating account which manages to filter in some Kilvertian prose to compliment to publisher’s advised ‘reportage style’ of writing.

Young farmers, old hippies, parish pump politicians, trendy young entrepreneurs,pub landlords, all get the OB shake down. Surprisingly, everyone he meets  seems only too willing to lay their life bare and reveal their personal triumphs and tragedies. Some readers might find the author’s microscopic descriptions of insignificant details like a gaudy painting in a cafe or some ancient pork scratchings hanging a bar, rather OTT in the information stakes, but gradually,like a painting which takes shape with every brush stroke,it is these finite details which make Under the Tump so readable and evocative of the land and the people.


People like Rob and Layla who I believe featured in C4‘s Amazing Spaces programme presented by George Clarke. Rob and Layla are like many ‘off comers’ are fairly recent arrivals who in common with most of their New Age tribe are not as the media would have it, ‘benefit scroungers’, but hard working individuals who can and will turn their hand to anything to make ends meet. In this instance, the Amazing Spaces connection saw the couple convert a 1960‘s coach into a bijou accommodation for holiday makers. Then there’s Woko, the young farmer who exists in the old country and in old times. When you could walk through Hay and bump into Evans the farrier or old Ned from the Bwlch. These days you are more likely to bump into Will Self or Martin Amis!


Of course no book about Hay and its people would be complete without ‘The self styled ‘King of Hay’, the aforementioned Richard Booth who on April Fool’s Day in 1977 proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as King Richard and his horse as Prime Minister. The publicity gained world wide coverage including slots in The New York Times and El Pais.

Hay’s ‘monarch’ was actually born in the town and after inheriting his uncles estate, began to ship books back from America in containers to furnish his burgeoning book shop sited in the town’s old fire station. His original book shop is now owned by a rich American incomer-Elizabeth Haycock- who has poured a considerable amount of investment into refurbishing the outlet.

The author offers a surreal description of a open meeting with Booth holding court. An event where a common usurper threatened Hay’s independence by successfully mounting a referendum on Hay and the King’s status. The people of the town obviously content with their liege voted to maintain the status quo.

The Hay book festival arrives late on in the book in keeping with the author’s style, is more concerned with the logistical side of the festival and the ordinary people who make it work year after year rather than waffle on about celebrity writers and politicians. With an estimated half a million people visiting a town with a population under 2000 during the festival period then although its not quite Glastonbury then it’s still a huge logistical task for the mainly local organisers.

Like Francis Kilvert before him, in his Under the Tump, Oliver Balch has certainly brought his adopted homeland to life and gone a long way towards unravelling the rapidly changing character of Hay and the surrounding farms, hamlets and villages. His vivid descriptions of the lonely bald hills and jackdaw haunted ruins remain long in the memory. Certainly within the genre, Under the Tump offers itself as a fine example of how a community and the land they share can be vividly brought to life by a writer who is not backward in coming forward. Sympathetically coaxing his cast into the spotlight yet maintaining a healthy respect for all concerned. I’m sure it is the author’s personable approach which has unearthed a rich seam of social and cultural history in an area where a more remote and objective writer would have failed.

Author,Oliver Balch: Photo OB


For this writer, domiciled in the more rugged north of the country, it has certainly inspired me to visit this summer. Google Earth has been perused and a wild camping spot for my camper pencilled in. You could say, I intend to make Hay while the sun shines !


Under the Tump is published by and available from Faber and Faber

Oliver Balch website

Hay Festival

John Appleby:2016
 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Terra Pericilosa: Speak, why are you here?

Derek Hersey:Photo Gary Thornhill
 

Intimacy with the planet keeps us wild, undomesticated, unwilling to submit to social conditioning.   Lash.

As a self-professed outsider in the outside arena it may come as no surprise when I view this culture as absurdly obsessive.Yes, I am at odds. As a climber has it always been so? I guess so, to an extent, but those obsessive climbers that I remember were never taken seriously and mostly ridiculed. Top activists these days are creating awesome problems and their goals, achievements, breakfasts and hair styles reported with such serious liberal yawn –where is the scornful, difficult but untroubled nature not chocolate-boxed by the mass media? The channel is switched to celebs, politics, sport, celebs, politics, sport… Who ‘literally’ is tying the rope to their balls out there…? Who gets bummed by a BMC employee…? Who breaks his opponents leg in a fight…? Who abuses sponsorship, robs banks, attempts to drive a scooter up to Dinas Cromlech…? Who puts another top climber in a headlock until he goes blue…? Who puts kettles into cracks…? What climber has had the most road accidents on-route from Llanberis to Chamonix…? Answers to come!


I know this is gender biased, but women tend to be more sensible. These people cannot represent anything but themselves. They cannot hold down jobs! Their climbing was alive and not staged and in my view preserved the way of nature. When I see the gob-smacked-talented bold ‘n’ young, I cant help feeling like there has been a ‘cover-up’… they behave like scouts and girl guides collecting their efficiency badges from the ministry of good behavior at the BMC. The cover up conceals the energy that climbing is grounded in, the right to say ‘fuck off’ to insurance and a paid job.

Nick Bullock has lately said that the present day climbing world is no longer as replete with ‘characters’ as it once was. He blames this shallowness of the younger generation being spoon fed on climbing walls, sport and consumerism…

Of course there are many characters still out there in climbing, but hey ho, everyone can’t be Stevie Haston, ‘cos there aren’t enough six inch nails to bend and there would be no peace for any geezer. It seems crazy to say everyone used to be a character, but perhaps characters breed characters in the culture they find themselves in. Perhaps there were more people with mental health issues? That can’t be correct. But where are the insouciant Gary Gibsons, boldly claiming routes they never climbed? The more enthusiastic climbers lived their lives through climbing and operated more like computer geeks, and kept notes and guidebooks. I don’t remember their names! These geeks are now widespread and are ace, civilized, beta-gathering, hummus and halva eating folk on bouldering circuits, counting calories and cleaning a range of toothbrushes with Ecover products.

Back in the day, a young Geraldine Taylor was ‘mad for it’ a precursor model of the femme sportive, but widely seen as chic-eccentric. She was not subdued. Not so these days. They have multiplied and instead of help-support groups that take the piss, there are competitions and Pilates and a super range of clothing. Where is ‘dirty’ Derek Hershey with his plums hanging out…dead of course. Where is Neil ‘Noddy’ Molnar with a reefer high up soloing…dead of course. Where is Al ‘playboy’ Harris, speeding up Fachwen…dead of course.  Where is ‘big’ Jimmy Jewell, hanging on holds all day…dead of course. And then there was my friend Paul Williams, a self-confessed obsessive with monstrous enthusiasm, that motivated many a climber including Ron Fawcett, Andy Pollitt and myself. If you ‘hung out’ with Paul you did epic new routes because he knew where they where, would take you there, hold your ropes and entertain you! Through obsession…dead of course. 

Paul Williams: Photo Ian Smith 
There were cleaner, more ‘sporty’ types, but the idea of a sport never entered the equation. Life was too funny, random, still a dirty business with side-stalls of anarchy and nonsense, when rock was more a guide to thought. The repression I feel in the climbing world is a manipulation of the human spirit, is corporate and in essence, religious. I am an artist, an outsider artist of course, and quite frankly I don’t give a flying fuck!

I know that anarchy doesn’t sell. And characters die. And that sport is seen as ‘clean’ and a cash crop goes without saying.

Whooooo, hang on, calm down, this article was never meant to be about personalities and sport, the synonymous duo. I was just using up a few leftover words from my last rant against sport. How vulnerable am I? I will now, I believe, succinctly tie in all of the above in relevance to the below. As above so below.

For those who frantically lose themselves searching for a hard-move, in fitness, adventure and sport I offer some alternative medicine… My article was supposed to start here… I flick the coin.

I open my door onto a street, and I am lost in awe at the safari before my senses. I have taken no twelve-hour flight to get here. I am not on holiday. No travel arrangements have been made. No fees paid. No apps or maps or guides are needed. My heartbeat is not monitored. No fitness necessary. No special clothes are needed. I am not chasing anything that improves my health or fitness. I am neither retreating or recoiling into myself nor escaping anything. I am not actively seeking anything. I am not self-observing. I am just being in a place where I live. I am. As I said, I am in awe at the world before me. I have only to step out and walk a short way for my senses to chatter away to each other and enable the unique imprint of place into my being. This is not ‘I could be anywhere’ state of mind, but specifically somewhere. This is not sitting back and looking at the panorama of life before me like a tourist brochure. Neither is it an examination of why I view the world as I do.

This is an active engagement with experience. This engagement creates a connection and one enters a vision. This vision already exists. It animates with soul, generates a voracious awakening to the pleasure of seeing, touching, feeling and vital inspiration and to strange creatures that do not scorn ceremonial life. Perhaps this is what Arne Naess calls ecosophy – planetary wisdom? It can seem that all else that evokes the nonsense of losing oneself in everyday tasks has been abandoned…

I am on ‘forensic’ safari from my house and it costs nothing but imagination…

Remain true to the earth – Nietzsche

Two meters out from my door and the heat of the sun hits me. I am on my knees in the lane facing a thin, sticky coating of tarmac that has melted, ground-up and bared with use by hot, rubber tyres to the coarse sand beneath. This is the material of the original lane, a piste, when donkeys did their stuff. This quartzy metamorphic rock is the substructure of my house, the foundations of which were cut and fashioned from it by craftsmen who knew its character, structure and strength. I know that five feet underneath my knees is a cold tunnel that connects to my cave in the basement. It is blocked half way but locals tell of a huge network of passages used to smuggle all kinds of contraband including people. I ponder the Retirada, the traumatic exodus of Republican Catalans escaping Franco’s persecution and regime…into the clutches of Vichy France…to concentration camps and a different death and to tunnels and walls within walls and families fighting within themselves and within their own walls a battle of allegiances, subterfuge and espionage.

