Friday, 19 January 2018

Stuck on a Life Raft



 'Hole in the Mind with Ysfa Symbolism: John Redhead
 

Time of mine spent with those of the past that is over? Given to those in the present that live in the past? Or to those who will be there to see the end?
Electric Letterbox', Footless Crow


Friday 14th October 2016 eked no email comments after a comparison request of that climb in 'Bride to the Mountain'. Perhaps it is not the Great Gully, Craig Yr Ysfa and Firbank is off the radar now, or that you choose to read is not what you have seen?

Lean the memories of a Giveen ripe worthy chat with John Redhead at a Pete's Eats book exchange, Martin Crook and Tony Loxton there also amid vague side glances of others less able than them. A life sentence partly served an opportunity for a sketch although limited in viewing numbers, until now. Emails to and fro muster interest in my Footless ‘scribbles’? or lest niggled his understanding of my behest before the postman’s knock and a foreign stamped cardboard tube. Awkwardly, kitchen-knifed partly opened the fingerprinted, smudged back enough of a signature and not fully opened; his original gist of my obsession non-reflectively finished by Dilwyn of Fframia, Llanberis.


Until parole is granted and afterwards my view is to The Gully, The Cave Pitch and Giveen hanging with others in John’s last, best Catalunya interpretation of 'wounded bison, the shaman, who cocked up and always a happy ferryman and of course Giveen and loads of common stuff. Yet is there more and I have some time, unlike others on that day lost on November 20th, 1927; 04:14:28 pm.


8h 26m 20- the sunset and daylight hours, little to crave for, nothing wasted on and vital for the lives of Norman Stott and Arthur Taylor. Time of death uncertain at Llyn Ffynnon Llugwy, Capel Curig, post Great Gully climb, Craig Yr Ysfa, although a father's guess from the hands of a broken watch tried to sway evidence after the inquest. 

Visitors to Helyg near the time of the incident, including Raymond Greene, were mostly experienced Climbers, aware of the dangerous weather conditions in the dank, dark aspects of the Gully shadows and the perils available of certain climbing conditions. J M A Thompson in his first ascent described the hardest part of the climb, the Great cave in 1900 '.... unquestionably the finest in any gully of the district. Rocks fallen from above and jammed between the vertical side-walls of the gully, form both the roof and two bridges...removal of debris necessitated single climbing...with strange gymnastics indulged in here, before the top of the rock was reached, for the right wall was streaming at the time with cold water from the snow melting above, and daylight had ceased to penetrate the recesses of the cave. 


The next move was across the bridge to a slippery ledge on the south wall; sidling across this string-course by the light of faith, we reached the outer bridge, where a hole afforded a convenient exit. A faint glimmer on the western horizon sufficed for the ascent of the little pitch above, and we reached the summit ridge soon after eight o'clock. Of the four hours spent in the gully, probably the major part was occupied in pioneering, for while the bed rock was found to be very sound and satisfactory, the obstacles were decorated with so exceptional quantity of loose turf and moss, that we might claim to have found them of grass and left them of granite.' On the first ascent, four hours spent in the Gully.

So, another 'whatever' and to that otiose, beerly wise Saturday night decision to safe haven some Giveen laden scrolls. Prior to departure, a chance moment to read my 1930 Oxford Mail article and another Giveen secret.... A 'prominent member' of the Oxford University Climbing Club as was Raymond Greene....a pairing belayed fleetingly at Oxford University in the early 1920's. Quite different characters, Greene the dependable medical student and would be stalwart of the Climbers' Club. Giveen, the rake, a reprobate who climbed the Martyrs' Memorial, 'sent down' from Wadham College and Oxford for an unknown misdemeanor and worse, he sold Greene a car then ‘retrieved’ it, without his consent. Also, an accusation by Greene of Giveen attempting to shoot him after blackballing him from membership of the club. One cannot be true without the others and for Giveen the truth is recorded in handwritten accounts of meetings available in the coffers of the Climbers' Club Minute Book secluded to Gwynedd Archives. 

Also, they include membership details of the four men concerned, initial support for Giveen and pressures laid upon decisions made after the night of the accident, and verdicts made by the Climbers’ Club hierarchy. There is discreet involvement from Cambridge University, an Oxford University Climbers Club member at a relevant meeting and although unconfirmed, communication from Mr. James Stott, father of Norman Stott, undoubtedly a factor in the proceedings, one of the ‘several others’.

A Committee Meeting held at 110, Cannon Street with the President (in the Chair) and Messrs. Benson, Bradley, Coventry, Green, Marler, Marples and Poole (Mr. Balfour was also present by permission of the Committee). The meeting was closed with the 'New members' area and Norman Stott elected as member 600 under rule 14a proposed by Messrs. Longland and Sinker. The first of the membership issues confirmed of one the four involved in the accident.
To page 212, the Meeting, same venue, Friday 20th May, 1927. The President there with Messrs. Balfour, Benson, Coventry, Lowen, Marler, Marples, Pitcher and Poole. The agenda followed the actions taken of minutes of the meeting held on the 12th April 1927 followed by: 'The following 14 gentlemen were elected members of the Club, including F. W. Giveen (632 pencil marked in margin) proposed by M. S. Gotch and C. W. Marshall', contrary to Raymond Greene's account of his blackballing account in his book, ‘Moments of Being’.
Arthur M. Taylor was elected on the 13th September 1927 and recorded in the minutes of the meeting held at The Rendezvous Restaurant, Dean Street, W1, proposed by C. W. Marshall; seconded by Norman Stott.

                                            
The first meeting after the accident of the 20th November 1927, recorded in Pages 222-223, dated Tuesday 29th November 1927 again at the same venue. The President and Messrs. Balfour, Bradley, Carr, Coventry, Donkin, Lowen, Marler (?), Pitcher, Poole and Valentine-Richard present. The 'Accident in North Wales' was on the agenda and 'reference was made to the events of the 20th/21st instant when a party consisting of F. W. Giveen, W.H.T. Tayleur, N. Stott and A. Taylor had set off from Helyg Cottage to climb the Great Gully on Craig yr Ysfa and on the return journey the two-last named had lost their lives. All but one (Tayleur) were members of the Club, and Tayleur's application for membership was in the Hon. Secretary's hands.' The Hon. Secretary read papers sent from C W Marshall, Custodian of Helyg, which included an undated letter from Giveen to Marshall written a few days after the accident. Also, there were copies of the statements made on oath to the Coroner by Giveen and Tayleur and a letter dated 28th from Marshall addressed to the Hon.Secretary.


The resolution made at the lengthy meeting was to convey an expression in severe sympathy to the relatives of the dead members with them in their bereavement. The Hon. Secretary was instructed to thank Giveen for the information supplied and to express to him The Committee's opinion that what he did was right, in the circumstance.

Pages 228-230, a Committee meeting held at the Rendezvous Restaurant on Thursday 12th January 1928 with The President (in the chair) and Messrs. Carr, Coventry, Graham, Lowen, Marler, Marbles, Pitcher, Poole, and from the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, Mr. Wager, with apologies submitted for inability to attend from Mr. Donkin (Vice-President) and Messrs. Balfour and Valentine-Richards. On this occasion the matter of W. H. Tayleur's enquiries for his application for membership of the Climbers' Club was reported by the Hon. Secretary and deferred.

Regarding the accident, the President read a letter received by him from Mr. G. W. Young and Mr. J. S. Dodd. The Hon. Secretary reported that he had received letters from several other people; importantly including the President and ex-President of the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club disassociating that Club from the decision reached by the Climbers’ Club Committee at the last meeting. This first mention of any question of the decisions made following the inquest and from the University where Stott and Taylor had studied.

The Hon. Secretary reported he had written to the parents of the two men who had died and to Mr. F. W. Giveen in the terms instructed by the Committee and he had read replies received. A letter from Mr Giveen asked the Committee to hold an enquiry into the matter and the question was 'very fully discussed' with a resolution that the request be acceded to. Also, it was decided 'that the following gentlemen, viz. The President, Mr.. Winthrop Young and Mr. Roderick Williams (whom failing, Mr. Claude Elliott ) be and they are hereby constituted a Subcommittee to enquire into all the circumstances of and relating to the expedition under the leadership of Mr. Giveen on the 20th November 1927 and to report to the Committee therein'.

