Friday, 20 April 2018

The Ascent of Stack-Na-Biorragh...St Kilda

'The man who cannot climb it never gets a wife in St. Kilda.' So said Maclean in his 'Sketches of the Island of St. Kilda,' a scarce book, published in Glasgow in 1838. In view of the fact that the natives of this remote island formerly subsisted largely on sea-birds and eggs, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a girl of St. Kilda, having in view her future welfare, should establish some sort of test whereby to judge her lover's ability as a climber. Sir Robert Moray, in a paper communicated to the Royal Society in 1678, describes the dangers connected with the capture of sea-fowl by the men of Hirta on the apparently inaccessible Stacca Donna.

There can be no doubt that this is the stack now called Stack-na-Biorrach. After they landed, he says,  a man having room but for one of his feet, he must climb up 12 or 16 fathoms high. Then he comes to a place where, having but room for his left foot and left hand, he must leap from thence to another place before him, which if he hit right the rest of the ascent is easie, and with a small cord which he carries with him he hales up a rope whereby all the rest come up. But if he misseth that footstep (as often times they do) he falls into the sea and the company takes him in by the small cord and he sits still until he is a little refreshed and then he tries it again; for everyone there is not able for that sport.

Martin, in his 'Late Voyage to St. Kilda,' published in 1698, describes the ascent of 'the famous rock Stackdonn, as a Mischievous rock.....

for it hath prov'd so to some of their number, who perished in attempting to climb it; it is much of the form and height of a steeple; there is a very great dexterity, and it is reckoned no small gallantry to climb this rock, especially that part of it called ‘the Thumb’, which is so little, that of all the parts of a man's body, the thumb only can lay hold on it, and that must be only for the space of one minute; during which time his feet have no support, nor any part of his body can touch the stone, except the thumb, at which minute he must jump by the help of his thumb, and the agility of his body, concurring to raise him higher at the same time, to a sharp point of the Rock, which when he has got hold of, puts him above danger, and having a rope about his middle, that he casts down to the boat, by the help of which he carries up as many persons as are designed for fowling. 

At this time; the foreman, or principal climber has the reward of four fowls bestowed upon him above his proportion; and perhaps, one might think four thousand too little to compensate so great a danger as this man incurs. He has this advantage by it, that he is recorded among their greatest heroes; as are all the foremen who lead the Van in getting up this Mischievous Rock.

This quaint description was written 215 years ago, but every writer of importance on St. Kilda since that date has also mentioned this rock. Macaulay (grand-uncle of Lord Macaulay), in his 'History of St. Kilda,' 1764, appears to be the first to mention Stacki-birach, and says 'within a pistol shot of it lies Stacki-don or the Stack of no consequence, being the only rock within the territories of Hirta where the fowls do not hatch.' Then he says that Stacki-birach derives its name from 'ending in a spire.' Seaton, in his 'St. Kilda, Past and Present,' 1878, which is the most exhaustive account of the island yet published, does not allude to the confusion of names. Heathcote, however, in his attractively illustrated book on St. Kilda, published in 1900, takes it for granted that the Stack referred to by Martin as 'Stackdonn' was that which is now known as Stack-na-Biorrach. Martin does not give the height, but Macaulay gives it as 40 feet; Maclean as 400 or 500 feet. 

Heathcote is, in my opinion, correct in putting it at 'about 240 feet.' Macaulay's 40 feet was perhaps intended for 400, as the old writers were given to exaggeration. Heathcote appears to have been the only writer on St. Kilda who ascended any of the Stacks, all of which rise out of the ocean. He states that he has done a lot of climbing in Skye and a certain amount in Switzerland, and thinks he may claim to be a tolerable climber, and in this he is probably correct. For although he did not attempt Stack-na-Biorrach, which he says is the most difficult climb, he scaled Stack Lii, the height of which he gives as 533 feet, and the cover of his book is illustrated with a striking picture showing the commencement of the ascent. He failed to trace the story that in order to get a wife in St. Kilda it was necessary to climb Stack-na-Biorrach. 

In this his experience agrees with mine. The truth is that, although not a necessity, it was looked upon as a great feat amongst the islanders, where for hundreds of years the chief food of the inhabitants was obtained from the lofty precipices and Stacks. In fact there is no part of the world, as far as I am aware, where the practical advantage of being a skilled cragsman was so well recognised.

The chief topics of conversation in this out-of-the-way island are climbing and birds. A visit to Switzerland in 1882, during which the Schreckhorn, Finsteraarhorn, Jungfrau and Matterhorn, and an equal number of high passes were negotiated within ten days, and the fact that a certain rivalry existed between myself and an elder brother who first ascended the Eiger, induced me to visit St. Kilda in 1883, as I wished to test the ability of the natives as cragsmen, to compare them with Swiss guides, and to study the fauna and flora of this remote island, of which little was then known. It is thirty years ago next June since I ascended Stack-na-Biorrach, and therefore I trust I shall not be accused of hasty self-advertisement; indeed, my chief object in writing is to give the members of the Alpine Club an account of a climb which the older writers have attempted to describe on second-hand information; and, moreover, I fear that even the St. Kildans themselves will soon cease to ascend the rock, as they no longer subsist to the same extent on sea-birds and there is not the same necessity for dangerous rock-climbing.

But I have not yet described the St. Kilda group, which lies about fifty miles west of the Sound of Harris, and about one hundred west of the Scottish mainland. It consists of one large island, three miles long and two broad, rising to a height of 1372 feet, and two smaller ones—Soa and Borera, each about 1200 feet in height, and three Stacks—Stack-an-Armin, Stack Lii, and Stack-na-Biorrach, besides smaller rocks. Formerly communication with the mainland was of rare occurrence. Lady Grange was conveyed there in 1734, and was not released for eight years. Since David McBrain's steamers began running there, from thirty to forty years ago, intercourse with the outer world in summer time has been frequent, if uncertain. Fearing I might be left on the island all the winter, I arranged with McBrain to send a special steamer to take me on in September for the sum of £30. There was no necessity to take advantage of this arrangement, as his ordinary steamer took me off in good time. Not knowing Gaelic, I brought an interpreter with me from Glasgow, but, as he was afraid to go within ten yards of any cliff and did not understand the St. Kilda dialect, he was useless, save as caretaker of an old Crimean tent which we pitched on the only level patch (about ten yards square) near the landing-place. 

The natives could not speak a word of English, and it was nearly a fortnight before they permitted me to accompany them in catching fulmar petrels on the ledges along the face of the great Connacher (1200 feet). They wanted to test my ability. I remember one day walking along its edge and seeing a stout stick firmly embedded in the earth about three yards from the face, with a rope round it. I was sure someone was below catching birds, so descending about 100 feet I came upon another rope, also fastened round a stick, embedded in the next ledge. This I also descended and came to a second ledge on which two men roped together were busy catching birds with long fishing-rods, to the end of which horse-hair nooses were attached. Having obtained permission to try my hand and being rewarded with success, the natives became very friendly. Of course I had my boots off. If you don't take them off it is done for you compulsorily. 

For, on another occasion, after landing on the island of Borera and proceeding to climb without removing them, I felt myself pulled down from behind, one of the islanders grasping my arms and waist together while the other proceeded to unlace my boots. The ropes by which the men descended the Connacher cliff were of hemp and rather heavy, but the line between the two men on the ledge was made of horse-hair and was light. In 1883 there were no horses on St. Kilda, but many cows. Martin, in 1698, said there were only three ropes in the whole island, each fathoms long. 'The chief thing,' he says, 'upon which the strength of these ropes depends is cow-hides, salted, and cut out in one long piece. This they twist round the ordinary rope of hemp, which secures it from being cut by the rocks.' Macaulay says (1764) that 'a rope is the most valuable implement that a man of substance can be possessed of in St. Kilda.