I had recently been privy to a Lama, a spiritual healer, who had been commissioned to exorcise my friend’s house on the border with Spain. He detected the energy that my friend felt in her cave-atelier and told of what he ‘saw’. A terrified woman with three children was hiding there after crossing the border and escaping persecution. She was awaiting the ‘passeur’, a person paid to facilitate your passage from danger. He raped her and cut her throat in front of the children. The three children fled and were lost in the woods. He turned away from his internal screen to face us and said, ‘Perdu – lost’. The Lama did his stuff, said a prayer and we left. 

Perillos work: John Redhead
I ponder the horror of the Lama’s psychic vision with an ironic smile as Maricka, my neighbour, starts her rendition of ‘musette en liberte’, on the accordion, behind the bars of what was once the village jail, screaming from her open window something about hell and her Mother…! Like the anthem of an alienated, wailing demiurge, the ‘regarde moi’ score resonates the rue with melancholy and incarcerated souls.

I move from the Gneissose-scar, pocked on the tarmac three meters to Placa Sant Antoni and sit down on a granite bench under the Horse Chestnut tree. St Anthony is the patron saint of lost people and finding things. He is noted for having a vision of the Christ’s child whilst reading a book. In a niche on Maricka’s house there is an odd statue of St Anthony holding the Christ’s child in one hand outstretched from Christ’s buttocks. The alarming figurative has replaced some meaningful symbolism for the Saint, as there is no book. I ponder the surreal world of Saints and visions, of Paul, John and Jerome et al. Is it not the case that these Saints enter the world of a vision when the ‘will’ decides to intercede into more than can be seen, ’what the fuck is all this man, all this shit that is of monstrous crazy chaos, this unseen world that is part of me and in me…must be God yeah’. The poverty of the desert fathers and the poverty of their desert souls absorb the poverty of a dead land, frantic for a fresh world matrix. It continues to saturate the minds of man with stupidity and a nature-rejecting abstract.

Under the Horse Chestnut tree I am with the treescape. Strangely, I have seen its down-there business as its finer, tangled roots dangle Pan-esque in the tunnel of my cave. I am left to feel and what I feel is that what I see, including my own body is the part that doesn’t exist. Of course there is more and you move to it in stillness. You move to it by recognizing a negative compulsion to the physical. It is an empathic connection of belonging, with no self-reflection.

‘Outer world and inner world are interdependent at every moment’  Ted Hughes

I also ponder ‘the miracle of the jealous husband’, St Tony’s finest hour, when a husband cuts the throat of his wife believing her to be an adulteress. He is mistaken but all is well after our hero in Placa de Sant Antoni, gives her the kiss of life. He cannot kiss his own life however for he dies of ergot poisoning, his skin looking like a mess of Guignaria leaf blotch that afflicts the Chestnut tree in autumn. My fingers are also blotched with cobalt, cadmium and black pastel from my sketch, waiting to assert itself on my return.

Maricka finishes her serenade with ‘la boite a musette’. A barking dog adds vigour to the drone. Bravo. Is her flamboyant ‘rapture’ any less meaningful than Tony’s visions, because they both ‘belong’ to this moment? Is one influenced by the divine-demonic and the other by mental illness? Is it just the culture that decides an experience is divine or pathological? I feel that neither is of knowing. I catch her eye, and the contact drifts on a whim. I realize she could be anywhere. Adversely I feel that the Catalans seem to ‘grow’ here, like plants, embedded in a pact with the land. They inhabit. In deep-ecology it is understood that this bond is essential to sanity.

So, wandering on in my mind, I realize that the tree is itself a droning musical instrument. Thousands of honeybees gather in the rich source of nectar and tits of all variety chomp up the insects. It is alive and in bliss with abundant life forms. I listen. Not so my neighbour who is defined by isolation, not realizing the music she offers is not of this world, but a victorious battle of her will to be. No matter. The sensory nature of the collective drones is a mystery of collected differences. The altruistic bees seem indifferent to the melody, seem indifferent to pollination and pathology as we know it, the conker and being busy… with the moment, eyes lost in the engine of honey-ecstasy.

The horse chestnut leaf is used for eczema, menstrual pain, coughs and joint pain, but not ‘St Anthony’s fire’, which is ergotism. As if to scoff ridicule at man and his diseases and personalities a black scorpion squares up to me at the base of the tree. Challenging. Pincers out, tail up, as if demanding an explanation. Only three possibilities come to mind – I am in a vital period of inspiration and you are part of it – I am in a metaphysical state and you are my friend – I am about to get stung. The latter wins as I shuffle away believing that it is the scorpion that is the poetic mouthpiece to some supernatural power.

The tree is a native of Turkey and its name in English may be from the fact that when the leaf stalks snap off they leave the indentation of an upside down horseshoe on the branch. Etymologically not so in France where it is called, ‘marronnier’. Each culture has its folklore and naming and the locals here tell of collecting the marrons to give to horses to alleviate coughs. I hear no one talk of or indeed play, marrons, the game. Too rough I guess!

When I first moved here, at noon every day, an old boy used to sit where I am sat. It is a cool place and welcoming. He propped his walking stick against the tree, the handle of which had been fashioned into a penis and painted red. He reached into a crack in the tree and pulled out a toothpick and proceeded to take off his shoes and flick the soil out of the tread of the soles. It was an obsession not a ritual. I engaged this happy man many times in strange conversation, thinking it good for my socializing and vocabulary, until I realized his French was utter gibberish. However, who knows what knowledge a madman imparts when words fail? Who cares about failing words when spoken by a happy soul? Perhaps the red penis was a clue?

The Eight-sided hydrangea tub sits opposite with an abundance of pink petals, symbolically noted for its heartfelt sincerity, grace and beauty. A small gecko emerges like a clockwork toy from the deep, cool interior to soak some sun, hard-wired and mindful of pleasure and intent, no doubt. No challenge.

My safari has taken me the grand distance of five meters so far.

Uncharted land…Terra Pericolosa, speak, why are you here?

‘To understand what it is to be part of the world and not an enemy of it’. Persig

On a previous ‘forensic’ in Liverpool I wrote – ‘I had always been interested in the family of idolatry, addiction, habits and neglect. Even though heavy words they float through all walks of life. They squeeze out from the squeaky-clean duty of attempted order and roll headlong from the leafy-ocean of suburbia, shopping for bric a brac, domicile to domicile, and wash up on the rocky-shoreline of inner-city streets where raw and naked chaos seems awakened. I feel this chaos… I am receptive…this abstract structure, this island of concrete, this heart… radiating and revealing some deep-ecological pulse as if the heart of the jungle’.

This jungle on my Placa is no different, just a little more contained, calmer and secretive. The bags of sardines or hash still move slowly over the border. The wary locals still check car number-plates. They know where all the mushrooms are. They wonder what the hell I do. They must read my mind. Through strobes of luminous green, I see the distant vapor trails from Ryanair jets en-route from Liverpool to Girona. Here, there, no matter. The village tree holds the distance. I face the granite wall by the font of 1888, and pick a few leaves of Pennywort (Venus’s Navel) for a little snack. Associated with lovemaking, it grows in profusion in the fissures along with its mates Toadflax and Herb Robert. I guess that these dark fissures contain all the sexy-life of the Cosmos, rooted in the Earth. It is a sensuous revelation.

‘The solid Earth but ever the sky’.

Liverpool
After five meters of moving ‘stillness’, I must return to my pastel sketch, ‘The moving of slimes and slops of birth and life to its end’.

To be continued.


John Redhead, May 2016

www.johnredhead.org

Friday, 13 May 2016

Two Short Summers: A profile of Brian Kellett.


On the 11th September, 1944, a search for two missing mountaineers was launched on Ben Nevis. The climbers in question were Brian Kellett, a cragsman of the highest calibre, and a woman climber of vast mountaineering experience called Nancy Forsyth. Miss Forsyth had come to Fort William to spend a weekend climbing holiday with Kellett. They stayed at the C.I.C. but in Coire Leis and nothing was heard of them until the following Tuesday when Miss Forsyth, a schoolteacher, failed to arrive for work at her school in Dumfries. Her relatives, naturally concerned, informed the police at Fort William who despatched Police Sergeant Boa and a colleague of Kellett's to investigate. This was before the formation of the established mountain rescue teams when police, local shepherds and farmers were often called upon to perform rescue work. On arrival at the but they found signs of occupation by the missing pair and items of personal gear, but were unable to determine the climbers' whereabouts. A major search was organised by the police the next day who were later joined by many experienced mountaineers from all over Scotland, who had read or heard of the incident which had been given wide coverage in the local and national press.

After a search lasting several days, two climbers, thought to be Nancy Forsyth and Brian Kellett were seen lying together at the foot of Cousin's Buttress, situated between the North-West face of Carn Dearg and Raeburn's Buttress. Eventually, a stretcher party led by J. H. B. Bell reached the spot and their worst fears were realised — the missing pair were both dead, having fallen at least 200 feet. It was a distressing and harrowing experience for Bell, for he knew the couple, having previously introduced them to each other. Despite an inquiry set up by the S.M.C., the cause of the tragedy was never established. It was presumed that they had finished a climb (probably Cousin's Buttress Ordinary, graded ‘Very difficult’) and were moving together above the main difficulties when the accident occurred. Most of the rope was coiled neatly across Miss Forsyth's shoulder with the remainder, 10 to 15 feet, tied to Kellett's waistline. What happened must remain a mystery.

Could a rock fall, or a loose hold, or a slip on the wet rock have been responsible? None of the rescuers felt inclined to prospect higher to check for any visible signs on the rock face, which in the circumstances, is hardly surprising. Kellett's tragic death severed an amazing climbing career — in only two short summers, from 1943 to 1944, he discovered more than forty new routes or variations, many done solo, and at least half of them at a severe grade or above. A glance through the Ben Nevis climbing guide gives an indication of Kellett's meteoric career and his insatiable appetite for prospecting new lines. His knowledge of the complex, precipitous north-face of Ben Nevis was unsurpassed, perhaps rivalled only by the Ben's other two well-known devotees, Dr. J. H. B. Bell and Graham MacPhee. His identification with the mountain had much the same quality as Herford's exploration on Scafell or Edwards's infatuation with the Three Cliffs in Llanberis Pass. He was in many ways a victim of the times — as a conscientious objector at the beginning of the second world war he spent some time in prison before volunteering for service with the Forestry Commission in Scotland — his first choice was Skye, but as there were no vacancies in that area, he agreed to go to Torfundy, near Fort William.