On Page 238, 16th March 1928 at the Meeting at the Rendezvous Restaurant, Dean Street. There present the The President (in the Chair) with Messrs. Balfour, Bowman, Coventry, Donkin, Gotch, Lowen, Marples, Pearson, Pitcher Poole and Mr. Wager again present. A question was raised regarding the climbing incident inquiry, which led the Hon. Sec. to read a letter dated 14th March 1928 from Mr. C. M Mathews, stating that the Report of the Sub Committee had been drafted, approved by all its members; sent for signatures, and be in his hands early in the following week. It was resolved that a further meeting of the Committee be held on the 23rd inst. to consider this Sub-Committees Report.


On Page 242, the meeting on the 28th March 1928 attended by the President and Messrs. Balfour, Bowman, Coventry, Donkin, Gotch, Lowen, Mailer, Marples, Pearson, Pitcher, Poole. The Hon. Secretary read to the Meeting the Sub-Committee's Report on the matter of the accident, which he had received from Mr. Mathews, signed by him and by the other three members of the Sub-Committee. After a long discussion upon the Report it was resolved:


(1) That the Hon. Sec. write to Mr. Giveen a letter embodying the following words: "The Committee having read the Report of its Sub-Committee, inform Mr. Giveen that they are prepared to accept his resignation from the Club."
(2) That the thanks of the Committee be tendered to the members of the Sub-Committee for their most efficient performance of what must have been a very distasteful task. (signed) S. Donkin Vice President 16.5.28
The final meeting to discuss the ‘Accident in North Wales’ was held on the May 16th 1928 and the Hon. Sec laid before the Committee Mr. F.W. Giveen's tender of resignation from the Club and it was resolved it be accepted with instructions to inform Mr. Taylor of this resolution.

The entrance to Great Gully:Mark Hughes
The reports and letters mentioned above are no longer available, at least not in the Archive collection of the Climbers’ Club or Gwynedd County Council offices, Caernarfon. Unswerving, initial support for the action taken by Francis Giveen soon diluted by a stream of local gossip, pressure from Cambridge University Climbers’ Club and Mr. Stott, Norman Stott’s father who not only sent a letter to the Club, but also the local Press and Francis Giveen, pleading answers. It is understood no legal action against Giveen was sought, not that any guilt was proved, although his story continues.


Mark Hughes: 2018 

Friday, 12 January 2018

Karakorum Matters....


If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite   William Blake.
 
Two books recently published are focussing a new interest in the Karakoram Mountain Range; ‘‘The Ogre’ by Doug Scott and ‘Karakoram’ by Steve Swenson, the first by Vertebrate and the latter by The Mountaineers; (published in the USA-available in the UK via Cordee). The ‘Ogre’ has been well reviewed in the UK, but ‘Karakoram’ less so. It is a first person story of the authors 15 visits to the range, during which he amassed an outstanding record of ascents, plus the inevitable failures and epic retreats. Set against  the cultural and political background of Pakistan during the almost three decades in which these climbs took place; a period of ever increasing tension caused by the Kashmir conflict with India, and the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism and terror. It is in explaining and detailing the history of these events, and their affect on the local peoples of the Karakoram, that I found this book to be above the common place of such expedition fare.

I cannot compete with Swenson’s fifteen journeys to the Karakoram, for I have only been there on four occasions, but like him my own experiences in these incomparable mountains, can still bring from my memory bank, days (and nights) spent amongst peaks with magic names like The Trango Towers, The Gasherbrum’s, and Masherbrum.

My own experience in the range began when leading a trek to K2 Base Camp in 1989. The recalls from this are still raw, for by the time we reached Concordia (at approx 4600m), the famous glacier basin with its almost unbelievable dramatic mountain setting, and its iconic view of K2 and the surrounding peaks, I was almost bushed out. One of our Party, had become ill, and from about a section of the trek on the Baltoro glacier beneath the Mustagh Tower, two of the Balti porters and I had to take it in turns to support him physically. Fortunately after a couple of days rest on reaching Concordia he made a good recovery. I was feeling much the same, until scoping from our camp, scanning the slopes of Broad Peak (8051m) looming almost directly above us, something caught my eye which could only be human movement. Watching this for some time I realised it was a party in distress, and they needed help, and fortunately as our Sirdar Hussein had previously been with an expedition to this mountain and knew a safe route through its ice fall, we quickly readied and set forth to climb up the flanks of the peak to render what help we were able.

Some hours later we were within shouting distance of the stricken party, initially believing them to be Spanish but as we reached them, we found they were three Mexican’s; two females who were supporting a male climber held between them. They had descended from high on the mountain, from whence their team member had developed pulmonary oedema in a high camp 1600m above our heads. The women had more or less carried their companion for most of that distance, down some dangerous and difficult terrain. A truly impressive feat!

Hussein had along with him another Hunza, and they took over supporting the sick man to give the Mexican ladies a rest. However they soon tired and Marguerite the strongest of them and I then moved in to replace the others. I found this exhausting, but as we quickly lost height, it became somewhat easier. The Hunzas took over again to get the patient through the ice fall as I went on ahead to reach our camp, and to alert our Doctor, an American Peter Stone to be ready as soon as the patient arrived. Fortunately he had all that was needed, a comprehensive medical chest and some emergency oxygen. By the next morning the sick man was sitting up on a bed of sleeping bags, in our Base tent, and quaffing the hot drinks we prepared for him.

I have often wondered why so many climbers suffer altitude problems on Broad Peak? One such was a friend Pete Thexton, a Doctor himself who also developed oedema but unfortunately in a period of bad weather, was unable to descend and who died in a high camp. It seems that because of its reputation as a technically easy peak, climbers tend to move very quickly into the so called ‘death zone’. And I found that moving up so quickly helping the Mexican’s in their need, to a height well over 5000m was totally shattering physically.

So many memories remain from my four Karakoran visits, including meeting Mark Millar near Hushe, retreating after an attempt via a new route on the flanks of Masherbrum, as he was heading back to Islamabad to catch a plane to Kathmandu, to meet up with team mates for an attempt on Makalu ll. We said our goodbyes, but sad to report a few days later, he and his party perished in a PIA plane crash in the hills above Nepal’s capital. However most of my Karakoram memories are happy ones and an instance of this is the day we organised on a green sward, under Masherbrum, the ‘Hushe Olympics’. Climbers/Trekkers versus team Balti. The tug of war event became larger and larger in participation using a 60m rope. In the end the sheer number of locals prevailed, leaving team Climber spread-eagled on the ground.

But a Nanga Parbat trip (8125m), the 9th highest mountain in the world dominates at present my thinking from those days. This, the western bastion of the Karakoram boasts the largest mountain faces in the Himalaya, its southern aspect holds four kilometres of height above base. Its four deep and previously inaccessible valleys set around the Peak meant that the villagers residing in them all spoke different languages and even today are suspicious of outsiders. My visit to the northern, Rakhiot side of the peak in 1990, when I led a trek/climb to Julipar peak on the eastern flank of this huge face bears this out. Failing to reach the summit of this mountain, due to bad weather, we crossed over by a pass of that name into the upper environs of the Diamir, descending down into the shelter of the Patro valley. 

Waiting for us as we did so were a group of rifle toting locals, they would not allow us to proceed, unless we sacked our porters from the Tato village in the Rakhiot and employed them instead at a hugely inflated rate; they were very aggressive and left us with little choice but to follow their demands. Fortunately Hussein our Sirdar could speak their language Shina, and after parleying with their Head Man, and paying off our Tato men, they allowed us to move on down, but only after a number of rupees had changed hands. I detail this experience of my own for I believe they give some insight into the future terrible events of June 2013 which occurred at a Base Camp under the Diamir Face.

Although what happened there on the night of 22nd June was widely reported, there has been little follow up and understanding of the disparate cultural and political forces at work in that area of the Karakoram. The Diamir Face, particularly the Kinshofer route has become the most popular way to access the summit of Nanga Parbat, and fortunately as the weather had been settled in that period most of the climbers, were in the High Camps. But 12 people remained in the Base that night when 16 armed militants, dressed in the uniform of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts, arrived in the camp guided there by a local. This irregular military unit was formed by the British in the latter part of the 19th century and was based in Gilgit, hence its original name, Gilgit Scouts. On Independence it was merged with The Pakistan Army, but later it included Baltistan into its title, and it was charged with policing and keeping the peace in this highly volatile district.

