Friday, 17 November 2017

The Climbers.... 'The Ogre' Extract



I took a first tentative step towards the Ogre in the spring of 1968. I felt the need to go off climbing on the really big mountains of the world following on from my experiences in the Hindu Kush with friends from the Nottingham Climbers’ Club in 1967. I started to hatch plans to go overland to Pakistan with Dave Nichol and also Ian Clough. Ian suggested I invite Don Whillans to come along as leader. I wrote off to the Pakistani authorities exploring the possibilities of climbing on Gasherbrum III, Kunyang Chhish and the Ogre. The Ogre was top of the list as I’d just read an article in Mountain by Dennis Gray who had marked it up as a better proposition than Trango Tower. Unfortunately permission was not forthcoming but I remained interested. 

In February 1969 I wrote to Jimmy Roberts at Mountain Travel in Kathmandu, enquiring if he thought there was a chance of not only climbing in Nepal but also Pakistan. Jimmy had recently been there trying to gain permission for the Ogre. He decided against it on account of the turbulent political situation for this was the time when the young politician Zul kar Ali Bhutto was gaining strength and support to oust Pakistan’s second president and first military dictator, General Ayub Khan.


 The Pakistani authorities would only issue permits a couple of months before a team was due to arrive, which was perhaps a major factor in deterring Jimmy from pursuing his climbing ambitions in Pakistan. He therefore recommended I concentrated on climbing a peak in Nepal, where the government had just recently brought their seven­year ban on mountaineering expeditions to an end, and politely suggested this should be after I had done my own research. Really I was grasping at straws as my domestic circumstances, at the time, were unfortunately in a state of turmoil and precluded any long two to three month expeditions. After the Hindu Kush expedition in 1967 it would be five years before I was in a position to go ‘off with the boys’ again on long trips. 

In July 1975, Clive Rowland, Rob Wood, Tony Watts, Bob Wilson, Ronnie Richards and I travelled out to Pakistan to climb Sosbun Brakk, a shapely peak near the head of the Biafo Glacier. We came out on a shoestring budget and with limited time enforced upon us by commitments to jobs back home, and in the case of Ronnie and I, to get back in time to join the South­West Face of Everest expedition (see the account of this trip to the Karakoram in my book Up and About, pages 358–360). 


We flew out on Afghan Air to Kabul. At £180 return it was by far and away the cheapest air fare we could find. We then took buses from Kabul, through Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass to Rawalpindi. There we stayed with Buster Goodwin, once Colonel Eric Goodwin of the Indian Army, who had settled in Rawalpindi after a lifetime of service mainly amongst the Pathans on the North­West Frontier. In fact Buster, within a few minutes of meeting, sold us all a copy of his book Life Among the Pathans. 


Numerous climbers have stayed in Buster’s bungalow, looked after by his adopted family. His carers were a rather indifferent couple and the house had seen better days. Buster, too, was past his best at eighty ­four and would drift off into soliloquies about his mother. When he came to, he was quite lucid, taking quite a liking to Rob Wood, telling him he was just the sort of chap he would have welcomed into his regiment. Apart from his mother the one thing that Buster seemed to be missing of the old country was cheese. Our supply reduced during the night; at first we thought it was being taken by rodents, but it turned out to be our host. We gave Buster a whole round of Stilton cheese with our thanks and left this charming relic of the British empire for the hills with high ambition. 

We were, as can be imagined when considering our time and financial constraints, doomed to disappointment, especially as there was an added factor ensuring our demise – the weather. at year there had been consider­ able dumps of spring snow on the Biafo Glacier and we simply could not reach our objective. After three days of wading through thigh­deep snow, sometimes up to our chests, we gave up on our peak and turned the trip into a recce of the Ogre. We had already seen the upper part during our journey up the Biafo and now, with Clive’s local knowledge, we went back down the Biafo and turned left up the Baintha Lukpar Glacier on to the Uzun Brakk Glacier. We climbed some way up the peaks to the west of the Uzun Brakk from where we had excellent views of the south side of the Ogre.


There was far too much snow, and the team, already depleted with the departure of Bob and Tony for work commitments, and without time to fully acclimatise, were not able to reach any of the attractive peaks hereabouts. The visit had not been a waste of time as far as Clive and I were concerned. Clive was able to reaffirm his commitment to climb up on to and along the West Ridge of the mountain and I became hooked on a empting the magnificent South Pillar of the Ogre – a prow of granite, 3,000 feet high, above which mixed rock and ice climbing led up to a final 800­foot tower. 