And yet, for all his important contribution to Scottish climbing, little is known about the man. He appears as a solitary, almost mystical figure on the historical tapestry of Britain's highest mountain. Brian Pinder Kellett was born at Weymouth, England on the 15th May,1914, he attended Kingwell Hall Prep. School near Bath before moving on to Bloxham Public School. He was described as an all-round athlete and represented his school in the first team at rugby and cricket. He used his powerful build to good purpose in the boxing ring and was a keen soccer and hockey player. Kellett had the reputation as an accomplished chess-player and was at one time chess-champion of Lancashire.


It was on Dartmoor Tors as a boy where he first cut his teeth at rock climbing, but it was not until his late twenties that he became a committed cragsman. After he qualified as an accountant,he did some forestry work in the Lake District where he ascended many of the classic routes, normally solo, and usually without a guide book. Although his mother and sister did not share his convictions as a conscientious objector (his father, a naval officer, had gone down with his ship, HMS Flirt, in 1916) they stood by him, believing that his views were absolutely genuine. These were traumatic days for Kellett and his resilience and moral fibre were put fully to the test. Mrs South, a Quaker, who helped conscientious objectors and who was instrumental in seeing his third appeal was successful, had this to say about him: "I had a deep respect for Brian . . . he was a brave man — his courage was there for all to see ... I can see him now challenging the might of the Court Martial . . . he would have been happier in the more liberal days of the 18th Century when straight-forwardness and moral courage were rated higher than brute force ." 

Brian Kellett was not alone among climbers who were registered conscientious objectors — the pacifist views of Menlove Edwards are well known and John Jenkins, a leading British mountaineer, who was an engineer by profession, was compelled by the authorities to spend some of the war working as a miner at Ashington Colliery in Northumberland.

After his release from prison in 1942 Kellett was assigned to Torlundy Forestry Village, near Fort William, where he quickly settled into his duties, feeling no bitterness or resentment for the punitive measures imposed upon him. This is more than can be said for some of the other conscientious objectors at Torlundy at the time. His popularity among his colleagues is summed up by ex-fellow workmate, John Elder, who spent most of his working life at Torlundy: "Brian always gave one hundred per cent effort and one would think that he had been born to work upon the land; nothing was too much bother and his great strength was a tremendous asset. I do not recall seeing him training to keep his fitness — forestry work, regular cycling and mountaineering seemed to be enough. He was an excellent chess-player and I have seen him playing chess against his workmates and at the same time repairing his clothing.

He learned Gaelic from books, probably to understand the meaning of Scottish mountain names, which he could pronounce as if he had been born in the Highlands. I recollect he stayed in a bothy with twelve other workers mucking in with them quite easily. I feel sure roughing it in the mountains helped him in this respect. I was the person, described in newspaper reports, who went with Police Sergeant Boa to the C.I.C. but when Brian failed to report for work — as soon as we entered the but we had a feeling of foreboding, as though some-thing terrible had happened—for one thing the fire had not been kindled for several days."


On the 30th August, 1942, Kellett gave a preface as to his future activities by ascending, with J. A. Dunster, the unclimbed No. 2 Gulley of Ben Nevis. It was a desperate place, stacked with loose blocks, hanging scree and wet, mossy holds. It's understandable why previous attempts on the gully by Raeburn, and later, by MacPhee were aborted.Needless to say the climb still holds a full very-severe grade! It is rumoured among some of the older Scottish mountaineers that B.K. climbed hard and solo to prove he was not a coward, despite his refusal to join up — this opinion was certainly held by the highly respected J. H. B. Bell — but present research into the background and character of the man would seem not to support this theory; Kellett was an individual of strong will, who appeared to care little what people thought of him, and it's worth remembering that he climbed solo before the start of the war.

Arnot Russell, who climbed with Kellett on a number of occasions looks back across 36 years: "I consider the view that Brian climbed solo to prove he was not a coward to be nonsense — he enjoyed climbing and did not climb solo because he wanted to do so. We enjoyed his company as he did ours. He seemed to be lonely, although outwardly seemed self-assured and self contained. My experience with Brian showed that he was always a very stable and careful climber. We always roped up and moved singly on anything more than "cliff' standard. We respected him and admired the way he climbed. I remember well the way he used to say quite seriously, 'it would be rather hard,' when we pointed out some impossible looking overhanging route to him."

He first met Arnot Russell on the 9th June, 1943; earlier that day B.K. had made a solo reconnaissance of the upper reaches of a line to the right of Route 1 on Carn Dearg Buttress. It seemed feasible, so he called into the CIC but looking for a partner to belay him on the untried lower section. Russell, who was staying there with a group from the St. Andrews University Mountaineering Club, volunteered his services and after using the start to Route 1, they managed to negotiate the greasy slabs, which were the crux of the climb, and register only the second route on the crag, which they named logically enough — Route 2. Watching from the sidelines was a young climber called Donald McCall who recalls that day: "All I remember is a cold dull morning, with cloud not much above 3,500 feet. We were looking up at the Ben from the door of the but when this stocky character arrived in shorts, wearing thick-lensed glasses. He was looking for someone to join him on a new climb attempt. Russell was the only really competent rock-climber among us, so he went off with Kellett, while Ed Carrick and I climbed the Direct Route on the Douglas Boulder. From time to time we watched with awe, and not a little fright, as Kellett and Russell worked their way out,up and right from Route 1 and under the big overhang on green shiny slabs. They had abandoned nailed boots for stocking soles and picked up their boots again at the end by descending Route 1, itself a Severe." 

Brian Kellett on Route II, Carn Dearg,1943: Photo Lorna Kellett

Among the proliferation of routes that he discovered on the Ben, the more out-standing ones include Kellett' s Climb on the North Wall of Carn Dearg, his 1944 Route (VS), on the South Trident Buttress, the Left Hand and Right Hand Route (both VS), on Minus Two Buttress and probably his most daring lead — Gardyloo Buttress (VS). His climb on Gardyloo Buttress was the climax of weeks of painstaking investigation and was a magnificent solo-lead on a problem of long standing. There had been attempts on the Buttress during the early forties by strong Scottish parties; the first in July, 1940, by Ogilvy and Piercy who made considerable progress, but were repulsed by rain and made their escape by abseiling into Gardyloo Gully, leaving behind them two rope slings and two karabiners. The following June saw Messrs. Scroggie, Ferguson and Ritchie, in stockinged feet, reach Ogilvy' s highest point before they erred on the side of caution and roped down leaving four pitons and one karabiner.

Kellett mentions finding this hardwear in his notes and also records that he experienced much difficulty on the crux — a 15 foot, exposed overhanging corner which took an hour to climb — the total time for the route was about 3 hours. "I had hoped to accompany him on several of his latest routes," wrote J. H. B. Bell,  .. but bad weather and wet rocks made this impossible. It is only fair to say that Kellett' s climbing, for sheer daring, was often uncanny to watch . . . His account of the first ascent of Gardyloo Buttress, matter of fact as it appears at first reading, is enough to bring out a sweat on the brow and the palms of a reader who has seen the place and is aware of the previous unsuccessful attempts on the formidable and sinister cliff. He invited me to join him on a second ascent. It was a high compliment, but the onset of bad weather relieved me from facing a difficult decision." Kellett never did a second ascent — Dougal Haston claimed this fourteen years later. When not active on Ben Nevis, Kellett sometimes spent his leisure time walking on the Mamores or cycling to Glencoe, where the Buachaille Etive Mor was a great attraction. 


His burning ambition to climb in the Isle of Skye was never realised — during the war years all land north of the Great Glen was out of bounds to visitors, and this included Skye. Before his tragic death Kellett was involved in three falls — this may have invited criticism, but it should be remembered that he spent literally hundreds of hard-climbing days during his short and concentrated mountaineering career, exploring severe and often untried rock in all weather conditions. He suffered his first recorded fall in January, 1943. He was high up in Glover's Chimney, climbing solo, when he slipped and shot down hundreds of feet, over the lower 150 foot ice pitch, to land safely in snow above Garadh na Ciste. Seven months later he fell in the short chimney on Route A on the North Wall of Carn Dearg — a loose chockstone is thought to have been the cause. Then there was a fall whilst attempting a new variation of Luscher's Route with J. H. B. Bell and Nancy Forsyth. Bell later described in his climbing log what happened:

"Kellett started off, Nancy belayed near foot of chimney. I was unroped as I was coiling up the 100 foot line which was no longer necessary. A rumble from above and I caught sight of B.K. flying downwards past me. At the same moment I felt a blow on the head, not sharp but dull, and my head began to flow with blood. Nancy shouted to me to grasp and try and stop the rope — it was of course, utterly impossible. The thing was running so fast and jerking about, then it stopped and Nancy was drawn up sharp against the belay in a strained position — then there was silence. The rope to Kellett was taut . . . then he shouted up. One had no time to think at all. Everything happened so quickly. To our enquiries he said he was unhurt but shaken a bit with hands numbed. He was hanging with just faint pressure on the rocks and no real handholds." After several minutes of devious rope engineering they managed to extricate Kellett from his precarious position.


He probably owed his life to Nancy Forsyth's prompt action in arresting his fall from which she suffered a severely lacerated hand. An incident of cruel irony when one considers future tragic events. The drama of the day was not yet over. On the way down Kellett, still badly shaken, slipped when a hold gave way and he fell about 5 feet, seriously injuring his left knee and damaging his left hand when it was struck by a falling stone. It was later diagnosed that he had a cracked patella and a broken finger. Kellett's refusal to be intimidated by excessively steep or overhanging rock is illustrated by his attempts to climb the fierce central mass of Carn Dearg Buttress. One such attempt on the 6th June, 1944 is described here by Robin Plackett: "Brian took us along to Carn Dearg Buttress to see whether any further progress could be made on a climb which he had already prospected.

