Friday, 21 April 2017

Hard Travelling

A recent trip with an enthusiastic group of Chinese climbers, reminded me of what the sport was like in the UK before ease of travel changed perceptions about the distant hills. On that occasion we travelled first across the huge city of Kunming by local transport to reach the northern bus station. Then by bus for several hours to reach Fuling County where we hitched a lift on a horse and cart to take us up a dirt road into the Fuling Hills of Yunnan. This for a weekend rock climbing in a deep limestone valley in that range. The journey took so long that there was only time to climb Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning before we had to start back for town. We slept out beneath an overhang and to say my companions were boisterous and good company is true.

No one owned a car; all had to work or study and this small group was made up of the only really active climbers in Yunnan, a province with a population as large as England. In recent climbing commentaries the reasons for the ever upward, spiralling standards of performance have been placed on technical and equipment innovation, and the modern trend for enthusiasts to eschew the bar for the climbing gym in search of greater strength and fitness. No commentator seems to appreciate that ease of access provided by modern transport has also helped to bring these developments about. This allied to the change in general affluence and with more leisure time being available to Joe climber. It is now feasible from the north of England via the budget airlines to have long weekends in Fontainebleau or Chamonix.

When I started to climb in 1947 at the age of eleven none of the activists I knew owned transport, petrol was rationed, and the only way we could travel was by train or bus. My first trip to the Peak District in 1948 from Leeds was like an expedition. We arrived by train in Sheffield and although we had heard of Stanage, we did not know where it was. We wandered around the city centre asking if anyone knew how to get there. Eventually a kindly soul (we must have struck it lucky for there is not many of them to be found in south Yorkshire) advised us to catch a bus out to a terminus above the Rivelin valley, and we walked from there. I guess that was a feature of the age, if you were not prepared to walk you did not get to climb. Until 1950 we were mostly confined to West Yorkshire outcrops, but at Whitsuntide that year petrol rationing finished and my companions and I discovered, hitch-hiking!

To the uninitiated this is a relatively simple activity, you stick out your thumb and if you're lucky a vehicle will pick you up. But nothing could be further from the truth! To be a good 'hitcher' requires tactical ability, territorial positioning and cunning to outwit any other would be riders. There were still very few cars on the road, but people were much more willing then to give lifts, and by this method I travelled most weekends to the Lake District, or Wales and for my main holidays visited Scotland. In 1951, aged 15, I hitched on my own to Glen Brittle, a journey which took three days and nights. You could reach parts of the Himalaya now in that time span. However hitch-hiking often proved to be slow and tedious, and soon rising affluence meant that nearly any climber who could raise the deposit, bought a motor-bike on the never-never (HP). For a while the adventures that this mode of transport inevitably provided many narrow escapes, and multiple crashes became centre stage in the climbing-raconteurs repertoire. This was the golden age of the British motor cycle industry with models like AJS, Norton, Ariel, Royal Enfield, BSA and Triumph dominating the market. And like my contemporaries I survived several crashes, including a five-bike pile up in Ennerdale.

Climbers and motorbikes proved to be a lethal combination and by the mid-fifties most had moved on to vans. These proved to be ideal for a weekend climbing, you could sleep in them, carry masses of gear and bodies and some had a surprising turn of speed. My first trip abroad was in 1955. Travelling by train via France I visited the Inn Valley, the Wilde Kaiser and the Dolomites. Such a journey was then a major undertaking, for the French Chemin de Fer was not then the TGV of today. The steam engine broke down at Chalons, and we had to wait 24 hours before a replacement could be found. In 1958 I went to Chamonix (with Joe Brown, his wife Valerie and Joe Smith) again by train. It took so long to get there that today you can reach Tibet in less time.

I bought my first motor car for thirty pounds off a school friend in 1955. A pre-war Y type Ford, and the following year I replaced it with an Austin A40 van. After the 1958 trip most of my continental journeys were by using private transport, but even then sometimes the delays were considerable. The worst being when the right wheel front suspension of my van literally collapsed, and I just made it to a garage north of Paris, limping through its front door, at which the wheel gave up the ghost and fell off! Much to the amusement of the French mechanics working there, who then took three days and hundreds of pounds to get me back out on the road again.

