Friday, 13 October 2017

High Mountains & Cold Seas:Triumph and Tribulation... reviewed

High Mountains and Cold Seas. J.R.L. Anderson. 416 pages
Triumph and Tribulation. H.W. Tilman.  200 pages..

Published by Lodestar Books and Vertebrate Publishing, in paperback format.

 £12 each title.

‘I cannot rest from travel; I will drink Life to the lees......’  Tennyson (Ulysses)

These two volumes are the final ones in a publishing endeavour that commenced in September 2015, with the intention, that for the first time since their original appearance of all the fifteen books by Bill Tilman, to be reprinted as single volumes. The programme has been strictly adhered to with one of the seven mountain exploration books appearing alongside the eight sailing ones each quarter for the last two years, with the final effort being the two books covered by this review. A foreword and afterword appears in the first of these by two people who knew Tilman, sailed with him and kept in touch until his fateful last voyage in 1977.

 ‘High Mountains and Cold Seas’, originally published by Victor Gollancz  in 1980 is a thoroughly researched authorised biography of Tilman by John Anderson, a long time Guardian employee , but also with a background as a poet, writer of fiction and non-fiction, an adventurer and sailing enthusiast who unfortunately died in 1981. It is interesting to note here that a second biography of Tilman, ‘The Last Hero’ appeared in 1995, by Tim Madge who has written a foreword to this reprint of the Anderson book. Having read reviews of these two biographies, it is by common consent that whilst they both adequately cover Tilman’s impressive life story, they somehow leave the reader to ruminate about what kept him adventuring into advanced old age, and what really did motivate him?

The first of the two books under review, describes three voyages to northern destinations, the number one a successful circumnavigation of Spitzbergen, the other two including the final one in his own boat, being to Greenland. The leitmotif of Tilman’s voyages was to sail to a challenging destination, with the possibility of some mountain exploration once this had been reached. This did not always prove to be possible; for instance on some of his Greenland journeys thwarted by pack ice it proved too difficult to land and explore the proposed glaciers and or peaks, on others such as the trip to Baffin Island or the one to Patagonia, mountains were climbed and the ice cap successfully traversed. However his final journey to East Greenland at the age of 78, ended in difficulties both with his crew, and damage to his boat Baroque in icy conditions necessitating him to seek harbour in Iceland, and eventually to leave this behind and return to the UK. So the title of this fifteenth volume, ‘Triumph and Tribulation’ is apposite and though the first part of this work sparks with the usual to be expected Tilman dry wit and measured understatement, I found the last sections lacking in this and a sad end to a series of books, without equal in these qualities within my own reading of mountain literature. 

I had not previously read the Anderson biography and this did inform about a life perhaps without a comparison in the history of British mountaineering. This work provides many avenues to follow in the search for the real Tilman;  a privileged upbringing with a rich family background, the father a  Liverpool sugar merchant , a sister Adeline who was in his own words ‘His Rock’ who he corresponded with wherever life and travels took him. Public school, at Berkhamsted with an outdoorsy headmaster; C.H. Greene father to Graham the novelist, Sir Hugh Carleton who became head of the BBC, and Dr Raymond who was a member of the successful Frank Smythe Expedition to Kamet (25,447ft) in 1931. All had been pupils at his school including Smythe. Tilman should have gone to University, but the First War intervened and at 17 years of age he joined the Army and after training he was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery as a Second Lieutenant. Within a few months in 1916 he was in service on the western front in the Battle of the Somme, where he was wounded, but quickly returned to the action. The following year he was not so lucky, he was badly wounded and was evacuated back to England for treatment, but not before he had won a Military Cross for his bravery. Recovering he returned to the front and was at the battles of Ypres and Passchendale, earning a bar to his MC and being promoted to Lieutenant.

All of this is truly gob smacking, for how he survived is astonishing, most of his fellow subalterns did not; life expectancy and the death rate amongst them was on average a six week one. It is a good job however that for most of us our teenage letters are consigned to the waste bins, for Tilman’s did not and his letters home were preserved, and at that stage of his life he had not become the wise old cynic of future years, and are full of jolly this, and jolly that! But just imagine an 18 year old, in charge of older none commissioned officers, and other ranks in an almost without historical parallel at that date, amongst the horrific muddy killing fields. It must have been character forming and might explain Tilman’s later enigmatic way of presenting himself. 

However he did survive and by the end of the war had turned against following a pre-ordained life, working with his father in the family firm, which is what they wished him to do. He resigned his commission in 1919 and took up the offer to move to East Africa, to Kenya to become a planter, first of flax, but later coffee. On one of his leaves home in 1929 he visited The Lake District, and for the first time did some rock climbing. But his life in Kenya building up his own farm and turning it into a successful coffee plantation was exacting, and eventually he persuaded his father, a successful investor by then in many other business ventures to join with him, and invest in extending his farms land and holdings. 

It was to be in 1930 when an article in the local newspaper about a fellow coffee planter, and his mountaineering activities, one named Eric Shipton working nearby, spurred Tilman to contact him about the possibility of doing some climbing together. Having also lived in Kenya, and similarly had experienced difficulty in finding climbing partners, Shipton must have been delighted by this overture and responded with alacrity. This was to lead on to one of the outstanding mountaineering partnerships, but a fact often overlooked was that Tilman was already 30 years of  age at the start of his mountain exploration career.

Over the next decade, leading up to the second world-war, he and Shipton revolutionised how climbers approached remote mountain objectives by developing an economical lightweight approach, starting with ascents on Mount Kenya, including the first traverse of the mountain, followed by other African objectives including a successful visit to the Ruwenzori Mountains of Uganda. Initially Tilman was the novice, and learned much from his younger companion who quickly came to realise how tough and hardy his older rope mate really was, physically not a tall man, of below average height, but blessed with a powerful, squat physique. At the time of their first meeting Shipton had been climbing since his later teenage years, and already had some alpine experience and had previously summited Mount Kenya.

In 1932 Tilman was in the UK at Easter for family reasons, but managed to get away to North Wales and the Lake District to do some rock climbing. Unfortunately he was involved in a serious accident on Dow Crag, when climbing in a party of three, moving roped together near the summit, the third member of their party Vera Brown slipped and pulled Tilman off and though the leader John Brogden managed to hold them both, without a belay he could not do this for long and eventually he too was dragged down.  Brogden died before he could be rescued and both Tilman and Brown were unconscious from their falls. Tilman came round and though injured crawled down to Coniston to raise the alarm, taking four hours to do this. The rescue party found Miss Brown still alive and she later recovered, but Tilman who had injured his back was advised by Doctor’s he would never be able to climb again. However after careful nursing, and building up his stamina once more, almost having to learn to walk upright again, he took off to the Alps on  his own and made a string of voie normal ascents in first the Dauphine before moving on to the Mont Blanc range, to bag a few more climbing with a guide.

Returning to Kenya he became caught up in gold fever, which had then recently been discovered in several sites around the country. Staking a claim he tried his hand at finding this lucrative mineral, but without much success. He took off and climbed Kilimanjaro on his own, but then decided at his father’s failing health and other worries to sell up his land holdings and return to the UK. This he did by a remarkable solo cycle ride, travelling from the East to the West Coast of Africa and then a ship home.

The years leading up to the Second World War were to be his most memorable within the fields of mountain exploration, commencing by accompanying  Shipton in 1934 for a first visit to the Himalaya, and a Nanda Devi reconnaissance expedition. During which they developed their lightweight approach to such undertakings. In 1935 he was a member of an Everest reconnaissance party, unfortunately succumbing to altitude sickness, leaving him to believe that he had an altitude ceiling around 20,000ft. But this was to be dispelled, when the following year he returned to the Indian Himalaya, and he successfully climbed Nanda Devi (25,643ft) with Odell, the highest peak to be ascended prior to the 1950 French success on Annapurna. His book about this ‘Ascent’, was by the standards of the day a best seller, and was to be the first of seven such volumes based on his experiences whilst climbing and travelling in the Himalaya and other remote mountain areas. In 1952 he was to receive an Honorary Degree in Literature from the University of St Andrews.