The first part was a very steep wall at right angles to the main face, about 50 feet high. This finished on a sloping ledge with a large boulder, secure enough for the next stretch. Brian now wanted his jacket so my wife Carol who was in the party, went back for it to the hut. The climb offered a gangway and a crack with few holds. We disliked the start of the gangway but explored the crack above the ledge (finding a line loop) and found a higher traverse impossible. Carol returned to find us in retreat. I was lowered and Brian abseiled for the first time under Carol's tuition. We returned to the hut for sun and supper." 


The line they tried is undoubtably the first pitch of Centurion, climbed twelve years later by Whillans and Downes. It is interesting to note the evidence of the old sling, suggesting that someone else had been up this pitch before Kellett. He later returned to Centurion Corner and effected a breakthrough rightwards across some slabs in an attempt to reach the prominent chimney feature. His effort failed, but the line was eventually forced in 1954 by Brown and Whillans, who used a direct start and named the climb — ‘Sassenach’. Kellett had designs on this line as early as the summer of 1943 and mentioned his intention to Bell who doubted its feasibility. After his unsuccessful foray he heeded Bell's advice and left the proposed route to another generation. It was Kellett who named Point Five, Minus One, Minus Two and Minus Three Gullies — he contemplated Point Five Gully as a summer climb, but never got round to it. Alex Small, who was secretary of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland during these years, recalls some memories of Kellett:

 "He was a reserved, undemonstrative fellow, who didn't enter the hut unless invited (unlike many nowadays) and was grateful for any hospitality we offered him. Powerfully built, we still remember his massive legs. At the time he was examining routes up the Douglas Boulder, walked up from Torlundy after his Forestry work was over, returned to the hut to note his routes in one of his famous notebooks, using his preferred system of Cartesian coordinates to mark the features and after his final cup of tea, murmured his thanks and disappeared into the dusk down the track.’

Kellett soon afterwards joined the J.M.C.S. which gave him ready access to the C.I.C. hut and occasionally, partners to climb with. The famous notebooks mentioned by Alex Small which were a model of accuracy and precision were published in total in the 1943/44 S.M.C. Journals and it is sad to relate that the latter publication also contained a short note recording Kellett's death; future climbing historians may look at his achievements and question why a worthwhile obituary was never printed. I think Kellett's climbing career was so fleeting and transitory that few mountaineers, if any, had a long enough acquaintance with him to feel qualified to write an appreciation of him. If that is so, then this tribute to him is long overdue! Alex Small probably puts it into perspective when he said: "His appearance and deeds caused little acclaim at the time; there were few climbers about to appreciate his exploits. His fame was very much muted and posthumous." 



On the 11th September, 1944, Brian Kellett at the age of thirty, a confirmed atheist, was buried in the small cemetery at Glen Nevis, overlooked by the mountain that meant so much to him in his later life and which helped to crystallise his freedom of expression. Although his grave is now distinguished by a granite headstone to bear testimony to his passing, he left a more tangible proof of his vitality for life on the steep ramparts of the North-face of Ben Nevis. 

Ken Smith: First published in Climber and Rambler July 1981

Friday, 6 May 2016

Lone Star..... 'Trespassing Across America'.....review


I first came across Ken Ilgunas when I received a review copy of his debut work ‘Walden on Wheels’ . What I first thought would be yet another road trip travelogue turned out to be a smart polemical work on the higher education debt trap in the US and the author’s unique solution to this quandary. Of course, travel did intrude upon the narrative and it was clear towards the end of 'Walden’ that Ken was destined to continue his growing political education and further develop his campaigning zeal by looking to new horizons. In his latest work, ‘Trespassing Across America’ the horizon in question turns out to be Texas’ Sabine Lake which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. A far horizon which was 1700 miles and three months distant when the author took his first soft footed steps upon his epic journey in the Tar Sands blighted tundra of Canada’s Alberta province. ( Currently in the grip of a devastating wild fire concentrated around the principal oil town of Fort McMurray)

The goal was to walk the entire length of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline which would take American produced heavy crude oil/diluted bitumen (Dilbet) from the tar sands of Alberta to the refineries of Texas for processing for domestic use and export. For environmentalists, the opposition to the Keystone XL project has multifarious elements. Not least; the actual extraction process which has had a devastating ecological impact on the local flora, fauna and wildlife. The vast highly toxic tailing lakes of sludge left over from the extraction process covers a mind boggling 176 square kilometres of formally pristine wilderness.Add to this the ecological impact of a 1700 mile pipeline which apart from the aforementioned impact on wildlife, carries a constant threat to vital and vulnerable water supplies. The final poisoned cherry on the cake is of course, THE environmental issue of the moment- climate change.


With fossil fuels recognised as a major contributory factor in global warming,the exportation of two millions gallons of crude oil a day from Alberta’s tar sands has to be recognised as a serious black mark on America-and Canada’s- commitment to reducing its Co2 emissions. Given the implications, what else is a spirited environmentalist to do than to walk the proposed route in its entirety to publicise the project and in September 2012,that is exactly what Ken Ilgunas did. ‘Tresspassing Across America’ charts that eventful journey and all its highs and lows.

As a pure travel book and leaving aside the author’s occasional environmental and philosophical musings, it’s a beautifully observed and painfully honest account of a hard fought labour of love. Ken’s descriptions of the land, the people and his own frailties recalls a recent reading of William Least Heat Moon’s ‘Blue Highways’.Insightful, honest and absorbing in his descriptions of the empty plains and its people. Naturally, there are those ‘Wild’ elements; the black toenails, the blisters, the hip lesions which took six months to heal and of course, the moments of overwhelming loneliness which inevitably inspired bouts of the blues.But more than this,the book succeeds through the author’s fascinating dissection of ‘Middle America’. That-for Europeans at least- unknown far country often referred to as ‘Godland’.

Swinging his walking poles through the great empty plains and former dust bowl states, Ken reveals a society and culture far removed from his secular liberal values. After crossing the border, his journey South takes him through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally into Texas. Within these largely agricultural states, paradoxes abound.Paranoia and the milk of human kindness fill each day. For those on this side of the pond, many of our preconceptions about Middle America prove sadly all too true. A society where private property forms part of a holy trinity with God and guns.

The subjugation of the native American population in the 19th century and the wiping out of the buffalo saw the previously pristine wilderness, claimed and fenced off by the white invaders who all too quickly exploited a new invention ‘barbed wire’ to mark their territory. From here on in to the present day ‘Private Property’, ‘Keep out’ and ‘No Trespassing’ signs became part and parcel of the landscape. Despite the fact that in the US, large parts are still state owned, land ownership is jealously guarded and a right to roam is relentlessly challenged. More especially in the wide open spaces which Ken travelled through.

Intending to-as far as possible- follow the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, the author had little choice but to trespass across farmland. Climbing fences and avoiding if at all possible,being observed. His descriptions of these clandestine wanderings are both amusing and at times, plain scary! It appears that hiking across the plains of Middle America is not a pastime which generally finds many takers. Witness the paranoia which stalks the land. If we think that England and Wales has half baked access laws compared to many European countries including Scotland, then you have to admit that it’s an egalitarian paradise compared to places like Montana or Kansas.

Instances of the author walking up to a remote farmstead to ask for water to be met by the homesteader retreating inside to unleash a gun from his rifle cabinet occurs not infrequently. As does those occasions when he is stopped and ID’d by small town police who appear to consider every stranger-especially a young bearded scruffy hiker- a potential Charles Manson. On one occasion he was even driven to the county line by a paranoid officer on the grounds that a house he had passed had discovered one of their dogs missing!

For those in the UK and Europe for whom a wandering bearded hiker would not raise an eyebrow then its certainly sobering to see just how hikers are seen as complete wackos in this central belt.(Note to European hikers: Give Kansas a miss!) However, I’m sure that the last thing the author wants is to present parts of his country as a third world backwater made up of bigots, fruitcakes and rednecks. Throughout his epic journey through Middle America, the author encounters great kindness and generosity at every turn. Certainly the good outweigh the bad and the ugly. Despite his secularism, Ken experiences untold acts of Christian charity from individuals and families who ask for nothing in return. Not even a shot at saving his soul.

As his walk progresses, he finds himself regularly seeking out the local churches and throwing himself on their charitable instincts and always he receives a positive response. Whether by letting him sleep in their churches, community centres or pitching his tent on their lawns. Many times, this hospitality extends to inviting Ken to exchange his cold tent and meagre  rations for a shower,family meal and a warm bed.

As the walk progresses, the authors fame extends to local news outlets and even national networks which in turn brings out supporters who give him a hero’s welcome upon his arrival in the small towns and communities along the XL route. With winter chasing him south, the path is fraught and long. The elemental forces make progress miserable and slow. Driving him into churches and barns or falling upon the hospitality of supporters. Cometh the hour cometh the man, and right on schedule he stumbles into Port Arthur, Texas where nervous security goons at the Valero refinery alert the local police to this alien humblebum who is doing weird stuff like taking photographs of the refinery! With elements of farce intruding on the occasion, Ken slips through the net and legs it across a bridge, stumbling over the intervening levee banks to finally sink his hardened tootsies into the cold waters of Sabine Lake....Over!

The end is nigh. 
The mild mannered and gentle author might lack the bad ass elements of Edward Abbey but like Abbey his gift and the contribution he makes to the cause of environmentalism is through his words. Softly spoken perhaps but powerfully and convincingly expressed. Like the works of the aforementioned ‘Cactus Ed’, Ken Ilgunas’ Trespassing Across America successfully combines eco politics with sharp observations of the land and its people and skillfully brings it all together in a highly readable work which deserves a wide audience.

