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 

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Conservation Ethic

Artist:Ricky Blake 

He who experiences the unity of life, sees himself in all beings, and all beings in himself’ The Buddha.

One would expect that climbers would be bound by a strict conservation ethic, but unfortunately that is not always the case, and some of the most pristine of natural sites have suffered severe degradation in recent years. I guess it was easier to be high minded and highly motivated to conservation when our numbers were small, but as our sport becomes ever more populated there is a real task in educating the new comers, mainly coming from an urbanised existence, into the fragile nature of crag and hill environments. Historically they have many role models within the wider realms of mountain activities to emulate, and it is a source of some interest and pride that three of the most influential figures in this respect, John Muir, David Brower and Amory Lovins were all mountaineers. Between them they cover the whole time line from the mid-nineteenth century to date.

John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar in East Lothian but he was emigrated; to the USA with his deeply religious family when he was eleven years old. After growing up on the family farm in Wisconsin, working around the clock driven by a father who had him memorising from his earliest years huge chunks of the King James bible, he moved to work in Canada. Where he might have remained, but after suffering an industrial accident, he set forth and walked the hundreds of miles, down through America to the Gulf of Mexico. This gave him the taste for the adventure he craved, and from there he found his way to California and the high country of the Sierra’s, and to Yosemite, eventually making the State his permanent home.

For the next decade, from his first visit to Yosemite in 1868, he wandered amongst and climbed to the summits of the Sierra Nevada. Making many first ascents, mostly accomplished climbing solo. His ascent in 1869 of Cathedral Peak (10,940ft’) in Yosemite was impressive, and probably at that date one of the most difficult such climbs in North America. To write that he was physically robust is an understatement, for his equipment was rudimentary and he endured many bivouacs in the mountains living off hard tack, sleeping wrapped in a single blanket. Besides his climbing activities, he  was educating himself, heavily reading and studying, and it is obvious that he was highly gifted for he quickly realised that it was glacial and river action that had formed Yosemite, not volcanic activity as promoted by the then leading US geologists. He then undertook some climbing trips further afield, to Glenora Peak now in British Columbia, to Mt Rainier making the seventh ascent of the peak, and to Alaska. The story of the rescue on Glenora Peak of Samuel Hall Young by Muir, written up by the injured man, deserves to be a classic of mountain survival stories. At one stage in the narrative, hanging out over a 1000ft drop to the glacier below, Muir pulled his companion up to a safe perch, dragging him by his teeth biting into his collar!

John Muir's Lost Valley; Hetch Hetchy before and after the state sponsored flooding of the valley.

It was during his time in Yosemite when he worked as a shepherd and at other tasks that he came to realise that human beings are merely a part of the natural world, and not the centre of it. If you look at photographs of Muir from this era, lean, spare and heavily bearded, he looks what he later became, a prophet of the spiritual quality of nature, and from thereon he became an ardent supporter of the wish to preserve such wilderness areas.  He petitioned Congress with the need for National Parks to be established and in 1890 a bill was passed that set up the first: Yosemite. His continued activism in this cause then led on to other areas being so designated, including the Sequoia National Park, and he is now universally recognised as the ‘Father’ of those designations.

Over the next years Muir became a National figure in the US, writing many books and essays about his adventures in the Sierras, and his wish to conserve and preserve the natural environment for all his countries citizens. In his campaigns he met with Congress Men, the President and other like minded outdoor enthusiasts. This led on in 1892 to him co-founding The Sierra Club. Which today, via many stages in its development, has become the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation in the USA with millions of members, and Chapters across the Nation; The Sierra Club has a permanent base in Yosemite, and Muir’s later family residence in Martinez, California is also now a National historic site.

Few mountaineers can have made such an impact on subsequent generations, for as an outstanding ‘Wilderness Prophet’ who helped to lay the groundwork for modern environmental thinking, he has inspired so many others to carry his message and to act. In the UK the John Muir Trust founded in 1983, is dedicated to protecting and enhancing wild places, and is the owner of some of the most important natural and mountain sites in the UK, including Ben Nevis. There is the John Muir Way, a 215 kms long distance walking route running from Helensburgh in the West to Dunbar in the East. And the Muir original family home in that town is now a museum. The John Muir Trail in the US is recorded as that Country’s premier hiking route, 211 miles in length passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

 His books are all still in print, but what might be a failing in this commentator, is that I find his writing too set in his religiosity, and even child like, but they are honest and true to his mission of enthusing his readers about the restoring spirit to be found in the earth’s wild places (In later life he travelled widely including ascending the Mueller Glacier on Mount Cook in 1903). Anyone who is interested in reading more about Muir’s mountaineering should study, ‘John Muir’s Greatest Climbs’ by Graham White published by Canongate in 1999. Finally the Muir name is now so well used in the US, in educational and ecological nomenclatures on an almost industrial scale, that I will mention only one more, April 21st is John Muir Day, his birthday. 