In 1937 he was with Shipton in an over the winter party exploring the Shaksgam region of the Karakoram, and interestingly their two companions, John Auden and Michael Spender were both brothers of famous poets, but were along as a surveyor and geologist to help in the mapping of this vast unexplored area of the Himalayan range. In 1938 Tilman was appointed leader of yet another attempt on Mount Everest. Despite being beset with terrible weather he and three others reached 27,300ft before being driven back down by the arrival of an early monsoon. In 1939 he was to be found exploring in Assam, and in making an attempt to climb Mount Gori Chen (21,450ft) but he succumbed to serious illness with a high fever, but hearing of the outbreak of the second war, on recovering he hurried back to the UK to rejoin the army.

He was promoted to Captain, and his experiences in this conflict read like a Boy’s Own Paper outing, he was at the evacuation of Dunkirk, took part in the North African campaign as a battery commander in the 8th Army, but then by ‘fiddling’ his papers whilst acting as commander of his regiment, he was recruited into the special service, by which time he had been promoted to Major, and he was then parachuted into Albania in 1943 to act as a liaison officer with the Partisans. It is interesting to note here that Kim Philby, the spy within MI6 acting for the Kremlin, was sending to Russia details of all the special agents being dropped into Albania at that time, but Tilman was to find that his most effective fighters were the members of the Communist groups. In 1944-5 he was dropped into the southern Dolomites where he took part in bloody fighting along with members of the Italian resistance against the German forces who had occupied the area; and subsequently moving north he was involved in the action taking place around the city of Belluno. 

He was happy to find that one of his fellow combatants was Tissi the outstanding Dolomite pioneering climber. Whenever he could he broke off from fighting and made an ascent of some nearby peak or rock face. At the end of the European war he was awarded the DSO and the freedom of the City of Belluno. He then tried to get posted to the Far East for Special operations in the Japanese war which was still ongoing, but he was turned down as being too old for such an exacting posting, so once again he resigned his commission and left the Army.

1946 started inauspiciously for him, when he fractured an arm in a climbing accident on Ben Nevis, where much to his chagrin he was helped off the mountain by a party of Boy Scouts! But he then rose above this with a visit to the Swiss Alps and the following year by taking part in an attempt to climb Rakaposhi (25,550ft) as a member of a Swiss Expedition, post which he visited Shipton who was by that date The British Consul in Kashgar. Together they attempted to climb Muztagh Ata (24,388ft), being forced to retreat by the onset of bad weather when success had seemed assured from a high camp on the mountain. Subsequently he visited Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor where he was arrested on a charge of spying, but on his release he completed a journey back into what was to become Pakistan later that year, and then home to Bod Owen in Barmouth to live with his sister, which was to be his home base for the rest of his life.

In 1948 he was back in Central Asia travelling from China to Chitral, and on the journey he broke off to attempt two virgin peaks with Shipton, Bogdo Ola and Chakar  Aghil  and in 1949 at the opening of Nepal he spent four months exploring the Langtang, Ganesh and Jugal Himalaya. In 1950 post an attempt on Annapurna 1V, he along with the American Charles Houston managed a view into the then, not attempted Western Cwm southern route of Everest from off the lower slopes of Pumori.  This is the route now known as the ‘Yak Route’ by the Sherpas and by which the mountain was first climbed in 1953. It was to be a real regret of Tilman’s that he had formed such a negative view of this approach, having warned that it appeared from their restricted view point, a very dangerous and forbidding prospect. The 1950 Journey was to be Tilman’s final Himalayan outing, having found that climbing at high altitude was becoming too much for him, as he moved into his fifth decade. And so typical of his adventurous spirit, in seeking a new and equally demanding activity as Himalayan exploration, he took to sailing, but not in a dinghy around his local estuary, but by buying an ancient Bristol Pilot Cutter which he named Mischief.

For a period of 22 years Tilman sailed to mountainous areas, during which time period he twice needed to replace his boats, on each occasion with another Pilot Cutter. Mischief was lost when she struck a lone rock pinnacle off Jan Mayen land, and Sea Breeze sank after running aground on the ledge of an ice berg in Greenland waters. By good management nobody was injured or lost in these mishaps. Baroque his final craft served for 5 Arctic voyages by which time its skipper was 79.  Tilman became an outstanding navigator, and his methods relied on much the same methods as the pioneer sailors such as Cook had used.   He managed over 140 thousand miles of sailing to pre-Antarctic and Arctic destinations, and always his navigation proved faultless and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.

Not all was sweet reason and light however, and as he got older it seemed harder from him to recruit a crew. Often he had to take whoever applied; mostly young men with little or no seamanship experience. His journeys were often more exacting in time spent than would be needed for a Himalayan expedition. The first such in 1955 to Patagonia lasted for 12 months and involved over 20,000 miles of sailing, and one of his last, in 1974 to Spitzbergen  included 7000 miles of travelling and took four months to complete.  His biographer Anderson wrote a book in 1970, the Ulysses Factor. I well remember the discussions that this engendered, it reflected much on the nature of a man like Tilman driven to explore, and one of the Chapters was dedicated to his life and times.

That Tilman was a special example of a man driven to explore is not in question, however he was fortunate to have been born into a life of privilege. Unlike the majority of the people on this planet, he never had to worry about his finances, and was able to buy three boats, kit them out and provide the money to undertake his sea voyaging and earlier his own travels in the Himalaya. Although for the participation in his two Everest expeditions all his expenses were covered, he did after the 1938 attempt which he had led consider financing a further lightweight attempt himself, in order to do away with what he considered the tiresome business of the preliminary organisation, and the tie in to the press and media.

For such a taciturn man he wrote so much about his life, and travels and yet despite the two biographies noted he remains an enigma. Those who knew him best, contradict each other about his character, Shipton decided he was a misogynist, others that he was naturally shy, a further view  was that he was sociable and enjoyed being in company and never eschewed a visit to a local pub.  His disappearance at the age of 79 in November 1977 en route from Rio to the Falkland Islands, crewing for one of his own former sailors Simon Richardson in his boat, ‘En Avant’ only adds to his legend. The Anderson biography I believe does justice to this. It is an outstanding read, but like Tilman himself it is of its time. But until some new researcher arrives on the scene, wishing to re-evaluate in the light of another forty years of mountaineering and sailing history, then it is the best insight we  have into the life of a most remarkable man..... H.W. Tilman.

Dennis Gray:2017

Friday, 6 October 2017

Poetry and the Climbing Press

'The Madcap Laughs'.Renaissance Man,Ed Drummond being led away by New York cops after scaling the Statue of Liberty in a political protest

"Poetry isn't where climbers are at," a climbing publisher said to me recently. When I mentioned this to another climbing friend he quickly got incensed at the statement: "I resent that kind of blanket censorship by the publishers of climbing writing. It's typical of the conservatism of the publishers playing safe. Their assumption that poetry won't interest readers and therefore won't sell, however good it may be, deprives ordinary people of ever seeing the best climbing poems and making up their own minds for themselves. I'm not a poet, so when I see a poem that I like by a friend, say one of David Craig's, I think, 'Now why can't I buy a copy of that in a well produced climbing magazine?' If anybody thinks that the majority of mountaineers aren't in the sport partly for the aesthetics of the experience, they're wrong."

So why is it that Jim Perrin was allowed only two poems amongst almost 700 pages of prose in Mirrors In The Cliffs? Why is the only collection of British mountain poetry, Hamish Brown and Martyn Berry's Speak To The Hills, sadly pleading for finance to even get published? Why do we hardly ever see a poem in the climbing magazines despite the fact that over 300 people sent poems in for Poems Of The Scottish Hills?The aesthetics of the visual arts are accepted as a major selling point of the magazines. High No 16 reproduced on a full
page a superb watercolour painting. Why is the full range of verbal arts not used to explore and celebrate the experience of climbing? And why does poetry make the gentlemen of the climbing press uncharacteristically nervous? 