John Appleby:2016 

Photos: Ken Ilgunas


Keystone XL Pipeline

Obama rejects Keystone XL

Alberta oil sands


Friday, 29 April 2016

Mountain Characters: Spirits in the Sky



 John Porter and Alex MacIntyre in Peru: Photo John Porter

‘Your young men shall see visions’    The Bible

Recently I read an article by Nick Bullock bemoaning the fact that the present day climbing world is no longer as replete with ‘characters’ as it once was. He blamed this shallowness on such as the majority of the younger generation being spoon fed, with climbing wall introductions to the sport, consumerism and an-unwillingness to seek out new experiences in relatively unknown (unpopular) climbing areas and wilderness destinations.

I think it is only from a distance in time that we can appreciate the true worth of such character in our own climbing friends and acquaintances, but three mountaineers who worked alongside me at the BMC, would I believe pass Bullock’s designation as ‘characters’, namely Peter Boardman, Alex MacIntyre and Andy Fanshawe. However they were much more than their climbing record suggests, for all three became published authors, each had an academic record, and they had a major influence on their contemporaries and in the subsequent future direction of Himalayan exploration; and no three people in my experience exhibited such a degree of difference in their personalities. However, they each had enjoyed a similar introduction to climbing whilst schoolboys, one that demanded enterprise and keenness with no spoon feeding.


I first met Peter Boardman when I gave a lecture to the Nottingham University Mountaineering Club in 1970; he was studying English and had already made some impressive ascents in the Pennine Alps and the Mont Blanc Range (e.g The Bonatti Pillar of the Petit Dru). I got to know him better when he assisted during the BMC’s first ever International meet in North Wales in 1973, giving a lecture on the Nottingham clubs expedition to the Hindu Kush the previous year, and climbing with the brilliant Russian, Aleksandr Gubanov on Llech Ddu,  ascending routes like The Groove and The Great Corner. By that date Peter was a post graduate at Bangor and typical of him he also studied Welsh in his spare time. He had also begun writing about his climbing experiences, including an outstanding article in Mountain No 36, ‘Long Necks in the Hindu Kush.’ On this his first expedition, they had made some spectacular ascents, including the North Face, of Koh-i-Kaak (5,860m). What made this even more interesting was they had driven overland to Afghanistan and inevitably experienced some hair-raising adventures en route.

Peter was appointed the BMC’s National Officer in November 1974, and although then only 24 years old, he exhibited a maturity which impressed all who met him at that time. He was above medium height, physically powerful, dark haired and quietly spoken. But he quickly adapted to a role of attending and steering meetings the length and breadth of the UK and abroad. But he was not all serious, and he was a member of the Mynydd climbing club, which he had joined as a schoolboy in Cheshire, and he was a keen member of their folk group, led by a climber known as ‘leather lungs’ and complimented by Pete’s fine baritone voice, whose party piece was ‘The Rawtenstall Annual Fair!’.

In September 1975 Peter was to achieve national recognition by summiting Mount Everest on the South West Face expedition along with Sherpa Pertemba, following on   Doug Scott and Dougal  Haston who had climbed the mountain shortly before him. He was the last person to see Mick Burke alive just below the summit, and Peter awaited his return in deteriorating conditions whilst he also summited, but he was never  to be seen again. Post Everest Peter  was in demand to write articles and give lectures, but once back in the BMC office he was nose to the grindstone, answering phone calls and letters, attending meetings, whilst observing with some justification  by what has occurred subsequently,  that ‘we are creating  a monster!’. But also whilst arguing between us  about the merits of our favourite poets; myself being a fan of such moderns as Gary Snyder, and Pete condemning them in comparison to his own classical favourites such as  Spenser. He was also a great fan of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories.

Joe Tasker was then based in Manchester, and he was a frequent visitor into the BMC office, so much so that I invited him to attend the staff Christmas party in 1975/6. He had also been away that summer in the Indian Himalaya and with Dick Renshaw had made the first ascent of Dunagiri (7066m). A brilliant achievement for they had driven overland to India in an old Ford van, but unfortunately Dick had contacted frost bite in a storm during the descent, and thus was unable to return with Joe to attempt an even more impressive objective for the autumn of 1976, which they had observed from Dunagiri, the West Wall of Changabang(6,864m).  Joe started enthusing Pete about this, but there was a snag, for he had been away for many weeks in 1975 on Everest, and I was none too keen on being once more left to hold the fort for another long absence. However before he had started to climb as a 20 year old Joe had studied at a Catholic seminary,training to be a priest, and he had become a persistent debater. At the Christmas party after a meal, lubricated by alcohol he started on me, and I found myself some while later agreeing  to Pete taking part with him in apparently what might be the most important ascent in the history of British Himalayan endeavour?

Joe and Pete had at that point in time never climbed together and so they came along one weekend in January 1976 to a weekend in the Peak District, with me and my family staying at the Oread hut near Baslow. The weather was dire, cold and wet, but we still did go climbing, and impressively Pete led the Right Eliminate on Curbar, for he was an outstanding free rock climber and both Joe and I needed an extremely tight rope in following. Later that year they trained together mid-week by spending evenings hanging off meat hooks in a cold storage in Manchester, so by the time they left for Changabang in early September 1976 they were well attuned to each other’s likes and dislikes!

Their successful ascent of Changabang’s West Wall over 25 days, was without doubt one of the outstanding breakthrough’s in modern Himalayan climbing history. And Pete’s award winning book of their climb ‘The Shining Mountain’ was agreed to be a classic of mountain literature and it is still in print.   

Peter left the BMC at the end of 1977 to take over as the Director of The International School of Mountaineering in Leysin at the death of Dougal Haston in a skiing accident.  His life from thereon was dominated by mountaineering, he had passed his guides carnet earlier that year, and eventually he became President of The Association of British Mountain Guides in 1979. He  married in August 1980, and his wife Hilary Collins, a keen climber had previously taken part with him in making  the first ascent of the South Face of the Carstentz Pyramid in New  Guinea in December 1978.

Peter’s life over the next immediate years was to be a round of expeditions in between his guiding commitments. A tragic expedition to K2 in 1978 was abandoned when Nick Escourt was killed in an avalanche, a successful new route was achieved, on Kanchenjunga by its North Ridge in 1979 with Doug Scott and Joe Tasker, and the first ascent of Gauri Sankar’s south summit (7071m) was made in November of that same year. Attempts were made on the West Ridge of K2 in 1980, and success was recorded on the remote Xinjiang peak of Kongur (7,719m) with Joe Tasker, Chris Bonington and Al Rouse in 1981. Joe and Peter by that date must have been one of the strongest high altitude partnerships of their era, but it all came to a tragic end in 1982, when attempting the unclimbed North Ridge of Everest on the Tibetan side of the mountain during which Joe Tasker and Peter were last spotted on the 17th May at the foot of the second pinnacle (8,250m). A decade later, a Japanese-Kazakh expedition found Peter’s body around this altitude, but Joe’s has never yet been discovered despite other expeditions subsequently following this same route.

When Peter left the BMC I was so sorry to see him depart. Over the three years he worked with me, we had become close friends, and I did go out to Leysin in the summer of 1981 and undertook some guiding of clients for him. His loss was equably sad for all who were involved at the BMC at that time, both the staff and volunteers, for he had taken on the role of a Vice President in 1979 and he was still very much involved in shaping the organisations policies. Both Joe Tasker and Peter were fine writers, and each had published two books, Joe ‘The Savage Arena 1982’ and ‘Everest the Cruel Way 1980’ and Peter, besides ‘The Shining Mountain 1978’ , ‘Sacred Summits  in 1982’, they had also contributed numerous articles to magazines and journals. And so we, who were their friends and most importantly including their families, set up the Boardman/Tasker prize for mountain literature in 1983. This is now the leading such award in the UK, and has gone from strength to strength in recent  years,  with over 80 entries from around the English speaking world in the last two years; the winner last year being a Canadian, Barry Blanchard. Whilst Peter’s old school; Stockport Grammar, has erected The Peter Boardman climbing wall as their way to keep his memory and example alive for their students.

Alex  MacIntyre succeeded Peter Boardman as National Officer of the BMC at the end of 1977, he was 23 years old at that date, and a graduate in law from Leeds University. Although he had a very Scottish name he was born in Yorkshire, however his parents were from Caledonia, and the family moved south to Letchmore Heath when Alex was young, from where he attended Watford Grammar School. He started climbing whilst at school and joined the London Mountaineering Club, with whom he attended club meets in Wales, but which did not seem to affect his studies as so often happens to young climbers, for in 1972 he managed four Grade A’s at A level. Leading on to entry at Leeds University originally to study geography and economics, but later he switched to read law. He joined the University climbing club, which at that date was a dynamic force in the land and he began to hone his climbing skills alongside such as John Syrett, Brian Hall, John Porter, Roger Baxter-Jones and John Powell.


It was during that time I first met him, at the then famous Leeds University Wall. He was a striking figure in appearance (one of the wags at the wall, comparing him to the young Shirley Temple), of medium height, lithe, dark and with a shock of thick curly hair crowning his head. He looked like a rock star, a doppelganger for Marc Bolan. He was however no wall expert, in fact although he developed into an outstanding mountaineer, he was never a premier division rock jock, preferring to excel in the mountains.

Besides the University club being, at the cutting edge of disciplines from outcrop to alpine climbing in that era, it was also a part of a vibrant social scene of partying, clubbing and youthful exuberance. Alex was no shrinking violet and I once observed him at a club disco head-banging with the rest, and sometime into his studies at Leeds he took on a bet to wear the same clothes for a term, earning him the soubriquet of ‘Dirty Alex’, which took some little time to become inappropriate for in his later years, he became a wearer and a designer of some ‘smart’ outdoor equipment. Whilst at Leeds he started to travel (sometimes hitch-hiking) to winter climb in Scotland, and it was there he found out what he was outstandingly good at ice and mixed climbing.


