Friday, 18 August 2017

Ed Douglas's The Magician's Glass...Reviewed

Ed Douglas’s collection of eight essays which have previously graced the pages of the US Alpinist and Rock and Ice magazines are brought together in 'The Magician Glass'; after being re-edited-in Ed’s words-’for a British readership’. I’m not sure how British and US mountaineering buffs, sharing a language, differ in their interpretation of a mountain essay to the extent that they require them to be re-worked, but as I have not seen the originals then I’m not in a position to speculate? That being said, for someone who at times has become a tad jaded with so much mountaineering material, I did find The Magician’s Glass something of an exception.... In fact, it's a bit of a cracker! 

The eight essays herein, are never less than absorbing and extremely well crafted. Another alternative title for the book could have been ‘The Black Mirror’-if Charlie Brooker had not got in first!- for each essay addresses the dark reality behind mountaineering at the limits of possibility. Those fatal human emotions- Pride, Egotism,Envy and Wrath fall off the pages like ripe fruit while death is never more than a few page turns away. Yes...The Magicians Glass is dark but isn’t that the point about extreme climbing and mountaineering; that those who ‘succeed’ more often than not, ultimately fail? Both at their craft and/or as grounded human beings?

After saying that, there are not many people better than the author at putting flesh on the bones of a story and Ed is such a good writer. Very much in the Orwell tradition; That is, never use a dozen words when half a dozen will do. No ornate peregrinations in the telling of the tale. Instead, the writing is clean, sharp and to the point. The book's eponymous opening essay tells the epic story of glorious failure on Annapurna III, and essentially revolves around the enigmatic Nick Colton. It was an ascent upon ‘The Adamantine Wall’ that is best summerised by Lindsay Griffin....

In 1981 Steve Bell, Nick Colton and Tim Leach became the first climbers to reach the South East Face of Annapurna III via the Seti Khola.

They first acclimatized on the East Ridge, and then cached equipment on the pillar, before setting off for an alpine-style attempt. They reached the crest via snow runnels on the right flank, continued past a difficult section of V and V+, and reached a high point of 6,500m. Although they had probably climbed the most technical section, the ridge above looked dangerous and time-consuming. Calculating that another five or six days would be needed to reach the top and get down again, they retreated.

Subsequent parties, which have included a number of outstanding alpinists, have barely been able to set foot on the route, adding to the aura surrounding this line and the now legendary status of the 1981 attempt.

The effort essentially left the team broken. With Colton effectively stepping off the gas for several years and Tim Leach giving up altogether to became an architect. An essay which sums up the psychological warfare and physical shredding which so often defines extreme mountaineering projects.

In Stealing Toni Egger the author describes ‘The murder of the Impossible’. The hugely controversial  Cesare Maestri/Tony Egger ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and its explosive aftermath. Not least the mystery surrounding the death of Austrian guide Toni Egger in the retreat off the mountain. Much of the account has inevitably been told before in various books and journals but Ed goes further into the darkest catacombs. Visting friends and family members who throw new light on what we already know. A light from which the clown prince Cesare Maestri cannot escape.

Searching for Tomaz Humar fleshes out an obituary which Ed did for the Guardian in 2009 after the Slovenian super nova died on Langtang Lirung during a solo ascent of the mountain. To say that Humar was ‘driven’ would be an understatement. Here was a supremely talented mountaineer who had an ego the size of a London bus and who had a penchant for new age mysticism. While undertaking an epic solo ascent on Nanga Parbat in 2005, his team included an astrologer who read his aura and who could predict a favourable climbing window. The mystic was presumably sacked as Humar escaped with his life by a hair’s breadth after bad weather closed in and left him at the mercy of the elements. Such was the standard that Humar climbed at that even though he was continually pushing the envelope, his natural ability, it appeared, would always carry him through. However, Humar was indeed human after all and in his later life, he suffered both physically and mentally. Surviving a terrible fall at his home which left him with a shattered leg, and seeing his family life and business suffer. The end of course, became all too predictable.

Big Guts revolves around the legendary German climber, Kurt Albert and continues the ‘doomed romantic’ theme. Albert was a larger than life figure who gave the climbing world the concept-and name- ‘Redpoint'. Albert was the passionate explorer of new horizons. Both physically and mentally. Never a mere climbing machine, the man the author describes in Big Guts, is at all times, warm and generous towards his peers, irreverent and self-deprecating yet totally focused on his passion. Albert’s big hearted approach towards his fellow climbers and his pioneering zeal gained him world wide respect. Not least from our own Jerry Moffat who provides a swathe of anecdotal material which brings his late friend to life.

Crazy Wisdom
Brings the author’s deep interest in the Sherpa culture into focus. A community which has come under the international spotlight in recent years. Particularly after the unsavoury incidents on Everest in 2013, when angry Sherpas and western climbers-including Ulli Steck-were involved in a simmering dispute which spilt over into violence. What perhaps is not commonly known to the everyday climber back at home, and which the author brings out in this essay, is the fact that although in the West we use the word ‘Sherpa’ as a generic term to describe someone from the region who is usually employed to ferry supplies and to fix ropes etc, for usually western expeditions. In fact, these roles are carried out by several different ethnic cultures.

The true Sherpa is someone of Nepalese extraction from the northern region of high Himalayas and who is Tibetan speaking. This group could be said to be basically at the top of the tree with regard to status and earning potential. In reality, other ethnic groups including The Gurungs, the Tamangs and in particular the Rai who overwhelming these days, take on the hard donkey work. And donkey work it is for the poor Rai in particular who often find themselves carrying incredible loads to boost their meagre earnings. The historic exploitation of these indigenous people and the fight to improve their lot by both the 'Sherpas’ themselves and enlightened, sympathetic westerners, is at the heart of Crazy wisdom.

What’s Eating Ueli Steck, written well before the ‘Swiss Machine’s’ untimely death, visits the scene of someone quite rightly hailed as one of our greatest ever mountaineers, greatest ever controversies. The Piolet d’Or nominated ascent of the Annapurna's South Face. There and back in an incredible 28 hours. Problem is that Steck has no concrete proof to support his claim. He told reporters that he had been caught in an avalanche and lost one of his gloves and his camera in slough which meant that he could not provide any summit photos to back up his claims. He also claimed that his altimeter wasn’t working so a GPS tracking on his ascent became impossible.Despite these problems, Steck took the award despite many mountaineers throwing doubt on the ascent. For Steck, that was their problem.It's fair to say that the aftermath of the affair still reverberates around the mountaineering community.

Lone Wolf describes that fallen giant of French rock climbing, Patrick Edlinger. A household name amongst rock athletes, not only in his native France but around the world. During the 80‘s and 90‘s, Edlinger’s rock star image became almost iconic. Gracing the front covers of the climbing glossies and defining an era in all its wild haired, day-glo, ripped lycra glory! However, the showman the author describes, whilst being an outstanding talent and rock pioneer, was prone to self-doubt and ultimately, deep depression. His end when it came, falling down a flight of bathroom stairs at home, was cruel in its mundanity and almost darkly ironic given the extreme places Edlinger had visited during his all too short life.