The militants forced the inhabitants of the Base Camp out of their tents, made them hand over their money, valuables and mobile phones. All of which they then smashed to pieces, and they then tied their hands behind their backs, made them kneel and shot each one in turn. One Chinese climber, Zhang Chuan from Yunnan managed to escape. He ran blindly into the night, zig zagging as he did so followed by a hail of bullets one of which cut his scalp and the bleeding from this was nearly blinding him; fortunately near the camp was a ravine and he dived into this to reach safety. But the remaining ten climbers and a local camp worker all died. Three were from the Ukraine, one from China, two from Slovakia, two from Lithuania, and two from Nepal. One Base worker was allowed to survive by the killers, for he persuaded them he was a ‘good Muslim’. In the early hours of the morning the militants left the camp, and gingerly the Chinese climber returned to his tent where he had hidden a mobile phone. Climbing up towards Camp One, he managed to make contact with those in residence there and let them know what had happened. They summoned help and later that day the Pakistan military arrived in helicopters. The climbers in the high camps then all retreated and assembled at the Base. Initially the idea was to walk out, but worried that the militants would still be in the area they refused, and eventually they were flown to safety.

Subsequently the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for this attack, but unlike the climbers who reported they believed this had been carried out to avenge the death of Bin Laden; they stated it had been in retaliation for a USA drone strike, which had killed a local Taliban leader, Waliur Rehman. The whole area around Nanga Parbat is fraught with tribal loyalties and long standing disputes, but this attack on the climbers was seen by the Pakistan authorities as truly serious, and almost the very next day it was the subject of debate in the countries legislature. An enquiry was set up and an Army Colonel, Captain and Police officer were despatched to investigate.  But they too met a bloody end, gunned down in a hail of bullets in their car at Chilas, a nearby town on the Karakoram Highway, again being the victims of the Taliban; however they had managed to establish that the militants were mainly local before their demise.

Soon after this the authorities arrested 16 men who were claimed to be the attackers, 10 were from the Diamir region, 3 Mansehera and 3 from Kohistan.  This latter is surprising to me, unless they were members of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts and that is how they knew each other. Kohistan is quite some distance from Nanga Parbat, away in Swat. Steve Swenson has a short Chapter about this ‘Attack’ in his Karakoram book, but even today almost five years on from this event there are serious questions about what really happened that night. How about the fate of the local guide who led the militants to the Base Camp?

Over recent decades thousands of trekkers and climbers have visited the Karakoram Mountains, and there had never, until the killings on Nanga Parbat been any such attacks on them. This had a major effect on the economy of the region for many of the locals had come to rely on these visitors for their financial well being.  It meant hardship for many families in towns like Hushe as fewer and fewer visitors continued arriving, but as at 2017 recovery is under away, and once again many climbers and trekkers are heading for the Karakoram. Even parties were on the south side of Nanga Parbat last year, bolstered by the presence of a new, local Mountain police unit of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts whose members now accompany each expedition.

The culture, make up and politics of Pakistan are ever more complicated and Steve Swenson does inform on these from a mountaineers viewpoint, and how it affects climbers in their planning to visit the Karakoram, but he also has feeling and friendship for such locals as his long standing cook Ghulam Rasool from Hushe, who he has materially helped over the years. Few climbers of my experience understand how the territorial and tribal conflicts in the region affect the locals besides the international visitors. The whole region was restive at the time of the British, and though popular images of this era in film and literature seem to concentrate on the North West Frontier, the Khyber Pass and the Pathans, equally such areas as Swat/Kohistan, Gilgit Agency and the Indus valley were difficult areas to govern. 



K2-Image Dennis Gray
In recent times the Taliban have fought the Pakistan army in the Swat Valley, parts of the Karakoram Highway have been too dangerous to travel, and the Shi’a/Sunni divide has led to many terrorist outbreaks. Hunza is a stronghold of the Ismaili (Shi’a), and south of Gilgit around Chilas are to be found Pashtun Sunni militants, and so one needs to be aware whilst travelling in these areas. Nonetheless the Karakoram remain a most magnificent range of mountains, it is almost as if the forces of nature have conspired to construct Peaks that are of a design to challenge the climber, some of which such as the Latok’s, the Gasherbrum’s and K2 are almost without equal. Steve Swenson does justice to these in his ‘Karakoram’ volume and for anyone interested in visiting these mountains I recommend getting hold of a copy.   

Dennis Gray: 2018



 

Friday, 5 January 2018

Run Fast..Run Free!



I SHALL be pilloried for this piece, I know it, but I have set it down; come out into the open about what it is in the hills that really fascinates me. This piece is all about travelling fast over whatever terrain you choose; up rocks, scrambles, ridges, over moorland and mountain, or even through caves. I have noticed that whenever a person mentions speeding or racing through the hills or caves they are set upon by the self appointed 'real' purists of the hills. One loses, they say, the whole raison d' etre for being there; to be able to stop, tarry a while, and soak up the aesthetics of the situation. I remember one poor soul misguided enough to claim that he had travelled very quickly from one end of a particular cave system, to the other was this a record? Well he never found out about the record, but was torn limb from limb in print for destroying the essence of caving — how can one 'be' in a strange and wonderful environment if one races through it?

I for one, and I suspect I am by no means alone, disagree with the protestor's argument. The aesthetic in wild country is not just about being there and looking at it, but it's also about the interaction of the person with that environment as he or she travels through it. That interaction is based mostly on the intrinsic satisfaction of experiencing an ever open skill in an ever changing challenge. Surely the satisfaction of some peak or other is not to be found in 'one is there' but in 'one got there'? How one got there, the nature of the challenge, is a choice that the individual makes — one that is supposed to be a key element of all wild country challenges — that the individual carefully assesses what level and type of challenge to undertake and satisfaction is gained by the meeting of that challenge.

There need be no reference to others, or rather one's rank in relation to others. The challenge for one person is as meaningful, as difficult and as close to the limit as any other person's challenge. The nature of that challenge in wild country is normally a combination of the mental and the physical. It is the latter that offers most scope for manipulation. One can choose a sustained strenuous route, one with a desperate bouldering move or a route of technical finesse. A day in the hills can be long, remote but with little technical difficulty or it can be short, sharp and requiring great technique. Why not, then, have fast days or trips — the speed at which one moves through this wilderness challenge is of great consequence in the level of difficulty of that challenge: it usually makes the challenge more difficult but not always so.

I have found, and I'm sure many others have also, that the challenge that suits me is not one of the maximum technical difficulty (a relative concept) but of travelling at speed through a hostile environment of lesser technical difficulty. There is great pleasure to be obtained from 'flowing quickly' through difficult terrain; there is great beauty in travelling fast along Crib Goch, the Skye Ridge or the West Ridge of the Salbit. One must plan the route ahead while travelling at speed over concentration demanding terrain, develop the ability to scramble blind over rock while searching out the footholds three or four moves ahead. In caves the art is all about working out rapidly and in advance the best way of tackling any obstacle or passage shape ahead; lots of different approaches will work of course but there is only one perfect solution and that is the one that guarantees speed, for there has to be great efficiency of movement if speed is to be maintaned. 

Cornwall's Commando Ridge.
There must also be a much more applied and searching attitude to the route as a whole; where to go fast, where to take it easy before a strenuous section, for it is the overall speed that counts as well as any short burst. Now the detractors will say, OK, but look at what you are missing —the stopping and absorbing the great views, the ability to look around while ambling along. That may be true up to a point, but there are other ways of appreciating the environmental display- the great concentration required when moving fast means that all around is absorbed with great depth — the shape ahead takes on other meanings for it is the obstacle to be traversed efficiently and the route itself is a thing of great beauty if it is  a 'good' one. 

On rough moorland, where to walk slowly is such a drag that the situation is demoted from one's immediate thoughts, the art of travelling fast includes the intense scanning of the area ahead for shorter heather, burnt off patches,sheep tracklets or patches of easier going.A close assessment of the area ahead. It is also apparent toanyone who has tried it that moving fast over nasty rough ground is actually a lot easier and more efficient, than plodding slowly through it,and its over more quickly as well!