I had for the last few years, and especially after climbing Asgard right on the Arctic Circle of Baffin Island, thought about climbing big rock walls at altitude. Without any obvious plan in it I had taken to climbing big rock faces, first in the Alps and Dolomites during the 1960s, then in the 1970s in Norway including the Troll Wall, and in Yosemite Valley on El Capitan. These climbs had involved ever­more technical difficulty, and on the big walls on Baffin Island there was the added challenge of subzero temperatures. The next logical step could be right here on the Ogre. 


I was now familiar with the effect of climbing in the rarefied atmosphere up to 27,000 feet (8,230 metres) on Everest but, that had been on relatively easy, non­ technical snow slopes. Even so, I knew enough to appreciate that to survive at that level it was essential that everything that had to be done was second nature. It would be an interesting exercise, to say the least, to see if I could put the two together successfully: climbing steep rock high in the thin cold air at 23,000 feet. If that worked out I might just have time, before old age and decrepitude, to attempt the mighty West Face of Makalu up to 27,000 feet, and even the highest rock face of them all, the West Face of K2. 


My only regret was that I had not started my high ­altitude apprenticeship earlier. There is a relatively narrow window of opportunity to climb technical routes at altitude. It can only realistically happen after a climber has accumulated big­wall climbing experience and also climbed at extreme altitude but early enough to ensure that he is still fit and strong enough to put it all together to make technical climbs up high. 


Clive and I decided to launch an expedition together for the summer of 1977 hoping that the mountain would still be unclimbed. It had already been reported in Mountain magazine that an eight ­man Japanese expedition had attempted the Ogre in the summer of 1974. The climbers were from the Shizuoka Tohan Club and were led by Reisuke Akiyama. Team members were: Yukio Katsumi, Kimio Itokawa, Masamitsu Urayama, Tetsuji Furuta, Mitsuo Nishikawa, Takeshi Tsushima and Toshio Kasai. They set up base camp on the Uzun Brakk Glacier and attempted the South Face but an avalanche left two members seriously injured and essential items of equipment lost. 


In 1976 the Asagiri Alpine Club (Tokyo) expedition of seven climbers led by Tadashi Nishihara, including team members Muneo Ueda, Hideki Yoshida, Hideo Yamaguchi, Masahiro Murashima, Toshikazu Suzuki, Takeshi Ogawa, made a determined attempt also from the Uzun Brakk Glacier. They climbed the South­West Spur reaching the West Col (20,670 feet/ 6,300 metres) on 12 August. Two days later they climbed the West Ridge to a shoulder at 21,851 feet/6,660 metres but gave up in favour of trying the South Face. By 25 August they had traversed the snow band to the point where it connects with the South Face (21,326 feet/6,500 metres). Incredibly, after being so well poised to at least climb the South Face, their application for an extension to their permit was turned down by the Pakistani authorities and so they retreated. 

Doug Scott: 2017 

Images Doug Scott Collection-Provided by Vertebrate Publishers.

The Ogre is available Direct from Vertebrate.
 

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Last Hillwalker...reviewed


John Burn’s ‘The Last Hillwalker’ has been out for a while now but only recently dropped through my letterbox. Currently still sitting pretty in the Amazon ebooks best seller list, the author's well received mountaineering reflections prove that you don’t have to be a Krakuer, Kirkpatrick or a Bonington to pen something which will capture the imagination of the the great outdoors reader. I guess that’s down to the fact that the author is very much a mountaineering man of the people. A gifted journeyman whose mountain experiences fall within the orbit of 80% of the climbing, hillwalking fraternity. For me, that’s a refreshing change from the writing which tends to dominate the outdoor publishing market. Desperate Dan doing desperate things in desperate environments! That genre of outdoor writing is entertaining enough in the same way a James Bond movie can be mildly diverting, but in the word’s of Morrissey..’ The songs that they constantly play, say nothing to me about my life’. For the great majority of readers, the author’s mountain life and experiences will strike a chord and those frustrations, triumphs and emotions will be all too familiar.