Lines of Beauty: The art of Climbing uses the climbing artist Andy Parkin as the hook to hang an essay of the visual aesthetics of climbing. Although Parkin takes centre stage, figures from Jim Curren and Julian Heaton Cooper share the pages with Brown Whillans and Dawes.  That shared space between climbing and painting-the line of flight-which has always informed the activity and which can be observed both on canvas or through the sinewy lines drawn by the climber on stone. An essay which in its appreciation of nature and beauty is rather an exception to the air of tragedy which pervades the majority of essays herein.

So...there you have it. A journey through the glass darkly, which deserves to be widely read. Not just by mountaineering anoraks who will will appreciate the depth of insight and detail surrounding these iconic figures, but also those who just enjoy a good yarn. For the latter constituency, there are gripping moments aplenty to sate their appetite. As for the book’s title. It comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

There’s something ever egotistical in mountain tops and towers, and all the other grand and lofty things...which like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back to his own mysterious self

Captain Ahab

Available from Vertebrate Publishing

John Appleby:2017 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Bernadette McDonald's 'The Art of Freedom....Reviewed

The Art of Freedom- The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka .
Bernadette McDonald.

Published by Vertebrate Publishing. Under licence from Rocky Mountain Books, Canada. Price £24.

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible

Voytek Kurtyka is one of the most outstanding climbers in the history of the sport, equally significant as a rock climber and mountaineer. One of the leaders of a Polish led revolution that redefined Himalayan climbing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. His visionary approach marked him out even from many of his own countries mountaineers, with an emphasis on alpine style ascents on the highest mountains of the world. Born in 1947, it was when his family moved to Wroclaw that he started to climb at a local outcrop, persuaded to try this by a female fellow student whilst studying electronics at the local university in 1968. He was immediately smitten, and began to visit the rocks as often as he could, much to the chagrin of his father, a writer who later became well known in Polish literary circles. 

I was fortunate to visit Poland and the Tatras in 1967, the year before Voytek started to climb, and from later experience in the following decade, climbing in Czech, Slovakia and Bulgaria (the Rila mountains), all communist countries in that era, I was to find climbing was ‘organised’ along lines that fitted into the prevailing political system, with tests and examinations, and you were only supposed to climb unsupervised when you had passed these. The Wroclaw Climbing Club was teeming with good climbers, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Bogdan Jankowski and Kryzysztof Wielicki all future stars of Himalayan exploration and Voytek soon provided an intriguing addition to that grouping, but he was from the first, a non-conformist.

He never bothered with instruction and the tests set nationally by the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA), but by the time he finished his degree he was one of the best rock climbers in Poland, known by a soubriquet as the ‘Animal’. Why this nick name I am not sure, but in looks he was compared with the brilliant Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. Having met (once) this latter person, and looking at photographs of Voytek in his early twenties, the comparison is apt for he too was lithe, of medium height and moved sinuously. I did meet him at that time but I guess he will not remember.
The Tatra Mountains are a proven training ground for Polish and Slovak mountaineers, and in some ways, they are for me reminiscent of the Cuillin Mountains in Skye, but their higher altitude and eastern continental position mean severe winter conditions. And it was in these mountains that Voytek over the next few years honed his mountaineering skills, pioneering rock routes harder than the then existing grades and winter ascents such as the Sciek(The Sewer) and the Pajaki (Spiders) on the huge Kazalnica wall. Working at a succession of jobs, climbing began to dominate his life, but he was operating historically in a tumultuous period politically and of religiosity in Poland.

The Roman Catholic religion held sway despite the Communist masters, but for the climbers, it was freedom that they sought, and for Voytek he was neither caught by religion or politics he was keenest on developing his climbing and travelling experience, despite the travails caused by money and equipment shortage. He also had literary ambitions and was moved by art and music. A most telling quote about his winter climbs in the Tatras was his attitude to bivouacs, ‘you had to learn how to live on the mountain, making comfortable and safe bivouacs. This is the knowledge we later took to the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya’.

A surprise to me is there is no coverage in the book of Voytek’s Alpine climbs. Because of his outstanding routes in the Tatras, he with some other Polish climbers, were able via PZA arrangements with the Ecole National (ENSA), to visit Chamonix. Voytek made repeats of some of the areas classics, and in 1973 a new route on the North Face of the Petit Dru with Jerzy Kukuczka and Marek Lukaszewski, and in 1975 with the same partners a new Polish Route on the Grandes Jorasses North Face.

However, prior to these Alpine routes in 1972, he had been on one of the multi member Polish expeditions to the Hindu Kush, in which ten climbers from Krakow took part. They were a feature of that countries mountaineering in that decade, by ducking and diving, with limited funds, somehow they transported themselves and their equipment by truck or by train to reach Afghanistan. On this trip Voytek made three first ascents including one of the first Alpine style climbs over 7000 metres, the North Face of Akher Chioch 7,017m with Piotr Jasinski, Marek Kowalczyk, and Jacek Rusieki; an experience that was to influence his approach to high mountains in the future. This first expedition was a happy one and all the participants returned to Poland as friends. But it’s a good job none of us know what lies ahead in our lives, for three of these close friends of Voytek’s from this trip were all to die subsequently in road traffic accidents! 

In 1974 Kurtyka took part in a repeat of the French Direct on the Troll Wall in Norway, in winter. This really was a test of endurance taking 13 days to complete. But somehow it was not what Kurtyka came to be about, neither was his participation in a large Polish winter expedition to Lhotse 8.516m in 1975. This was led by Andrzej Zawada who had the idea that Polish climbers with their winter climbing experience in the Tatras, were uniquely suited to such ascents. This was the first ever winter attempt on an 8000m peak, Voytek reached 7.800m and Zawada with Heinrich 8.250m.The following year Kurtyka was a member of another Polish expedition, this time to the North East Ridge of K2, reaching 7.900m.

Voytek Kurtyka on the Lhotse expedition:Bogdan Jankowski.
1977 was to be the year that Kurtyka began to climb with mountaineers from the West, and I had a little to do with this. Whilst I was at the BMC we had started holding invitation International meets, and one of these had been with Polish climbers. John Porter had been a volunteer helper on this gathering, and got along with this group led by Zawada famously. The PZA subsequently invited a group of British climbers to the Tatra, and then subsequently in 1977 to join one of their trips to the Hindu Kush. John Porter was up for both of these, and persuaded Alex MacIntyre to join him. The rest is history, and Kurtyka, Alex and John, climbing Alpine style made the impressive first ascent of the North-East face of Kohe Bandaka, 6.843m.

The following year Voytek, John, Alex and Krzysztof Zurek ascended the south buttress of Changabang. These two ascents, although at the time not so lauded as some others, were in retrospect game changing for they confirmed to such as Kurtyka, Kukuczka, Alex MacIntyre, Doug Scott, Rene Ghilini and others, that to tackle Himalayan peaks you do not need large parties and fixed ropes. Alex was by this date working with me at the BMC, and we had many discussions about how this climbing style might develop over ensuing years.