In 1961 I made my first visit to the Greater Ranges (shades of Rum Doodle?) and we travelled to Bombay by a first class passenger liner from Liverpool. A journey which took a month, and which was a revelation to such as myself, a working class lad from Leeds 6. We had to dress for dinner and on the return journey we even made it onto the Captain's table! By the time we reached India I had almost forgotten the purpose of our journey, and I have to confess I could have made a profession out of being a gigolo on such a liner. My second such journey to the Himalaya in 1964 was to be an epic of endurance, driving out from Leeds to Kathmandu, which took six weeks to complete. We needed to drive because of financial stringency. After many days in the mountains, I had to come home alone across Nepal and India to Bombay with our equipment, in heavy shipping crates (in that era you had to take out what you brought in or pay massive customs dues) and from there I sailed back to Liverpool.

The whole trip lasted for me from June 1964 until January of 1965. To greet me at the end of this marathon on the pier at Liverpool was one of our expedition members, Don Whillans. Who greeted me thus, 'Don't think have come to meet thee. Have just come to get me bloody gear!' At least you always knew where you stood with the Villain. In 1966 I made an equally long trip to South and North America. Sailing on a cargo boat from Liverpool to Peru, with the expedition equipment, on which I was a supernumerary, and for which I was paid one shilling (5p) a day. This again took a month and the only entertainment was to watch the same pornographic film every night which was shown in the galley. It was called 'The Witches Brew' and the crew knew what little dialogue there was just as well as the 'porn stars'.

After climbing in the Cordillera Blanca, and visiting Cuzco, Machu Picchu I set forth on my own to journey to Yosemite. I travelled via Ecuador, then on to Mexico City and from there, as my funds had dissipated, I had to hitch hike. It took me ten days to get to The Valley, a journey I will never forget, for once into the USA so many 'characters' picked me up that they are still etched on my consciousness almost forty years on. Such as a member of the John Birch Society who was armed ready to defend himself in case of race riots, and a gentle muscle Mary, a giant body builder from Los Angeles's Venice beach, an early member of the then fledgling Gay Liberation Front!

 I guess the 'sixties were probably the last decade when necessity forced climbers to undertake such lengthy journeys time-wise, but I do not envy modern day expedition members, for they often miss out on a possible wider experience by simply concentrating solely on their climbing objectives. Air travel is now so comparatively cheap and available, that in the time it took for us to drive to Kathmandu in 1964, they have been and come back. My last big journey in that decade was via another expedition to the Indian Himalaya in 1968, after which I set out on my own to travel the subcontinent north to south. I left Delhi in August and ten weeks later fetched up in Sri Lanka.

Travelling by bus and train I had of course adventures and I think damaged my digestive system irrevocably. In Madras having eaten curry every night for weeks, I decided on the ultimate—a Madrasi. The Indian curries you eat in the UK are nothing like the real thing, and so I wandered into a famous such restaurant in that city. When I ordered the waiter looked at me as if I was mad, 'Oh very very hot, Sahib!' he advised. Nonchalantly I passed this off with a `Jaldi!' and so the steaming concoction eventually arrived. It proved to be the atomic bomb of curries, but I could not lose face as the whole of the staff gathered to watch me eat it.

Somehow I managed to get most of it down but I have never really liked hot curries ever since. Like many other climbers before me, lack of funds forced me to undertake what were in retrospect very educational journeys. They opened my eyes to other cultures, other languages and to some of the problems facing us all as the citizens of a fast shrinking world, dogged by over population, poverty, disease, famines and a universal lack of access to education and health services, allied to long term environmental destruction and degradation.

Such journeys were also an adventure. And before anyone declares doubt about such a statement I can assure them that when I was hitching, on my own late one night at Fresno, California a huge gorilla of a guy ambled over out of the darkness and aggressively demanded I give him some 'chocolate', I was more frightened than I have ever been whilst actually climbing! 

Dennis Gray 2006: First Published in Loose Scree July 06