John Burns was a name that I was familiar with without knowing much about him. I’d seen the name crop up in the Twittersphere and on social media platforms without having much of a clue what his bag was so to speak. I knew he was based in Scotland so imagined a rugged Highlander who gained his spurs hacking up remote cliffs with a Slater's hammer and home made crampons.  A smouldering tab hanging from gritted teeth framed within an ice crusted beard. Turns out that the author and I have more in common than I thought. A fellow Merseysider-albeit from the wrong side of the river- of a similar vintage and whose early footsteps into the great outdoors chimed with my own. The ill fitting clothing from Army and Navy suppliers, Boots guaranteed to inflict maximum pain . Tents which offered as much protection from the elements as Geisha’s bamboo umbrella.

And then there were the adventures.Those triumphs of hope over experience. Biting off more than you can chew and putting yourself and your unfortunate partner into situations where just staying alive becomes the ultimate aim and any thoughts of a simple fun day out spirals into chaos. But somehow, for most of us, we survived and lived to tell the tale, and it’s those triumphs and near tragedies which underpin The Last Hillwalker.

As you would expect, the early chapters describe how a gauche schoolboy slowly found his way into the world of mountain activities. The secondary school fellwalking and hosteling trips where in contrast to the stultifying restrictions and limitations placed on youth outdoor activities today by a zealous Nanny State, allowed youngsters an incredible amount of freedom and leeway. Hard to imagine today, a geography teacher propping up the bar while his charges set off alone and with limited experience on a lengthy mountain excursion that finishes in the dark!

In the intervening years since the freedom enjoyed by youngsters in the 1970‘s, outdoor education has either disappeared completely as cash strapped LEA’s sell off their mountain centres, or is so tightly managed and controlled by organisations who live in constant fear of litigation, as to make the experience an outdoor equivalent to painting by numbers.

But back to the book; the experience gained through these school excursions gave the author the confidence to tackle his first big outdoor challenge. The long distance Pennine Way which in those days really was a journey into hell! The cloying peat mud that could suck a divers boot off a misplaced foot, the seemingly endless rain, the miserable walker unfriendly villages that in contrast to today, treated scruffy young walkers as potential criminals.“ Mrs Pennyhassett...
Call the police! ’. 

Successfully completing the 280 mile route as a teenager in the 70‘s was truly a right of passage which announced that the author had arrived as a serious mountain man!

The freedom enjoyed by those who took their first mountain steps in the 1970‘s inevitably developed a ‘give it a go’ mentality, and for those like the author, fortunate enough to go to University, this attitude allied to the opportunities presented through Uni mountaineering clubs opened up new horizons.  Offering the opportunity to develop new skills in new vistas like the Alps or Scottish mountains where the joys of rock and ice climbing were quickly learnt and exploited to the full.

Throughout the early chapters, the author counter balances his growing passion for the great outdoors with the social and political events at home. The 70‘s were after all a time of great upheaval in the UK with strikes, collapsing governments, three day weeks, the developing conflict in Ireland and mass unemployment. It is against this sombre backdrop that the author found escape in the hills. With Uni behind him he entered the Social Work profession and left Merseyside behind to further his career in Leicester before the opportunity arose for him to high tail it out of England and take a position in Inverness.

With the great Scottish ranges on his doorstep, it provided a wonderful opportunity to develop his winter skills and experiences. It was no surprise then that the author should eventually join a Highland mountain rescue team. Balancing a career with the social services with a mountain life is no mean feat and it was no surprise that as we enter a new century, the middle aged activist eventually steps off the gas. As relationships, family commitments and a peeling away of old comrades takes place. Something the single, childless activist cannot appreciate. Just how difficult it is to continue an active mountain life at the same level once a partner and children come on to the scene. For many a middle aged climber, they can continue their activity albeit to a lesser degree. However, many just gradually give up climbing and hillwalking altogether with many taking up new hobbies like the current craze for road biking.

By the time the author had hit his 50‘s, the mountain flame that once burned so brightly begins to take on a different hue. Those activities begin to take on a more mundane course as he finds himself guiding low level walks for the elderly and disabled. As his confidence and enthusiasm for hard core mountain activities diminishes, a new chapter begins. The writer discovers he has a talent for live performance and develops a career in stand up comedy and eventually as a thespian. Developing a one man drama surrounding ‘The Great Beast’...himself...Aleister Crowley. Mountaineer, libertarian, dark arts practitioner and all round bad egg! Well...at least according to The Daily Mail who labelled him,'The Wickedest Man in England!' The author is blessed in his role as Crowley by sharing  his physical characteristics and quickly finds himself playing to sell out crowds up and down the country.