From that date on for two decades, Kurtyka was active at the forefront of Himalayan climbing. Dhaulagiri, Makalu, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum ll Gasherbrum l, Trango Tower, K2, Cho Oyo, Shishapangma, with some successes, and some failures. Outstanding with Kukuczkza was the first ascents of Gasherbrum ll, 8.034m by its South East ridge and Gasherbrum l, 8.080m by the South West Face, and the Broad Peak 8.051m traverse.  For me, Kurtyka’s two greatest climbs were the West Face of Gasherbrum 1V, 7.932m (The Shining Wall) with Robert Schauer in 1985, and a new route on the Trango Tower, 6.239m by its East Face in 1988 with Erhard Loretan.

I spent a week sharing a hotel room with Robert Schauer in 1986, when we were both on the jury of the Trento film festival. After which I also went rock climbing with him at Arco, and to hear first hand from him about The Shining Wall ascent was truly dramatic. This ten day epic was as close to the edge as one can get, for they ran out of food and gas, had nothing to eat or drink for two days and only just survived. It is still one of the most impressive ascents recorded in the Himalaya, and is now referred to by the pundits as ‘the climb of the century’.

There is much soul searching in this book, for Kurtyka is troubled by the many accidents that happened to his former climbing partners. Alex MacIntyre had made a big impression on him and his death on Annapurna in 1982 really hurt, as did the death of Erhard Loretan in the Swiss Alps. He became disenchanted with his most famous climbing partner Kukuczka for seeking out recognition in a ‘race’ with Messner to become the first to ascend the 14 highest peaks in the world. The more so because in this he felt that safety considerations were being ignored, resulting in the death of several of his companions. However, Kukuczka is not alive to defend himself for he too perished, on the South Face of Lhotse in 1989. The death toll amongst the leading Polish alpinists became frightening around this date, four died on the west ridge of Everest that same year.

Rather like the British earlier when Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker, Alex MacIntyre, Nick Estcourt, Roger Baxter Jones, Dougal Haston, Al Rouse, Julie Tullis, Paul Nunn all perished in the mountains. However no one ever died sharing a rope with Kurtyka, several times he turned round when he felt conditions were not safe. Like Reinhold Messner observed ‘the best climber is the oldest one’.
Kurtyka continued pioneering into 
advanced age, in 2003 he was still making new routes in summer and winter in the Tatras, and his last major Himalayan climb was the Biacherahi Central Tower, 5.700 metres in the Karakoram, a new route on its south face with Japanese climbers Taeko and Yasushi Yamanoi in 2001. He confesses that he is impressed by Japanese culture and thinking, and it seems that he does have something of a Zen like approach to life.

The book starts with Kurtyka agonising over and refusing to take part on several occasions when he is invited to receive recognition over a Piolets d'Or award, becoming ever more impatient with the organisers for inviting him. I empathised and although I have never been invited myself for any such award, and never will be I am not sure that mountaineering needs any such form of recognition. I am not against competition, in fact, I founded one of the best known athletic events in Yorkshire in 1979, the Chevin Chase, won for the last six years by one or other Olympic Triathletes, the Brownlee’s, Alistair and Johnny. But what a climber experiences in the mountains is not like kicking a ball, or running along a track, it has elements of Chan, which is actually where Zen thought comes from.

A fusion of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is beyond description and too precious to confuse with awards, however well intentioned. However ‘Art of Freedom’ ends in 2016 with Kurtyka accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, at a Piolets d'Or ceremony in La Grave, leaving the reader to ponder which road rock climbing and mountaineering will now travel down, with Olympic recognition looming and climbing imagery becoming a mainstay of consumerist advertising.

Tadek Piotrowski and Voytek Kurtyka in Camp II (7,300 metres) on the Lhotse Wall, waiting for the weather to improve. Polish autumn–winter 1975/1975 expedition. Bogdan Jankowski

The author of this biography, the award winning writer Bernadette McDonald has crafted an outstanding book about a mountaineering legend. It is a warts and all portrait of Kurtyka’s complicated personality and relationships, with partners, family, the law, risk, and an uncompromising lifestyle whilst meeting his climbing goals. She has produced a thought provoking master work. The publishers are also to be congratulated for such a well presented volume, copiously illustrated with many personal and historic photographs. 

Dennis Gray: 2017

Available Direct from Vertebrate Publishing

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Art of freedom: The life and climbs of Voytek Kurtyka..extract

Porters on the way to the Gasherbrums in the Baltoro,1983.Image-Voytek Kurtyka.
It’s hard to assess the value of finding the right partner for any particular climb. For the Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV, Voytek chose Austrian alpinist, Robert Schauer. Although it was their only climb together, after eight days on the unclimbed West Face, high on the mountain in the midst of a crippling storm, they attained a level of communication that astounds.

On 18 July Robert and Voytek reached 7,800 metres. They had arrived at the final slabs and snowfields leading to the summit, but by afternoon it began to snow in earnest. The snow continued throughout the night,building up around their bivouac sack and threatening to push them off their airy perch. They no longer had food, and they were out of gas.

That meant they couldn’t make more water. They could barely poke their heads out of the bivouac sack because of the blowing snow. They waited all the next day for the storm to break, but it persisted. The snow piled up around them at an alarming rate. Voytek wrote: ‘Snowstorm. Jail at 7,800 metres. No food and no liquid.’ Retreat was out of the question, since they only had ten remaining pitons, not nearly enough to rappel down the face they had climbed. Their only option was to outlast the storm.

Voytek Kurtyka approaching the rock barrier on Gasherbrum I on the first day of the climb. Jerzy Kukuczka, Voytek Kurtyka collection.

Sleep-deprived, hungry, thirsty, hypoxic and stressed, they drifted into a delirious state. It was at this point, in extremity, that both Robert and Voytek sensed something – an independent spirit on the mountain that, for Robert, grew more ominous and real with each snowflake. So real that they waited expectantly for some signal or action from their invisible ‘third man.’ Robert began to blame their imaginary companion for having slowed them down on the face. As avalanches surged over them, nudging them, almost burying them, Robert became convinced that the third man was trying to push him off the ledge into oblivion.

It’s not unusual for an invisible person to appear in dire circumstances such as these, but in most cases the presence is helpful, giving suggestions and support and companionship. When Stephen Venables was descending Everest after having climbed the Kangshung Face, he was forced to bivouac not far below the summit. He wasn’t alone, however. An imaginary old man kept him company throughout the night and on his exhausting descent the next day. Once Stephen and the old man reached the South Summit, they were met by an imaginary (and long-dead) Eric Shipton, who helped by warming Stephen’s hands. There are countless high-altitude examples of these wonderfully kind, unexplainable creatures, yet Robert’s third man was strangely malevolent.

Voytek Kurtyka on the summit of Gasherbrum II East, 1983. Jerry Kukuczka.

Voytek, while acutely aware of their new partner, was preoccupied with carrying out odd experiments, such as pinching his thigh and wondering if the pain would disappear when he neared death. He relished the pain, for it confirmed that he was still alive. He was already imagining the distinct possibility of turning into a lifeless block of ice on the narrowing ledge slowly disappearing under drifts of snow.