In his will he makes it the very first article in favour of his eldest son,' and 'it was reckoned equal in value to the two best cows on the island.' The rope alluded to by Macaulay appears to have been made entirely of cow-hide. I brought two Alpine Club ropes with me, the red central thread being regarded as a great curiosity by the natives. They would use neither of them. But they were very useful when attached to the top of the tent, preventing it from being blown into the sea on two very stormy days. After repeated entreaties, and when the natives had tested my ability in various ways, they consented to bring me to Stack-na-Biorrach. The wind was light, and the entire able-bodied population assisted in pushing the boat over the rocks into the sea. During this operation a crowd of about twenty dogs barked furiously. 

There were eight rowers, my nephew, and myself in the boat. The natives are very religious, and a prayer was said before starting. We rowed round the Doon and under the tremendous cliffs of the western face of St. Kilda, the great Atlantic swell making a white fringe along the rocks and booming in the great caves. In about an hour's time we came to a narrow sound between the island of Soa and the large island, and the boat unexpectedly stopped before a perpendicular and in some places overhanging Stack, which looked to me absolutely inaccessible.

The men talked in Gaelic, not a word of which I understood. One of them put a horse-hair rope around his waist. I could not imagine what they intended to do. For to ascend the rock immediately opposite appeared an utter impossibility, and my heart sank within me when they shouted ' Stack-na-Biorrach, Stack-na-Biorrach!' Donald McDonald, the man with the horse-hair rope round his waist, stood in the bow of the boat. Another man held the rope slack, and, watching his opportunity as the boat rose on the top of a swell, McDonald jumped on a small ledge of slimy seaweed below high-water mark. There was a momentary stagger, but he kept his balance, and fastened himself to the rock by holding on apparently to the barnacles with which it was covered. He then proceeded upwards by sticking his fingers and toes into small wind-worn cavities on the western face. The rope was gradually slackened, and at a height of about thirty feet he turned to the east, getting on a small narrow ledge, unseen from below, which could not have been more than two or three inches wide.

The whole of this performance was remarkable, especially having regard to its surroundings, the steeple-like rock rising from the ocean off the very wildest part of this remote island, the boatmen shout-ing in Gaelic to the climber, the great surge of the Atlantic threatening every moment to drive us against the cliff, and the horse-hair rope alternately slack and tightened as the boat rose and fell. At a height of about 30 or 40 feet McDonald stood on a projecting knob, about two feet square, right over the boat. He hauled up another rope and fastened it round the knob. There were now two ropes to the boat. Donald McQueen, tapped me on the shoulder and explained by signs that I was to ascend, boots of course being first taken off. At that time I could ascend a rope easily hand over hand; the swaying of it between the boat and the cliff made it less perpendicular at intervals and therefore easier, and I soon stood on the knob beside McDonald. I recollect every incident as if it only happened yesterday. 

He pressed me against the face of the cliff, and, to my horror, Donald McQueen now proceeded to ascend the rope. For the life of me I did not know where he was going to stand, and to this day I am puzzled to know how we three men contrived to stand on this projection. Fearing every moment that I would fall, I shouted to pull the boat from the rock, so that in case of accident I should drop into the sea, and not into the boat from a distance of about 40 feet. McQueen now put the rope round his waist and took the lead up a ledge two feet wide, wet with spray, which sloped at a very steep angle upwards. Having ascended this he grasped a narrow horizontal ledge about four inches wide and sloping outwards, so that the fingers slipped readily, and, with his feet dangling in the air, proceeded to jerk himself along this ledge by getting a fresh hold every time with each hand alternately. It was about 15 feet long.

McDonald held the horse-hair rope which was round McQueen's waist in his hand. This, no doubt, gave him a false sense of security, but otherwise was absolutely useless, for, had McQueen fallen, they would have both tumbled into the sea. McQueen now stood on another projection of a more satisfactory character than the first, about 70 feet over the sea, and beckoned me to follow him. The horse-hair rope was placed round my waist, and with McQueen on one side and McDonald on the other, holding the rope, I proceeded along the ledge, dangling without any foothold. Had it not been slippery with the droppings of guillemots I might have succeeded, but when midway I slipped, and, unable to recover my grip, would have fallen had not the two men simultaneously tightened the horse-hair rope with a powerful jerk, raising me a foot, during which I caught sight of a small lump sticking up, and, grasping this anxiously with one hand, was soon safely landed by McQueen at his end of the ledge.

Whether this slight projection, which really makes this traverse possible, was The Thumb referred to by Martin more than 215 years ago I cannot say? McDonald now came along with apparent ease, and we all stood together for the second time. There was more room here, but the cliff above was overhanging and I was curious to see what would happen next. The rope was unloosed from everybody, and one of the men made a lasso of it and proceeded to throw it round a projection about 14 feet overhead.

After five or six failures it was successfully lassoed and the rope tested by vigorous pulls to see whether it would give way. Having satisfied themselves that it was secure McQueen ascended, I followed, and then McDonald, all hand over hand. We were now about 80 feet above the water, and as the stack was no longer perpendicular or overhanging I shall not give minute details of the remainder of the climb, which was not more difficult than many first-class clubmen could contend with. It was interesting, however, and the view from the top was very fine. Hundreds, almost thousands, of guillemots scurried and fluttered or flew into the ocean below. The top was not flat, like the pinnacles on Farne Islands, but weather-worn and uneven. My thoughts were not, I fear, ornithological, but rather concentrated on the problem 'How shall I ever get down?'

However, the descent was accomplished with less assistance than the ascent, and I caught ‘The Thumb’  this time. The boatmen exclaimed 'Sauna' which, being interpreted to me, signified that I was a great climber, like a famous St. Kildan of that name. The best photograph I have seen of Stack-na-Biorrach faces page 124 in Kearton's well-known and beautiful book 'With Nature and a Camera,' published in 1902. It is the left-hand stack in that photograph. Even still, although the people on the island are getting spoiled by visitors, St. Kilda and its inhabitants are full of interest. I do not know whether either of the men who accompanied me in the ascent of Stack-na-Biorrach is alive. 

My nephew took a photograph of us after we returned. It shows exactly how we were attired for the climb; horse-hair rope and all. Thirty years ago there was no Ordnance sheet of St. Kilda, and I believe none has yet been made. The best maps I know of are the Admiralty chart and the map at the end of Heathcote's book. The ankles of the natives are tremendously developed. Kearton, who is a powerful man, gives in his book a photograph of his own ankle and that of a native. Heathcote, at the end of his book, hopes that he has deterred most people from going to St. Kilda. I am afraid his interesting volume will have exactly the opposite effect, but I do not expect his happy hunting-grounds, as he expresses it, will ever be 'invaded by a host of Sassenachs.' 

My last visit to St. Kilda, in 1896, was very brief, and was made when returning from an expedition to the still more remote island of Rockall, 170 miles further west in the Atlantic; nobody has, I believe, been able to land on this island for over half a century. I saw Donald McDonald, then looking very poorly, and believe Donald McQueen was dead, for I could not find him. 

Richard M Barrington

This article first appeared in the May 1913 issue of the Alpine Journal

Friday, 6 April 2018

Full Hot

Henry Barber bouldering at John Smith's Bay:Photo-Grant Farquhar

Full Hot: 1 adj. Archaic English: Heated; Fiery; Hotter than hot. 2 adj. /fuhl-hah t/ Bermudian: A person who has had too much alcohol to the point of complete inebriation. “Aceboy is FULL HOT ummaa take mi bredrin home.” See also: half hot, hot, full hot & foolish.

I had gotten in touch with Henry Barber, from my home in Bermuda, to obtain permission from him and Chip Lee to include an excerpt from Chip’s 1982 biography of Henry in the forthcoming Gogarth anthology: The White Cliff. Henry made several trips to the UK in the 70s climbing in many different areas, including Gogarth, and forging friendships in the anarchic climbing scene.