At the same time, he slowly rediscovers his passion for the mountains by reacquainting himself with that most Scottish of institutions, the mountain bothy. Feeling somewhat flaccid, overweight and lacking in physical gusto, slowly but surely his bothy campaign takes hold of his imagination and by the end of the book, the author is once again finding pleasure in the hills of home.


Image: JDB

This brief overview gives but a flavour of what lies within The Last Hillwalker and the reader will find excitement, human interest and humour running like a fast flowing Scottish burn throughout its 300 pages.

John Appleby:2017

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Summit and William Blake



Lakeland Fells: Delmar Harmood Banner-The Lakes Trust


The Climber
 
Climbing mountains was climbing
himself.  From the summit
he could look down and see below
the problems he had left behind

Thoughts were like flowers on
the ledges, high up and far out,
the best needing to be plucked
dangerously and smelling of courage.

At night there was this mountain
above him, dark as the cave
of sleep he would enter and emerge
from tomorrow to resume his climbing.

R S Thomas

William Blake spoke of spots of time; those fleeting moments in life when one escapes the fetters of ‘mind forged manacles’ to express and experience humanity in its complete wonder; to be alive.

Unusually this was something which Blake had in common with Wordsworth and the Romantics. Where their paths split, where they went their separate ways, was with regards to their understanding of the point of it all. Where they differed so radically was on process and purpose : on how one gets to the point, who could get there and, in the end, what is the point?

The ‘point’ for Wordsworth was precisely that; to reach a place, far removed from the humdrum of daily life. A place where one could see all, and put things into perspective. The preserve of the ‘cultured elite’; of those who had the time, money and temperament to undertake the arduous process of inner reflection and personal betterment. To be ‘good enough’ to view and order the world from an elevated position of superiority.

In sharp contrast, for Blake achievement and identity was never about the individual, nor rooted in personal introspection; it had little to do with getting away from it all. No, for him, to be human was a much more expansive process. For Blake personal identity could only be expressed in terms of communal solidarity and action. That is, the extent to which we can only fully understand ourselves through shared purpose, collective appreciation and communal experience. How it is that we can only truly be, through, and with others. Ultimately, for Blake it is not about escape but about engagement.

From what I know of R S Thomas I strongly suspect that his sympathies were much closer to those of Blake than Wordsworth.

RS Thomas
Blake was no climber, though he loved rambling, and all this may seem a far cry from our modern day sport, but the clue is in the word : the word modern. Blake was writing at pivotal moment in time; the very point when what we now take for granted as the natural shape of ‘modern man’ was actually being moulded and transformed into common sense. Blake had the extraordinary vision to see it coming; he railed against it and warned of the consequences. His non-conformist genius expressed itself in glorious picture-words, laying bare the life limiting contradictions at the heart of the emerging way of thinking. How universal empire would literally corral and constrict our capacity to live. He challenged the illusion of calculability, mocking the idea that value can be reduced to an equation, assigned a number and given a price. But most of all he challenged the authenticity and authority of the self-centred, self-regulating, self-satisfied individual; Mr Average Economic Man, at liberty to spend his pennies at any stall in the newly opened free market. The very person who Wordsworth waxed lyrical about, inviting him to wander on his beloved fells, free as a cloud; just so long as he wasn’t the type who came by train. Wordsworth detested the arrival of the steam train in the Lakes, bitterly resenting the hordes he saw it disgorging at Windermere.

By happy coincidence the day I received The Climber from a friend, I bumped into the re-printed article by Terry Gifford highlighting how narrow thinking by editors has squeezed the space for poetry within climbing literature. What is on offer here is less about poetry in climbing, but more about the poetics of climbing; the words we use to describe our experience, what this may say about how we make meaning out of climbing, what it includes and what it excludes. It is an attempt to develop Gifford’s proposition by exploring the inter-relationship between blinkered editors and a wider popular consciousness which I fear is constricted by its own vocabulary. 

Back in 1984, Terry Gifford wondered ‘how far British climbing writing has emerged from the Rock and Ice era’. His question is as pertinent as ever and the poem by R S Thomas’s helps us address the question. I think that the poem highlights tensions and contradictions within language, forms of thinking and visualisation which still restrict our view of climbing. If we look carefully we can see how Thomas’s language is both beautifully evocative and yet slightly constricted within the confines of romantic language and sensibility. It is only at the summit where the experience is complete, the impression of escape and how insight is derived from courage in the face of danger.