Occasionally they would burrow out from one end of their bivouac sack to remove enough snow to avoid suffocation. As they shivered on their ledge, they considered their options. Again, thoughts of retreat were discussed then quickly abandoned. Going up was also out of the question in this storm. Waiting – the most agonising option of all – remained the only feasible choice. Cold and hungry and so dreadfully thirsty, they waited. From time to time they reassured each other with little niceties. ‘Are you feeling okay, Robert?’ ‘Oh, yes, I’m feeling fine.’ Robert described it as a ‘fragile mood of hope.’ Voytek recalled that he had never had so much ‘free time’ on a climb. ‘We had two nights and a day up there. We just sat. We had a stove, but the gas was finished, so we had nothing to do but think.’

Time became warped, stretching and contracting at will. One hour was the same as one day. The darkness pushed down on them, coating their heaving lungs. It felt aggressive, as if it would swallow them. Voytek’s thoughts drifted into dangerous territory. Death was something he had often mused about in the past, and now it seemed inevitable and barely worth worrying about. What was most important to him was to be fully aware of the experience. Being completely conscious of the process of dying, particularly in this remote and savage place, would be interesting.
Voytek Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka arrive in base camp after having completed a new route on Gasherbrum I in 1983. Voytek Kurtyka collection.
As he pondered his own demise, Voytek became concerned about Robert. Was he also aware of how close they were to death in this terrible place, this wonderful place? It became incredibly important to him that Robert understand what was happening – that they share this almost sacred experience. But it was a delicate topic, and Voytek struggled with his decision to speak with Robert. Finally, he could no longer hold back. He began, his voice raspy with cold and fatigue, ‘Robert, I…I…I’d like to…’ Robert interrupted quietly but firmly in a painful whisper, ‘I know what you’re thinking. I’m ready. I’m prepared for this. Don’t worry.’

Bernadette McDonald

The Art of Freedom is available from Vertebrate Publishing

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Edge of the World

I was not interested in those cliffs until the trawler drove straight into them. I was above Patey's Buachaille, contemplating the channel that, in the absence of ladders, must be swum; I was considering killer whales in that channel when the trawler disappeared halfway between me and Cape Wrath. Until that moment my interest stopped at Sandwood Bay, that would become Scamadale in Miss Pink at the Edge of the World. It was the trawler that aroused my interest in the country called the Parph. The boat had not foundered but gone in to Kescaig Bay; one fixed point at the edge of a hundred square miles of wilderness that, except for the lighthouse road across its northern fringe, is untracked.

The terrain is moorland swelling into low hills, but fronting the Atlantic to west and north, there are over twelve miles of cliffs, and this is the Parph: the last land seen by the wild geese before they touch down in the Arctic, the ultimate sanctuary for the last wolf in Britain. Seal-women and mermaids have been seen in its coves, and on dark nights a drowned Dutch sailor can be heard scrunching the strand of Sandwood Bay. I went there once, in late spring, with an anti-cyclone stationary over the north-west corner of Scotland so that I could travel light, without tent or stove. I went in from the road between Durness and Rhiconich, heading in a northerly direction for Creag Riabhach, which, at 1592ft, is the highest point of the Parph. My route was line-of-sight and followed burns, upstream and down, over miniature watersheds.

And out there, in the middle of wastes of heather, I came on a squat round cairn of sandstone flags — just one, very old and with not the slightest indication of how or why it came to be there. If it was a grave, who died here, from what cause, miles from any road? Creag Riabhach was wild and dark, facing north-east, with late primroses glowing in its shadow. Below was a clear blue lochan fringed by pale sand marked with the tracks of fox and heron. Sitting between crag and water, eating lunch, I looked at the contents of my pack and reflected that for four days those few possessions represented security.

They looked madly incongruous and served only to emphasize the solitude. Suddenly this shining world, soft, balmy and beautiful, became animate, implacable, hostile. I was aware, first, of my own arrogance in coming here, then of my vulnerability. I thought of turning back, but I looked at the shimmering horizon and knew I should continue to the coast and find shelter for the night.

Providing the weather is holding the traveller may concentrate on his immediate surroundings. All I had to be wary of was a sprained ankle, and one man at least has crawled home with a fractured pelvis. As I approached the coast the land became more dramatic and the weather changed — not much but sufficient to make a difference. Untracked heather and bog is tiring, and the psychological strain is a heavy factor. I was happy on sandstone pavements among sculpted rocks, delighted with a prospect of Sandwood Bay, but the breeze was freshening, already driving white horses across the lochs. By the time I reached the cliffs water was slopping out of pools before a dry gale and I was uneasy. 

I had one glimpse of jumbled cliffs before I turned my back on wind and brilliant sun to stagger the last mile to Kescaig Bay. There was no thought of stopping because there could be no shelter until I could get down to the shore. Appalled by this sudden violence I applied myself grimly to the task of trying to keep my balance, of putting one foot in front of the other until I reached a lip and looked down on a tiny stone shelter roofed with turf which I hadn't known was there. I I turned in at 7pm, snug in my bag on a bed of bracken. The gale raged outside but my mind retreated like an animal in its den: warm, dry, safe. I slept.

I woke to stillness. I could tell by the light between the chinks in the stones that the sun was on the bothy. A wren was singing. A gull called . The bay was calm and only the occasional breaker bloomed against the southern s headland. Eider duck were talking softly in the kelp, fulmar regarded me with dark eyes from their nests among the thrift. I bathed l and ate at my leisure, and strolled back for a mile to see what I'd missed last night. There were orchids everywhere (I'd not seen one),  the fulmars floated beside me, a skua came in for a closer look but dismissed me. I was a harmless. The lighthouse at Cape Wrath was visible as soon as I climbed out of Kescaig Bay: a black dome a little over three miles away but twice that distance as I was forced to trace the coastline, rounding its innumerable inlets.

Depressions were full of flowers, the clifftop was scattered with cushions of moss campion and thrift in deserts of red stones. A ringed plover's nest was framed by crystals of roze quartz. Seals tossed in the foam below the cliffs, skuas patrolled, handing me on to the next pair at the boundary of their territory. As I approached the corner of the land, the sea boiled under stacks at the end of the reef: tall pinnacles, a cubist tower, carmine rock cleft by pink dykes. The sea was green and purple, the foam dazzling. The lighthouse was built above a reef that ended in an arched pinnacle covered with birds. The keepers gave me coffee ("We put the kettle on when saw you coming"), and told me about the man camping at Kearvaig, where I proposed to spend the night.

It had happened last year: the police and coastguards had found his tent empty, the food going mouldy, and nothing had been seen or heard of him since: a Liverpool man with spectacles. The keepers and I regarded each other silently. My mind raced. At the Bay of Kearvaig the corner had been turned; Cape Wrath was now behind me, the arch below the lighthouse forming the bay's western headland, a huge horned stack to the east. Two men were camping on the strand and we sat round a fire of driftwood and talked until midnight, when I went away to sleep among the plovers in the dunes, the sunset colours still lingering in the sky.