In March 1975 he made solo ascents in a day of both the Zero and Point Five gullies on Ben Nevis, and soon he was transferring these skills to the Alps.  After the usual early alpine bumble ascents, he really began to motor, and by the time he joined the BMC he had taken part in pioneering two new routes on the North Face of the Grandes  Jorasses (including the now classic Colton-MacIntyre in 1976), ascended  the Shroud  also on that face, and the Eiger Direct:  the Harlin route on that mountains north wall.

Alex once in post at the BMC was so different to his predecessor, he was more ‘up front’, more argumentative in stressing his views, and more aggressive. But if it seemed in expressing his own stance so strongly he had over stepped the mark, he was sensitive to other opinions, and good at regressing and allowing others to make their case. His background of being a law graduate was good at helping to form direction and policies, and he had a very sharp intellect  and was actually easy to work with, and many of the younger generation of activists appeared to agree ‘if someone like Alex  MacIntyre could work for the BMC, it was a body worth supporting!’

 An event that occurred before Alex joined the BMC   was to have great meaning for his own future development as a Himalayan mountaineer, this was a visit, organised by the Council of Polish climbers to the UK in September 1975. Peter Boardman was away on Everest at that time, and normally the hosting arrangements would have been his task as National Officer but in his absence I had to take on this role. To do this I needed to invoke the voluntary help of my own friends, one of whom was John Porter, and he joined the party to help during the stay of the Poles in North Wales.


He struck a strong rapport with our guests and subsequently he accepted an invitation from them to climb in the Tatra Mountains.  It is worth recording that Eastern European mountaineers had by that date begun to establish a formidable record in Himalayan exploration, this despite having a much reduced standard of living compared to their western counterparts, and their initiative in overcoming travel and funding difficulties being one of an incredible ability at ducking and diving, all within their then pervasive communist-system of governance.


John was invited in 1977 to take part in an expedition to the Hindu Kush by the Poles, and in order to make this into a joint endeavour, he invited Alex MacIntyre to join him. They had met each other whilst studying at Leeds, and were close friends. This trip was to energise Alex and set his future direction, attempting lightweight attempts on the highest peaks. On this his first such expedition just reaching the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan was an adventure, travelling overland by train, and public transport as cheaply as possible all master minded by their Polish team members, one of whom Woytek Kurtyka would go on to be one of the most outstanding climbers of his generation. They enjoyed some spectacular successes on this expedition, including a major new route on Kohe Bandaka 6868m. The following year they were to repeat the exercise, a joint Polish-British expedition to the Indian Himalaya, with success in the ascent of the south buttress of Changabang 6864m, a highly technical route which took 11 days, climbing in Alpine style.

By 1978 and the Changabang climb, Alex-was deeply into his role as National Officer at the BMC. He had been given leave of absence to take part in that expedition, but we could not keep on doing this. The Executive Committee discussed what to do about such requests for absence in future and agreed that from there on any of the professional officers making an application for leave to take part in an expedition this could only be granted once in every five years of service. I realised that this would not suit Alex, but the work load was increasing exponentially at that time with a massive increase in participation occurring within the sport, and expedition membership forty years ago meant being away for many weeks. In the time it took for Alex and John to reach the Hindu Kush in 1977, most modern teams have been to their mountain/s and come back.


Once again as with Peter it was not all serious. On some of the International Meets one of our regular venues in the Peak District, after a day’s climbing was the Swan in New Mills, run by old friends Bob and Elsie Upton, members of Manchester’s Karabiner Club, so they were well attuned to visits by such a clientele. Usually our visitors enjoyed a pub meal, a lecture and afterwards a social when lots of local Peak District enthusiasts turned up in order to meet with our visitors. On one of these occasions, Alex raided his girl friend’s make up box and appeared late in the evening made up in highlights. This invoked from all present much laughter but things did get a little out of hand subsequently, when one of our guests began a simulated strip to the music of The Stripper! It was all done in the best possible taste, but next day back at my desk in the BMC Office I was stunned when a reporter from The News of the World phoned demanding details of who and what had been involved in such an organised orgy! It took me some time to convince the reporter that it was just a case of youthful high jinks, commonplace at such climber’s gatherings.

I had guessed that with his developing ambitions Alex would not stay too long at the BMC now we had instituted a five year rule on expedition leave. He wanted to develop and test his skills, climbing alpine style in the highest mountains. He decided to leave in 1980, and once again as with Peter Boardman I was so sorry to see him go. By that date I was almost old enough to have been his father, and I was worried where his drive for adventurous style ascents would lead him, and I feared for his long term future safety. Over the next two years his none stop activity was impressive, with ascents and trips to Dhaulagiri, Makalu and Shisha Pangma.  This latter yielded an impressive new route on the mountain in 1981 by its south west face in the company of Doug Scott and Roger Baxter Jones. The book of the expedition, written jointly by Doug and Alex was an early joint winner of the Boardman/Tasker prize in 1984.


Like Peter, Alex’s demise happened at the frontier of what was then possible in Himalayan climbing, an attempt in autumn 1982 on a new route with French climber, Rene Ghilini on the South Face of Annapurna. John Porter had joined them, but was laid low at base with illness but watching their ascent via a scope. After some very difficult climbing they were descending to re-group at base, to rest ready to return to the face, when a single stone falling from high on the mountain scored a direct hit on Alex’s head killing him instantly. I was in Nepal when this happened for I had been speaking at a UNESCO/UIAA ‘Future of the Himalaya’ conference, and then subsequently out trekking finishing in the Rolwaling. I was awakened in my tent with a message about the accident to Alex, carried by a runner from Mike Cheyney in Kathmandu and so I immediately rushed back to there- where I met a distraught John Porter, who filled me in with the detail of what had happened.

John after many years of struggle with the subject matter has now managed an outstanding   biography of Alex. ‘One Day as a Tiger’. A winner of the Grand Jury prize at Banff and short listed for last year’s Boardman/Tasker Award. And we who were Alex friends, in a similar move to what had happened at Peter and Joe’s sad deaths, wished to set up an appropriate memorial to him. He had been keen on Scottish winter climbing, and by an act of serendipity I had attended a meeting of outdoor organisations in Manchester at the headquarters of the Co-operative Holidays Association some time before Alex’s death. I found out they owned a property at Onich and they offered to let us rent a large cottage in the grounds which was surplus to their requirements. Initially we did do this, but subsequently we managed to persuade the CHA to sell and we purchased the property for £28,000 and it now stands as The Alex MacIntyre Memorial Hut of the BMC/MC of S, a suitable recognition of its named climber, which over the last twenty years or more, has been used by hundreds of climbers from the length and breadth of the UK and overseas.

Andy Fanshawe:Photo Fanshawe Trust

Andy Fanshawe was as different in character from Alex has he had been from Peter. Tall and angular, he exuded enthusiasm and caring, with a measured approach to problem solving, and he was universally popular. He had started rock climbing as a schoolboy at Wilmslow Grammar School from where he gained entrance to Imperial College to study mining geology.  Whilst at University he organised an expedition to Ecuador and Peru, and during the summer before he was appointed BMC National Officer, as a 23year old in the autumn of 1986, he had taken part in the first successful traverse of Chogolisa 7665m in the Karakoram Himalaya.  Like Peter and Alex before him, prior to taking on his role at the BMC he had completed some major alpine ascents, including the South West Pillar of the Petit Dru and the North Ridge Direct on Les Droites.   The reader might wonder what was the role of The National Officer within the BMC?


It was one that demanded almost 24 hours a day, attending Area and other meetings, acting as Secretary to the Technical Committee, which had a major role in setting standards and equipment testing, dealing with queries and phone calls mainly in the safety and technical areas, and acting as liaison with the hundreds of clubs and organisations and individuals in membership of the Council; and organising a programme of International meets, expedition grants and advice. It required driving thousands of miles a year to meet the requirements of the job. In retrospect I am impressed with how well Peter, Alex and Andy carried out their work demands whilst managing to continue being active in the hills. During the period Andy was at the BMC we had a very cohesive working together staff, I have worked in many organisations in different parts of the world; in China, East Africa and Europe but none where the staff were so close as the BMC in that period. This was highlighted when Andy had a terrible accident during the New Year of 1986/7 on Ben Nevis.

After a successful climb he and John Taylor were descending off the mountain in bad weather. From the summit plateau they had descended too far east and found themselves at the head of the Five Finger Gully, a notorious accident black spot. Realising their mistake they started traversing, back the way they had come, when the slope they were on avalanched, carrying them along its wake. They were buried by this and though Andy survived despite his injuries, John Taylor died. Obviously this was a terrible event for John was one of Andy’s oldest and closest friends. I know he was deeply affected by meeting John’s parents who he visited as he slowly recovered. Back in Manchester my secretary, Leslie Smithson took Andy into her home and helped him to rehabilitate and get back to work within a surprising short time, taking into account the seriousness of the accident. In fact within four months he led his first E5 rock climb in Wales.

The next few years were full of incident, for there were always crisis looming at the BMC, especially in relation to access and safety problems, and combating threats to the integrity of our sport. However using the five year rule Andy applied for leave of absence to join an expedition, led by Chris Bonington to Menlungste West 7023m in 1988. An impressive peak in the Rolwaling Himalaya of Nepal, and along with Alan Hinkes he was successful in reaching its summit on this mountain which some refer to as The Matterhorn of Nepal.

I left the BMC in mid 1989, and I was heartened by both Lesley Smithson and Andy Fanshawe pleading with me not to leave, suggesting that after 18 years I should take a sabbatical. However I had given 8 months notice and wanted to do other things with my life. We all stayed good friends and I attended Andy’s marriage in 1990 to Caroline, a keen outdoor enthusiast herself, at which he also decided to leave the Council’s employ moving to live in the Eden Valley of Cumbia. In that same year he published a climbing autobiography, with a rather unusual title ‘Coming Through’.

He then worked as a fund raiser for the Barrow Hospital Trust, aiming to purchase a 1.5million pound scanner for that body, but taking time off to visit the Alps and climbing the North Face of the Eiger and the Croz Spur in winter on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses with Ulrich Jessop, a climbing companion from his University days.