"I don't know much about poetry," is a partly understandable Way of avoiding making a judgement about a poem. But academic mystique has never inhibited climbers much before. Fear of the unknown hasn't really prevented climbers from taking a risk, and instinctive assessment of the risk is not beyond climbing editors. A poem has got to work for the climbing editor, given a fair hearing. It hasn't got to work all at one reading. In fact to be worth publishing it ought to be a poem you want to read again. 

Terry Gifford: Image TG/Bath Spa University
The criteria for such an instinctive judgement should be that the poem catches the spirit of the sport in an original way. This is what Michael Roberts refers to in his essay in Mirrors as the difference between 'the poetry of mountains rather than the poetry of mountaineering'.

Poetry set in the mountains is not the same as what is recognisably a climber's poem. Michael Roberts is helpfully clear about the dangers in 'the poetry of the mountains', but makes the point 'the writers of sentimental poetry are seldom climbers'. Poetry that is concrete, direct and accessible, yet catches the experience of the sport is instinctively recognisable by climbing editors. But dare they trust their judgements? If there is not a community of climbing opinion upon which to test their judgements out, as there is for other climbing writing, this is because poetry is caught in a Catch 22 of their own making: nobody can discuss it because it isn't published; it isn't published because nobody talks about it. In fact the reasons for the non-publication of climbing poetry lie deeper than this. 

They lie at the heart of our present attitude towards the sport and its public image. British climbing writing has hardly emerged from the 'Rock and Ice' era. It was as necessary for the working-class climbers to ignore the climbing establishment in order to make their climbing achievements as it was for the writing of this era to reject the romanticism perhaps typified by Winthrop Young and his culture.

But although poetry was associated with an 'educated' class it was never dead in working-class culture. Patey recognised that it was vigorously alive in the form of songs and his own contributions were characteristically irreverent and anti-romantic. We must make sure that the baby has not been thrown out with the bathwater. But the strengths of the 'Rock and Ice' era were in prose that revealed a terse humour of understatement and an ironic narrative drama. You can see Mike Thompson's writing for example, continuing this ironic tale-telling in the tradition of Patey and Smith. This strength in understatement really represents a fear of risking overstatement, which is associated with poetry.

Poetry is regarded by some climbers, perhaps as embarrassing, as an outpouring of emotion, as uncontrolled self-indulgence. Here is the sad paradox of climbers who might regard themselves as a pretty uninhibited lot, adventurous, even wild at heart, being inhibited by poetry because of their inhibitions about an open expression of emotions. The present public image of the sport as physical and athletic, with its concentration on moves and their grading, seems to be a long way away from the pleasures which the modern Don Whillans neatly summarised at Buxton as 'being in this place with these mates'.

Don doesn't write poems as far as I know, but his typical aphorism indicates that the aesthetic and the emotional cannot be far away from any climber's experience. You've only to watch the slow motion title sequence of 'Rock Athlete' to feel that poetry can express even the modern wall-trained climbing experience. So why this inhibiting nervousness about climbing poetry? The key word is 'control'. It is a word which strikes at the heart of the sport. Testing the edge of control is what climbing is about. If there is no risk, no climbing can take place. In between is a matter of degree for each climber, his ability, her experience, the conditions, his companions, her judgement and so on. It is these kinds of experience that poetry is good at exploring —the subtle, intense, and complex experience. Poetry is the form to express the edges of experience and experience at the edge. Poetry is about the control of language under pressure. But fear about being out of control must not inhibit editors from looking at language that faces that challenge.

It is in this direction that American climbing literature is well in advance of the British. I tried to indicate in my review of Mirrors (High No 15) that some writing, most of it American, is exploring the total experience of climbing in visionary expression. The quality of these essays is poetic. I would now go further and say that until British writers accept the poetic our climbing writing will not move forward and develop from the 'Rock and Ice' era of expression. Jim Perrin wrote recently (High No 16) 'Most of the creative energy of mountain writing over the last 10 years is American in origin, and over here we seem almost to disregard it'. I agree that we ought to absorb its influence, but when we do progress it will be in our own way, not that produced by American culture. Jim knows better than anyone that there has also been another trail of British climbing writers resurfacing occasionally alongside the Patey, Smith, Thompson trail, and still apparently of popular interest.

Jim is himself about to publish a biography of the poet and essayist Menlove Edwards whose prose piece 'End of a Climb' is in many ways the most poetic in Mirrors. Bill Murray's two books of Scottish Mountaineering essays, which celebrate the mountains and mountaineering aesthetically, both with feeling and control, remain in print and selling. And the books of that reluctant romantic, Bill Tilman, have recently been republished.

Last year, Poems of the Scottish Hills showed how much poetry there is available set in Scottish mountains alone. Ed Drummond is apparently about to lay down the gauntlet to current British climbing writers by returning from exile with a new collection of poems. And now the answer? The signs are that in our culture the inhibitions about poetry are being broken down by writers of poetry coming out into the open. The proliferation of poetry competitions has revealed that thousands of people are writing poetry. Some of them must be climbers. Local workshop groups are increasing in numbers. Some of their members must be climbers. Ed Drummond taught for a while a 16-plus English course with a strong creative base, which is now widespread in the North of England. My home town, Sheffield, has its own 'A' Level English course in which creative writing is an important element. Some of these students must be present and future climbers. But editors can only reflect from what they receive.

Pat Ament says that in America, poetry is expected to be a regular feature of the climbing magazines, although he fears that since the sixties young climbers have become more interested in gradings. It would be a mistake to believe that the two interests are mutually exclusive. Climbers' poems ought to have a regular and natural place alongside the photographs, narratives, debates and news.  And in case you think that the material is not there I can now satisfy at least my irate climbing partner by quoting a couple of poems by David Craig. Of course two poems cannot carry the weight of all my arguments. It so happens that one poem was rejected by a certain magazine editor and the other can be found in Poems Of The Scottish Hills. You may not like either or both of them, but I believe we've got to start taking that risk if you're to have any choice at all in the matter. I'm grateful to David Craig for allowing me to do so with these two poems. So why do I choose these two? The first is an expression of sadness at the death of a friend that is controlled by a technique typical of poetry: the facts are faced through the extended metaphor of Ben Nevis as a great whale.

No self- indulgence, no lapse of control but the small sad details in original poetry. The second poem is a celebration of a climber's physical relationship with the rock, so concentrated that even the folds of the brain come to reflect the rock's strata. But the wit of the last line deflates any pretence to grand achievements or suggestions of mystical `communication with the rock'. Personal vision, in these poems, is rooted in the raw facts of the experience of the sport. 

David Craig:Image-Christian Shaw


(For Dave) 

The whale got my friend,
The big whale hull down in Loch Linnhe,
The big white whale ghosting under a
frore sky,
High snowfields windless, frozen
shoulders sheer.
The Cam Dearg buttresses reared their
shattered backbones,
Shadows skulked in the lee of the plateau.
My friend turned to see
His mate making a high step,
Their bodies light with relief
After the hours of tensed effort upwards.
He caught a spike in a lace,
Toppled, slid, plummeted off the edge,
Fell into one thousand feet of shadow.
The corrie gaped its whale jaws,
The great gut constricted,
A cold draught came from the depths,
Stiffening rapidly the torn skin,
Coagulating blood, limbs out of tune,
And my friend's face transfixed
In the tearing gasp of his last breath.

                           *                   *                  *

He stretched to fit the rock 

He crouched and eeled to fit the rock 
Thinned and flexed to fit the rock 
Spreadeagled on its burnished sheets 
Feeling his fingers hone to claws 
He chimneyed up the gigantic split 
Sitting in air like an ejecting pilot 
While the sky out there 
Blazed at him and the granite ground his spine 
Then he surfaced from the fissure like a mole
Bearing the chimney's pressure in his hunch 

Its rising in his springing tendons 
Its darkness in the gleam behind his eyes
Bearing the face's crystals in his fingerprints 

Its cracking torsions in his wrists 
Its drop in the air beneath his arches
It moulded him. He was its casting. 