From Kearvaig eastward the cliffs of Clo Mor rise sharply. Facing north they are shadowed and speckled with the white of birds and clumps of scurvy grass. They are 900ft high, and vertical where they don't overhang. The sea whispers softly at their feet, the swell crawls landward in slow motion, seals bask on skerries: grey, black and silver, and sometimes, very faintly, their song rises to the watcher on the cliff. I spent the third night in the heather above the Kyle of Durness and the fog rolled in so that any dreams were threaded by sound: the fog horn, seals, the howl of the last wolf. I woke to space, to spiders' webs spangled with moisture against the cloud, to a new awareness as civilisation loomed on the other side of the kyle. 

The wilderness was inanimate but alive. It could not be intrinsically hostile but could well be a reflection of man's hostility, and his love. How many explorers have gone into the desert and found a soul out there beyond the sand and rocks? I had not heard the last wolf but my first. 

Gwen Moffatt: First published in High in December 1985 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Seven Summits: A Moelwynion Circuit

Head of Cwmorthin
For a really satisfactory hillwalk some sort of objective is necessary. But whereas (in the present writer's opinion) the covering of a given distance in the shortest possible time has nothing to do with appreciation of mountains, the leisurely visiting of a group of related summits is a worthy and rewarding form of peak-bagging. The Moelwyn group, 10 miles south-east of Snowdon, provides an excellent day' s walking of this sort. The route is a circuit over the seven summits topping 2,000 feet, returning to starting-point, which is the hamlet of Croesor 7 miles from Beddgelert and 4 miles from Penrhyndeudraeth. There is a recently constructed car park at Croesor, the customary starting-point for that increasingly popular little mountain Cnicht, 2265 feet. The beginning of the way up Cnicht is well marked with "walker" posts up to a broad saddle on the south-west ridge, and from here a path- beginning to suffer from erosion now- mounts pleasantly on the narrowing crest to the foot of the final steep bit, a very easy scramble beloved of school parties.

The sharply-pointed summit, of course, is an illusion, being the end of an undulating half-mile ridge whence there are splendid views of Snowdon across the Gwynant valley on the left. This ridge slants gently down to a saddle where the boggy slopes cradle Llyn yr Adar, Lake of the Birds; a seduction for photographers when the waters are still enough to reflect the peak of Snowdon afar off. All this upland area is rich in little lakes, and from Cnicht you'll have looked down on one of the larger ones, Llyn Cwm-y-foel.

A boggy path heads northerly above the eastern shore of Llyn yr Adar. This is part of the route used by the slate-miners of last century to cross from Beddgelert to the Ffestiniog quarries at weekends, winter and summer. You follow it for 1/4 -mile, but then leave it to mount north-east on the little craggy ridge that appears on your right front. Miniature rocky summits jut here and there, and in mist it's not easy to find the highest of these Creigiau'r Cwn and bag your second summit at 2192 feet. The three Lakes of the Dogs (Llynau' r Cwn) are your safest guides, small lonely tarns clustered close together; Point 2192 is the crag immediately south of the most easterly tarn. This is the place where the mountain watershed between Liverpool Bay and Tremadoc Bay makes its right-angle turn from E-W to N-S, running northward to Pen-y-gwryd and then over Crib Goch to Rhyd-ddu and the Eifionydd ridges. You'll
head south, south-east, and east, following for the most part the decrepit wire fence that marks the height of land — a dullish stretch in thick weather but in clear conditions giving magnificent distant views to the sea on the right hand and the moorland ramparts of England on the left.

In a mile or more, having passed two delightful tarns right on the watershed, you come to Moel Druman, at 2152 feet your third summit; it's little more than a massive knob on the ridge and a couple of hundred feet of ascent brings you to its rounded top. South-south-east of it you see Llyn Conglog with its long peninsula of rock and heather, looking like the space where a piece of jigsaw puzzle ought to fit. Leaving this lake well to the right and keeping on down the ridge to a big slope of moorland, you mount steadily eastward to Allt Fawr, the Big High Place. Allt Fawr, 2297 feet, is the presiding mountain of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and from it you look down on Blaenau' s rows of houses and piles of slate waste. From the west- the side by which you have approached it- it's not much of a mountain; but seen from the east it shows itself massive and imposing. This fourth top is the most easterly corner of the route, and from it you turn back to descend moorland slopes to the southern shore of Llyn Conglog. The two mile section that follows needs good route finding, for there is no path and the terrain is rough and complicated.

You have to get down to Bwlch Rhosydd, the lowest point on the traverse, where a path crosses the pass between the long steep-walled valleys of Cwm Croesor and Cwmorthin. Having plodded along the south shore of Conglog and crossed its outlet stream (which plunges down into Llyn Cwmorthin on the left) you could in clear weather follow the rim of Cwmorthin as it winds west-by-south down to little Llyn Clogwyn Brith in its crater like hollow, thence descending to the bwlch below. In doubtful conditions it's best to make the larger Llyn Cwm-Corsiog the objective, steering due west from the narrow western tip of Conglog past a marshy tarn and so down boggy slopes, bearing rather to the south-west, to gain the old dam at the south end of Cwm-Corsiog. A faint track goes down from here to the ruined quarry build-ings on the pass. Rhosydd Quarry ceased work in the 1920's and its remains are now the haunt of industrial archaeologists, but its spoil heaps remain to puzzle the hillwalker with their tilted unbeautiful maze. 

Scrambling off Cnicht's summit Ridge: Image Phillip Stasiw
From the east side of the largest ruin a track winds up through the piles of slate and when you have emerged on the more level ground above you can strike south-east up the flank of Moel yr Hydd. It's an easy slog, grass diver-sified with slabby outcrops, to the cairn on this fifth summit. Moel yr Hydd, 2124 feet, has an impressive 400-foot precipice on the side overlooking Cwmorthin, but I've never heard of anyone climbing on it; maybe its dark aspect and dank vegetation repel climbers, but it is certainly very steep. Its southern crags, where Tony Moulam and members of the Climbers Club made several good routes in the 50's are below on your left as you descend west-by-south from the cairn to arrive in a matter of minutes on the saddle separating this little mountain from Moelwyn Mawr, the only one of the seven to top 2500 feet.

Approaching the larger Moelwyn from this direction shows the mountain's least attractive side, unfortunately, but the prospects to right and left widen as you plod along the broad boggy crest and up the steepening flank of shaley turf. Only when the O.S. cairn at 2,527 feet is reached does Moelwyn reveal that, like Cnicht, it is an impostor; but whereas Cnicht pretends to be a sharp peak when it is really a ridge, Moelwyn pretends to be a lumpish dome when it is really a narrow ridge. The ridge, running north-west from the trig. point, drops on the right in little crags and gullies to a long scree. One of the gullies provided myself and my wife with a good snow climb in March some years ago.

The slopes on the left are turfy, but that they are long and steep was proved one day when, sitting down to lunch just below the O.S. cairn, I incautiously placed my rucksack on the turf beside me. It rolled away before I could grab it, and had fallen a good 800 feet when I finally rescued it. But the view from Moelwyn Mawr is its major asset. Standing as it does well clear of the Snowdon massif and with only the lower Moelwyn Bach to southward, it gives a magnificent all-round panorama on a clear day. The sea fills most of the western horizon- northward all the three-thousanders and their satellites are in view; eastward Berwyns, Arenigs and Arans march afar, and in the south Plynlimon peers from beyond the long cliff-line of Cader Idris. It is arguable (and I sometimes argue it) that there is no wider view from any North Wales top.