At the time, ‘Hot Henry’ was, arguably, the best climber in the world. He climbed 300+ days a year and travelled the world to climb in diverse places, often barefoot or solo, amassing a string of first-free and onsight solo ascents that redefined style and ethics on a global scale. In 1972, Henry pulled into Yosemite for the first time; coming from the east coast, he was not made to feel welcome: “They would give me the stinkeye. It could have been a jealousy thing, or I could have been an asshole, I don’t know. It just got worse over the years.” The following year, Henry onsighted the outstanding project of Butterballs (5.11c), a route that was, according to John Bachar, “way over everybody’s heads”. Henry then soloed the Steck-Salathe, onsight, and climbed The Nose of El Cap 75 percent free in a day and a half. 

Hot Henry soloing The Strand:Photo Edgar Boyles
Henry returned to Yosemite in 1975: “I wasn’t liked, flat out. I was a gun walking into town. I was like a lone gunslinger walking down the street and there were five guys lined up at the other end of the street ready to draw their guns.” Fish Crack was the Valley’s biggest prize at the time, and a project being worked by Bachar and Ron Kauk. Barber climbed to the poorly-protected crux near the top of the route and fell onto a lone, sketchy nut that – had it pulled – would have ended his bold career: “I fell off the chicken head after the crux when my feet slipped as I was climbing in a light rain. The next day Kauk and Bachar yo-yoed the route but didn’t get to my high point. I completed it, in one go, the following day.” At the time, the 5.12 grade had yet to be established in Yosemite. Henry gave Fish Crack 5.11 because: “They would have hated me even more if I’d given it 5.12.” It now is graded 5.12b and regarded as one of Yosemite’s, and the world’s, first routes of that grade.

In 1976, for an American Sportsman TV show episode, a 22-year-old Henry onsight soloed The Strand, an E2 5b on Gogarth’s Upper Tier. This ascent turned into a gruelling one-and-a-half-hour epic. Once past the crux, Henry was totally committed: “Under the circumstances, I realised that I could not down-climb the difficult moves. It’s one of the only times in climbing that this has been true. There were just too many things working against me.” He was very relieved to, finally, reach the top: “I was hot, I was tired, and I was beaten. It was an incredible mental challenge for me, but I wouldn’t do anything like it again because it was too close to death.”

Soloing in Scaur Quarry, 1972: Photo HB

While corresponding about his Gogarth days for The White Cliff, Henry revealed that he had been to Bermuda around Nov/Dec 1972, and climbed. I wasn’t particularly surprised that Henry had climbed in Bermuda before, but I was surprised when he accepted my invitation to visit this year.

“Who’s Henry?” enquires my wife. I explain who ‘Hot Henry’ is. “So what’s his nickname now that he’s older? Half Hot Henry? Tepid Henry?” she asks. I had met Henry once before, in Melbourne after he gave a lecture at the climbing shop. Waiting at the airport, in Bermuda, almost 20 years later, I’m wondering how much he has changed in that time. Some old guy with a moustache emerges. Is that him? No. Time passes, I start to wonder whether he made his flight or not. Just as I sit down, Henry comes through the sliding doors. His moustache is whiter, but otherwise he looks remarkably similar to my memory of him.

Henry is in a good mood, but having got up at 2am and made a 6-hour drive through driving snow into the teeth of a New England Nor’easter to make his flight, he wants to head to my place to regroup a little before hitting the crag. Afterwards, I take him to Clarence Cove, and we do some mellow deep water soloing. The second day starts off well when Henry lands a 10 pound+ bonefish on his fly rod in our bay. Notoriously difficult to hook and land, the local bones experts are suitably impressed and the resulting conversation about casts, bites, lures, flys and the size and weight of fish goes on for a while.

Xantho: Photo Grant Farquhar

Henry is a purist, an exponent of ‘clean climbing’ which means that his climbing equipment consists of simply a bandolier of nuts and a swami belt. No cams. No harness, and sometimes no rockboots. At least he has a belay device and a chalkbag. Oh, and he is wearing rock shoes. Barefoot climbing on the sharp rock in Bermuda would be painful. We hit the Great Head; at 100’ this is Bermuda’s biggest cliff and home to many good routes from 5.8 to 5.13. We start off on 5.8 and progress steadily to 5.10. Henry is 64 years old and not suffering from anorexia nervosa, but he climbs surely and steadily with no dithering. The steepest sections cause him to pause and there is some down climbing, but he is always in control.

I’m interested in picking Henry’s brains about free soloing. There are sections of The White Cliff that touch on this topic in relation to climbers such as Jimmy Jewell and Derek Hersey; who soloed frequently, and who died doing it. In his superb essay about soloing with John Bachar, The Only Blasphemy, John Long defined this as “ – to willfully jeopardise my own life”. If this is, indeed, the only blasphemy then to blaspheme on a daily basis; to be willing to pay the ultimate price, like Jewell and Hersey, can only be described as heresy.

The rewards for indulging, repeatedly, in such behaviour appear to lie in the feelings arising, at the time, from doing it and, afterwards, from having done it. Regarding the former, Derek Hersey said: “There’s nothing that makes me feel so alive. You’re thinking – but not in words. You’re thinking in movement, in rhythm... You have to almost say there is no probability of falling. Subconsciously, you just have to go with that.”

In his book, Rock Athlete, Ron Fawcett outlines: “The strange mixture of feelings you get while soloing high above the ground, of being calm but utterly focused. I see myself totally absorbed and living intensely; it’s what I love about the sport.” Both appear to be describing the highly focused mental state of complete absorption in an activity that has been labelled ‘flow’.

Deep water Soloing on Full Fathom Five Ten. Photo Grant Farquhar

Regarding the ‘high’, Ron Fawcett concedes in his book that he did get “a buzz” from the danger. In an interview in 2008 Henry Barber said: “Another reason I loved soloing was for the euphoric feeling afterwards. I remember soloing the North Face of Capitol Peak [a 5.9 in Colorado] and coming down and making love to my girlfriend. Unless I was Carlos Castaneda, I couldn’t describe what that’s like, but that’s what really almost addicted me to it; not the struggle and focus during the climbing, but the release afterwards. I’ve never done drugs, but it’s got to be like that, because it’s intense.”

Everybody has experienced flow states, during, and highs, after, climbing. According to the theories of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to achieve a flow state a balance must be struck between the challenge of the route and the skill of the climber. If the climb is too easy then it’s boring; too difficult it’s frustrating, and in both cases, flow cannot occur. Skill level and challenge level must be closely matched. In order to maintain the mental state that the protagonist seeks, then there will – have to – be an inevitable escalation of challenge over time, otherwise the activity will become boring: unrewarding.

The implications of this for someone whose chosen activity is highly potentially lethal, such as solo free climbing or, say, proximity wingsuit BASE are that unless, at some point, the individual consciously decides to retire from the flow-driven inexorable escalation of challenges, then the activity will, eventually, kill them. For the solo climber, the margin for error on a route of high difficulty will eventually become too thin for that unexpected occurrence: hold failure, gear failure, weather failure; or, perhaps, most insidiously, when soloing routes of lower difficulty has become insufficiently challenging – mundane – to generate the mental state necessary to survive. It doesn’t matter if you fall off a hard or an easy solo, the rock does not care, and the outcome is the same. When I question Henry about this, he says gnomically: “You retire it, or it retires you.”

Henry with his Swami belt at The Great Head: Grant Farquhar

On our second full day climbing, we head to Tsunami Wall which, unfortunately, is living up to its name and being deluged by waves, so we visit The Pump Room. Henry’s knee is playing up, but he gimps his way manfully down the steep approach scramble before sending a couple of steep lines. Later I take him to an obscure deep water solo venue located in Tom Moore’s Jungle which also happens to be Bermuda’s premiere cave diving spot. Embarrassingly, I wander around the jungle, lost, and fail to locate the crag. I have an idea where it is but the trail has grown over, and I don’t want to lead Henry on a bushwhack from hell to try and find it. So we go bouldering on the beach and repair to the pub.