His clay was kneaded to its bas-relief. 
His brain infolded, mimicking its strata. 
And when he called, and the echo heard its note, 
It parodied his language.

Essay: Terry Gifford. Poems David Craig

first published in High-July 1984 

Friday, 29 September 2017

A Family on the Crags

Pillar Rock
The Cumbrian who,with his brother, gave his name to the Westmorland Cairn on Great Gable—from which point of vantage they considered the finest view in all Lakeland could be obtained—died just 50 years ago. And now, with fitting timing, a cragsman's climb on Dove Crag, Patterdale, one of the steepest cliffs in England, has just been renamed Westmorland's Route in honour of his son—Lieut Colonel Horace Westmorland of Threlkeld.

Surely one of the sprightliest septuagenarians in Lakeland- or anywhere else- today. Although Colonel Westmorland —" Rusty" to a host of climbers and skiers all over Britain and in many places abroad—has been climbing steep rocks for 60 years he is still able to tackle some of the harder routes and, only a short time ago, led his party of youngsters up a " very severe " in his beloved Borrowdale.

He would climb every day if he could find the companions; as it is, he has to content himself with three or four days a week in summer, and perhaps only a paltry two or three in winter. Only the mountains count; one can easily imagine him sulking in cities. At 73 years of age, Rusty Westmorland is not only an extremely good rock climber and competent skier, but also manages, with or without conscious effort, to look the part. To many people, unfamiliar with the mountain scene, he must represent exactly their idea of the bold cragsman, bursting with health and determination. 

The clipped moustache, the erect bearing, the polished boots, and the neat, efficient clothes reflect his military background, while the tanned face, the clear, twinkling eyes, the jaunty Austrian hat, and the springy step suggest the mountaineer. The  Mountain Rescue flash on his shoulder—he it was who revived the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team several years ago—is worn for use, not for ornament, and his general neat, well groomed appearance on a climb is in striking contrast to that of the many dirty, bearded youths, clanking with ironmongery, who often decorate the crags today.

The yeomen forbears of Horace Westmorland farmed at Milburn under the shadow of Crossfell—they had taken their name from their native county—but Rusty himself was born at Penrith, just over the Cumberland border, where his father had a leather business. Right from his birth the mountains were in his blood. His father, Tom Westmorland, his uncle Ned and his aunts were scrambling and camping in the Lakeland fells last century long before the joys of steep, remote places had become as commonplace as they are today. One of his aunts—Mary (May) Westmorland — was the second woman to reach the summit of Pillar Rock, on July 24th, 1873, The first having been a Miss A Barker who had achieved the feat just three years earlier. May went up, un-roped, with her brothers Tom and Edward and on the summit, where they  found a bottle containing the names of  the 10 previous conquerors, they stood to attention and proudly sang God Save the Queen.

Later Tom celebrated the occasion with a poem, A Summer Ramble, which describes the day in detail. A photograph taken at the time shows May to have been a short, sturdy, good  looking girl and her brothers to have been most determined looking men, sprouting youthful beards. May wore a smart, close fitting jacket, a short skirt and trousers rather like plus fours, with collar and bow tie and a peculiar hat. Not unlike a sailor's. Her brothers wore the outdoor clothes of the period and heavy shepherds' boots, and all three carried poles at least six feet long. Another memorable day for the Westmorland brothers was when they skated the full length of Ullswater from Pooley Bridge to Patterdale and back to Watermillock, but the day they put their name on the map was a summer afternoon in 1876 when they built the Westmorland Cairn on Great Gable. 

Dove Crag
They were not bad judges, too, for the sight of the patchwork fields of Wasdale Head nearly 3,000 feet below, the ring of the highest mountains in Lakeland all around, with Wastwater flanked by the frowning Screes, and the sea in the distance, is always a memorable picture. To-day the precipice below the cairn also bears the name of Westmorland Crags, and a rock climbing route up the centre is called Westmorland Ridge. This was young Horaces' legacy and he made full use of it. At eight years of age he went up Crossfell, the great, sprawling Pennines peak above the home of his ancestors and later the same year we find him scrambling along Striding Edge. 

Each summer after that he and his father and their family and friends scrambled, camped, rowed, sailed and walked the fells, and when he was 11 years of age the boy first saw and met real climbers—with ropes. They were a formidable party: Haskett-Smith, the first man to climb Napes Needle; John Wilson Robinson, the Cumbrian whose memorial is the cairn on the High Level Route to Pillar; and Geoffrey Hastings and Ellis Carr, two very prominent mountaineers. They had just been " looking at the big gully of Tarn Crag on Dollywaggon Pike without success, but the following year, fired with a new enthusiasm for verticality, the young Horace,again with his father, managed to get about 20 feet up the great unclimbed pitch.

The climb remained a challenge to the boy and 12 years later, as a young man of 24, he succeeded in leading his two cousins in the first ascent of the whole route. And a few days later Horace Westmorland led the same party up the upper part of the route on Dove Crag which has now been renamed Westmorland's Route in acknowledgment of Rusty's contributions to climbing in this, as well as in other, areas. As a boy of 15 young Horace had been taken—again by his father—to the summit of Pillar Rock by way of the easy Slab and Notch route, and exactly 50 years later, in 1951, Col Westmorland achieved his great ambition by making a jubilee ascent of the Rock.

The route chosen on this occasion was the considerably harder North Climb which Rusty, then 65 years of age, led throughout without any difficulty. The event being fittingly celebrated on the summit with a bottle of wine. Since that day, eight years ago, the old warrior, who looks no more than a cheery 60, seems to have been climbing increasingly harder things, to the frequent embarrassment and shame of companions only half his age. And yet, 15 years ago, this same man, after 31 years service in the Canadian Army and half a lifetime of surveying, climbing and skiing in the Rockies and other exciting places, had been invalided home to England, and told to take things easy in his retirement.

Rusty Westmorland standing next to the eponymous Cairn on Great Gable. Image supplied by Frank Grant
Already his remarkable fitness is becoming legendary. That and his gallant penchant for the company of young lady climbers and his affection for steep rocks remains unabated. " The weather doesn't bother me," he told me the other day, " and I don't mind steep, exposed stuff on tiny holds. But I don't like too many of these arm pulls. Overhangs seem to be harder these days." 

AH Griffin: First Published in Cumbria Life-February 1960

Friday, 22 September 2017

Like Crag Rats up a Drainpipe!

“I suppose’ Dave remarked rather scathingly, ‘that this must rate as your best ever con?’ ‘Not bad at all’ I allowed  as we-that is the six who had been successfully conned and I-squelched and dripped our way down the steep slopes from the summit of Whin Rigg towards the road,parked cars and the happiness that is a dry bum and socks. This was by far the kindest of many remarks emanating from the large and jolly party regarding the preceding five and a half hours. But then, I had received my training from the grand master of the Con and I’m sure Jim would have endorsed my wholly underhand tactics when the result was such a magnificently traditional days climbing.

Perhaps at this point I should set the scene for readers who have not already turned over to read of greater things muttering, "Oh no, not another of Sainsbury's dismal failures." Picture then- if it doesn't distress too much- the Wasdale campsite at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning with sufficient low cloud and cold wind to suggest an intelligent retreat to a warm pit followed by a protracted breakfast and an even more intelligent stroll to the welcoming cash register in the bar at Wasdale Head. I stuck my head through the tent flap on just such a morning, dragged on some clothing and headed rapidly in the direction of that central haven for those who have slept on an overlarge ale intake. Already stoves were roaring and health and fresh air fanatics marched briskly about in neat regulation shorts, long woolly socks and Aran sweaters, contrasting with my own regulation Spanish fell boots (no laces), no socks, tattered breeches and aged Helly.