One doesn’t have to be a fell runner or speed climbing competitor to get enjoyment from moving fast. You don’t even have to be fit,though undoubtably you will be in time. One needs to be able to jog over hilly country,develop some agility,have a keen eye for route choice and navigation and think carefully about equipment. There is little more pleasurable experience on rock than to solo long easy routes without stopping. To flow from hold to hold up Troutdale Pinnacle or Commando Ridge. To arrive at the top of the Gervasutti Pillar one and a half hours after leaving the glacier, unencumbered by a heavy sac, is pleasurable, satisfying and an eminently suitable way to tackle such a climb.

In the Peak District the route of Tanky's Trog, probably the best moorland race of all, is an absolute delight in its challenging simplicity; get from Marsden to Edale as fast as possible passing by Torside and the Snake Inn — a great, almost straight, point to point route with a multiplicity of major and minor navigational and route choice variations. Every second a fresh micro problem is presented.Whether the heather or the peat is fastest, whether the wet winding grough or the up and down of the straightline peat hag route is better. At the same time major decisions are calculated; does one take the route over Black Hill or contour it to the west, and all the time every stride must be smooth, efficient and flowing. 


Great complicated bumpy areas make ideal go faster challenges- try the ridge between Ennerdale and Wasdale, either going over the lumps such as Pillar and Kirk Fell, or traversing them. The best (i.e. fastest) route is tremendously complex and rarely obvious. Routes through the Howgills from east to west, (or vice versa), or on a smaller scale the lumpy rocky areas of the Lakes like that around Watendlath provide superb moving fast challenges through enticing bumpy country with constant decision making.

In caves many of the great sporting trips lend themselves to moving fast and fluently. Simpson's Pot, an arduous eight hour journey of the past can now be done by an agile pair with fluent pitch rigging in half an hour, and to do it like that is a superb experience of technical movement. Similarly the world's finest cave, the Gouffre Berger, scene of dreadful ten day epics of the last generation is now 'flashed' (as the hot shots would call it) in under ten hours; an unimaginable experience to concentrate into a day,but surely the best way to experience such a cave.

Pete Livesey: First published as 'Moving Fast' in Climber and Hillwalker. January 1989.
 

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Battle of Winter Hill


Will Yo' come O Sunday Mornin' Fo a Walk O'er Winter Hill?
Ten thousand went last Sunday But there's room for thousands still!
O the moors are rare and bonny An' the heather's sweet and fine
 An' the road across the hilltops is the public's — yours and mine.'

Allen Clarke, Winter Hill Mass Trespass.1896

It was the Kinder Mass Trespass of April 1932 that became immortalised in the struggle for `Rights of Way' over England's upland: Benny Rothman cycled from Manchester to the Peak District (as it became in 1951) to lead the march on to the moors, and thence into jail. The historic events in Bolton 100 years ago last year were almost forgotten, until re-discovered by Paul Salverson in his book Will Yo' come O 'Sunday Mornin' (1982). More overtly than the battle for Kinder Scout, politics played its part on Winter Hill, as the popular uprising was diverted into a struggle between the 'Bolton Socialist Party' and  a local squire —the outcome perhaps inevitable in Victorian England. A glorious early September Sunday morning in 1896 saw a surprisingly large crowd gathered at Halliwell Road (barely a mile north of Bolton Town Hall), fired by speeches from the soapbox of William Hutchinson, Joe Shufflebotham and the doughty Boltonian journalist, Solomon Partington. Mill workers and hand loom weavers flocked from the terraced houses that crowded off the main street. Many in Sunday best, they rubbed shoulders with grimy coal miners from nearby pits, as the march grew to ten thousand strong as it reached the Ainsworth Arms, at the edge of town.

Emerging in jubilant mood from Halliwell Road, the long line passed Ainsworth's Bleach Works, then Smithills Hall (imposing residence of the other protagonist, Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth), on the steady rise where Smithills Dean Road bolts arrow-straight for Winter Hill. The crossing of Scout Road marks the edge of Smithills Moor, as Coal Pit Road continues towards the summit, before contouring to the hill farms. At its high point, a track heads hard across the dark chocolate peat and heather-clad moor; its junction still marked by the original gritstone gateposts quarried from the moor. There the Colonel's men and local constabulary made their stand. Now celebrated by a handsomely carved stone, 100 years ago it saw a dramatic confrontation, where the ancient route to the summit ( 1500') was barred. After the invigorating march from the steaming mills of Halliwell, the ramblers were in no mood to be thwarted.

The Bolton Chronicle reported “... a scene of the wildest excitement...' and 'Amid the lusty shouting of the crowd the gate was attacked by powerful hands... short work was made of the wooden barrier and with a ring of triumph the demonstrators rushed through into the disputed territory'. In the melee, Inspector Willoughby dived over the drystone wall as Sergeant Sefton fielded the flying gritstone. Gamekeeper Watch's son was knocked over, relinquishing his precious list of names, plus hat and mackintosh, whilst another gamekeeper was ignominiously ducked in the ditch. 


Displaying commendable calm amidst the chaos, the Inspector sent for reinforcements. Before the horse-drawn Wagonette full of policemen had puffed from the station to the top of Halliwell Road, however, it was recalled as the march formed a stately procession to the summit. With expansive views north to the Lakes, west to the Dee Estuary and south beyond Manchester to the Derbyshire peaks, the vista probably extended far beyond most of these walkers' world, during Victoria's reign. Few thought the adventure would end six months later as Partington and Hutchinson were saddled with the crippling court costs of £600 — today's

equivalent would make a national figure in a libel trial wince... A number continued down to Belmont village, to surprise the locals and, no doubt, delight the landlord of the Black Dog. As the Bolton Journal reported, 'Thus ended a demonstration... many returning to the town, and the remainder besieging the local hostelries... The demand was said to be so great that the wants of the hungry and thirsty ramblers could not be satisfied...' The next Sunday morning, despite inclement weather, (‘miserably wet' ) according to the Chronicle), again attracted huge support, and as the deluge cleared, the steam rising from the walkers rivalled that from the mills!

 But the movement's denouement was nigh — the Colonel now entered the fray, counter attacking with devastating effect, isolating and issuing writs by the score,and as promised help failed to materialise, the Bolton Socialist Party slipped quietly away. Back in 1801 the Ainsworth family were already wealthy enough to purchase Smithills Hall and Moor for a princely £21,000. Later, their ownership of the Bleach Works allowed the Colonel to indulge
his love of grouse shooting, leading to the closing off of Smithills Moor. 


At the trial the defence called 44 witnesses but still lost the day, despite providing much amusement when William Fletcher, itinerant bricklayer,described his use of Coal Pit Road and stops at Black Jack's, (the moorland cottage of Luke Morris, who sold gingerbread with `free ale’ to subvert the licensing laws). One day, Luke tossed a loaded pistol into the fireplace — demolishing the cottage. So, it was left to Solomon Partington to repeatedly issue protest pamphlets against the Colonel, until the journalist finally retired. 
By 1938 the Hall and Moor had passed into the possession of the council — so surely the story would conclude with this infamous track designated as an official Right of Way? Remarkably, it was not until 99 years and nine months after the Mass Trespass that it was officially designated thus as the Council, galvanised into action in June 1996, just made it before the centenary march on the 6th September. Amusingly, at the time of writing it still hasn't appeared on any maps — there's been no Bolton `Rights of Way Officer' since 1984.  So, the 100 years war is finally over... but beware the ghost of the Colonel if you're caught in the clammy mist, lose the track amongst the heather and disturb his grouse.