Henry, I have to say, was a highly entertaining guest. During our drives to the crag and mandatory debriefings, in the pub, Henry while frequently incoherent with laughter regaled me with tales from his time in North Wales in the 70s with luminaries such as Al Harris, Pete Minks, Al Rouse, Cliff Phillips et al. I should have recorded him as the stories are the stuff of legends, hilarious, but also dark and borderline sociopathic. There is a tale about four naked climbers in the bathtub with Pete Minks delivering the punchline as he comes up from between womens’ legs with grey bath water streaming off his beard: “It’s all right, I’m a plumber.”

Another story is of repeated restaurant food hijacking with Al Harris pleading to an enraged mob: “Do you think somebody like me would do something like that?” On another occasion North Wales arrives, without warning, in a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado with Pete Minks demonstrating the “Dance of the flaming fairies” involving a naked man and a rolled up newspaper that was inserted in a specific anatomical location and set on fire. Chip’s biography of Henry, On Edge, was written when Henry was 29 years old. Surely only pop stars and footballers produce biographies before they are 30? Henry is still ‘Full Hot’, and with stories like those above, it might be time for him to think about On Edge Volume 2.

After Henry leaves, I find the quarry that he climbed on in the 70s. It’s 20ft high with vertical walls, corners and arêtes. I solo the cracks and corners and then a nice 20ft arête. It’s like a mini-Millstone so Veg Lane has to be the name, or maybe On Edge would be more appropriate? The jungle at the top resembles Vietnam and is impenetrable. With a nasty looking squall blowing in from the ocean, I hastily downclimb another, easier, arête. I get home and look at Henry’s photos. Wait a minute that looks like a different quarry? Still it was a nice arête.

John Cleare's classic image of Henry Barber and Al Harris at Gogarth.


Henry Barber in Wild New Brave (film).
Henry Barber – Free-Climbing Pioneer, Free Soloist, Trad Climber, Motivational Speaker, Purist; North Conway, New Hampshire by Mark Synnott in Climbing magazine, 2008.
Soloing at the Limit, an interview by Annie Whitehouse in Climbing magazine, 1992.
On Edge, the life and times of Henry Barber by Chip Lee.
Rock Athlete by Ron Fawcett (with Ed Douglas).

Grant Farquhar: 2018 

Friday, 23 March 2018

Nick Bullock's tides....reviewed

To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field’ Boris Pasternack.

Nick Bullock has made something of a reputation as one of the leading chroniclers of modern mountaineering and rock climbing; via the social media, articles and now his second book, ‘tides’. This covers the period from 2003 up to 2016. The first of these dates marks the year he left his job as a PE Instructor in the Prison service, based at a high security institution in Leicester. For 15 years acting out a role as a warder, helping to keep behind locked doors some of those who society wishes to hold and keep off their streets. Many of whom are damaged souls, with little hope of rehabilitation. At this happening Bullock was 37 years old, and to decide to leave such a career post and a settled life to become a full time climber was by any reckoning, a bold step?

Before moving on to the meat of the book, the climbing, I wish to make an observation about prison life, I just cannot believe that the 15 years of his previous career has not made Bullock into the climber he has now become. Questioning his own motivation and sometimes racked by self doubt; at others totally dedicated and positive about living the life of a full time climber, and in the arena of expedition climbing becoming one of its leading exponents. I think if you have been exposed to prison life and its denizens, to subsequently freely move around in open country, to watch the bird and animal life, to chart an array of stars in the night sky, and observe a grove of flowers, it must provide experiences that are so heightened by the previous knowledge of, other humans, living almost like caged animals. I write with a little knowledge about these conditions, for I was many years ago for a short period of time a prison visitor.

The book starts with Bullock making a visit to his aged parents who are living on a canal boat in Northamptonshire. A bold step for them to take in later life, post the selling of their house in which the writer had grown up in Staffordshire. In summer they cruised, the canal system, and in winter they stayed put at a permanent site. Bullock is very honest in the several segments of his book, writing about the history of these parental relationships, with his mother caring, gentle and hard working, his father gruff and hard to live with.  Born in 1965, and leaving school at 16 he worked variously as a gamekeeper, a self employed labourer and at Alton Towers before joining the prison service in 1987. In 1992 whilst training to be a physical education instructor on an outdoor course held at Plas y Brenin, he was introduced to rock climbing, and the sport has never left him since that first experience.

The book is made up of 36 short chapters, and their headings give some sort of feeling as to the stories they tell of extreme rock climbs, and committing expeditions; ‘love and hate’, ‘death or glory’ ‘the pitfalls of a peroni model’ ‘that’s rowdy dude’ ‘slave to the rhythm?’ and so many other such do get the reader set up for what is to come. Some of the writing is so dense that I had to go back and re-read parts of the action to quite understand its significance. And so with the writer living in his van (having let his house in Leicesteshire), he commutes in this between Llanberis, Scotland and Chamonix. Outstanding climbs are made on the sea cliffs of Anglesey, in the Pass, Glencoe/The Ben/Lochnagar and the Mont Blanc Range. And as the chapters progress the authors companions are also centre stage for he is climbing with some of the leading ‘stars’ of the period;, Kenton Cool, Al Powell, Steve House, Nico Favresse, Andy Houseman, Jon Bracey and James McHaffie. Someone who he climbs with a lot, and who plays many roles in the stories of his climbs is ‘Streaky’, Graham Desroy, who for some reason Bullock always refers to as ‘The Hippy’. Most of the time poor old Streaky is scared witless by the action, particularly on the sea cliffs, but for those of us who know him well, this is a part of his put on persona, for he is actually a very competent and outstanding climber in his own right.  I might be accused of Yorkshire favouritism here for Graham was once a part of the Leeds Mafia, editing the area’s guidebooks. (In passing Cool, Bercy and Powell also cut their climbing teeth in the same milieu)

He does not spare himself or his companions as the action unfolds, and I suppose as a former Prison officer one might be thinking about people and their motivations. Who you can one really rely on and who might just be talking a good game, bolstered by past glories? Once again as in some other recent climbing stories, we are let in on the authors  very private life, his wish for a deep relationship with some female who he can gel with, but each of these attempts fails, some leaving deeper scars than others. One can imagine the dedication to keep up such a climbing life, year in year out wears down companions if not the author, but everyone if they survive gets old and now into his early 50’s Nick must be wondering what might yet still be in store in climbing terms? I do have an example for him, an old friend from Geneva, Jean Juge climbed the North Face of the Eiger when it was still for tigers only, more than thirty years ago in his late ‘sixties’.

There is so much climbing that it is hard to keep up, but one that sticks with me is the confrontation with Stevie Haston, who when he discovers that on a route of his ‘Melody’ on Craig Doris, Bullock had been trying to remove his original protection  pitons, by then very old and rusty, to replace them with new pins. Stevie came a steaming to the crag, warning of dire consequences if he went ahead with his plans. Bullock actually thought he might be physically attacked by Stevie who can look and act very ferociously, but actually he is a gentle kind soul beneath his hard exterior. I used to meet him occasionally in London at the Mile End Wall, as did my eldest son when he was a music student in the Capital. Haston would willingly spend his time encouraging us lesser mortals up his favourite problems. Bullock returned to ‘Melody’ at a later date, bolstered by Streaky, and led the route without too much fuss, and only relying on Stevie’s ancient pegs for protection.  