David Brower:Image The Sierra Club

David Brower (1912-2000) was another key figure in the development of the modern environmental movement, who came to this through his interest in mountaineering. He was born in Berkeley, California and it was whilst he was a student at its University he began to climb. He quickly made a name as a high standard friction climber and he was one of the first to attempt an ascent of the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite. A fellow student was Hervey Voge, who later wrote one of the earliest climbing guidebooks to the Sierras, and with whom in 1934, Brower traversed the bulk of the High Sierras from Kearsage Pass to Yosemite, summiting 59 peaks in 69 days. Voge had persuaded Brower to join the Sierra Club in 1933, an organisation which in later life became synonymous for many years with the name Dave Brower. But that was in the future, and on graduating he took up a post with The University of California Press, and it was because of the knowledge he gained of the publishing process which enabled him to launch many outstanding wilderness and mountaineering volumes in the years ahead.

In 1935 with a group from the Sierra Club, he attempted to climb Mount Waddington (13,186ft) in British Columbia. He and his friends had by then begun to winter climb in the Palisades, a part of the Sierras and they were as at home on ice as rock, but the weather in the Coastal Range is notoriously bad, and their attempt was  beset by bad weather and despite repeated attempts they had to retreat . But in 1939, Brower along with Bestor Robinson, Raffi Bedayn and John Dyer decided to take on the challenge of ‘Shiprock’ in New Mexico. This huge volcanic peak had already defeated 12 previous attempts by groups from around the USA and it was known as ‘the last great American climbing problem’. Initially they tried to climb the mountain by ascending and descending from their high point each day, but they realised that they needed to keep climbing up from a bivouac. After some fine leads by all the other three, belayed by Bedayn, who had made a name for himself as a holder of some big falls, they succeeded in ascending ‘Shiprock’. Not without controversy for they used four bolts on the climb, two for aid, and two for belays. This was the first time bolts were placed on a climb in the USA!

The war then intervened, and Brower was called up as a Lieutenant and inducted into the 10th Mountain Division, an elite unit with whom he served as a mountain, and skiing instructor. He put together for this ‘The Manual of Ski Mountaineering’ which subsequently continued in demand post war in several editions. The 10th Mountain Division was involved in several key battles in North Italy and Brower earned a decoration for bravery in action in the Pre-alps. Returning to California on demob Brower along with Ansel Adams, and attorney Dick Leonard were the young Turks who set to and revitalised the Sierra Club which had become somewhat atrophied during the conflict. One has to understand that in the USA, there was not long standing local climbing clubs at that date, but what there was in California were the local Chapters of The Sierra Club, who organised climbing meets and beginners events at such outcrops as Stoney Point, where climbers like Royal Robbins learnt to climb as a member of the Los Angeles Chapter, and it was through these and building up the membership that a revitalised Sierra Club was reborn.

In 1952 Brower became the first Executive Director of The Sierra Club, and he brought a dynamism to the role not previously experienced in such a body, taking on the big corporations, and opposing developments the organisation felt damaged the natural environment such as a series of planned dams within the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River, and lobbying against these by taking out whole page advertisements in National newspapers, by appearing in the media, arguing the conservation cause, and winning a series of high exposure battles. In 1960 Brower drawing on his publishing experience launched a series of coffee table, exhibit format style books amongst which was in 1962, ‘In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World’, with photographs by Eliot Porter. Which became an international best seller; I still have my copy, and the pictures are still gob smacking. The Sierra Club also published climbing guidebooks to the Sierra, and Steve Roper and Alan Steck’s, ‘Fifty Classic Climbs in North America’.

Campaigning takes its toll on friendships and tempers, but mainly because of Brower’s expensive campaigns and his opposition to atomic power generation, worried by the problems of security and the expense of decommissioning, he faced serious criticism for his actions. A vote of no confidence was defeated in 1968, but in 1969 the heat was on again and this time he resigned. His old friends, Ansel Adams and Dick Leonard voted against him, but at least he could leave knowing he had put The Sierra Club centre stage with a massive increase in membership and its public profile.

But you cannot keep a campaigner like Brower quiet, he went off and founded in 1969 with Anderson, Aitken and Jerry Mander, a new environmental agency, with an international scope, ‘Friends of the Earth’. This is now bigger than The Sierra Club, with an international network of organisations in 74 countries; its first overseas employee was Amory Bloch Lovins, (more of him anon) and its Headquarters are in Holland. Brower was so famous in the following decade that he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize,  and he was  affectionately referred at as the ‘Arch Druid’, reported on as such by a New York Times reporter, John McPhee in a series of essays; ‘Encounters with the Arch Druid’.  Two of Brower’s own books were high sellers, ‘The Population Bomb’ this a major alert about the affects of a massive growth in the world’s population, and a truly environmental preservation work: ‘Let the mountains talk, let the rivers run’.

