Canvas of Rock has been out for a year or two now but I’ve only just had the opportunity to read it. In fact my first experience of the author’s work came through the excellent ‘Pete Livesey-Fast and Free’ anthology which came out this year and which was co edited by ‘Canvas’ author Mark Radtke with John Sheard
Although the aforementioned Yorkshire climber Mark Radtke is not a household name in the manner of a Livesey or Fawcett, he is one of those Premier League performers from the white rose county, who has created his own impressive back catalogue of hard classics within the area and beyond. In this well written and engaging autobiography Mark takes us from his childhood in the mining town of Hemsworth- where, like any healthy youngster in this type of semi rural environment, he found adventure and escape in the surrounding countryside- before quickly getting to the meat of the book; his lifelong obsession with the climbing game.
The author paints an enviable picture of a climbing life which extends far beyond the everyday world of your average UK weekend climber and finds challenges upon the crags and mountains of Australia, the South of France and The Alps, amongst a moveable feast of of international venues whose classic hard lines have tested Mark, and his various partners over a lifetime of climbing. However, it’s places like Goredale Scar and the scattered crags and boulders of Yorkshire which not surprisingly, take centre stage as the author sets out to repeat the area’s hard test pieces but more importantly, establish hard new routes of his own.
For the average climber bimbling around in the lower and middle grades, (we are told that 80% of climbers never get above E2 in their climbing careers) it’s a fascinating insight into the drive and passion required to establish cutting edge routes like Phoenix in Obsidian-E7-6b on the esoteric Iron Crag in the Lake District. A route which requires not only a finely honed physical ability but a mental state of almost yogic levels of detachment and calmness. Climbing through technically challenging sequences where a fall could have far more serious consequences than a bruised ego and mild frustration.
An example of the high cost of failure at this level is provided when the author describes attempting a new, poorly protected line at Goredale Scar where he takes flight when a hold snapped and a shaky peg pulls. The resulting decking out which delivered two broken ribs, a cracked heel and broken pelvis, could, in the circumstances, be seen as getting off lightly given the horrific landing and the fact that like most hard climbers, a helmet is considered more a hindrance than a potential life saver .
Despite his injuries, Mark is back on rock three weeks later while still on crutches. However, despite eventually getting back more or less to his previous technical standards, by the author’s own admission, the fall, not surprisingly, leaves him somewhat cautious and less confident than in his more youthful days of yore. After the accident, Mark continues his adventures around the UK and Europe although I detected that climbing was evolving into a more a recreational pursuit, undertaken for pleasure, rather than an activity driven by an almost obsessive desire to fill in the gaps and stack up the first ascents. Not that the author is unique in this regard. A cast list which includes many of the great and the good of Northern climbing-Pete Gomersall, Dave Barton, Jerry Peel, Neil Foster, Mick Ryan,Martin Atkinson et al- are all there in the new routing vanguard. Squeezing every last line from a popular face.
For anyone over here in North Wales, an area which since the days of Archer Thomson and Wynthrop Young has remained a bastion of traditional climbing ethics- its revealing just how bolting appears to have become much more readily accepted over there. Despite Mark himself having reservations about the rise of sports climbing in Yorkshire at the expense of trad climbing, descriptions of crags and routes which have been bolted for a first ascent, retro bolted, have had holds chipped, adhesive anchors and bolts placed, etc etc, would, I imagine, have Ken Wilson spinning like a top! Nevertheless, I can see that it’s just another branch of climbing albeit one which will be alien to a lot of trad climbers.
In the later sections of the book, Mark details his emergence as a family man with a new wife, young children and new responsibilities. Like a lot of mature climbers, bouldering increasingly delivers that same buzz as pure rock climbing but without the wooden overcoat potential. Looking back on a lifetime of climbing, the author muses on the social changes which have impacted on so called risk sports and ponders the negative impact of commercialism in the sport. The philosophical musings are never less than convincing and obviously from the heart. For non climbers, the author offers a comprehensive overview of grading, climbing styles and a glossary of climbing terms.
Canvas of Rock is an excellent insight into a unique branch of UK climbing culture. The players, the intrigues, the squabbles, the eccentrics, the ethical conundrums ; each element fascinatingly framed within the context of the author’s journey through an ever changing yet always vibrant Northern climbing scene.
Canvas of Rock: Available from Amazon or direct from the author.