Henry Tindell: 1997
. First published in High-May 1997 as 'Mass Trespass Winter Hill-1896

 

Friday, 8 December 2017

Snowdon in Winter



Tainted by the city air, and with gases not natural even to the atmosphere of London, I gladly chimed in with the proposal of an experienced friend to live four clear days at Christmas on Welsh mutton and mountain air. On the evening of the 26th of December 1860 Mr. Busk, Mr. Huxley, and I found ourselves at the Penryhn Arms Hotel in Bangor. Next morning we started betimes. The wind had howled angrily during the night. It now swept over the frozen road, carrying the looser snow along with it, shooting the crystals with projectile force against our faces, and compelling us to lean forward at a considerable angle to keep upon our feet. Our destination was Capel Curig, with a prospective design upon Snowdon; but we had no bâtons fit for the ascent. At Bethesda, however, after many vain enquiries in Welsh and English about walking-sticks, we found a shop which embraced among its multitudinous contents a sheaf of rake-handles. Two of these we purchased at fourpence each, and had them afterwards furnished with rings and iron spikes, at the total cost of one shilling. Thus provided, we hoped that ‘old Snowdon’s craggy chaos’ might be invaded with a hope of success.

On the morning of the 28th we issued from our hotel. A pale blue, dashed with ochre, and blending to a most delicate green, overspread a portion of the eastern sky. Grey cumuli, tinged ruddily here and there as they caught the morning light, swung aloft, but melted more and more as the day advanced. The eastern mountains were all thickly covered with newly fallen snow. The effect was unspeakably lovely. In front of us was Snowdon; over it and behind it the atmosphere was closely packed with dense brown haze, the lower filaments of which reached almost half-way down the mountain, but still left all its outline clearly visible through the attenuated fog.

No ray of sunlight fell upon the hill, and the face which it turned towards us, too steep to hold the snow, exhibited a precipitous slope of rock, faintly tinted by the blue grey of its icy enamel. Below us was Llyn Mymbyr, a frozen plain; behind us the hills were flooded with sunlight, and here and there from the shaded slopes, which were illuminated chiefly by the light of the firmament, shimmered a most delicate blue. This beautiful effect deserves a word of notice; many doubtless have observed it during the late snow. Ten days ago, in driving from Kirtlington to Glympton, the window of my cab became partially opaque by the condensation of the vapour of respiration.

With the finger-ends little apertures were made in the coating, and when viewed through, these the snow-covered landscape flashed incessantly with blue gleams. They rose from the shadows of objects along the road, which shadows were illuminated by the light of the sky. The blue light is best seen when the eye is in motion, thus causing the images of the shadows to pass over different parts of the retina. The whole shadow of a tree may thus be seen with stem and branches of the most delicate blue. I have seen similar effects upon the fresh névés of the Alps, the shadow being that of the human body looked at through an aperture in a handkerchief thrown over the face.

The same splendid effect was once exhibited in a manner never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it, on the sudden opening of a tent-door at sunrise on the summit of Mont Blanc. At Pen-y-Gwryd Busk halted, purposing to descend to Llanberis by the road, while Huxley and I went forward to the small public-house known as Pen y Pass. Here our guide, Robert Hughes, a powerful but elderly man, refreshed himself, and we quit the road and proceeded for a short distance along a cart-track which seemed to wind round a spur of Snowdon. ‘Is there no shorter way up?’ we demanded. ‘Yes; but I fear it is now impracticable,’ was the reply. ‘Go straight on,’ said Huxley, ‘and do not fear us.’ Up the man went with a spurt, suddenly putting on all his steam. The whisky of Pen Pass had given him a flash of energy, which we well knew could not last. In fact, the guide, though he acquitted himself admirably during the day, had at first no notion that we should reach the summit; and this made him careless of preserving himself at the outset. Toning him down a little, we went forward at a calmer pace. Crossing the spur, we came upon a pony-track on the opposite side. It was rendered conspicuous by the unbroken layer of snow which rested on it. Huxley took the lead, wading knee-deep for nearly an hour. I, wishing to escape this labour, climbed the slopes to the right, and sought a way over the less loaded bosses of the mountain. 

On our remarking to Hughes that he had never assailed Snowdon under such conditions, he replied that he had, and under worse. The 12th of April last, he affirmed, was a worse day, and he had led a lady on that day almost to the summit. Unluckily for him, there was a smack of ‘bounce’ in the reply. It caused us to conclude that the same energy which had led the lady could lead us, and hence, when Huxley fell back, the guide was sent to the front, to break the way. He did this manfully for nearly an hour, at the end of which he seemed very jaded, and as he sat resting on a corner of rock I asked him whether he was tired. ‘I am,’ was his reply. Huxley gave him a sip of brandy, and I came for a short time to the front. I had no gaiters, and my boots were incessantly filled with snow.

My own heat sufficed for a time to melt the snow; but this clearly could not go on for ever. My left heel first became numbed and painful; and this increased till both feet were in great distress. I sought relief by quitting the track and trying to get along the impending shingle to the right. The high ridges afforded me some relief, but they were separated by cwms in which the snow had accumulated, and through which I sometimes floundered waist-deep. The pain at length became unbearable; I sat down, took off my boots and emptied them; put them on again, tied Huxley’s pocket handkerchief round one ankle, and my own round the other, and went forward once more.

It was a great improvement— the pain vanished, and did not return. The scene was grand in the extreme. Before us were the buttresses of Snowdon, crowned by his conical peak; while below us were three llyns, black as ink, and contracting additional gloom from the shadow of the mountain. The lines of weathering had caused the frozen rime to deposit itself upon the rocks, as on the tendrils of a vine, the crags being fantastically wreathed with runners of ice. The summit, when we looked at it, damped our ardour a little; it seemed very distant, and the day was sinking fast. From the summit the mountain sloped downward to a col which linked it with a bold eminence to our right.

At the col we aimed, and half an hour before reaching it we passed the steepest portion of the track. This I quitted, seeking to cut off the zig-zags, but gained nothing but trouble by the attempt. This difficulty conquered, the col was clearly within reach; on its curve we met a fine snow cornice, through which we broke at a plunge, and gained safe footing on the mountain-rim. The health and gladness of that moment were a full recompense for the entire journey into Wales. We went upward along the edge of the cone with the noble sweep of the snow cornice at our left. The huts at the top were all cased in ice, and from their chimneys and projections the snow was drawn into a kind of plumage by the wind. The crystals had set themselves so as to present the exact appearance of feathers, and in some cases these were stuck against a common axis, so as accurately to resemble the plumes in soldiers’ caps. 


It was 3 o’clock when we gained the summit. Above and behind us the heavens were of the densest grey; towards the western horizon this was broken by belts of fiery red, which nearer the sun brightened to orange and yellow. The mountains of Flintshire were flooded with glory, and later on, through the gaps in the ranges, the sunlight was poured in coloured beams, which could be tracked through the air to the places on which their radiance fell.

The scene would bear comparison with the splendours of the Alps themselves. Next day we ascended the pass of Llanberis. The waterfalls, stiffened into pillars of blue ice, gave it a grandeur which it might not otherwise exhibit. The wind, moreover, was violent, and shook clouds of snow-dust from the mountain-heads. We descended from Pen-y-Gwrid to Beddgelert. What splendid skating surfaces the lakes presented— so smooth as scarcely to distort the images of the hills! A snow-storm caught us before we reached our hotel. This melted to rain during the night. 



Next day we engaged a carriage for Carnarvon, but had not proceeded more than two miles when we were stopped by the snow. Huge barriers of it were drifted across the road; and not until the impossibility of the thing was clearly demonstrated did we allow the postilion to back out of his engagement. Luckily our luggage was portable. Strapping our bags and knapsacks on our shoulders, partly through the fields, and partly along the less encumbered portions of the road, we reached Carnarvon on foot, and the evening of the 31st of December saw us safe in London.

John Tyndall: ‘Hours of Exercise in the Alps. 1899.

 

Friday, 1 December 2017

Doug Scott's 'The Ogre'...Reviewed

Making plans at Base Camp. L–R: Tut and I intend to climb the South Pillar; Nick with Chris, and Clive with Mo, are planning to climb up to the West Col together.


The OGRE.   Doug Scott. Vertebrate Publishing.  £20.
Biography of a mountain and the dramatic story of the first ascent.


This book is the story of the Ogre in two parts, the first is concerned with its geological evolution and exploration from the earliest times, the second part is the story of the mountains epic first ascent.