Returning to the tent to find that Jean was still asleep and consequently no brew, I searched for some other member of our group from whom I could scrounge a ready made pot of the life giving liquid. Failing, I resigned myself to separating the stove and some clean pans from the previous night's greasy plates and pots. The next hour- passed in an orgy of tea, biscuits and greasy bacon buttys during which time others of our party emerged and the health and beauty fans strode off into the drizzle. It was during my third brew that I was idly flicking through the guidebook when my eyes lit upon the perfect route and the plot was hatched. It had not escaped my notice that as usual when inclement conditions prevail nobody seemed to have a clear idea of where to go. "I've got just the route for today," I enthused as Bill appeared.

 "Traditional stuff, a real mountain day." "Sorry mate, I promised to walk with Heather. today." A pause then, "What is it?" Did I detect a weakening of resolve? "Think about it mate while I see if anyone else is interested. 600 feet and perfect for this weather." Using the same approach elsewhere worked well and in less time than I expected I had gathered five more suckers and when Bill finally cracked the seven of us made a remarkably swift departure in the direction of the lower end of Wasdale and The Screes. Reaching the river bank opposite the water intake building, we rejected the idea of swimming in favour of a rickety traverse across the front of the boathouse. Each hoping that someone would slip into three feet of icy water. Encouraged by shouts of ‘Fall off you Bum!'

We eventually arrived at the foot of Great Gully to find the initial pitch consisted of a waterfall or greasy moss covered rock as alternatives. "Whose bloody daft idea was this?" someone demanded. "Looks damned unpleasant," said another voice. "Hope you're leading since you suggested it," Dave stated flatly, looking in my direction. Now this had not been part of the plot. I had rather hoped that the rush of enthusiasm would result in someone being so eager to get on with it that I could use the "Yes, I would have liked the honour but don't mind stepping aside," ploy. Such a noble gesture should make it possible to remain in the middle throughout the route. Urged on by the hostile atmosphere I hastily got to grips with the pitch and was at once forced to use a foothold in the main flow of water which instantly filled my boot and came through my "waterproof' trousers. Ten feet or so and I thankfully placed a runner before making an upward lunge for easy ground.

The next vertical section, down which coursed the inevitable water, proved even trickier and since the best finishing hold was in the centre of the stream, naturally it took the shortest route via the inside of my sleeve and breeches to join that already in my boot. Reaching easy ground I walked up the Gully and found a belay, satisfied in the knowledge that removal of my runners would cause similar discomfort to whoever was to follow. The guidebook describes this first 100 feet of Great Gully as a scramble so one could be excused for wondering what to expect on the next 60 feet where climbing was actually mentioned. A considerable amount of time and unprintable remarks, some reflecting upon my ancestry, passed before we were all assembled and ready to continue. Bill gave in with surprising speed to my suggestion that he should take over and made short work of a nasty wet corner before disappearing from my view when the Singer, from his position kept me informed of his progress up a short steep section and along a traverse to rejoin the Gully above a waterfall.

Meantime, Dave went past with another rope and a fair degree of knitting began to develop. By the time I had completed this pitch, helped by a useful sideways pull on the rope as I jumped the last few feet of the traverse, the party was strung out over some 200 feet, what with Bill having continued and Niel and Gerry lagging a pitch behind. The following waterslide proved to be just that and although rated as a single 135 foot pitch, we split it into convenient sections as dictated by fear, exhaustion or degree of discomfort that its ascent brought about. All sense of order had vanished by now and I found myself sometimes leading, sometimes following and occasionally not apparently tied to anyone as we swapped rope ends around.  In this way we all assembled in the grassy  amphitheatre about halfway up the Gully, all except Bill, not a little wet.

In view of his condition he was unanimously elected to lead on. Up to the left for twenty feet, traverse back right twenty feet and he hit difficulties. Vertical grass, no runners and earthy holds - where they existed at all. We began chuckling. "Its not bloody funny," he yelled angrily.  "In fact its bloody serious." This was followed by a stream of Yankee invective from our American cousin. Nevertheless he a struggled on and disappeared from view, soon to be followed by the rest. I did see his point though — it was bloody serious if you happened to be leading, since the key move  involved swinging down into the gully bed  from two holes in the grass on to a foothold  near the lip of a twenty foot drop to a very nasty landing.

After this things eased off and a lot of scrambling, a widening of the sky suggested that the end may be in sight. Oh, and how we were mistaken! Once again a narrowing of the sky as the walls closed in to 3  foot wide verticality blocked by a huge d chock stone twenty watery feet up, with a great volume of fluid coursing over it. By the time I arrived Bill and the Bat had already vanished over this, a fact made evident by their rope passing through a heavy tape just level with the lip of the fall. "The Bat led it," Niel remarked as I viewed the greasy verticality with mounting alarm, "and Bill still appears to be dry."

We swapped ropes round yet again and I struggled up a series of nasty bridging moves with all the grace of a dancing Dervish, until I could grab the tape and pull myself through the main flow and stand above the chock. How Gerry, who stands four foot nothing in platform heels would manage I couldn't imagine. In fact she put us all to shame with a swift and polished performance that did not involve the use of the tape. There must be a lesson to learn there somewhere! Just as I began to think it was all finished we arrived by yet more scrambling, at the foot of what turned out to be the final pitch. A series of loose wet steps led up for 30 feet or so to a vertical ten feet sporting the now familiar waterfall. A nearly new peg adorned the right wall about halfway up the steepest section. Bill and the Bat had already ascended and the Singer was on his way. 

I watched, wet, cold and wondering why I was there when I could have been warm dry and drinking. My turn. Up the steps, the rock pushing me to the left when I wanted to go right, an awkward side hold, foot out to the right wall and lunge for the peg. Useless, it was in the wrong position. A couple of dicey bridging moves and a grab for a hold on the right wall, left hand scrambling over the top, a desperate pull, knees on the edge and I crawled to safety to the clicking of Gerry' s camera. Why do these photographic enthusiasts always record the worst performances? Ten minutes later we stripped off our wet gear in the sunshine that had broken through unnoticed in the dank depths of the Gully. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly I would say, though from the dark mutterings around me dissent upon this point could be sensed. As Pete, the Singer, remarked over a pint much later....... "interesting!" 

Tony Sainsbury : First Published in Climber and Rambler-June 1981 as 'In the Finest Tradition'.

Images..Gerry Goldsmith

Friday, 15 September 2017

Mountain Manoeuvres

Opening Scene: Cima Tosi 10,410ft - highest point in the Brenta Group in Northern Italy.

The Players: Six RAF training instructors [1 officer-newest member, this being his first time as an instructor; 4 NCO’s-all established instructors as well as experienced climbers and all-round mountaineers.

Disposition: Knackered, tired, cold and weary after gruelling three-week training course with 16 NATO pilots.

Salvation: Improved weather, ten-day break before the start of next training course, and we all wanted to go climbing, so drove south and camped at Pietramurta.

Following morning, Group leader - Flt. Sergeant ‘Dicky’ Davidson, paired us up, adopting service protocol, of naming the lead climber second. So, when he said: “Robin [the Flying Officer], you climb with Frank”, I knew my place, but as it turned out a few minutes later, my climbing partner did not.

As we walked to the next cliff, he quickly informed me that as he was the Officer and I was not, it was inappropriate for him to be led by me. 

Things did not improve when we got to the foot of the cliff and I started to unpack my climbing gear: one old rigid hawser lay rope sling I had acquired earlier, along with my plain white nylon rope which had coloured tape at both ends, and a couple of homemade nylon slings sporting large aircraft nuts with the inside screws ground down, which I (we), used for protection and belays when climbing. They may not have been good looking, but they were effective and they were cheap!

Clearly, he was far from happy with my equipment, and insisted we use his brand-new gear he had recently purchased. But I am a traditionalist and like to stick to my own gear that I know has been tried and tested, so declined his offer which did not go down well at all.
As I was still getting myself kitted up, he tied on to one end of the rope, threw me the other end and told me to tie in when I was ready. Before I could take the cigarette out of my mouth to speak, he moved over to the rock face and started to climb. I stood there in amazement.