The story of the confrontation in the Autumn of 2015 with a grizzly bear that the author and Greg Boswell suffered on the lower slopes around Mount Wilson in the Canadian Rockies is truly gripping. After preparing the trail to reach the first pitches, scouting out a twelve pitch route named ‘Dirty Love’ high on the mountain, they left all their gear, axes, and ropes behind ready to return once the conditions improved. It was while they were descending through deep forest that the bear attacked and Boswell was floored and bitten in the legs and ankle. Somehow, through screaming and shouting, for they had no weapons themselves the bear was frightened off, but leaving Boswell bleeding profusely and in agony for the rest of the descent back to a car and the hospital in Banff. These are the bare bones of this story for obviously the event lasted longer in its frightening hours.    

 Bullock has been energetically exercised in so many climbing areas of the world, in south America with Al Powell, in Alaska with Andy Houseman, in the Himalaya with Kenton Cool, so many stand out ascents such as a repeat of the Slovak route on the Mount  Denali. But there is a price to pay for several good friends are injured or die whilst also pushing out on such magical climbs. None more so than the death of Jules Cartwright, who was killed along with a client guiding in the Alps; his death affected the author deeply for he was such a larger than life character, and they had made some outstanding climbs together.

Nearing the end of the book we read the story of the first ascent in Tibet of the north Buttress on Nyainqentangla, an eight day mountain marathon in September 2016, by the author with Paul Ramsden. This is now where cutting edge Himalayan climbing is happening, new routes on the lesser but probably more technically difficult mountains of the range. For this climb they were awarded a Piolet d-Or. One has to wonder about such, but the photograph of them is good fun, for although their climb was worthy I guess to receive an award, they do appear a most unlikely couple for they look more like a couple crown green bowlers than hot alpinists. Tempes fugit and it gets us all in the end, and sadly we read about the death of the author’s mother, someone who had been a generous caring rock throughout his life.

Bullock’s knowledge of fauna and flora, particularly in the UK is poetically expressed and knowledgeable. Maybe that harks back to his time spent as a gamekeeper when young, but I was surprised about how little description there is in ‘tides’ of the people’s who inhabit the countries he has been to. I have been three times to Tibet, and for me the local people I travelled with and met are important to remember. But maybe that is why I never climbed anything like the route that the author pioneered there. He has now followed this vagabond lifestyle, totally dedicated to a climbing life, living in a van for over a decade.

It is interesting to speculate how climbing might develop in future. Bullock notes that young British climbers do not seem to want to go on expeditions anymore? I am not sure about that, for the Mount Everest Foundation is still making many grants each year to such. And not a few of these are made up by parties of University club climbers and I am sure this book will inspire many young climbers to widen their horizons. ‘tides’ includes 37 black/white photographs of varying quality in reproduction. However they do give more insight (if it were still needed) into the life Nick has led; obviously his late start as a climber was bolstered by his PE background, and he was a ‘trainer’ from the word go. But one is left to wonder at what he might have achieved if he had started climbing as a teenager?

So this is an inspirational book. It is a must read for anyone thinking of becoming a professional climber, for though climbers such as Bullock have a few sponsors which help them stay alive and active, he is not cruising around in a Chauffer driven Bentley. With Olympic recognition the pullers on plastic might end up being comfortably numb, but the mountaineers will probably always be ploughing their own lonely furrows. And Nick Bullock is a prime example of that, and his honesty in this respect is humbling and makes ‘tides’ an outstanding book. 

Dennis Gray:2018

 ‘tides’   Nick Bullock.  Vertebrate Publishing 264 pages £24.

Images supplied by Vertebrate Publishing


Friday, 9 March 2018

We Dented the Samovar....

'Just dangerous, stupid and scary. Underdressed, ill-equipped, no guidebook, blizzard, sub-zero.”

Филипп Петрович скорер.

We were staying at Wern, near Trawsfynydd. I drove fast up the narrow, tight-walled road  towards Ffestiniog, making Alice flinch and exclaim. I had only started driving last year. We sped through Capel and the glistening gash of Ogwen opened up. Everything was covered with snow.

“Just a dusting,” I said confidently, pointing our wives at the north ridge of Tryfan - “Kate, darling, Al, it goes up that way... roughly,” - and we told them we’d see them at the top in a couple of hours. Just a couple of hours, honestly...

Both married, not quite yet fathers, my best friend Philip and I had decided to climb Grooved Arête to celebrate his 30th birthday. An easy romp, with plentiful belay ledges to smoke on and admire the view. It was mid-April. It would be like a day at the beach, sunbathing like in the late 80s, when the naughty Dawlish girls would take their tops off for Helios - I digress... He had never done it before. The snow should make it more ‘interesting’.

We stamped our way up the Heather Terrace, the snow becoming more icy and solid.  I found the old scratched letters. It was nearly fifteen years since I’d last been at the foot of this route. With various accumulated gear and a whole pile of rope-access stuff - we even had full body harnesses as our old ones had vanished along the way - we looked up and saw about four parties abseiling off. Inevitably, the yellow helicopter turned up. For training purposes, apparently.

“Fuck it,” I said with a smile, and we began.


I suppose, like all self-taught young climbers, we had a history of idiocy. Or at least I did.

I was seven. I was taught a fist-jam. It was a six-foot high crack on Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire, a place where later I discovered a boulder named the Devil’s Table. A little later, I had climbed the more famous Devil’s Chimney many times in my teens, despite the Council having declared it was verboten. Getting off that quarriers’ phallic joke was always the hardest part, feeling for the foothold beneath the top overhang. When the council propped it with crude rebar and tonnes of concrete we concocted plans to demolish it, involving homemade gunpowder, or drilled-holes filled with acid, or at least paint it pink and purple, a giant cock. As with all plans, the design, not the execution, was the main thing.

We got up to many vaguely dangerous things in the 70s and 80s. We would pour lakes of petrol and douse our bicycles, set fire to the bike and pedal madly through the explosive ponds. Strangely, I was always the first moron to do it each night. Kids who were less skillful got set on fire. I got used to smothering flames. ‘Dads’ started to lock their garages.

We robbed stores for fags: “Forty B and H and forty JPS please, for my dad, please.” As soon as on the counter, grab and run with a mate holding the door open. Eventually the Police caught up.

For a bet - there were many, but it was usually me, I once slept in a three foot gap between the brick and the track under a railway bridge next to the main-line to London. Terrifyingly, I got some sleep between trains. I shall pass over the multiplicity of other stupidities. I was avoiding home, for the usual, splintering family reasons.

In my mid-teens, after finding Joe Brown’s The Hard Years in the library, bored with soloing the chossy edges above Gloucester and Cheltenham, and finally grasping the concept that climbing should be a social activity, I bought 50 feet of 6mm blue polypropylene ‘washing line’. I used part of it to unravel and thread some 6mm un-drilled nuts with 2mm strands. Three dog-lead clips for krabs.

I showed my more naive mates how to do a waist belay. I knew the leader never fell and I never placed one of those useless nuts. Yet the rope held even my large friends when they fell off - or, as was more common, lumps of the crag fell off. Yet my waist belays held, and I was tiny. On that same rope, I taught myself to do the classic abseil. I started from my bedroom window, and graduated to the fast lane of the M5 in the nighttime. You just had to time the headlights right.

In my late teens, I got a grant for poor kids doing A levels, and spent it on a ‘proper’ set of climbing gear. I had done some easy classics with ancient hemp and a Moac or two back in ‘86, but I finally had an RP, about six Rocks, the old Moac and its smaller mate on a most dubious piece of tat - though strangely, it was the most Zen piece of pro: sink that and one felt immortal - and two Hexes, a luxury undreamt of. Oh yes, and a rope.

A friend, Dan, and I came up with a backpacking itinerary that involved every mountain from Foel Fras to Cader. Sadly I came down with a dose of worms on Foel Grach. I apologise for our stoned scrawls in the logbook in the shelter. I still sprinted Tryfan’s north ridge for the first time in exhilarated exhaustion - we’d already pitched the tent up at Bochlwyd and ran direct down through the boulders. Hard work. I collapsed by the morning - there was nothing left in me but those wriggling parasites. We came back a month later, and did Grooved Arete. A simple romp. Big boots and easy, careless.
Later I obtained sticky boots and a Troll harness, and after a while one of the first flexible friends - the ones that got recalled immediately. We didn’t bother sending it back, nor did we ever trust it, so it hung impotently from our belts.