The Karakoram has within its range, some of the world’s highest mountains, but also many of its most dramatic peaks in terms of difficulty to ascend and the Ogre is one of these.  To those who are unlucky, and have never visited the Karakoram, it is hard to find words that do justice to the first sight of mountains such as the Trango Towers, The Mustagh Tower and K2 which impress on the climber as they walk into their glacial fastness. All is on the grandest of scales, and in an attempt to convey this, The Ogre begins with an explanation of the geological forces that have formed these incredible peaks. The book then moves on to detail an ancient history of exploration, putting into context the geopolitical and historical importance of the barriers to travel formed by the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Karakoram mountains.

The early explorers were driven by many different forces, some by conquest as in the campaigns of Darius the Great of Persia who as early as the sixth century BC conquered northern Pakistan, and just three centuries later the invasion by Alexander of much the same territory. I noted myself whilst in the Swat Valley how some of the local men still dressed in similar attire to classical Greek studies. The Karakoram on its northern- slopes spreads into Xinjiang, and it was passing through that territory that drove merchants and religious pilgrims, across the huge and perilous expanses of the Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts, following what became known as the Silk Road (a name coined by Von Richtofen in the 19th century). This was never a single pathway, for it diverted, moving west or north and south leading into Central Asia, India and Europe. And though detail of these events, are of necessity superficial, Scott does a good job in distilling down the essential early history of the region. My own favourite traveller story is that of the Chinese monk, Xuanzang  (Hsuan-Tsang). He left what is now Xi’an in the mid-7th century to travel to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. He returned 16 years later, armed with 75 of these having travelled across some of the most challenging places on earth; the deserts and the Himalaya, travelling as far south as Sri Lanka. His adventures are told in the ever popular Chinese classic, ‘The Journey to the West’ and every school child in that country knows of these from the ongoing CCTV series ‘Monkey’. These have enlivened many a dull hour when travelling around China for myself.


Clive Rowland
 
Scott then moves on to the early European travellers, including the Venetian Marco Polo, who although it now seems accepted in Europe, that the story of his journey with his uncles to visit Kubla Khan, the Chinese Emperor (Yuan Dynasty) in the late 13th century is believed to be true, Chinese scholars are not so inclined to accept many of his claims. It is interesting that just as Buddhist monks travelled west from China, Jesuit priests were travelling there at the start of the 17th century as part of their gospel mission. Scott then goes on to detail the machinations that led on to The East India Company establishing itself on the sub continent and the Scottish contribution to Empire. As these entrepreneurs spread out, they eventually were to reach the natural barrier of the Himalaya, in the Punjab, Kashmir and the Karakoram. This led on to Empire the Raj and The Survey of India.

Strategic necessity then forced the surveyors such as Godwin-Austen deep into the mountains. And he was the first westerner into the environs of The Ogre (Baintha Brakk) in 1861 fixing its height at 23,914ft. It is interesting to note that where possible the surveyors always tried to find out the local name for any of the peaks they were interested in. Besides the surveyors there were still keen explorers appearing on the scene, most notably in 1887 the soldier Francis Younghusband; he made some significant journeys across China, and into the Karakoram but is now remembered most as the leader of the ‘1903 invasion of Tibet’ which like the Iraq war in modern times was the result of a failure of intelligence. After slaughtering with Maxim guns several hundred badly armed Tibetans, he had a religious experience on a hilltop above Lhasa, and spent a large part of his life thereafter promoting interfaith dialogue. However he was also a driving force after The Great War in the planning of the early British expeditions to Mount Everest.     

By the end of the 19th century mountaineering was under away in the Karakoram, and one of the major figures in bringing this about was Martin Conway. Anyone who has read ‘The Alps from End to End’ or Simon Thompson’s modern interpretation of this will know what a forceful, entrepreneur and self publicist Conway really was. Marrying an American heiress, whose stepfather bank rolled him out on many of his schemes he nevertheless put together an outstanding exploratory expedition to the Karakoram in 1892. Amongst its members were Eckenstein the inventor of the 10point crampon, Bruce and Zurbriggen a Swiss guide. They made a journey up the Hispar and down the Biafo before reaching the Baltoro Glacier. However there was dissension in the ranks and Eckenstein who was keener to climb some peaks rather than exploration and mapping, argued with Conway and left the expedition. It is thought it was Conway who gave the ‘Ogre’ its name although there is some confusion over this, for a mountain nearby is now known to climbers as ‘Conway’s Ogre’, Uzun Brakk on the maps.  His expedition was a first in many ways; Bruce a Gurkha officer and a future leader of the earliest attempt on Mount Everest, brought four of his soldiers with him, starting the tradition of employing Nepalese hill men; Sherpas on many future expeditions, and adding much cartographic detail to Godwin-Austen’s work, plus several equipment innovations, including beside crampons a lightweight silk tent designed by Mummery. 

Camp I – Mo, Clive and Tut having a brew at this exposed campsite but safe from rockfall.

Post Conway exploration in the Karakoram quickened. The first expedition to K2 took place in 1902. This was led by Eckenstein, but it ran into difficulties from the first, when he was held under arrest by the deputy commissioner in Rawalpindi. It took him three weeks to extricate himself and rejoin the expedition, without any explanation as to this action. Subsequently both Aleister Crowley and Guy Knowles who mainly funded the expedition, believe that this had been done at the behest of Conway whose standing in the London establishment was by then forever rising. It is incredible in retrospect that Crowley was a lead climber on this first attempt on K2, for he became known as ‘The Great Beast 666’, involved in drugs, sex and black magic. During the expedition he even threatened Guy Knowles with a loaded revolver. Maybe Nick Bullock is right, ‘there just are not the original characters around in British climbing any longer?’ Nevertheless the expedition did add quite some knowledge about the mountain and its approaches.

Scott makes a swift revue from thereon of developments in the Karakoram over the next period as more and more parties arrived to explore and climb its mountains. One such, were the American couple, the Bullock Workman’s, Fanny and Hunter. In eight visits between 1898 and 1912 they walked more and climbed more of the mountains than any other party hitherto. In 1909 the Duke of Abruzzi led the first of many outstanding Italian expeditions into the Karakoram. Making determined attempts on K2 and reaching a height of 24,600feet on Chogolisa, but being unfortunately dogged by bad weather throughout their stay. Vittorio Sella was the photographer on this expedition and his black and white prints of the peaks of the Baltoro region and of K2 inspired generations of future climbers.

The Italians were back in 1929 and 1930 exploring in several areas of the range, surveying and mapping and a Dutch couple the Visser’s made four expeditions in the eastern Karakoram. In 1937 Shipton and Tilman  undertook a four month sojourn in the range mapping and exploring and Shipton returned in 1939 with another strong surveying and mapping team, who with great relevance to The Ogre story, produced an accurate map of the Biafo and the Uzun Brakk glacier systems. The stage was now set for the post war period of rising climbing standards, equipment innovation, and knowledge of the importance of altitude acclimatisation that allowed for attempts to be made on the Latok Peaks and The Ogre. It is thought its local name, Baintha Brakk means ‘The Rocky Peak above The Pasture’.  

  
Chris sitting it out, battered but not broken, playing the waiting game for a total of five days until Nick arrived with our porters.

The author having rattled through these early explorations of the range, in Part two concentrates on the history of the attempts and at last the successful ascent of The Ogre by himself and Chris Bonington. The first to try in 1971 was a Yorkshire expedition led by Don Morrison and including Clive Rowland, who spotted a route up via the South West spur leading to the West Col. From where it might be possible to climb the West Summit of the mountain, but also to gain the slopes leading to the final rock tower of the main summit, which has been re-surveyed as 23,900 feet. Like many other expeditions to the Karakoram they were stopped by a bad run of inclement weather. Over the next six years several expeditions explored around the Latok peaks and the Ogre, and inevitably in that era most were Japanese. Although Don Morrison returned in June 1975 his party ran into serious porter problems, and ended by trying to in relays from Askole, which is now the road head, to carry in their own equipment to the Ogre base camp. They soon realised that this left them not enough time for a realistic attempt on the mountain, and so they turned their attention to three more accessible peaks nearby. In 1976 a strong Japanese party reached the West Col via the South West Spur and climbed some way along the west ridge, but for some unexplained reason abandoned this obvious route to the summit. And so the scene was set for Scott and his party made up of Clive Rowland, Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite, Mo Anthoine, Nick Estcourt and Chris Bonington in 1977 to make their attempt to climb The Ogre. They were a part of a golden age of British Himalayan climbing, and few parties have left the UK with such mountain experience behind them.