Suggestions that he wait until I was tied in and could belay him safely, earned a mumbled reply about not waiting for idiots and ‘time and tide wait for no man’ as he climbed.

My initial thought – yank the rope before he gets too high; untie and walk away; or tie off the rope so he could not move upwards. I chose the last option in addition to lighting up a smoke.

He stopped climbing – started to yell orders – I ignored him – he threatened to charge me – I ignored him – he climbed back down.

Once he was back down on the ground, he started to berate me for my “disgraceful climbing ethics”, and my total lack of respect for his rank.

I took a final puff on my smoke and said with quiet confidence: “When we climb, we are climbers and nothing more and rank does not have a part to play in this activity or any other activity connected with my role as a survival instructor”, which went down like the proverbial lead balloon. 

Anyway, an hour later, I had led the first two pitches, (because he said his arms were tired after having to down-climb). We were standing at the belay below the third pitch, when I pointed out to Robin, that I believed this to be the crux pitch: it was long, looked devoid of good hand holds and appeared to offer few places to put in any protection.

As I munched on my first Mars bar of the day, he muttered continuously about me being disrespectful towards him, and that he would be putting me on a charge when we got back to RAF Br├╝ggen. I of course, was busy working out what to do with him for the next few days as unbeknown to him, I was given the task of planning the next few days’ programme!

I asked him if he felt confident doing this third pitch, which may well be the crux, and all I heard was mumbling about him being a good climber and an ex-member of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club.

I made sure he had all the gear he needed: all six ground-out aircraft bolts, some on slings and others on pieces of nylon cord, and my one and only chock on a piece of nylon, and three metal pegs (one flat one being home-made), then I settled back to belay him, ignoring the fact that he started off in a hurry, leaving my peg-hammer behind, because he said it was too heavy and cumbersome.

Up he went into a thin crack – not a bad job I thought, a little unconventional with his techniques but he did it. When the crack ran out, he was faced with a hundred or so feet of good clean rock, which he again appeared to master, so I thought that perhaps he may not be a bad climber after all.

Eventually, he made it to the base of a scoop where he had no choice but to belay as he was running out of rope.

Once in the scoop, he secured himself to the rock face and shouted: “ok Grant, climb when you're’ ready”. Now it wasn’t his condescending voice that irked me, but the fact that he called me by my surname, something I had never witnessed before on any of the climbing I had done with other RAF personnel, no matter their rank.

I made easy work of the slab and was into the scoop before he could take in all the climbing rope. I stuck a nut into a small crack and belayed myself to it. He demanded to know why I did not clip myself into his belay point, and was unhappy when I said, that I preferred to place my own protection when climbing with someone who I had never climbed with before, and that it was no slight to his own belay technique.

I, of course, ignored his mutterings but reacted immediately when he started to unclip himself. “Hey”, I shouted, “what do you think your’ doing”. His reply notched up my desire for wanting to put him in his place quickly, when he immediately replied, “you mean, what do you think you are doing, Sir”.

I informed him that it was practice for climbers to climb through, so before I gave him the chance of replying, I clipped him back into the belay loop, stood up and gave him the rope leading into my harness for him to belay me. He complied reluctantly.

I set off up and out of the scoop, thrutching my way until I could get hold of a good jug at the top end of the scoop. It was clear that the rock face above, overhung by about ten to fifteen feet some thirty feet above. What was unclear, was what was above this and where, if any, my next belay point would be.

The overhang looked worse than it was. When I got to the start of the first bulge, it required a leap of faith to go for one hand hold, in the hope that there would be another above that for the other hand, which thankfully, there was.

After setting up a good ‘Y’ belay, I shouted for Robin to come on up.

Silence permeated the air. I shouted again. The silence had not gone away. What was wrong with this idiot! His banality was trying my patience when it occurred to me that he was waiting for me to say: “climb when you are ready Robin, Sir”.

He struggled over the bulge shouting repeatedly for a tight rope which I obliged, making sure that when he wanted me to give him some slack to gain his balance once over the lip, his words fell on deaf ears. When he came up to me, I tied him securely into the anchor point in silence and started to get the rope ready to belay him up the next pitch which was a hundred-foot run out across some slabs, entailing a traverse along a horizontal crack, some ten to fifteen feet above our stance.

Clearly, the traverse would provide ample protection but the initial climb above to gain the traverse did not look as obliging. Robin set off up the wall above our stance to gain access to the start of the traverse. As he did so, he shouted back down: “I want a tight rope here Grant but when I get to the traverse, I want you to give me plenty of slack as I will get across it quickly as this is my climbing forte, so pay attention”.

As he set off, I said nothing about the fact that he did not have enough gear to complete the whole route especially the traverse.

I waited until he had climbed with difficulty, some ten to fifteen feet above me to gain access to the traverse, when this fact became very clear to himself. He shouted back down as to what he should do. I suggested either he climb on with little protection and as he felt this was ‘his forte’ he shouldn’t have much difficulty in doing this, or he climb back down to get some of my gear.

He climbed back down grudgingly. He then said his arms were aching and so he ordered me to do it! I was not amused in the slightest.

After a while, he was standing beside me and very unhappy with the next pitch and informed me that he decided I would climb this also. I was happy to do so. Before I had made my mind up whether to go up the face on what appeared to be small infrequent holds, or to reverse a few feet along the traverse and try to go through the small roofs above, Robin threw another remark in my direction: “the route goes up there Grant, but if your’ not up to it, I will have to lead it”. That was it, I had had enough. This was a good a time as any to teach him the meaning of humility.

“Right, up you go then”, was my reply as I tied myself back into the anchor point. After some ten-minutes, he was still struggling to get off the belay position, muttering about the rock being too wet!

Eventually, he got started and was eager to get in his first piece of protection, then a few feet more and another piece of protection. Sweating and panting some ten feet above the belay stance, he put in his third runner and then asked for a tight rope as he needed to take a rest, as his arms were pumped.

I obliged, but offered him no encouragement at all. “Can you see where to go next” he enquired with a quiver in his voice. I remained silent. Some expletives were made from above as he tried to make upwards movement but as he hadn’t asked me to take him off a tight rope, he just fell off. He would, of course, have landed not far above where I was standing at the belay stance, if his protection was in properly, which it wasn’t. Out came the last one he had placed and down he dropped. Out came his second-last and down he dropped even further, and then out popped his first runner just above my head and down he fell again. Fortunately, it was where the cliff face was leaning out so he hung there oscillating unceremoniously some fifteen feet below me.

My tight belay held as I knew it would. He dangled there on the end of the rope over a drop which looked and probably was, just as frightening, especially to him. I tied off the rope so that it would not slip any further and got out a Mars bar and started to eat it slowly.

His demands to be pulled up, fell on deaf ears just as his orders to lower him down to a ledge, twenty-feet below him which would have eased his discomfort. But deaf ears and a Mars bar won the day.

When I had placed the last piece into my mouth, I looked down and suggested he start to climb back up to the belay stance. “But I can’t” came his desperately shaking voice. “Pull me up to the belay”, came his next command, his voice softening a little. Now was the time to be vindictive. What, you thought I had already been so, you must be joking!

Swallowing the last piece, I looked over the edge and said in a condescending voice, “Robin, don’t you mean, please Frank, pull me up to the belay”

“Yes please, Frank” came his quaking voice. Setting up a small pulley system with a back-up system in place, I started to pull on the rope which instantly drew a thousand thanks from a shaking young man, but just when he thought he was going to make the belay stance, I slid off the half hitch I had put in to the pulley system and he fell right back down to where he was a minute before.

The yell could be heard echoing across the Alps and the sight of him clutching frantically at the rock face was food enough to feed my vindictive soul. “Sorry pal” I shouted down, “the rope slipped, I’ll try again”.

When he finally sat, puffing and panting on the belay stance shaking with fear with the odd bit of moisture in his eyes, I gave him my party piece. “Robin, do you want to climb with me or climb with a non-commissioned officer?”