This isn’t to say that these sentiments and evocations are invalid or of less worth, but simply to put them in context. The context of Blake, of what he anticipated would grow into commodity and universal empire. A restricted way of seeing; a way of being built on the muscular ideals of personal achievement, fortitude and conquest; of being the best – the perfect specimen. The key word here is restricted, not right or wrong. Blake simply recognised that this way of being was just that; one way; not, the way.

What strikes me most of all in this is that while climbing continually portrays itself as a counter culture of outsiders, it expresses itself overwhelmingly within the mainstream idiom. We may actually ‘talk’ more like the ‘insiders’ we often scoff. Whilst it is easy to track the extent to which the practice of climbing has escaped the constrictions of polite society and the amateur, it is less clear on how far our talking and writing has progressed. Rock and Ice prised open the doors of the Alpine Club many years ago, quite literally changing the face of climbing, opening it up, making it more democratic in the sense of its ‘membership’. But the extent to which our chatter both then, and since, has escaped the confines of mainstream constructs is less certain. I personally detect a strong continuity of romantic sentiment which both feeds and feeds into a wider set of climbing constructs which are perhaps not as counter as we imagine.

To start with, whilst Rock and Ice clearly pushed the boundaries in terms of who could climb, ‘talk’ about climbing remained firmly rooted in male white tropes, when men were men; rites of passage had to earned the hard way and apparently nobody took themselves too seriously. Later, whilst this hard edge of masculinity soften and more athletic forms of practice were celebrated, the vein of hardness remained as core stratum. Indeed it has continued to be a rich seam within the literature, often expressed as nostalgia for those times of hard training, hard climbing, hard partying and hard womanising. On top of this, familiar romantic tropes such as the savage beauty of nature, trial by ordeal and courage in the face of overwhelming odds have provided the scaffolding for much of the spoken and written word. 


To me this remains as strong today as it ever was. For sure the language has softened, but the underlying sentiments remain present and remain visible within our current self-preoccupation with process and the journey. Just to give one current example. I couldn’t help but notice the latest ‘big number’ headline on UKC recently - “E10 7a” (UKC 11/Oct).  Reading the associated article, I was struck by what I interpreted as reticence : ‘for those interested in the numbers’. Perhaps a healthy ambivalence with regards to a perceived pressure to reduce a long and complex effort into a number; unease at the way in which numbers make good headlines in the same way that points make prizes. The climbing media and its editors are not totally responsible for this either. We can’t blame them for everything that is spoken and written.

Clearly there is much talk and many perspectives on climbing, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that one thing all these different conversations have in common is an insistence on climbing as counter culture. But I am left wondering how counter we really are? If we look carefully at our language then we see that we may be part of a counter culture which is almost wholly dependent on the language of the mainstream to articulate and describe itself. No wonder there isn’t any space for poetry.


Responsibility for where we are and where we go as a community of climbers rests on the shoulders of both the residents and those who purport to speak on our behalf. In this context I think it is great that the other Climber is seeking to add depth of analysis and breadth of coverage into its new format. I also chuckled this week to see that, characteristically, UKC appears to have risen to the challenge by re-defining “ESSAY” as no more than 3 paragraphs (UKC Oct 12 ESSAY: Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders?) . But it is easy to mock this lazy thinking. We should all think about our own language and how we can contribute to developing a more expansive and inclusive vision of climbing. 

William Blake never made identical versions of his Illuminated Books, each one was different. He went to extraordinary lengths to avoid ‘making copies’, refusing to be constricted by what he saw as the identikit cloning of commodity. Similarly, long before ‘extreme sports’ appeared, Terry Gifford was concerned that climbing was being reduced to the “physical and athletic”. We don’t have to go to the same lengths as Blake, but if we are to prevent the total commodification of experience within climbing, then we can start by thinking more about the words we all use. This not about suggesting that all previous work and talk has been sub-standard; it is merely to suggest that it is a partial view, a view expressed largely in the tropes of the mainstream and to suggest that we should not only encourage more voices but also expand our vocabulary.

John Postlewaite: 2017 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Sixty Years in the Mountains



The author (left), John Proom, Iain Robertson and another, JMCS Glencoe bus Meet, 1957.Image RNC

My first acquaintance with mountains grew from flight from the dullness of weekends at home, especially Sundays, and fed on the romance of exploring unvisited crags and finding a place in a small history.  I began with camping/hill-walking trips with friends in the Scouts, then learned to climb rocks on Craigie Barns, the little hill above Dunkeld, and soon joined the local mountaineering club in Perth. This functioned through day meets mostly. A Sunday morning bus collected us from points around town, took us to the mountains, and returned us in the late evening. Our far point on these excursions was Glencoe. 