A fine rocky ridge drops due south to the col between the two Moelwyns, but not due south from the cairn — a point to be noted in mist. You steer south-east at first, down easy turf slopes for about 200 feet to join. the descending ridge. Nowadays the way down its succession of little easy rock-steps is well marked. It rises over the small craggy top of Craig Ysgafn, touching the 2,000-foot contour and so making an eighth two-thousander in the circuit if you were inclined to be fussy. But it's a mere 'incident on the ridge" really — and anyway "Seven Summits" is alliteratively preferable. Steeply down on the left here is Llyn Stwlan, once possessing- an ideal diving-rock for climbers sweating after a warm day on the excellent Moelwyniau climbs just round the corner but now quite spoiled by its dam; it is the upper lake of the Tanygrisiau Pumped Storage scheme, and buses and coaches reach it by the road constructed by the C.E.G.B. The dam and its approach road can easily be reached from the col at the bottom of the Craig Ysgafn ridge, a useful get-off for anyone who finds six summits enough for them on this walk.

From the grassy col, Bwlch Stwlan, the seventh and last summit looms impressively above, due south. The actual top is in fact not in sight, being hidden beyond a black helmet of overhanging cliff which has a singularly forbidding aspect. Moelwyn Bach is nearly 200 feet lower than its big brother but the short climb up it from the col is the steepest bit on the route. Until recently walkers always took a direct line, straight up the left-hand side of the scree from the col almost to the base of the overhanging face, then traversing rightward below the crag to scramble up round its corner. This involved the craft of using loose scree and allowed the more experienced males to render physical assistance to attractive female novices. There is also an airy scramble on the left of the sheer face, short and easy but slimy in wet weather.

Nowadays, however, our parties-under instruction with their passion for well-trodden paths- have trodden one out up the scree to the left of the upper rock-face, plain enough to be obvious from the col. In its upper part this path becomes a trifle obscure just where it mounts a steepening slope of turfy shale with a considerable drop below. I have used both routes in winter, and have turned back from both in conditions of hard frost; scree and shale can freeze to a steel-plate hardness that renders ice-axe and crampons useless and makes it totally impossible to arrest a slide.

In ordinary conditions there's no difficulty at all in plodding up the steep path or in using the direct route. Both bring you to easier ground and a five-minute ramble to the insignificant summit-cairn at 2,334 feet. Looking southward from here, down into the wooded glens of Maentwrog and the Ffestiniog valley and away beyond to the dim shapes of the Arans and Cader Idris, you get an even more delightful prospect than from Moelwyn Mawr. But the northward view from Moelwyn Bach is partly blocked by the massive bulk of its neighbour and it can claim only 270° of panorama.

All the same, for my money this last of the seven summits is the best little mountain of them all, for it is very steep on three of its sides and boldly sculptured. Its buttressing crags are not high enough to make good rock climbs, which is a pity, for the rock is sound. I once made a three-pitch route here, below the summit on the east. Since I and my four companions constituted the membership of a small but select Club, I had conceived the idea (I think an original one) of holding the Annual General Meeting of the Club on the way up the climb; in consequence of which it was named A.G.M. Rib. It's still in the official Moelwyniau guide, but under the title of "Agm Rib," which must puzzle those interested in route nomenclature.

Moelwyn Bach Summit

There is a pleasant way of descending to Croesor from Moelwyn Bach by dropping down to the right from the long western ridge and picking a way across the bogs and streams of Maesgwm, but it postulates for comfort a knowledge of the best places for crossing the streams and a couple of tricky wire fences. At the end of a longish hill day it's probably best to walk easily down due west and by way of a stile and a corner of forestry onto the mountain road. Then there remains one mile of downhill on a metalled surface, with superb views lit by the westering sun, before you are back at Croesor car park.

Distance: 14 miles approx. Time: allow 8 hours Maps: O.S. 1/50,000 Sheets 115 and 124. Sheet 107 of the old 1-inch map covers the whole walk. 

Showell Styles: First published as 'The Seven Summits Walk in Climber and Rambler-December 1980.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Never Mind the Puffins.....The lost Clown Film

Freda and Friend 

The following essay by John Redhead is an exclusive extract from a forthcoming Gogarth Anthology, put together by Grant Farquhar.

The climbing was never ‘it’.

The keeper of the fog was an old soul and a man of the sea. He kept the time with the tides and talked weather and birds and told his tale. His kettle always singing on the stove, always ready to tempt the odd-climber or bird watcher inside to tell their own tale. He was also the keeper of a book that recorded climbing activities on the stack. He was interested beyond the surface of things, and I guess, being a sociable but solitary man, aware of more abundant life, he was eager to share the life-force. I gave him the peg that I took out of the Cad on the third ascent. The station became decommissioned and the telegraph poles across the mountain carried silence to a dead end. No more sirens. But still the fog. The keeper, in time, possibly became an inmate of a nursing home, and drifted away an unbound soul with hazy musings of white walls atop the white zawn - heads bobbing over the top like seals in the sea, washed with salty tales and jargon of ascent…E7? The Bells The Bells! Time to sound the siren on losing the grip.

The Telegraph pole totemic - wrapping your ropes around like a homecoming caress, throwing them over the cliff and hopping on down for a way up - so many lives hung from this bit of old wood unknowing of its depth - sadly gone. And the old canon from a bygone era, job done, wedged and at peace between boulders – sadly gone. And, from weathered disrepair, in time, an American lady artist bought the silent, whitewashed outpost. I guess no one had told her that not only puffins found this place fun. She drove her Land Rover purposefully over my ropes one day whilst I was half way down Parliament House Cave on the abseil. The jolt I felt was a lucky one but the ropes had been torn. Jesus lady, fuck off! Obviously climbers do not ‘flip her skirt’ and the fog station, built for a storm, her bought solitude, became a temple to her own affairs.

The clown smiles a clown’s smile.

Meanwhile, Punch wields his cudgel… a triumph of amorality and unworthiness, untroubled, rejoicing in yet another battle with the law…

For sure, the climbing was never it.

The climbing was never a game of numbers, apart from one occasion whilst soloing Pentathol with Captain Cliff Phillips. He fell asleep after rolling a little number on the sloping stance near the top, and I had to wedge his head into a crack to stop him rolling off and plummeting into the sea. Gogarth is like intravenous. It kicks in immediately and you have to deal with it. It is a robust domain without clippy-clips and Main cliff sums it up.

When you spend a lot of time on a particular piece of rock, an affinity builds up. One relates, one responds, pushes, probes and enters a dialogue like that with a friend or lover. North Stack is one such wall and for me the joy of moving around on the rock’s surface were conversations held deep in the body and bones. However, these joyful, playful little chats were in fact life threatening and could have led to termination at anytime. Attention, respect the enemy in your friend, and know there is more to this frisson-scampering on the rock than technique or self-preservation. The fragile placing of fingers and toes, chalked-talked the talk and there you have it…or rather not, because I am not just toes and fingers joining dots. And beyond the fear is another terrain that proves the climbing was never it.