Initially the party split, Scott and Braithwaite set out to attempt the imposing south pillar of the mountain, whilst the other four concentrated in following the South West Spur. However climbing in the Himalaya is ever-dangerous, and whilst climbing a gully leading onto the south pillar, Scott dislodged a rock which ploughed into Braithwaites leg, immobilising him for the rest of the expedition and leading to a first crawl down by him back to Base Camp.

Meanwhile the other four had made good progress in climbing the South West Spur, and in typical fashion Bonington supported by Estcourt, made a dash for the summit. Reaching the mountains West Peak but being forced by technical difficulties to retreat from climbing on further to attempt the huge summit block, protecting the mountains summit. All then returned to Base Camp to recuperate. After which Rowland, Anthoine, Bonington and Scott climbed back up to the West Col. During all this activity they were blessed by unusually good weather, and to cash in on this as soon as possible Scott and Bonington set off for another summit attempt.

They made good progress in this, and after some tricky ridge traversing, reached the final summit block, which composed of marvellously sound granite, reminded Scott of his climbs on Yosemite’s El Capitan. The climbing from thereon demanded some of the hardest aid and free climbing then achieved in the Himalaya; however all did go well and they reached the summit. But it was on the descent from this that the meat of the story develops. On the way up the summit pillar, they had needed to make a huge pendulum to reach a crack system, and in reversing this Scott swung off wildly into space slipping on verglas, and hammering his legs by the impact at the end of his trajectory. Hanging on the ropes he realised he had fractured both legs. Somehow he and Bonington managed to recover from this and began to abseil back down the mountain. However they ran out of daylight and had to spend the night cowed together bivouacking on a tiny ledge. Next day they continued abseiling and on reaching the ridge leading back across to the West summit they were met by Rowland and Anthoine. Somehow with their unstinting support and help Scott managed to crawl back along the knife edge ridge to an ice cave they had cut below the West summit. But then the weather broke and what followed is one of the great survival stories of mountaineering. They ran out of food and after days holed up in the ice cave decided they must descend, despite a blizzard blowing outside.

This descent developed into a fight to survive; and due to a misunderstanding during this, on one of the abseils, both Scott and Bonington almost shot off the end of the ropes into space and oblivion. Chris unfortunately fractured his ribs during this happening. This epic lasted for days, including Scott needing to crawl all the way down the glacier and moraine system to reach Base Camp.

On arriving at Base Camp they were gob smacked to find it empty, for Estcourt (who had developed a serious throat infection) and Braithwaite believing their team mates had perished, had on the arrival of porters from Askole set off for home to relay the sad news of their friends demise. Mo Anthoine immediately set off, and by almost none stop moving and jogging managed to intercept them before they had managed to mistakenly post their companions as deceased to the outside world. It was fortunate that this had not happened today, for with solar panels, and mobile phones this false news would have reached the media, before it could be corrected. They returned with the porters from Askole, and after fashioning a stretcher, these Balti hill men carried Scott down some of the roughest terrain, to where a helicopter could pick him up and drop him into hospital. However a final twist to the story is that on this journey the helicopters engine stalled; and it crash landed on its approach. So it was to be several days before another replacement chopper could be found to go and pick up Chris who remained in agony with his damaged ribs.

A postscript to this impressive feat of survival is that the real heroes of the epic, Clive Rowland and Mo Anthoine who shepherded both Bonington and Scott off the mountain received little or no plaudits in the press reports for their part in saving the lives of their companions, who would not have made it to safety without them. Fortunately, even though it is now 40 years since the epic on the Ogre, both Chris and Doug in a series of lectures around the UK this winter, at this anniversary are both attempting to put the record straight by highlighting just how much they owed to Clive and Mo for a safe return, who unfortunately is no longer able to receive their heartfelt thanks having died of cancer some years ago now. 

The Ogre

This book deserves to become like Touching the Void, Into Thin Air and Annapurna and be regarded as one of the great classical survival stories of our sport. Photographically it is well illustrated, and though in fact it is only a slim volume considering the history it covers, just for the pictures alone it is worth the purchase price. I understand Doug intends to follow this up with similar volumes about the other mountains he has been associated with in his long mountaineering career; Kanchenjunga, Makalu, K2, Nanga Parbat, Everest etc. If they are as good a read and production as The Ogre they will all I believe become accepted as yet another outstanding effort by someone who has put back into the mountain world more than he has taken out. I am thinking of his charitable initiative,  Community Action Nepal which has done such good works in Nepal, building schools and hospitals in some of its remote mountain regions, and organising a safe and hygienic water supply for the Karakoram village, Askole as by way of his thanks to its denizens who carried him down to safety in his hour of need.  


Dennis Gray: 2017 

Images supplied by Vertebrate Publishing
 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Ask the way to Cold Mountain: The Ben Nevis Story



I know now, from my own experience, that your memory of youth gets sharper as you get older. Wandering about the Highlands it happens to me more and more, and nowhere more sharply recently than on Ben Nevis.I was passing the point where the half-way house used to be, and in my mind’s eye I saw a lad in short trousers and a lithe fair-haired man, their backs bent beneath bulging rucksacks as they made to doss down on the floor for the night.

The wee fellow’s neck ached under the weight of that sack. He hated it as much as his companion relished doing what few folk would want to do. Ritchie, a champion wrestler, weight-lifter and racing cyclist, prided himself on being a “sourdough.” He scorned comfort. An unemployed Clydeside plumber he sought the wilds.He and I had been travelling across country from getting off the train at Taynuilt and crossing on the ferry to Bonawe three days before. Now we were heading for Rannoch Moor, via the top of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag.


It was bliss to get that bag off, get the Primus going for a “drum- up” and curl up on the floor. But continuous sleep was hard to come by for heavy boots kept thumping in—folk on their way to the summit to await the sunrise— unaware that we were on the floor until their eyes became accustomed to the darkness. As we went up in the mist and drizzle of the morning we met party after party coming down, all of them bedraggled and disappointed at seeing nothing for their effort. Conditions were still the same when we saw the Observatory building looming ahead, less of a ruin than it is today, even to a bit of lead roof remaining. Unpacking the tea-can I went off to find “Wragge’s Well” marked on our old map a short distance away. Ritchie gave me a compass bearing and was pleased when I returned with the means of tea-making.


What we didn’t know was that the ridge of Carn Dearg has got many climbers into trouble for it is difficult to hit on. Ritchie set off confidently and still continued on our rough compass bearing when the easy slope became rocks. Soon they were so steep we had to face inward for hand and footholds.Ritchie was enjoying himself, but I was frightened.


The drag of the sack was unbalancing me and I could visualise myself falling into the unknown void below. My legs were trembling and once I had to cry for help. Memory is vague now, but I have an image of snow patches and an immense scattering of pink boulders far below and away to our right the narrow ridge we were trying to find. A series of ledgeways led us to it.Once down on the Aonach Beag col, Ritchie scrapped the idea of humping the bags over the tops in favour of dumping them for a quick race up and down. I really enjoyed myself then, free of ballast. It was fun to be crunching over the ice-hard snow-patches lying in the hollows and then running back down the screes to our bags.

Little could I have guessed after that wet week with Ritchie that it would be the cliffs of Ben Nevis that would draw me back again and again in every season of the year. Or that the least enjoyable part of future days on Britain’s highest mountain would be the plod from Glen Nevis and the descent from the summit after a day on the longest rock climbs in Britain.And now here I was on Ben Nevis again with two young folk who knew as little about the mountain as I did on my very first ascent, and this time I was going to the top by the pony track on a promising morning of crisp visibility though a full thousand feet of mist still capped the summit.

Of the half-way hut that was used by the road-men who maintained the track in Observatory clays, there is nothing left. When we dossed down in it all these years ago I didn’t know that this was one of the places where you paid your one shilling toll fee to be allowed to walk up the track, four shillings if you rode a pony.To build the track cost £800 in 1883, and until it was opened on that date none but a few eccentrics climbed Ben Nevis. Of these the most extraordinary was Clement Wragge, a gangling red-headed Englishman nick-named “The Inclement Wragge’ by the Fort William folk because he climbed the mountain every day regardless of weather. Leaving at five in the morning he aimed to be on the summit at nine and back down in the town at three in the afternoon, having obtained in that time a scientific record of the weather differences between sea-level and 4406 feet.