His remark was sweet music to my ears. “I’d like to climb with you Frank and I would appreciate it very much if you could lead the rest of the climb”.

Robin left the survival training group a few weeks later, and whenever we met around the camp, whilst I would accord him the respect his commission deserved by a salute and addressing him as Sir, he always addressed me as Frank. Who says that having just a little vengeful streak does not have its rewards!
Frank Grant © 2017

Friday, 8 September 2017

Roads stretch from here to everywhere

So Cenn has gone. Cruelly cut down in his mid 60‘s by a bastard degenerative neurological condition. Was it Motor-Neurone Disease....I don’t know? Whatever it was, it left him a prisoner. Trapped inside a fragile,creaking cage. Immobile and eventually wasted to the point of mumbling muteness. But what do I know? I hadn’t seen Cenn for years and can only relate what my children have told me. Despite knowing Cenn since my late teens, life events had shaped our relationship over the passed twenty years. The withdrawal from my life of Cenn’s best friend ‘Angiebell’, had meant our meetings were all too infrequent and limited to family events...Births, weddings and deaths, but time was, when he was an ever present fixture in my life.

I first met Ken- as he was then- in Liverpool in the early 70‘s. He was a wild haired, bearded freak- think Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull circa 1972. Fiercely intelligent, opinionated and principled, and like myself, he was tired of city life and together we planned our escape to the promised land of North Wales. By the mid 70‘s Ken had become Cenn and had left the city behind. I would follow two years later after a brief stop-over in Chester. During this period he was travelling extensively in north Africa. Living with aid and charity workers in Niger, Bukina Faso and Mali, and amongst the indigenous people of those desperately poor states. After his brother had tragically died of an epiletic seizure while Cenn was staying in our flat, he gave his entire share of his brother’s estate to Oxfam and Plaid Cymru. Hence his life long commitment to the charity and his voluntary work with them in Africa in the mid 70‘s .

In the early 80‘s. Cenn joined me as a leader/instructor with a North Wales charity group- The Clwyd Outward Group- which took socially disadvantaged youngsters, mainly from urban conurbations like Wrexham, on outdoor activity weekends. For many of these youngsters it would be their first visit to a mountain environment and certainly, their first opportunity to participate in a range of outdoor activities....climbing/abseiling, kayaking, sailing and hillwalking As to be expected, Cenn was a good natured and tolerant figure who related well to our charges.Surprisingly so considering some of the more ‘challenging’ youngsters we had under our wing!

Cenn never married, had a long term relationship or much of a relationship of any description come to that. He remained the eternal bachelor and gave his affection to close friends, my children, cats and dogs! He never learnt to drive but that didn’t stop him travelling. An oddball, eccentric, square peg in a round hole. Someone who would argue black was white and was usually was! A bookish,vegetarian,leftist,nationalist who loved mountains,animals and cheese!......Cenn's gone but as his fellow Scouse poet Brian Patten writes...'

'A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us, for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams, for as long as we ourselves live, holding memories in common, a man lives.'

Cenn on the left with a COG party on the summit of Pen Llithrig y Wrach.

Now here’s the weird bit. The idea for this article literally came to me in a dream last night. In my dream I was in the attic looking to see if I could find those wonderful evocative letters that Cenn would send back from Niger and Mali. Colourful, poetic and charming. At first light, I hauled out a step-ladder and pulled myself up through the hatch and began rooting around in boxes amongst the cobwebs and mouse droppings. Just one letter came to hand and it is this letter which I reproduce here, Just as it was written nearly 40 years ago. In another strange twist. As I sifted through old theatre programmes, notebooks and assorted bits of paper deemed of sufficient sentimental value to keep, a poem that Cenn had written for my late son Jamie when he was born in 1978, fell out of a note. Cenn has specified that he wants to be buried in the same cemetery as Jamie...and so I understand, it shall be.

Cenn was a Welsh language learner so if the first paragraph- which is written in Welsh- does not quite read correctly to the native speaker, please accept it in the spirit it was written, from someone who loved Wales to his very core. JA

"Niamey,24 Mei

Annwyl Sion,
Annwyl Theatr Clwyd ac ur annwyl Wyddgrug! Annwyl Iaith ac annwyl Gymdeithas yr Iaith! Annwyl Halcun! Annwyl Jack Nicholson!
Yr eiddoch yn gywir,
PS. Dioloch yn fawr i awn am y cerdyn

Annwyl Angiebell,
Sala’am aleik. El kheir ras. As you doubtless know by now, I received your letter, a breath of quasi-Celtic Cestrian air in the heavy Sahelian heat. And today at post restante, a patriotic post card from Sion ap Pleby!
Oh to hear Blood on the Tracks or Desire or Hissing of the Summer Lawns or New Skin for the Old Ceremony or......but things are not so bad. Mark Nieuwark has cassettes of Dylan, Fairport, Beatles, Floyd, Neil Young, James Taylor and a good selection of classical music; and at his house a couple of days ago I found a dog eared ( sorry Fred) copy of Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance which I hope to beg, steal or borrow before long!

Last weekend, with two companions, one Antipodean and one American, I discovered a cafe which serves big bowls of iced yogurt with crisp buttered bread, for 75 francs CFA, about 15p. That Sunday, my first day’s eating after a two day fast against dysentery, I scoffed a double helping, and ever since have been eating yogurt twice daily, amongst other things. One of the latter is delicious black eye beans and rice,which we buy on the street, all you can eat at 25 francs a time.

Hugh and Cenn on Aran Benllyn

We? Don Ada, Australian, arrived 13th from Agadez and Algeria,left 18th for Ouagadougou en route for Tanzania; Dave Walters, American, arrived 14th from Ouagadougou and Ghana, left 17th for Zinder, en route to Cameroon; Roland Witschi, Swiss, arrived 17th from Agadez and Algeria,left 19th for Ouagadouga, en route to Bamako; Pete Remington, English,arrived 22nd from Zinder and North East Nigeria,still around as I write but en route for Agadez, Algeria and home.

I’m doing more reading than anything else except perhaps sweating. I brought Day of the Jackal with me from Gao, where an English fellow-traveller gave it to me. In Hamani’s box of books I’ve found and read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; Midpoint, a book of poems by John Updike; and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.The Orwell and Updike were interesting, the Greene and Baldwin were both very good indeed. Any other lists I could bore you with?

My last trip to Oullam with the man from Caritas, originally scheduled for last Sunday or Monday, was postponed, perhaps indefinitely; I’ve been hanging around all week waiting to hear from them. Mark, who as Oxfam’s representative here has formal and informal contacts in Mali for the last few days,so communication has been a little difficult,but he came back today,so I should know quite soon whether I’m staying or going and whichever, where.

Doggerel jotted in in-flight movie machine between Paris and Dakar on the 10th April:

Oh Africa, I’m coming home from home
To spend a half year homeless, and to roam
In one vast corner of you, there to seek
What makes my vision body weak

This evening I went round to Mark’s house and found him preparing to show home movies to a small audience: two Americans and two English people I’d met already, Tessa and Chris. The movies or rather slides, were of Bororo nomads ( a people I love) at Gao in Mali, where I spent a couple of days at the beginning of this month sweltering amongst familiar ghosts (a place I love), and these particular Bororo were from Abala, where I spent a couple of days quite recently communing with unfamiliar ghosts (love). Tell me these loves were not my coffin nails.

We ate peanuts, and drank rum and lemon, and talked, and watched slides, then went our separate ways,though not before I had put myself in the queue for a certain book on motorcycle maintenance, which turns out to belong to Gary, who works for an American relief agency. Mark and I and an American girl whose name I’ve forgotten, went to a Vietnamese restaurant, delicious but expensive,then Mark took me, brought me, back to Hamani’s.

Soon, before the rains, I’ll go to Agadez. then perhaps back to Abala. Sometime to Ouallam. Work, or wander. To Ouagadougou, or Cameroon, and back to Niger again. I’m leading a slow, soft life. Past pounces, present purrs, future fawns. Roads stretch from here to everywhere. Happier still hearing you’re all happy.