It is this terrain that nourished the Trickster that fed me ‘visitors’ that filled my studio, and with each North Stack route, each breath stopped but held to a tiny nubbin, came a little death and with that came a bus-full more, just walking in, cheeky feely, bumping into my body, charging into my head and soul with images, form and colour. Like the climbs, the canvasses were a commitment to uncertain outcomes. No sketching and no planning meant an engagement with doubt, an entry into something unknown. The work asserted itself and moves were made. Once on the holds, it seems, one resorts to chance and an awesome awakening. Only by doubt can such forms enter the world, and only by entering this field can such vital ingredients be summoned. Like a hunt, it suited me. Summon and seize is always juicy.

I admit, I am not a strong climber, but had the strength in the ability to find what I needed on the way. It was my trick. It was like stepping on and summoning the strength from a third person, shuffling up as if ‘literally’ in a six-foot box with all the tools I required. For me, the passage and release upon survival nourished the creative process to actually open the box-lid, turn around and peer inside, be very alarmed, see the joke and act…back in a, hmmm, ‘safe’ studio.

I have done all the climbs here, many more than once and know, as the climber clings to his knowledge and life, that the prospect of death was not the most vital of forces acting upon me. It is an awesome wall and so much has been said about ‘trad’ climbing and anyone stepping on here with an on-sight in mind will get the joke pretty quick. I cannot say what ‘trad’ climbing means in these days of popular climbing vernacular born from institutional sport, but this stage exists for all to experience in their own way.

That force that I felt acting upon me, a ‘lifting away from myself’… is a divine conduit of poetic significance with a breathing planet, not what I consider to be a destructive regime that takes control, as is mostly the case with a sport.

‘Trad’ stands for traditional… unreconstructed in a way I am at odds. But perhaps it means to die… even if the new-born-brave peer down the grade and quantify a high digital readout with a clean gathering of beta, death is the bottom line, and the tidal rocks are the whispering of roots into the hinterland. It ain't gonna be clean with your name on a snappy when your beta talks swazzle. My routes at North Stack were never ‘trad’ to me, and the idea of a sport never entered the equation. Life was too ludicrous, random, still a dirty business with side-stalls of anarchy and nonsense, when rock was more a guide to thought.

Following ‘purple blobs’ on the climbing wall brick-road will not lead you here, I don’t think, but more likely to lead you into staring at traffic lights, or a possible Olympic challenge for the GB team and ambassadors for the State of Rule. Hey ho, piss poor for the old rebel soul receptive to a stranger music, but cool for those who wish to play with the stock in the paddock, learn moves and earn badges! Sorry to tell you guys but what you have lost is greater than what you gain… and I will tell you from my little bit of scary spanning on the stack, from limb to limb, smearing, stretching, swazzling a ritual passage, that nothing in nature is clean, is watching you and writhing in its slime and waste for a better hold. The joke is not just on the stack… and I guess, to be honest, there have been times when the effort to stay on was almost too much, a dangerous slide into a blurred resignation, almost happy to let go of that we call land and that we call body…

So having experienced North Stack as an arena for thought and revelation, I think it’s also cool to die a little… tool up, step on, peer inside, it’s easy, and thanking Kali and her necklace of skulls, there is no sport here!  Amen, and enjoy the show!

North Stack Wall – what an epic seaside stage!

As an outsider artist back in the 80’s I penned a few key words by chance and received a grant from the Arts Council. Yes, this was the eighties and proof as such. The actual ‘chance’ bit came while Bobby Drury was living in my caravan next to my studio and the previous evening a frying pan had crashed through a window accompanied by banshee screams from his girl friend demanding an orgasm. Tracy was a tough local cookie and took no hostages. Soon after, with glass shards still falling and tinkling musically onto the slate patio, my studio door groaned open and I was abruptly raped by the blunt-end. The lady of misrule gasps, “That’s the way to do it”.

The next day I coined the idea of a film, based on Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the three puppets imbued with half-life by a Trickster – where ‘no’ means a new caravan window and pan and brush, attraction, jealousy, hate and an audience warning about what’s going on behind your back. Petrushka, melancholic, a mythical outcast, headpiece filled with straw is both victim and perpetrator, messed up by post modern sexuality, blunt-ends needing satisfaction, and a flying, frying pan empty of sausages. A lycra-clad, homoerotic Bobby holds my strings on a North Stack Wall ‘big number’ as a venue. A ten-minute rock ballet was born! It felt like a real joke, dressing up some top climbers of the day, conjured from life’s rich tapestry. I pondered what I had done after I accepted the offer from the Arts Council. I could have picked a ‘safer’, more convenient route for all this theatrical prancing, but The Clown gave it a gnarly edge, an unwanted erection, some psychological trauma, an orgasm and a passage through snappy, surreal space on fingertips. Punch says, “Oh yes I will, it’s a winner”. Eh?

How poignant and enlightening to witness facsimiles of the human race that torture, hurt and abuse, but without the pain and suffering…where death can be imagined as a timeless tragedy.

Some friends of Romani origin had come back to their house in Bangor from the pub and found a stranger, curled up asleep on the sofa in front of the fire. Like the visiting images sliding in through an un-locked door, cheeky, he just walked right in. Being a race confronted by intolerance and hate, they know the worth of a fellow traveller obviously in need, and indeed this stranger made their tinker eyes sparkle with generations of hospitality and goodwill. An unlocked door is the way it is and in a peddler’s domain, way back to the ancient nomads of Asia, is worthy of man and good crack to boot and the show goes on. Thomas had somehow arrived from Sweden, picked a good door, knowing only a little English, without passport or documentation but became good friends with the scrap dealers and stayed in the house for several months. He had been a cameraman for a Swedish television company, and to me it was obvious, Thomas was to be the cameraman.

Martin Crook, well tuned to an outrageous joke and the secrets of the wall, was obviously contender to play Petrouchka the clown wearing a jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat, made by the Mother of his lover. Sawdust-headed and love-torn, he is wary that he is perhaps the subject of some cruel joke that he unknowingly created by wishing to be endowed with human feelings and emotions. And what of Freda Lowe, and how could the clown not fall in love with her?

As the late Harold Drasdo stated, “What is a nice girl like Freda doing in JR’s book?…” 

Wearing a tutu, that’s what, Harold. Can’t do it at home, durrr.
“Wearing a tutu, well that’s my job”, said Chris Dale indignantly, the cross-dressing outdoor guide from the lakes!
“It’s cool Chris, I will paint you up proper in textured acrylic, as a grinning Blackamoor, and make sure the costume is made from soft, fluffy fabric, that your glammed-up persona, Crystal will adore, and so will the ballerina”.

At 6ft 6in he was the man-moor-woman, gender confusing star of slate climbing, and the climber of the last unclimbed summit in the UK. Crystal or Chris, sadly neither any more the bouncing characters of glam-rock.