It was the astonishing weather variations between sea and summit which decided the Scottish Meteorological Society to build the first mountain-top observatory on Ben Nevis lying in the direct path of Atlantic storms. What Wragge had been doing was a feasibility study over a period of two summers, climbing the ben from June until October inclusive. The £4000 required to build the Observatory was raised in Scotland, as was the money for the pony track.Suddenly everybody wanted to climb Ben Nevis—over 4000 within a year. Many of them would arrive in Fort William by the West Highland Railway which opened in August 1894 bringing the mountain within easy range of the mass of the Scottish population. Trade in the town was brisk. A hotel was built on top to provide bed and breakfast for those wanting to stay for the sunrise, and there was serious talk of extending the railway from the town to the summit.

Talking about these things my young friends and I overtook the first climbers of the morning, a family in yellow oilskins, father and mother with a bright-faced wee girl roped between them. In foreign accent the man asked if I thought the weather would remain fine. “We turned back from here yesterday. We would like to climb up the highest peak in Scotland but perhaps it is too much for this little girl?” She was not quite six.“She’ll do it if you can keep her interested,” I told him. “Tell her about the wee house there used to be on the top—the highest in the whole of this country. Give her something to look forward to.”

They were from the flat lands of Holland.We broke off from the path after crossing the Red Burn to see what we could find in the way of mountain plants among the boulders; fir club and other mosses, alpine ladies mantle, starry saxifrages and the tiny least willow. No snow buntings singing as I had hoped, but I have a feeling they nest here. We were well in the mist at 3500 ft. and at 4000 ft. were on the unbroken snowfield between Cam Dearg and Ben Nevis which Wragge called “The Plateau of Storms”.

I used the compass now in this dimensionless world of white mist on snow, to keep on parallel course with the big cliffs which sheer away from the plateau edge for roughly a mile between here and the top of Nevis. Then suddenly came the proof that all was well: the big snow dome of the summit suddenly bulged in front of us, the mist pouring off north-eastwards revealing the black thrust of crags soaring to thick lips of snow cornice.Our spirits soared as colour Hooded around us and below us. There was green-shored Loch Linnhe, a ribbon of soft grey winding to the blue hills of Mull. Corpach on Loch Eil and the Pulp Mill on its peninsula looking like a white toy. Highland topography at a glance. Behind the deep cut of the Great Glen jumbled ridges stretched from Knoydart to Kintail and Glen Affric. 


There would be even more to see when we reached the top.Our first delightful surprise on getting there was to find the Dutch family already there. The wee girl said she wasn’t even tired and proved it by grabbing my ice-axe and digging furiously into the snow while we talked.They were amused when I told them about the Fort William man who claimed the first wheeled victory on Ben Nevis by pushing a wheel-barrow to the summit, followed in 1911 by a Model T Ford motor car which took three days to reach the Observatory, but a mere 2 ½ hours to return after a night cooling down.

At the news of the victory of the internal combustion engine over the steeps of the mountain a public holiday was declared in Fort William and a pipe band played to greet the entry of the motor car into the town. The man with the wheelbarrow was there trundling along in the procession. It was to be another thirteen years before the motor car could equal the wheelbarrow by going up and down in a day. That came in 1928 when a Model A Ford achieved the feat.We took a walk along the cliffs to identify the peaks stretching from Ben Wvvis to Ben Lawers, Schiehallion, Ben Alder and the high mass of the Cairngorms, the nearest approach to true Arctic terrain we have in Scotland and still very white after an exceptionally long winter and cold spring.

Sheltered by the modern “survival hut” which perches on what used to be the Observatory conning tower, I thought about the disappointment Wragge must have felt when the Observatory was built and he was refused the post of Superintendent which he wanted. But you can’t suppress a man of his pioneering spirit.He had been in Australia, and he went back there, getting his due as Government meteorologist and setting up mountain-top observatories on Mount Wellington and Mount Kodciusko. The world remembers him as its first long-range weather forecaster. He died in 1922.The staff of the Observatory was normally four and they seem to have got on comfortably together with little friction. Visiting students came to stay. One was C.T.R. Wilson, a Nobel Prize winner from Glencorse whose work played an important part in the development in nuclear physics. It was the optical phenomena shown when the sun shone on the clouds surrounding the hilltop that turned his thoughts to imitating them in the laboratory which led to 40 years of tracking atoms.

Life on the highest mountain had its share of fun. The team enjoyed the snow, tobogganing from the Observatory to the “Plateau of Storms”—a thrilling half-mile course with a large drop and a sensational bit known as 'McLean’s Steep'.For skating they made a pond on a big tarpaulin stretched on the flat roof; and for curling matches they would descend 2000 ft. to the half-way lochan. In summer they played quoits and amused themselves hurtling rocks over the cliffs to see them bounce and smash with sulphurous smell.

Later, in 1892 they had to warn tourists not to hurl rocks down the cliff. An incredible thing had happened: a family from the north of England had scaled the 2000 ft. cliffs. In four days the Hopkinson brothers pioneered two of the great classics of Scottish climbing, Tower Ridge and Observatory Ridge. Strangely they wrote not a word in any journal about it.In March two years later a noted Scottish Mountaineering Club alpinist came with a strong party in March and made the first winter ascent of Tower Ridge which Collie described as being comparable with the Italian ridge of the Matterhorn—powerful praise and not over-stated. These great crags are a volcanic cauldron of lava which did not erupt but subsided inside a mass of softer material, its head changing the nature of the surrounding rocks.

It was erosion by moving masses of ice scraping away the softer which uncovered the inside of the mountain and made its lava the north-eastern outside we see today, a superb architectural form of ridge and spire, buttress and arête, gully and chimney. From below they look even more daunting than from above, so all praise to the Hopkinson brothers in finding two of the best natural lines.Among the early pioneers was Dr W. Inglis Clark, Scottish Mountaineering Club President from 1913—19. His name is remembered in the only true alpine cabin in Britain, situated below the Tower Ridge. Dr Clark built it to commemorate his son Charles, who died of wounds in Mesopotamia. It was opened in 1929. This year a large gathering of Scottish Mountaineering Club members plans to celebrate its 50 years of active service.


I’ve been looking back the record of the official opening of the hut on 31st March five decades ago. The time was 7 p.m. They had just eaten a splendid meal cooked on the club stove. It was snowing hard outside when the door was thrust open and in lurched two climbers in a state of near exhaustion. They had fallen from Observatory Gully, lost their ice axes, slid 600 ft. and were fumbling their way down when they saw a light beside them. Clark wrote: “Thus early our hut had justified itself in time of danger.”


Time of danger? In fact mountaineering accidents were very few on Ben Nevis until the sudden popularisation of the sport in the late 50s when the climbing revolution took place and gathering streams converged in all seasons. Accidents became commonplace- over 50 in two decades- many of the victims totally lacking any idea of what to expect on this most savage of Scottish peaks. There is less excuse for ignorance today than when Ritchie and I went up on our first visit.


How long should you allow yourself to climb Ben Nevis by the pony track? For comfort you want seven hours from Achintee or from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. Don’t be misled by the fact that runners in the Ben Nevis race, held on the first Saturday in September, will have to beat 1 hour 26 minutes 55 seconds to beat the record from the town park to the summit and back.Just remember that experienced fell runners regard the Ben Nevis race as the hardest in Britain, not just because it rises so sharply from sea- level to summit, but because of the roughness of it, and the severe jolting body and feet have to take on the descent.


August will see hundreds of climbers on any reasonable day setting off up the pony track to the top. if you are one of them, make sure you have some warm clothing and a pair of gloves, even if it is warm and sunny in Fort William. And your footgear should be stout and comfortable, not smooth leather soles, but with nails or cleated rubber to give a grip.

Don’t be put off by mere mist for the upper part of the hill is well marked by cairns of stones. You may climb above the clouds or get the same kind of clearing as we did. But don’t be too proud to turn back if the conditions become too wet and stormy for comfort. Go back another day.The Big Ben is an experience not to be missed.

Tom Weir: First published as 'The Big Ben' in The Scots Magazine-1979