Like Alex and Peter before him, tragedy was awaiting and on the 14th March 1992, whilst leading on the Eagle Ridge Direct on Lochnagar, he fell and though his second held his fall, badly injured his life ebbed away before he could be rescued shortly before his 29th birthday. Peter, Alex and Andy three incomparable characters who, were, to leave a void in the memory of all who knew them. Before his death Andy had started work on a coffee table book with Stephen Venables, ‘Himalaya Alpine Style’ and this was eventually finished by his co-author and published in 1995.

Once again friends wished that the memory of such an outstanding figure should be continued in a suitable form, and one thing that made Andy stand out was his social awareness, he appreciated that he had been fortunate in his mountain activities life style. And so The Andy Fanshawe Memorial Trust was brought into being, its purpose ‘To fund projects that give disadvantaged young people the opportunity to develop an existing interest in the Great Outdoors’. Since its inception hundreds of young candidates have been helped into meeting these objectives.

To return to the original hypothesis, namely the opinion held by some that we are no longer producing characters with the initiative and approach of the previous climbing generations in this country, but I am not sure that this is true? I am gob smacked by the levels of difficulty now reached by the present generation of rock climbers and mountaineers, but I will agree that they do not seem to have as much fun as hitherto. There is an awful lot of emphasis on achievement and not much humour?  

Pete Boardman and Dennis Gray: Photo DG.

However whilst we do have the example of Peter Boardman, Alex MacIntyre and Andy Fanshawe so embedded in our sport via their memorials, I hope climbers will emerge wishing to emulate and climb/live in such an adventurous style.


Dennis Gray:2016
 

Friday, 22 April 2016

John Muir- The Wildest, Highest Places





When John Muir, the son of an emigrant from East Lothian to southern
Wisconsin, was 16, in 1855, his father lowered him daily down a well shaft on their new farm at Hickory Hill. John cut with chisel and hammer through fine-grained sandstone until he struck ‘a fine, hearty gush of water’. By then he had dinted his way through eighty feet of rock, working alone from dawn till dark. When he was overcome with choke-damp at the start of work one day, he was hauled up unconscious – and resumed after a day or two once water had been thrown down the shaft ‘to absorb the gas’ and a bundle of brushwood had been dropped on a rope ‘to carry down pure air and stir up the poison’. This was only the most spectacular, and symbolically oppressive, of the Herculean ordeals which ingrained in Muir an extraordinary hardihood and helped to make him the finest field naturalist and most eloquent wilderness writer of his age. As eldest son he did most of the ploughing and stump-digging on the family’s virgin land and split a hundred fencing rails a day from their knotty oak timber: ‘I was proud of my skill and tried to believe that I was as tough as the timber I mauled, though this and other heavy jobs stunted my growth and earned for me the title “runt of the family”.’

The beauty of Muir’s Eight Wilderness Discovery Books is that they make one weave of his life and his literary work – perfect for a writer whose thinking and experiencing are hard to separate. The Life and Letters volume reprints the first biography, by his masterly literary executor William Frederic BadĂ©. The narrative is laced with Muir’s letters, which rival Lawrence’s in the wholeheartedness of their responses to life around him and to his correspondents. In them we see a man at one with himself and with the granite, the fast rivers, the mighty resinous trees of the western Sierra Nevada. In a letter of 1871 to the friend who elicited much of his most heartfelt incidental writing, Jeanne Carr, wife of the professor of agriculture at San Francisco, he jotted down this statement of his ideal: ‘Patient observation and constant brooding above the rocks, lying upon them for years as the ice did, is the way to arrive at the truths which are graven so lavishly upon them.’ To another of his women friends – his ‘spiritual mothers’, as they are called by Thurman Wilkins, his latest biographer – he wrote the following year, welcoming her to come and camp in Yosemite: ‘People who come here ... should forget their individual existences, should forget they are born. They should as nearly as possible live the life of a particle of dust in the wind, or of a withered leaf in a whirlpool.’


 ‘Lying on the rocks for years’ is not a metaphor, it is how he did his fieldwork. He walked great distances and climbed great heights, nearly always alone. In the wilderness he lived on bread and tea, boiled on a fire of fossil wood or shavings from the underside of his sledge. To save weight he usually did without blankets and ‘made my bed of rich, spicy boughs, elastic and warm’. In a cleft three miles back from the brow of El Capitan, ‘I lay down and thought of the time when the groove in which I rested was being ground away at the bottom of a vast ice-sheet that flowed over all the Sierra like a slow wind.’ He carried little but his notebook tied to his belt and a spray of fir-needles in his buttonhole, and he walked extremely fast – a friend called him ‘dear old streak o’ lightning on ice’.

His daring was unshakeable. The rock-faces he climbed were often of the severity we now grade 5.8 (US) or Hard Very Severe (UK). This is near the limit I will climb with a companion and several hundred pounds’ worth of ropes and metal protection gear. Muir was climbing alone – to observe the glaciation of rocks and the moulding of valleys; the terrain was untouched; no guidebooks had yet been written.He was virtually naked in the face of the cliffs and cascades, the glaciers he explored in Alaska, and the deep trackless marshes in Ontario where he waded all day, steering by compass, in search of new flower species.

The two things in the Sierra which he did his utmost to save unspoiled, with results that have lasted to this day in the National Parks he helped to found, are the monumental sequoias growing on its western slopes and the glaciated granite valleys that make its arteries. The sequoias rise so tall, on their 200-foot trunks like furred brown tendons, that as you stand beneath them and look upward to their crowning needle-clusters, you feel yourself sucked through a time-tunnel into some primal and unpeopled continent. Muir rejoiced to think that they were in their prime and ‘swaying in the Sierra winds when Christ walked the earth’. He made some of the first estimates of their age and studied their distribution in relation to soil depths and water. As you walk through the Yosemite valley with the colossal front of El Capitan standing up straight and steely to your left and the hunched mass of Tissiack (Half Dome) to your right, its curve sheared off frontally, you feel your shoulders brace and your brain contract as though you were having to hold apart the irresistible gravity and closure of the Earth’s crust.


Muir called it ‘a grand page of mountain manuscript that I would gladly give my life to be able to read’, then did just that, moving across it with the freedom of a flying, swimming creature. He knew it through shepherding and sawmill working; he sensed the curve of its domes, the shining of its surfaces, the angling of its clefts so intently that he became able to explain its formation as though he had been an eye-witness of the Ice Age. When expert geologists were still asserting that the valley floor had dropped in some huge seismic event, Muir could see that it had been made by glaciers moving down the cleavage joints of the granite, shearing, graving, polishing, dumping boulders and moraines.

Now, after a century and more of aerial mapping, examining fossilised pollen through the microscope, sampling ice in cores hundreds of feet deep, we can say that the work of glaciers is obvious. To make sense of the labyrinth of mountain, forest, glen and ice-field by living in it and traversing it, with no instruments and precious few maps, was a physical and intellectual feat. Muir could comprehend that world – meaning both ‘encompass’ and ‘understand’ – because he delighted in it, was equal to its rigours, and craved to understand its least leaf and crystal, swarming up its pines in gales of wind and leaning out over the lips of its waterfalls.


His feeling for nature is scarcely separable from his piety, which is luxuriant and ecstatic. In the Californian Sierra, ‘the presence of an atmosphere is hardly recognised, and the thin, white, bodiless light of the morning comes to the peaks and glaciers as a pure spiritual essence, the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.’ Canoeing along the ice-cliffs of coastal Alaska he feels the same: ‘bays full of hazy shadows, graduating into open, silvery fields of light, and lofty headlands with fine arching insteps dipping their feet in the shining water ... Forgotten now were the Chilcats and missions while the word of God was being read in these majestic hieroglyphics blazoned along the sky.’ So organised religion shrinks and falls out of the frame as the potency of nature comes over him. Essential belief never leaves him. On the glacier near Wrangell, among the ‘gashed and sculptured’ ice-walls and cornices, ‘every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God.’ He can see it all as divinely created (although he knew about evolution and wholly accepted it) because it strikes him as beautiful and wholesome – utterly so.


 The ice, on which nothing can grow, which crushed rocks and swamped canoes (and nearly killed him as he paddled between two closing icebergs), has a ‘broad melting bosom’ which is ‘filled with light, simmering and throbbing in pale-blue tones of ineffable tenderness and beauty’. In this Nature of unalloyed goodness, there can be no poison, injury or disaster. When an entire cliff on the south wall of Yosemite collapsed, he saw the rockfall as ‘an arc of glowing passionate fire ... as true in form and as serene in beauty as a rainbow’. A spate that tore away rocks and swept whole trees down from Mount Hoffman to plunge over Yosemite Falls is part of ‘the universal anthem storm’. He developed a philosophy of storms to counter our tendency to fear them out of a ‘lack of faith in the Scriptures of Nature’ (for which he faulted Ruskin) and he argued that storms of rain or snow were ‘a cordial outpouring of Nature’s love’. Nature was whole, where people are divided and confused: ‘How terribly downright must be the utterances of storms and earthquakes to those accustomed to the soft hypocrisies of society.’

His determination to see nature as benign has been called a flaw by his most intelligent critic, Michael Cohen, in The Pathless Way. As we climbed together on a route called Great White Book in the Tuolumne domes east of Yosemite, he told me how Muir was disconcerted by the writhen and stunted junipers rooting in crevices of the granite because they were struggling, not harmoniously healthy. For Muir nature must be good, and this goodness was almost personal. So storms ‘utter’; trees ‘behave’, whether they are ‘thoughtful’ or ‘wideawake’; rock pinnacles at sunrise ‘shout colour hallelujahs’. Lichenous trees ‘sing psalms’ in the light of an Arctic camp-fire. Grouse and ptarmigan, anemones and ferns, are ‘mountain people’ and ‘plant people’. Snowflakes ‘journey down with gestures of confident life’. Daisies and sedges, ‘brought forward in the fire-glow, seem full of thought as if about to speak aloud and tell all their wild stories.’ Tissiack (Half Dome) is ‘full of thought ... no sense of dead stone about it, neither heavy looking nor light, steadfast in serene strength like a god’.