I had recently moved to Exeter, because the family was supposedly relocating there. I started my A levels, taught myself to cook and all the rest for a term while I waited for - as it turned out - some of them to turn up. And angrily, I started climbing properly.

It was that sort of time when you did a few V Diffs, and then did a few E1s. Then you discovered the middle grades were hard. (Littlejohn well and truly sandbagged that guidebook.)

Moonraker: traversing through the Great Cave, the tide a little too high, and we went round with legs finding holds underwater the first time. It wasn’t too rough, but the swell lifted and dropped and your toes had to find the holds. But the route… easy, but so wonderful.

The Spider: that overhang, where the crucial hold on the overhang broke into different pieces the three times I did it in a year, and then that slab. That slab was superb, so thin. I was lazy once, and Philip took a 60 foot pendulum. I was tied to a distant gorse bush and was dragged and ended up with my buttocks on the vertical watching him swing. I lowered him to a ledge and he swore a lot, untied, and soloed down some VS.

Aviation: the second pitch like a great steep buttcrack. One foot slip and you’re going to get hurt, but it eases, it lubes itself up in a perverse friction, and you keep going, admiring the lichens. Vandal and Ann is nearly as good but more dangerous, especially if you have a botanical interest in plants on the second pitch.

The Heart of the Sun: only did it once. We ate spam sarnies before setting off. We had no cams. I found myself about forty foot up with a dodgy RP 1 and a 0.5. Then my god, the finger-crack! A rock 4! There really is a god, for climbers at least. The grade changes every year I’ve heard, depending on whatever has fallen off. It was a dangerous E2 the version we did. Magical. But the last choss pitch... Poor Phil, I’d get him to lead it, including when we did the Void, but I never wore a helmet, so I think it was fair play.

Such fantastic routes when you’re seventeen and haven’t got a clue about safety.


We were both sybarites and naïvetés. We’d go to Font in August. The ferry, whisky and 7Up, Gare de Nord and the first café avec la fumée... Le Métro avec the stench de Gitanes that nauseated the duty-free hangover, and the trek from le Gare de Melun through the Forêt with our rucksacks, Vango Force 10 and all, until we’d pitch our spot at the old free camping ground at Cuvier, just near the great places for shitting. The weather was good, which was better than any modern ridiculous aspirations of ‘friction’.

The girls bathing naked under the Cuvier standpipe were gleaming, foreign and had that effortless assurance that the English rarely achieve. They were much more our idea of lubricious friction - sod the grades. After two weeks of our passing with our respective “B’jour ça va? Bien,” I forgot myself on the day we left. “Morning. We’re off today. Mais, mais… tu es tres joli...” as I smiled wanly with that farewell shrug. Their eyebrows shot up and slowly lowered, and then came the reply: “Oh! You’re English too! We’re from Bristol…” I sighed, a helpless clown, palms aloft in mute despair, that turned to laughter. Multiverses of missed opportunities.

As for climbing, very soon women intervened. Fucking was more fun. For nearly a decade I didn't climb, the odd route aside, when I was always surprised to find I could still do it.

“Fuck it,” I said, with an idiot smile, and we started up.


The snow was falling thick and fast. We helped with a couple of stuck ropes for the various retreating parties - one of them had a face like a horse, yet the others were nondescript - and then we got to it. Big boots, for the lower pitches were mostly clear. But once we’d got past the snowy traverse, the going became rapidly more difficult.

Big boots came off. Rock shoes came on. Rock shoes came off. Cold feet. Boots. Shoes. Rubbing of feet. Verglas everywhere, and every crack was choked with ice. We agreed it would be good to have some picks and crampons.

I was still full of confidence. I was at my physical yet immature prime. We were going up, I decided. Phil was more wise than me, but he still came too.

At some point, we went off route. There was no Haven to be found. We climbed the very edge of the rib above the gully, avoiding the worst patches of ice, but with most of the cracks choked with it. Protection was sparse, and that had to be chipped out. It felt bizarrely hard, even for the conditions. I strung it out somewhat, to Philip’s annoyance that if he slipped he could be falling into the space above Green Gully, the rope slicing against the blunt scythe of the rib. I felt for him, and knew he could do it, but (to use a climbing cliche) failure was not an option.

This wasn’t the same Grooved Arete I did that sunny day in ‘87. Wherever we had gone wrong, we had ended up some distance to the right of the Knight’s Move Slab, facing a completely different steep slab - which was a very different proposition. The snow whirled with spiteful flurries.

The yellow helicopter had been back for a couple of hours, watching us - me with my antiquated Helly Hansen onesie and a Harris Tweed on top, and Philip in a faded Berghaus that might once have been red and blue. I suppose we looked like idiots. I gave the chopper the finger several times, reasoning that would not be misinterpreted as a sign for help, or might be interpreted as “We’re going up!” but it still wouldn’t go away. Yet as we continued, it eventually buggered off.

But this slab. I remembered the Knight’s Move was upwards left to right. Apparently I kept swearing about where the fucking Knight’s Slab was. But this was wrong. It was all thick with white ice and thin with black ice. There were some vague horizontal bands, more ripples than holds. It looked impossible. The only ice-tools I had was a number 11 hex and a nut-key - did I even have the nut-key? But that was no good against the verglas. There was no friction. I remembered some of my childish reading, and took off my boots. Stockinged feet. They actually work. They seem to immediately freeze and add a little extra friction. I teetered and smeared somehow to below a corner. Needless to say, there was no protection to be found.

“V-F***ing-Diff?” I expostulated.

Below, Philip watched impassively, but I could see his concern. The belay could have been better, and it would have been a hard fall.

The corner crack was choked with ice, but at least after a few minutes of smashing and digging I found a placement. Moving up was straightforward up a slightly impending crack. Thick ice. Number 11 hex as an ice hammer. I put my boots back on, for I could not feel my feet. Then smash and clear holds - any holds - even a small crimp… on a V Diff? Somehow I clawed my way up, close to the North Summit. The blizzard and clag we’d climbed in fell away, and I found myself at the margin of a temperature inversion. All the peaks became icy and bright in the sun, and the world below didn’t exist in the least. Well, at least for me.

We grinned and laughed. On the main summit I did Adam and Eve both ways, which sounds kinky, but really wasn’t. We checked the time. It had been nine hours since we had bid farewell to our beloveds. How time flies. We sat and smoked, and took a few photographs, guessing what our reception would be, but I was trying to hang on to this moment of escape, this small severance of the world beneath the cloud.

We remembered we had an early mobile phone, and somehow found some signal  from the summit. There were some unsettling, angry noises at the other end. So, we ran down past Bochlwyd, back to the Milestone layby. I think we saw the black cloud of our furies a quarter of a mile away, which were truly unleashed when I unfeelingly laughed at the fact that they had called Mountain Rescue. It transpired they had retreated off the north ridge minutes after we said we’d see them in a couple of hours.

It was a very silent journey back. It had been one of my most rich, thin, and memorable climbs, with all the ghosts of Winthrop-Young, Mallory and Kirkus crossing my mind at times. But that silence that remained amongst the four of us in the car spoke of something lost. There was a new silence.


Postscript, by Philip Scorer.

Almost eighteen years ago it seemed like a good idea to go for a birthday climb up Grooved Arete. I’d not been up any routes that long before and was excited by the prospect. We packed our cumbersome gear, including, I think, at least one industrial rope access harness with steel karabiners, a 60m 11mm rope, a reasonable rack but with few slings/runners etc and lots of heavy clothes (no light weight trendy gear back then).