Love Cenn
Niamey, 25 Journada I.'

Cennydd Williams: 1978

Friday, 1 September 2017

They Took Me Climbing!

Here is another of those excellent short stories by Kevin FitzGerald, which while continuing his theme that ours is a ludicrous sport, hints that it might perhaps be something rather more.

Twenty five years ago there were some minor differences in what I believe is called 'the climbing scene' from what you would find in the North Wales of today. For example all the inns and hotels, all the eating places had a notice outside the public rooms, 'No nailed boots beyond this point, please', and there were various regulations, now deemed absurd, like putting on some kind of jacket if you were having a meal. But the men and women and the talk were all much the same, with one major difference. There was an immense amount of evening- indeed practically all night, activity. Everyone, but everyone, indulged in some eccentric display of skill or feat of strength. Groups took off at midnight to run round the Snowdon Horseshoe by moonlight; rooms were traversed, and chairs climbed round; loops of rope were climbed through, and wrist grips exchanged; heads were balanced on, and impossible steps were made across unbridgeable fireplaces.

Dead bodies were simulated and lifted, knots were practised, and peculiar athletic challenges were issued and at once accepted. People raced each other over the Glyders in the dark, or found out who could run from Pen-y-Gwryd to Pen-y-Pass and back in the fastest time. Much later, in the early sixties, the Editor of this Journal* was unbeatable at that particular exercise. There were not so many of us, of course. That was the real secret. We all knew each other, were glad to be meeting each other again and always felt in the mood for nonsense. I remember one such week-end of activity with peculiar intensity, largely I think because it created more confused disturbance in a limited space than I would have believed possible, and because it produced a brand new climber of all round excellence from the unlikeliest piece of material, other than myself, I have ever encountered in the mountain world. It all took place at PyG and it centred on a bag of golf clubs.

It was early winter, and half a dozen of us had been walking over Carnedd Llewelyn, enjoying on the return journey a marvellous snow glissade nearly half a mile in length. We were all in high spirits, kicked off our boots in the bar and sat round in stockings waiting our turn for a hot bath and talking the same nonsense you would hear today. There was a little man in a corner who sat watching us and saying nothing. He was wearing (I can see it still) a rather nice suit of dark grey with beautifully polished brown shoes and he had what I think is still called a 'crisp' military moustache. We were all in breeches and anoraks, one or two of us wearing the red stockings now somewhat out of fashion but then signalling that the wearer had made a first ascent of some importance. The little man must have thought that he had wandered into the clowns changing room in a circus. All of a sudden he spoke. 'What's the golf like round here?' he asked.

In those days he might just as well have asked if anyone had a boa constrictor they were not using, and he produced what is still called I think 'a stunned silence'. No such question can ever have been asked before in that place although I have since heard people there talking about fishing, the archaeological interests of the neighbourhood, and whether anyone would care to make up a four at bridge. But in those days if you were not climbing or walking, or preparing to do either, or keeping fit for both, you had no business in that part of the world at all. We all looked at the little man in silence. Then someone said, 'I've heard that there is a golf course at Harlech and I've been told there's something of the sort down in Bangor'. 'No,' the little man said, 'I mean round here. I'm told there's a lot of good golf round here.

Two of my friends are arriving in Capel tomorrow and they've told me to be sure and bring my clubs'. Even in those far off days, five years before Everest, I was pretty old to be in that company at all and I thought perhaps I ought to speak first. I remember so well that as I replied one of our future 'greats' was working his way round the specially strengthened picture rail in the old fashioned bar of those days. He had just passed the cash register and, in accordance with strict custom, had rung up `No Sale' with his stockinged right foot big toe.

You had to do that or your traverse didn't count. 'There's no golf immediately round here,' I began in my fatherly way, 'this is a climbing inn and everyone who stays here, or comes in for a meal or a drink, either climbs or walks.' `I think you are mistaken,' the little man said, 'my friends are very reliable.' We left it at that and I recall that after dinner we all tried climbing round a chair brought in from the kitchen. The little man watched these antics for a bit and then got up to go to bed. 'This place seems like a mad house to me,' he said, quite mildly, as he left the bar. We instantly forgot about him. The following day we all went off to Tremadoc, those admirable 'wet day on Snowdon' cliffs discovered by Dave Thomas flying over them during the War.

We got back late, just after the early winter dark, and the little man was sitting in the bar alone. He was a terrifying sight, white as a sheet, filthy dirty, his hands all scratched, a pair of flannel trousers ripped to pieces about his knees. He looked as though he had been run over and, indeed, I thought that was what had happened to him. I asked him if he was all right. 'I think so,' he said, 'but you were quite right yesterday —there is no golf round here. They took me climbing.'
I addressed him with great seriousness, and with all the earnestness I could get into my voice. 'Get away from here,' I said. 'One more experience, just one, and you will never escape from these people for the rest of your life. You will never escape from places like this, or worse. You will always be wet, cold, and in misery. All your friends will be ghastly fit men running up and down mountains for what they call fun. In all probability your wife, if you have one, will divorce you within the next couple of years; you will get fond of obscenities like tents and packed lunches, you will take great rucksacks with you wherever you go and they will be filled with rotting meat and Kendal Mint Cake, if you know what that is. Naturally, arriving like that, you will be refused admittance at all civilised lodging or eating houses throughout the world. You will have to know about map reading and the setting of compasses.' I almost went down on my knees to this little torn-to-pieces man. 'Go out into freedom,' I implored him, 'go out into safety and comfort, go back to a loving wife'. I took a deep breath and uttered blasphemy for his battered sake, 'Go back to some bloody golf course,' I cried, almost shouting, 'and be happy'. 

Not tonight,' he said, 'I'm too tired, too much hurt.' We all went into dinner. That night there was 'traversing' in the bar. Several people had got round and I, as usual, had fallen off, only, that time, hurting an ankle a little bit. Everyone was pretty happy.

Suddenly there was a disturbance; the little man had begun shouting. 'Damn and blast you all,' he cried, 'every last one of you'. He kicked off a slipper. 'And damn and blast this place and every place like it in the whole wide world.' He stood up in his socks and flung himself at the picture rail, muttering curses all the way round, but never touching the floor. He arrived at the cash register and I expected to see him lash out at it. Instead, with a most dreadful and sinister smile, he looked down over his feet and, with an infinity of care, rang up 'No Sale' with his right foot big toe.

He completed the traverse and sat down by his slippers. 'So much for all that blankety stuff,' he said, 'And so much for all of you. Good-bye'. He limped out of the bar. But it's nice to be right sometimes. It's not five months since I last saw that chap, and I see him pretty often as the years go by. He belongs to most of the recognised climbing clubs and organizations. I always say the same thing when we meet, and I said it then. 'How's the golf going,' I asked him, 'Not too good,' he replied as he always does, a man who hasn't touched a club for a quarter of a century, 'but I tell you what, Kevin.

That climb on El Capitan they call The Fairway is tremendous. It's miles above my standard now but at least I've seen it, and been on the first pitch and a bit of the second. Talk about hard!' `I don't know about it,' I said, 'but I suppose it's named after one of those big chaps, Nicklaus, Palmer, or Jacklin; one of those'. `Oh them,' he said, stooping to his boots, 'imagine footling around on some golf course when you could be walking about on a hill.' He went off to have a bath. Even his language had improved.

Kevin FitzGerald insists that the whole story is true — The chap DID come to play golf, he DID get taken up East Gully — and I never saw a man so frightened as he was that night. I DID beg him to go away, he DID fall off the boulder and he DID make the traverse round the bar. In later life, he preferred sleeping out of doors in a bag, and two years ago — while we were having lunch in London —he actually said to me 'let's do something bloody silly, like walking from here to Wales.... Now!'

Kevin Fitzgerald: First published as 'Be sure to bring your clubs' in * Mountain Life-April/May 1975