As petrol rationing eased, and cars could be afforded, we added weekend outings to Derry Lodge in the Cairngorms and to the SMC Hut on Ben Nevis. In the school holidays I was able to reach Arran and Skye. I recall a week in Glenbrittle Lodge there in 1960 for 6 guineas all found. The publications of the SMC, and W.H. Murray’s Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland defined the world I sought to master, and taught me how to behave in it.
After a few years of activity, I knew our mountains tolerably well, summer and winter, and loved them all. In a very small space, we found a great range of types of rock to climb, and mountain forms of all sorts, book-ended by the prickly Skye peaks and the rolling Grampian hills.


I felt a strong sense of ownership – a common feeling among mountaineers. It has its drawbacks. We find it difficult to tolerate others who presume to own mountains. There is always some new enemy of beauty, solitude and free movement: deer-stalking, crop forestry, hydro-electric plants, ski facilities, and now giant pylons, electric fencing, and wind-farming. How dare these ignorant Barbarian users of mountains, animated by greed rather than love, intrude and despoil!

But if you take your place in this history, you are soon drawn in to the 'politics of the environment', as Malcolm Slesser put it. I passed my 40s and 50s in Committees, Councils and Trusts, and began to see the mountaineer in a different light – the user who takes the greatest pleasure from our hills, but who pays the least for the privilege; the user who demands free access, free carparks, free footpaths and bridges, yet deplores any financial easement granted to commercial use of mountains; the user who inveighs against wind-farms, but who built the first mountain wind-turbine at 700 metres in the bosom of Ben Nevis; the user who deplores the ugliness of other mountain uses, but who – in the recesses of his garish clothing – carries a phone that defaces hilltops with masts, and a GPS navigator that pollutes the skies with satellites.

Although my perception shifted during those years, so did mountaineering. There has been a loss of virtue. We were once an elite, which embraced Percy Unna's doctrine – 'the mountains shall not be made easier or safer to climb', which preached and practised self-reliance, and accepted the price of long approaches, river-drownings and deaths from hypothermia. We are now a mob, and the mob counts life as sacred, demands deliverance, and expects to pay no price, expect perhaps the price of a Guide who will ensure our safety, and carry our luggage up the hill.

Much has changed since I started climbing mountains, but the mountains are more or less the same, and the principles that regulate acquaintance with them haven’t changed unduly: boots, anorak, map, and compass work as just as well today as they did sixty years ago. The climbers – increasingly pagan, selfish, and hypocritical – still like to hear the 121st Psalm at their funerals. They get something from the hills that other parts of their life fail to provide. For me, and for thousands of others, our regular pilgrimages to the hills remind us that there are some things that don’t change, and that shared hardship and dependence on others for company and assistance still have a place in a world dominated by easy comfort and independent living. 


The puzzle, of course, is to know how and for how long can this kernel of lasting virtue withstand the crushing effects of universal prosperity and instantaneous global communication? And how and for how long can our mountains – invested by legions of climbers, baggers, boulderers and bicyclists, and ploughed, mined and built on – retain the beauty and mystery that drew people to them two centuries ago?

Robin N Campbell: 2017


First Published in The Geographer

Friday, 20 October 2017

The Death of Mountaineering?



There are occasions when a single scene, or the smell of an atmosphere, are worth a thousand words.  A sentiment which has been better expressed no doubt, but it captures the experience of the British Mountaineering Council’s AGM of 2017.  Here at last was the centrepiece of the recent attempt by some disgruntled members of Britain’s mountaineering fraternity to force a change of direction, or even unseat some of the key staff – a denouement which was always wildly optimistic, or outrageously presumptuous, depending on your point of view. (In the event the President resigned, but none of the paid executives.)

Prior to that day, the passage of time exacerbated by my tendency to stay out of touch, I hadn’t realised how much the game has changed – and how! My overwhelming impression, reinforced by the predictable debate which swallowed up the hours, was of two groups who were now so distinct as to make difficult even a meaningful conversation. On one side the troublemakers – ageing to a man (and it was men), dressed in the scruffy attire of the traditionalist or else with the elegance of a well-heeled gentleman at a Swiss ski resort (which may well be where Bob Pettigrew, leader of the troublemakers, had lately been).