We set off to the foot of Tryfan, told our wives to go up the ridge and meet us in about three hours and then briskly marched off leaving them looking a bit bemused.

About an hour later we arrived at the foot of the climb, the skies darkened with a snow cloud. The noise of an RAF rescue helicopter made me a little wary at the conditions as climbers were descending from the route. But we knew better, and started climbing, following a fifteen-year old memory of a route done in the summer.

David had always been a good leader and he ploughed, chipped and smashed his way up the route with me tagging behind hauling our heavy rucksacks. Walking boots were changed to climbing slippers and back as terrain altered. The blizzard swirled and the three hours had elapsed and we were ‘lost’.

He could not find anything familiar, memory, off-route? I was just following. As a second it was mostly safe but not enjoyable in the moment, mostly feeling that we were too high to start retreating so simply had to go on. Another couple of hours elapsed as David climbed icy slabs in his socks, the boots and shoes giving no purchase.

One particular pitch was most certainly not a V.Diff. A technical slab overhanging  what seemed like an infinite drop into a black and white world of swirling snow and sharp rocks, the haul line tugging below, David holding the line tight above. Somehow I managed to get up to the stance impressed that he had managed to lead such a terrifying pitch.

The ground got easier, I may have even lead a pitch or two, and perhaps some alpine style scrambling to the top. At least it was still daylight as we emerged into clear blue sky and a stunning view. Happy to be alive we called our wives and raced down the mountain to find our desperate and angry spouses. They really had feared the worst, they had no idea how to get to the top, they had seen the RAF helicopter hovering around, and exhausted climbers retreat.

There is something to be said of the juxtaposition of fearful experiences, beautiful places and trials overcome, but on balance, I would have preferred a nice walk with my wife in the sunshine and snow of the hills. I don’t think I climbed with David again for at least thirteen years.

(There’s another story when I drove for nine hours to meet David to attempt ‘A Dream of White Horses’. When will I learn…?)

A few brief notes:

Memory is fickle. Off-route is even more so. I was probably a fool in the circumstances. Mike Bailey, author of the Ogwen Guide, has kindly suggested that we had probably wandered onto a route called Snowstorm, VS 5a. An extremely apt name, and I thoroughly approve. I must go back there and see - perhaps a 20th anniversary is in order. If the first ascentionists are known… I have - thanks to Mike - just found out it was Don Roscoe and Hamish MacInnes. I shall raise a glass to the Rock and Ice and the Creagh Dhu. Discovering that last night brought the broadest of smiles to my face.

The summit photographs remained in my trusty Olympus XA2 that eventually got soaked in the leaky footwell of Phil’s car. Years later I extracted the colour film and developed the negatives as black and white. There is a little detail: it belies its time, but it seems true to our style of ascent.

“Ill-equipped?” Vest, shirt, Helly Hansen onesie, jumper, trousers, harris tweed, gloves, big boots and socks, rock boots, helmet, whistle, (torch?), a decent rack, waterproofs, hat, water, (coffee?), and chocolate. Rather heavy in the rucksack I recall, having to take a lot of it off. Poor Philip. But yes, bloody cold, and we had no guidebook.

But, we had dented the samovar.

Thank you Philip for the memories; apologies, to you, Kate and Alice for the stress of that day, and finally thanks to Mick Ward for his constructive advice writing this piece.

David Alcock-2018 

Friday, 23 February 2018

Andy Kirkpatrick's 'Unknown Pleasures'...Reviewed

‘Unknown Pleasures’ Andy Kirkpatrick. Vertebrate Publishing.... £24 

‘I want to be me, I want to be free’... Toyah Wilcox... Jubilee.

I guess if anyone in the climbing world wants ‘to be me’ then that person has to be Andy Kirkpatrick, who grew up in straightened circumstance, on a Council estate in Hull. For so many years now he has been doing his own thing, almost a ‘Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, seeking out climbs where the danger is real, and safety questionable, confounding his critics and delighting audiences with his stand up comedy performances, that are based on his life and hard times on some of the gnarly big walls and mountain faces of the world. Having noted this, I expected ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (The title gleaned from a ‘Joy Division’ album) to be a laugh a minute, albeit couched in fruity discourse, but no I found this a serious and thought provoking read. I only laughed out loud once in digesting its contents.

There must be something in the water in Hull and its surrounds for besides this author, Joe Tasker, John Redhead and Alex MacIntyre all hailed from within its flat landscapes. It is interesting however to think on this author’s family name, not Yorkshire at all but lowland Scots. We are such a mixture in this country, but this Kirkpatrick is I guess almost a one off, despite the fact he is seriously dyslexic, which was not diagnosed until his late teens, and admits he cannot spell, punctuate or has any grammatical ability, yet he has twice won the Boardman/Tasker Mountain Literature prize. And for myself, his first such, Psychovertical is a modern classic about climbing and climbers.

‘Unknown Pleasures’ is a collection of 32 essays, and the range of subjects covered is best described as ‘diverse’. So much so that I had to stop reading on occasion to re assess my own thoughts on some of the topics included; yes there are some essays that are hard core climbing, but others that touch on relationships, parenting, mental health including suicide, the workings of the media and its misuse, abortion, Nazi atrocities in a French village in the last war and so much more. I do not think it will be ‘Big’ with those who get their kicks only indoors on plastic, but if you wish to be made to think about the meaning of it all then this might be the book for you. However already the trolls are at work on the so called Social media, which is not social at all, and often uninformed, but I think the author is of such a background that he can turn their ill thought out criticisms to his own advantage. 

Maybe we should note here his 30 plus ascents of El Capitan, five of which have been solo, including The Reticent Wall which was the central theme of ‘Psychovertical’, his ski crossing of Greenland, and climbs in Patagonia, Alaska and Antarctica plus his writings about these adventures; which now it seems has enabled him to write, and unburden himself about events and relationships that have troubled in his past.

Each essay is illustrated by one of his line drawings (scraperboards?), some like his drawing of a foxes face are outstanding; though the one of a frog is a little less so. But each piece of art work must have required much thought and preparation, and in many cases they add a lot to the overall feel of the work. The essays are gathered into themes, made up of five such, each with a heading to set the scene, the first ‘Climbing, Expeditions and Adventures’ includes twelve essays, the second ‘Looking On’ four and so on. Between three of these we are treated to Bad Poetry; ‘The Mountain’, ‘Winter’ and ‘Poly Wall’. It is hard for me to suggest whether these are good or bad, for poems are so personal and often mean something to their composer that the reader finds difficult to comprehend.

The essays carry so much feeling that at times I found myself wondering why the author had decided to let us in on the trials and tribulations within his own personal relationships. I cannot think of any other climber who has done this with such honesty. The climbing essays are as one would expect from this writer page turners, and the ones about his early life in Hull ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ and ‘High Marks’ when he was finally diagnosed with extreme dyslexia are interesting and in the case of the latter educative. What undiagnosed problem might we also be suffering, I was always unbelieving when Don Whillans confessed he suffered from an undiagnosed vertigo condition, but having read Kirkpatrick’s story, maybe we were unsympathetic to the Villain’s plight in that respect?

The two climbing essays I enjoyed the most were ‘The Troll’s Gift’ and ‘Queen Maud Land’, the first about attempts and a successful ascent of the Troll Wall in Norway, and the second about being some kind of guide to a party of Norwegians intent on climbing Ulvetanna, a difficult mountain which they wished to ascend and then Base Jump from its summit. In setting the scene about this, he decides that he must start thinking about the cold conditions like his companions. They seem totally inured to such, and I can vouchsafe for this myself when one winter in the 1980’s in Lappland, I made a winter climb with a Swede and two Norwegians. The latter spent each weekend in winter camping near some climbing objective, their secret in combating the freezing conditions they informed me was they slept on reindeer skin mats. I think the author’s writing in this essay is amongst his finest and, despite the fact that his Norwegian partners on this climb were novices they were successful in climbing a mountain, which had previously been regarded as extremely difficult.