Such personifications, all positive and happy, may seem too soft-focused. Sometimes the rhapsodies cloy: ‘Glaciers came down from heaven, and they were angels with folded wings, white wings of snowy bloom. Locked hand in hand the little spirits did nobly’ (letter of 1871 to Mrs Carr). Or again, from his marvellously fresh and sustained My First Summer in the Sierra: ‘it was in the wildest, highest places that the most beautiful and tender and enthusiastic plant people were found ... I said: How came you here? How do you live through the winter? Our roots, they explained, reach far down the joints of the summer-warmed rocks.’ Surely personifying nature flies in the teeth of the evidence that life is an unfolding of organic and inorganic materials according to their composition, without the intervention of any other agency? And yet, as an (almost) lifelong atheist, I can read Muir with more quickening and illumination than I get from either Ruskin or Thoreau, because his response to nature is so absorbed and direct. He sees, touches and hears far more than he philosophises. Although the pious remarks are heartfelt, they are not hard to treat as interjections in the flow of richly physical prose. In this he is closer to the master wildlife writers of our own time – Barry Lopez or Mike Tomkies, Jim Crumley or John Baker – than to the moralistic and didactic Victorians.


In Muir a delighted immersion was primary. He was born like that and he grew up like that. Activity and gleeful sensing were second nature to him – or should I say first nature? When he starts his Story of My Boyhood and Youth, he takes it for granted that he will begin, not with parents or forebears, but with the eels and crabs he found in the tidal pools along the south coast of the Firth of Forth. The first anecdote is about a walk in a hayfield when he was barely three, hearing a ‘sharp, prickly, stinging cry’, and delving in the hay to find a fieldmouse with six young ones suckling at her teats. The pulsing of the waterfalls, the springing of the forest trees spoke to him because their energies corresponded to his own.


A missionary, Samuel Young, who explored glaciers with him in Alaska, described Muir’s way of moving on rough, steep terrain: ‘Then Muir began to slide up that mountain ... A deer-lope over the smoother slopes ... a serpent-glide up the steep ... spreading out like a flying squirrel and edging along an inch-wide projection ... leaping fissures, sliding flat around a dangerous rock-breast ... always going up, up, no hesitation – that was Muir!’ This bodily fluency fed directly through to his observing of nature, his interpreting of it, his writing about it.

A technical paper on how glaciers change direction as they carve out valleys, illustrated by his own diagrams full of arrows and As and Bs, culminates like this: ‘we find everywhere displayed the same delicate yielding to glacial law, showing that, throughout the whole period of its formation, the huge granite valley was lithe as a serpent, and winced tenderly to the touch of every tributary.’ When rain falls, in his narrative of shepherding in the summer of 1869, he brims over at once into an unstoppable vision of the water ‘plashing, glinting, pattering, laving’, flowing over domes, through lakes, down falls, in and out of woods and bogs, glinting on crystals (each one geologically specified) and pattering on flowers (likewise botanically named).

This direct and unlearned affinity with the natural world – developed by lifelong fieldwork and reading – enabled him to see equivalences everywhere. His writing, considered as one piece, is a web of likenesses, noted with exactitude and delight. Butterflies emerge from the chrysalis ‘like cotyledons from their husks’. Plants of the Adiantum fern waving in air currents between the Upper and Lower Falls stir like the purple dulses he remembers from the tidal pools of Lothian. Woodsmen’s faces are ‘furrowed like the bark of logs’ and their trousers, sticky with resin and never washed, thicken as they build up concentric layers of sawdust like growth-rings in a tree-trunk. The song of the dipper is like the noises of the rapids it lives among, which the bird must learn ‘before it is born by the thrilling and quivering of the eggs in unison with the tones of the falls’. He tries to spell phonetically the song of the distinctive Western meadow-lark and is fired to this vision: ‘Drops and sprays of air are specialised, and made to plash and churn in the bosom of the lark, as infinitesimal portions of air plash and sing about the angles and hollows of sand-grains.’


On a larger scale, the gradation of spruces on islets of the Alexander Archipelago, from tallest in the centre to smaller at the ends, is as harmonious as ‘the arrangement of the feathers of birds or the scales of fishes’. Larger again, and the South Lyell Glacier has the gnarled, bulging base and wide-spreading branches of an oak. His life was confirmed in its direction by an epiphany he described many times. After crossing the Diablo range down into the San Joaquin valley, on first heading for the Sierra, he found himself wading through a meadow five hundred miles long and forty across, one golden drift of Compositae, daisies and tansies and asters, ragwort and dandelions. Three years later this issues in a Wordsworthian passage of seeing and connecting: ‘Well may the sun feed them with his richest light, for these shining sunlets are his very children – rays of his ray, beams of his beam ... The earth has indeed become a sky; and the two cloudless skies, raying toward each other flower-beams and sunbeams, are fused and congolded into one glowing heaven.’

In this climactic passage, from an essay called ‘Twenty Hill Hollow’, we can feel how he needs new language for his perceptions as he sees the ‘sunlets’ of the asters radiating ‘flower-beams’ that ‘congold’ with the light of the sky. His linking of natural things by their equivalence is knit into the fibre of his style, for example those distinctive compound nouns. Forests are ‘tree pastures’. Foam on rocks makes ‘wave embroidery’. Towering cumulus clouds above the Sierra at summer noon-times are ‘light fountains’ springing from ‘shadow caves’. Scars in the ground made by uprooted trees are ‘ditch writing’ – a metaphor that reminds us of the root of the word ‘write’ in the Old English writan, to ‘scratch’ or ‘score’. In those same years Hopkins was minting words like ‘bone-house’, ‘yestertempest’, ‘leaf-light’, ‘knee-nave’, ‘shadowtackle’, ‘trambeams’, because the stuff of life sank into him so deeply that to express its being he had to fuse one thing with another.


The muscular impulse of Muir’s writing was like his walking and climbing and probably like his speech. We know that he laboured over his writing, struggling to cope with the ‘lateral, terminal and medial moraines’ of notes on his study floor, and regarded the making of whole books as ‘unnatural’. He published only three in his lifetime, although he made a good income from his articles. He felt himself ‘begin to labour like a laden wagon in a bog’ when he took up his pen, yet his prose feels fluent, even headlong, and palpably has the character of his speech. This was so vital and appealing that people invited him to private and public gatherings and his conversation ‘lingered as a literary tradition in California’. In a sense he was preaching – akin to the ’almost wholly extempore and unrecorded sermons and prayers’ whose ‘astonishing wealth of imagery and illustration, sometimes sonorously eloquent and sometimes racily colloquial’, was regarded by Sorley MacLean as the ‘great prose’ of the (Gaelic) Presbyterian culture.


Muir had escaped from the fundamentalist Christianity of his father. When they set brush fires in Wisconsin to clear scrubland for the plough, Daniel compared their heat with hell and the branches with bad boys: ‘Now, John, just think what an awful thing it would be to be thrown into that fire ... their sufferings will never, never end because neither the fire nor the sinners can die.’ Twelve years later Muir can write to his brother that he has been baptised three times that morning, in ‘balmy sunshine’, in the ‘rays of beauty that emanate from plant corollas’, and in ‘the spray of the Lower Yosemite Falls’. He made his own the thinking of the pioneering scientists, Darwin on species, Lyell on rocks. He saw that the Bible account of creation was for its own time, not for all time. A letter about Ruskin is vehement in its dislike of the doomy piety Muir saw in him: ‘Nature, according to Ruskin, is the joint work of God and the devil ... made up of alternate strips and bars of evil and good ... You never can feel that there is the slightest union betwixt Nature and him.


He goes to the Alps and improves and superintends and reports on Nature with the conceit and lofty importance of a factor on a Duke’s estate.’ (In Ontario Muir had met many refugees from the Sutherland Clearances.) He especially opposed Ruskin for regarding plants as ‘evil’ because they were poisonous. His only bĂȘte noire seems to have been the black ant with its seemingly wanton biting and widespread distribution. Here he perhaps laughs at his own Panglossian optimism: ‘I see that much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the universal rule of love and peace.’ This is rather like the devoted missionary Mr Sorley in A Passage to India, who believed that God’s mercy, being infinite, ‘may well embrace all animals’ but ‘became uneasy during the descent to wasps’.

Muir deeply respected Thoreau but he would not have sympathised with the sage of Walden’s dismay at the damp and mossy woods of Maine (in a posthumous book quoted by Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory): the swamps and the slopes pockmarked with bears’ dens were ‘the most treacherous and porous country I ever travelled’, the bare summits desolate and savage, ‘made out of Chaos and Old Night ... It was Matter, vast, terrific.’ Although Thoreau’s description, in Chapter 4 of Walden, of his new-scrubbed furniture out on the grass with blackberry vines running round its legs, is charmingly fresh, his account of the cabin he built for himself in the Massachusetts woods near Concord is low-key compared with the poem in wood which Muir (an inventor and skilled craftsman) made for himself in Yosemite. A stream ran through it to lull him at night, his bed was ‘suspended from the rafters and lined with libocedrus plumes’, and when Pteris ferns pushed up through the flooring planks, he trained them in an arch over his desk so that the tree frogs climbing up it at night could entertain him with their sounds.

Image:The Sierra Club
Thoreau had been conducting what he called an ‘experiment’. Ruskin was Britain’s most distinguished aesthete, travelling to Switzerland (on private means) to admire and paint the Alps from a distance. Muir worked in the Sierra (as shepherd, sawyer and fruit farmer), he explored them for many years on end, and the richness of his writing roots deeper into the terrain than any other wilderness writer known to me. To know this book* is on your shelf is like having your woodshed filled with dry peats or your mind with glowing memories.

* John Muir:His life and letters and other writings

David Craig: First Published in LRB 1997