On the other side the young and on-board - and the BMC staff themselves, some dressed, I suppose perfectly reasonably though can’t help finding it uncomfortable, in matching BMC emblazoned T-shirts.  And then the suits, those composing the BMC governing body, sitting in some sort of command on the dais. This being climbing they weren’t actually in suits, but were still somehow anonymous, indicative of a group whose role is to run an organisation rather than to proclaim a creed. As the day unfolded – a glorious summer day in north Wales, so all present must have wished they had been outside rather than crammed cheek-by-jowl into a lecture theatre –  I wondered whether the AGM of a multinational might be rather like this, allowing for differences of scale and glamour – Bob Dudley, say,  the CEO of BP, defending his multimillion pound salary against the anger of shareholders and a sagging share price, but carrying the day by stonewalling.

I came to reluctantly admit, but never admire, the professionalism of the suits. The CEOs of all sports council sponsored bodies probably meet together at conferences, whether it be climbing, cycling or tiddlywinks: and the experienced teach the new boys how to deflect criticism.  Stonewalling is the secret, and it’s the part which depresses me most rather than the difference in attitude itself. As the meeting grinds to its inevitable end the troublemakers have opened their hearts; their views are prejudiced, partial and, this being the old guard, hopelessly out of date; but at least you know where you are. The suits remain mum through it all and stare stolidly out from the platform. If only one of them was to stand up and say: “look, we know exactly what you’re saying, but climbing has moved on and so has the BMC.  If you don’t like it, tough. You’re all old and will soon be dead anyway, so this whole discussion is a tedious waste of time.  Meanwhile, if you really want to change things come and do some voluntary work for the organisation instead of carping from the sidelines.”

This last criticism has some force. It is hard to find amongst the troublemakers anyone who is intimately involved in the BMC matters of today. And as one of their eminent supporters said to me at the meeting, organisations must take who they can get. If the traditionalists moan that the governing body is composed of nobodies, whose credentials as mountaineers are minor (with the notable exception of the CEO himself) – well, that is because none of the distinguished are prepared to give up their time. Or have already done their bit. And no-one could fail to notice – could they? -just how distinguished most of the troublemakers at that meeting were. Plenty of ex-Presidents and vice Presidents of the BMC itself and of the alpine club. And then in his address Bob Pettigrew unveiled his master stroke - the fact that Joe Brown himself had signed up to the motion of censure.


Joe Brown having in British climbing circles the sort of standing Attenborough, say, has in nature and conservation, I thought his inclusion, together with the general standing of Bob’s supporters, would have a decisive effect , if not on the suits then on the youngsters. How wrong one can be.  Barely a ripple  of interest disturbed Bob’s peroration. Apparently this is normal – and who’s to say it’s not healthy too. In Germany and Italy the young admire Messner and Bonatti but are not, I’m told, prepared to be lectured to, even by them.They admire what the old have done in their time, but times have moved on - that endless and inescapable conclusion.

Of course, a review of BMC governance and its priorities is underway, under the august chairmanship of a retired judge. No one can seriously doubt that this would never have happened without the stirrings of the troublemakers – Bob Pettigrew, Dennis Gray, Doug Scott, and many others. Surely they deserve credit for this from all sides of the spectrum of opinion.  But it is hard to believe such a review will make much difference. The BMC under Dennis is a body for which I feel nostalgia, but things can never be returned to that. Doug talks about the BMC being returned to its members; but that cannot happen in the way he envisages. The members are too busy doing other things, and the organisation too big. It takes considerable money from the Sports Council and must dance to the government’s tune.



I’ve no idea whether it was intended to convey a message of intent, but I’ve always thought the change in title for the BMCs leader significant, from General Secretary as it was in Dennis’s day to Chief Executive Officer as it is now. There was certainly something of the bolshy trade union about the BMC under Dennis; there is something of the insidious government agency about it now. As for the size of the BMC, one is bound to be nostalgic. In the ‘70s if I rung up their offices the person who answered the phone not only knew how I was, they recognised my voice. If I ring up now the person answering the phone certainly doesn’t know who I am. But much worse, I don’t know who they are.