This is a surprising fact of some of Kirkpatrick’s climbs, he climbed the Nose route on El Capitan, with a scratch team of Irish climbers including his second wife, some of whom had never multi-pitched previously, and another stand out adventure was in  the ascending of El Capitan with his 13 year old daughter, Ella. As someone who was in the Valley in 1966, and can still recall the awe that such routes were held in at that time, I can only gasp in admiration at his chutzpah! However Warren Harding the pioneer of the Nose route over many days/weeks of effort, would in my experience as I knew him quite  well and actually climbed with him on Yorkshire gritstone, no doubt be falling about laughing at the Downward Bound standing now of his climbs in the Valley, including the Dawn Wall.

One essay, ‘Celebrity Abuse’ that I am sure will be read with interest, is the ascent of the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park with the BBC  presenter of ‘The One Show’ Alex Jones, for all such live TV presentations, have a potential for spinning out of control. The author had no idea who Alex Jones was when he was phoned to lead this event, mistaking the name for Aled Jones the former uber choir boy. Only one training session was managed at the Castle Climbing Centre in London, and poor Miss Jones who was not a climber was taught how to tie in, prussik and move up and down the wall.

However despite everything the climb was successful, although we learn from the essay that several juicy bits were cut from the broadcast, it was well received and raised £1.9 million for Sport Relief. One matter which the author does not avoid in his Big Walling stories, is the business of toileting, and one can imagine that such as Alex Jones finding that on this wall in Utah, she was expected to poo into a paper bag, it must have been off putting for such a none climber, and a media star!

The later essays do take on ever more serious themes, especially such as those listed under the heading ‘Life, Death and in Between’. The death of Dean Potter, in the essay ‘The Artist’ affected the author deeply for he was by any standards an amazing adventurer. Climber, Base jumper, slack liner and much more, a Yosemite legend but true to his Yorkshire roots Kirkpatrick does not endorse empty eulogising, just remembering the meet ups, the banter, the friendly support from such an outstanding personality. Nor has he any wish to be involved in climbing circuses like those now surrounding TV personalities or Everest junkets, hitting home hard and true with his views in the essay, ‘Everest sucking in a barrel’.

His final essays which he classifies as ‘Unidentifiable’ have little to do with climbing and much to do with life, in all its different forms. The essay ‘Roger Godfrin’ is disturbing for it deals with a terrible massacre in a French village, Oradour-sur-Glane by men of the Waffen-SS. ‘Roger Godfrin’ of the title, a young boy who disobeyed the orders to line up, and who said to a friend ‘They’re German’s, They will hurt us. I’m going to try and escape’. And he did whilst the hundreds who obeyed orders from their teachers, priests and the SS were all murdered.

The book finishes with an Epilogue ‘What I’ve learnt’ and notes about The Essays and their origination histories. In the first of these ‘Not Your Man’ you get the essence of what Kirkpatrick is about. He is not a made over, Instagram warrior. He certainly try’s to tell it without flim-flam as it appears to him, and for instance now living in Ireland with his second wife, who is from that country he is not afraid to give us his views on abortion, in another judgement piece he lets rip about the CIA, the Contras, Nicaragua, drugs and the secret Iran arms deal and much more. He also tells us that a Gay contact had told him that if he also was such, he would be a BEAR. His wife likes to refer to him as ‘Polar Bear’ for he is physically solidly built! And typical of his roots in the East Riding he is an avid tea drinker.

So I leave it at that, a most unusual book from a talented writer. I guess it is not going too far to declare him an artist?  I have no doubt that some will find this book controversial, demanding and challenging. But I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend others to do the same. It is well produced, and is a case bound book that meets the high standards Vertebrate have set for this type of production.    

Dennis Gray: 2018 

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Iron Lung

In the late 1930s my brother Ron bought a motor-bike and sidecar for £5. It was an old side-valve Ariel which never went very fast but slogged away all day without any trouble. We called it the 'Iron Lung' and indeed it was a lung; a transport to the fresh clean air of the moorlands and the hills. Ron quickly learnt to drive and after a few sorties to such places as Ilkley and Almscliffe we travelled further to the Lake District and then to Scotland. It was on the Isle of Skye we saw our first rope slings and a strange artificial contraption called a karabiner in use by a small team of climbers. We were surprised that such artificial aids and safety devices could be used in a sport we felt depended mainly on personal skill, judgement of difficulties and conditions and assessment of one's own ability.

Years later I trained people in the use of such equipment but always felt strange carrying such extraneous gear as chocks, slings,karabiners, harnesses and helmets. However, though we climbed the hardest routes in Britain up to the coming of the war, they would not now rate as hard — but we had a grand time doing them, sometimes in rubbers, often in nails, occasionally solo, but generally the two of us together. Linked by a Beales three red-stranded hemp rope, there seemed to be no problem in the whole wide world other than getting up the next stretch of intriguing and alluring rock. In the 1930s Hopkinson's Crack, or Hoppy's, on Dow Crag above Goats Water was graded as the top severe on’t crag'. Though not the highest standard climb, the big corner crack gave a good natural line full of interest. The day before we climbed the crack on a winter’s day in 1937,my brother and I drove to Coniston Copper Mines Youth Hostel with the Iron Lung.

In those days powered vehicles were forbidden but Mrs. Mowitt, the hostel warden, always turned a blind eye if you were a climber. This was a piece of vital information passed on to us by Charlie Wilson and the Thompson brothers. The next morning was grey and cold and promised to remain so. Probably ice on the rocks, I thought, and shivered, but warmed up trudging over Little Arrow Moor, fortified by a breakfast of Mrs Mowitt's bacon and eggs. The crag was strangely silent, no wind, no sounds of running water, and no drip, drip of liquid from the overhangs. As I'd suspected the rocks, normally damp, were now glazed with ice.

Ron, as always, was not deterred, his decision brief and to the point. "No sense hanging about today. Leave the rope and we can each solo!" "Might as well," I agreed, "the hemp rope will soon be difficult to handle," but I felt distinctly unenthusiastic. In Easter Gully we arrived at the huge chockstone that blocks the way to the Amphitheatre and the foot of Hopkinson's. Its left-hand route known as the Cave Pitch was normally easy but this day fingers were quickly numbed and progress slow as with our nailed boots we kicked at the ice knobs to reach the rock beneath. Then at last there was the crack — direct, honest, not long, perhaps 150 ft., but long enough for such a day. Ron found no problems. "He's got methylated spirits in his bloodstream. Doesn't seem to feel the cold at all," I thought.

Three or four moves and my fingers were numb with cold, totally lacking in feeling. I beat them, blew on them, stuck each of my thumbs in my mouth feeling pain when the blood came throbbing back. I was thinking, "Don't hang about here. Ron's kicked ice from most of the footholds but there's still lots so kick again." I did so, each time making progress for a few more feet. At 80 ft the crack became really thin, the rock walls steepened and the small finger holds were covered with frost.

Finger nails scraped and dug into the verglas and I realised Ron's ascent had looked deceptively easy. Pausing for a re-warm, I looked around and across the gully and noted the rime on the Bandstand Wall. There was an increasing greyness to the day and between my feet I caught a fleeting glimpse of the fan of large boulders above Goats Water. I failed miserably on my first attempt at the final few feet of the crux. "Try facing right", advised Ron— and I did. That's how I climbed the crux, but seemed to gain most of my adhesion from my rough tweed jacket freezing to the crag. 

Once over the crux my spirits rose and we climbed immediately behind each other without pause following the crack to the last steep section but with good holds. Back at the Youth Hostel we quickly packed, mounted the Iron Lung and sped back home, having had from start to finish twenty-four hours of living life to the full. 

John Jackson:  
First published in the Fell and Rock Club Journal 2002