Paul Trower, signed up as ‘safety’ man, no stranger to glam and cool fibres or to expedition hardship and exhaustion. Instead of avalanche, loose rock and bad weather, were the cast of a freak show, logistics of emptying bin bags of sawdust onto a falling clown, a Swede terrified of heights and wearing espadrilles, men in lycra who really should be sectioned, a nice lady, and no idea of how to drop Martin onto me without killing either of us. He found it hilarious!

Clinging to one of Britain’s hardest routes at the time was a feat of total piss-taking and nonsense! ‘I chose to arse’ is not a book I wrote however, and the film did not get BMC approval for how to climb at North Stack. The film was shown once only, at the Mountain Film Festival in Llanberis. And for Shiva’s sake, the 16mm spool and the one vhs copy have been lost in the annals of time and 80’s lunacy. I only have the photos to prove the film actually happened - to prove that the characters lived and laughed and loved. As with old copies of ‘…and one for the crow’ it will turn up one day covered with a dusty patina from underneath a bed, were only the silly trinkets and broken things find solace…

It really does beg the question, ‘Who really is holding the ropes’?

 The insidious sounds of a tuba echo behind the flake, mocking. An image of horsemen riding by moves across the rock, horribly disfigured and deformed by the contours of the rock’s features. A clown appears and disappears, his painted face miming the words –

Real, unreal, safe, unsafe

John Redhead

St Laurent de Cerdans-September 2016

Images-John Redhead Collection 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Where have all the Birds gone?

There is no doubt that some people will grin in anticipation of what this article might contain but, unfortunately, what follows is about the feathered, and not the more desirable, variety of bird. Even if the title has misled you to read this far, please carry on as the problems of bird conservation are of importance to every climber who uses sea-cliffs, regardless of the degree of his ornithological interest. Due to the recent huge losses in bird population from oil pollution and other causes, the Nature Conservancy are most concerned that those birds which do return to nest on the sea-cliffs are disturbed as little as possible, by climbers or anyone else. The problem has been outlined in a recent report, produced by the Nature Conservancy in Bangor, dealing mainly with the Anglesey cliffs, which are of high ornithological interest.

At a recent meeting between the Conservancy and the B.M.C. to discuss this report and its implications, it was agreed to publicise the relevant facts as widely as possible, to obtain the cooperation of climbers. In actual fact, the species of birds of importance nest in only a few specific parts of the Holyhead cliffs, mainly in the South Stack area. The main colonies of Auks nest on the two huge buttresses which project from Red Wall; in other words the two buttresses which define the Left-hand Red Wall zawn. Other smaller colonies nest on the prominent horizontal ledges in Mousetrap zawn, between Green Slab and the lighthouse steps. Thus the approaches to the Left-hand Red Wall routes and Mousetrap pass very near to the main colonies and Green Slab, Primevil, Primate and the Mousetrap zawn girdle actually go through the smaller colonies.

The nesting season lasts from the end of February to the end of July and, during this period, the areas mentioned above ought to be avoided as much as possible. None of the routes affected are in fact very popular, with the exception of Mousetrap, and so no great hardship would be felt by climbers voluntarily co-operating in this matter. Mousetrap can still be approached without disturbing any birds by either the low-tide approach from the lighthouse steps or by routing the abseil approach directly into the north side of the zawn instead of on to the top of the buttress. There is no real problem with Red Wall proper, Castell Helen or Yellow Wall. On Gogarth, there are no concentrated colonies of birds, but the broken areas above all the routes often hold nests of Cormorants, Puffin burrows and the nests of other rarer species.

In the case of these less critical areas it is obviously of importance to be careful only when in the near vicinity of isolated birds, particularly when scrambling up the upper parts of the cliff. The majority of climbers will be rather uncertain exactly when and where they constitute a serious disturbance to the more susceptible species. This being so I will try to provide a few notes for guidance, which I hope will be both helpful and interesting. Space does not allow a full description of each species, but any good reference book on birds will give clear illustrations of those concerned. Gulls: There are three species present on the Holyhead cliffs—Herring (or Common), Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed gulls. Of these the first is very numerous and of the others there are perhaps 10/20 pairs each. All are capable of looking after themselves, being so bold as to physically attack climbers—but any actual in-jury to a person is rare and almost certainly due to a miscalculation on the part of the bird.

However, the presence of the gull does constitute a real threat to the more timid species, which may leave eggs and young unattended when disturbed and at the mercy of these vicious predators. Great Black-backed gulls have been known to 'take' adult puffins. Cormorants: This group comprises of only two species, the Cormorant itself and its small cousin, the Shag. They are far less numerous than the gull, there being perhaps 20 pairs of each spread over the cliffs. They are basically coastal birds, spending a large proportion of their time sea diving for fish. During the critical stages of incubation they display great tenacity, remaining on the nest whilst climbers bridge round them. The smell, hissing and snake-like contortions of these birds are a discouragement to the most ardent climber.

They require large recesses or ledges for their bulky nests and consequently they often occupy sites that are useful as belay ledges. Some conflict is inevitable here, but it is not the immediate concern of the conservationists. However, due care should be taken when in the vicinity of nests. Auks: So far as the Holyhead cliffs are concerned this family of three birds, the Puffin, Razorbill and Guillemot, are the main problem. The Razorbill and Guillemot resemble a small version of the penguin, whilst the Puffin is smaller still with a highly coloured bill. Auks are oceanic birds which return to the coasts in February to establish colonies and leave in July when the young are fully fledged. They are placid birds with a shy disposition and are thus very susceptible to human interference.

Climbers may in themselves present only a marginal threat to breeding success, but when there is any oil or chemical pollution in the sea these birds die in their thousands. From a conservationist point of view it is essential to have several large colonies in each area to offset these catastrophes and speed recovery. The South Stack cliffs, as described above, are such an area and are second in importance only to the colonies on the Lleyn peninsula. Another factor is the slow breeding rate of Auks. They lay only one egg each year and do not lay another if the first is destroyed or deserted. Apart from the three species described above there are several other types of bird which nest on the Anglesey cliffs in much smaller numbers.

These include the Oyster-catcher, Fulmar, Raven, Kestrel and Rock Dove. Although it is unlikely that any of these birds would nest in an area of climbing activity, care should be taken if any of these birds or their nests are approached. The rock gymnast may either regard the birds as an interesting contribution to the unique atmosphere of sea-cliff climbs, or merely as a bloody nuisance. Whatever our view in these matters, we will recognise that when the interests of man and animal conflict, the animal invariably comes off worst. In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that it is in the interest of every climber using sea-cliffs to take every reasonable precaution to avoid the harassment of birds at all times, and particularly in the breeding season in the areas described.

So far, the problem has only arisen on Anglesey because of the intense climbing activity there over the past few years. Full co-operation from climbers using these cliffs will create a deal of goodwill with the conservationists and will prevent the necessity of more drastic measures being taken. The Nature Conservancy are to carry out population surveys over the next two years, to determine more exactly the effect of rock climbing on the status of each species. Exemplary conduct on our part should ensure that their conclusions will not lead them to press for permanent restrictions on Anglesey or on any other sea-cliffs. 

Les Holiwell:First published in Rocksport-April/May 1970


The Climbers excerpt- featuring Les and Laurie Holliwell