I might do better if I made more effort to keep in touch. I might recognise more names if I read Summit magazine or the online newsletter with greater determination. Unfortunately, I find that hard to do.  “Summit” is hardly Ken Wilson’s “Mountain,” admittedly a superlative production.  As for the newsletter, I have had reluctance ever since the issue which began, under the CEOs byline, with the immortal phrase “It is now spring, and time to think about getting outside.” The only way to make sense of this is to remember that I am no longer the BMC’s target audience.


At least, I hope  not. Some would see such platitudes as just further evidence of the inexorable infantilisation of the British public. But however you view it, I find I can’t read it. And if one doesn’t read the bumpf one is in peril of pontificating from a position of increasing ignorance. And curiously, the more ignorant, the easier it is to pronounce. It is a danger for all well-meaning troublemakers, everywhere.  Personally I find myself in the invidious position of the late Leo Cooper, husband of Jilly, Queen of the gold-plated bonkbuster. Asked in an interview if he had ever read any of his wife’s novels, he replied: “I tried to once.  But I had to give up. It was making me ill.”

Partway through day I spied one of the old brigade whom I hadn’t seen for many years. As a mountaineering journalist he was quite properly keeping himself above the fray, signing up neither with the troublemakers nor with the suits. I was surprised to see him there, imagining his appetite for such events about as weak as my own, and asked him why he had come. “To witness the death of British mountaineering” was his reply.  “I wouldn’t want to miss that.”
 

This sounded a bit melodramatic even for me. But if he meant, as I think he did, the institutional death, then it’s not so far fetched. That meeting was, if not the last gasp, arguably the last occasion on which the old school would make it’s position felt in such numbers or with such passion. Whether you like it or you don’t, the way British mountaineering is administered, the way it is perceived, it’s public ethoc, have changed. And there is no way back.

But public ethos is one thing, private is another. I take mountaineering to be essentially an amusement. If it is an experience that can on some occasions have profound effects on the individual, it is still a pastime. If it has value to the individual, then it is has no very great social significance. Those who claim, in moments of enthusiasm, that it is “a way of life”  grossly overstate their case.  In my youth I certainly  thought of climbing as “special”, quite different – and superior –to any mere sport, and this can still be the case. But for many, climbing these days is simply one of a suite of outdoor activities – a climb today, ski-ing tomorrow, a little cycling on Wednesday perhaps. Claiming for it a profound spiritual or philosophical significance begins to look rather thin.

And I can’t see how to define the right and the wrong way to practice it. In decrying modern trends the troublemakers are not stating an objective position but a personal preference, based in all likelihood on the way things were in their own formative years. We can say, I think, that the BMC is fundamentally different to the way it used to be, say, 40  years ago, and we can be sure that it will change still more.  We may say that we don’t like this; but we cannot say that it is wrong. For myself, I expect I don’t like it because it is not the BMC of the 1970s, and that was my formative time.

And it is only an institution. Not only that, it is an institution one can choose to ignore. We do not live in a time in which you must have certain qualifications before you can jump on a plane and climb in the Himalaya. On driving into Capel Curig we do not encounter a road block and a leather-coated apparachnik who tells us not to proceed unless we have a BMC certificate of competence. I have no difficulty imagining a Britain in which these things are fact, but I cannot see it happening in the foreseeable future – and by that I mean within the lifetime of anyone likely to read this article.

On the contrary, we are free. We are free to leave the BMC, and proceed ever further into ignorance of contemporary trends. Whether the BMC is, or should be, a governing body or a representative body, and a thousand other trying matters can, if you so wish, be forgotten. Anyone in Britain can step off the road and begin a mountain adventure and no one is even going to try and stop them. Involvement in mountaineering mores, its administration, its social life, are voluntary. Anyone who finds contemporary forms too much to take is free to step away.

There are costs of course. Some of the troublemakers from that day in north Wales who are members of affiliated clubs feel strongly enough to resent the affiliation fees paid to the BMC. Some I have spoken to feel the current situation intolerable. Such people may feel in time that they have no choice but to resign their club memberships. And there will be some who feel that however sad, that is manageable.

Phil Bartlett:September 2017.



Friday, 13 October 2017

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


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

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

 £12 each title.


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dennis Gray:2017

Friday, 6 October 2017

Poetry and the Climbing Press



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Craig:Image-Christian Shaw

ONE THOUSAND FEET OF
SHADOW

(For Dave) 


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


                           *                   *                  *



INTO ROCK
He stretched to fit the rock 

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

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

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

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


Essay: Terry Gifford. Poems David Craig

first published in High-July 1984