In 1986 Brower resigned as the head of Friends of the Earth, but meanwhile he had founded another organisation with a US brief, ‘The Earth Island Institute’. This is still like the other organisations he had given his effort and direction to, going on from strength to strength as is the David Brower centre in Berkeley. He died in 2000, but not before he had been invited back twice onto the Board of The Sierra Club. I met him once at an event organised by the American Alpine Club in Colorado in the 1980’s, he was tall, with an impressive presence and a very inquisitive look for all around him. When I was introduced to him by an old friend, a former President of the AAC, Bill Putnam he looked at me for a moment and demanded to know what was happening ‘to conserve the mountains of Snowdonia?’ He was as we might say in Yorkshire ‘an old cough drop!’

Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins is in a long line of scientist mountaineers; born in Washington D C in 1947 he began his academic career at Harvard, but moved to Oxford University to study Physics in 1967. He had already started mountaineering in the White Mountains of New Hampshire before that and each summer from 1965 Lovins guided trips there, earning a reputation as a photographer and essayist. At Oxford he joined the University Mountaineering Club, and contributed articles to its journal, including a contribution in 1969 about some of his Appalachian mountain activities entitled ‘New England Wanderer’, and whilst in the UK he became enthused by the hills of Snowdonia, and in 1971 this led on to the publication of his first book, ‘Eryri, The Mountains of Longing’, with photographs by Philip Evans and a foreword by Charles Evans. This put him in touch with Dave Brower and The Friends of the Earth who edited and published the book in their Earth’s Wild Places series. This volume is now a collectors-item, including poems and excerpts of writing by many other authors including R.S.Thomas to W.H.Murray with a mountain/wilderness theme. For some years he stayed on at Oxford gaining an M.A and becoming a Don, but then he was persuaded by Brower to become the first overseas employee of Friends of the Earth, and so he left academia and moved to London where he stayed until 1981.

In my early years at the BMC in the 1970’s we were hard wired into developing our policies over conservation and access, for we were often faced with threats both by access problems and inappropriate development schemes. In 1973 the World Energy crisis focussed our thinking about its generation, especially potential further Hydro schemes in the hill regions of the country. Alan Blackshaw was a high powered civil servant, the Under Secretary for Energy no less, and was later to be responsible for the bringing in of North Sea Oil. He was also the BMC President. Lovins had begun to specialise in the energy field, and I can remember Alan suggesting we try to get him involved, and so we welcomed him to advise in this area. He was very easy to know, and looked like a stereotypical Professor with a studious aspect that belied a fine sense of humour.

Amory returned to the USA in 1981 and in the following year he established with his wife Hunter Lovins, The Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. There he developed his theories of a ‘soft energy path’, based on efficient energy use, and also utilising diverse and renewable sources; wind, solar etc. It all reads as standard thinking now but in 1982 this was revolutionary.  To promote his ideas he made with his wife ( a photographer) a film documentary that won awards and he began a series of books to follow this up, some of which became best sellers, ‘Reinventing fire’, ‘Small is Profitable’, ‘Natural Capitalism’ and as of today he has now published 31 volumes in all. A volume of his selected essays, ‘The Essential Amory Lovins’, covering every subject from climbing to research physics was put together by the well known mountaineering commentator, Cameron Burns in 2011, and it was published by The Green Library.

His ideas are now centre stage, influencing Al Gore and other major public figures and he is so weighed down with awards and recognition, so much so that I will only, note that he has so far received ten honorary doctorates, two medals-The Benjamin Franklin and Happold medals, and dozens of other awards (The Heinz, Nissan, Lindbergh etc). In 1994 he started to work on ideas for improving and developing more energy efficient cars, which led to the Hypercar which was hydrogen powered, his ideas have led on to the major motor manufacturers bringing out a range of hybrids, including both BMW and Volkswagen.

He has now worked in the area of energy policy and its related fields for four decades, including advising several overseas governments to help develop their policies in this field. In 2009 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s 100 most influential people. The lad has come a long way from his youthful scrambling along the Grib Goch Ridge many years ago, and so the last words might be to any young climber just setting forth on their first tentative climbs; think where an awareness and respect for the mountain environment might- just might lead you?    
Dennis Gray: 2017: Previously Unpublished

Friday, 23 June 2017

Climbing in the War Years

At the end of a month of glorious weather in August 1939, when the only clouds were those of impending war in Europe, My wife Joy and I were walking with the Lake District artist Heaton Cooper, down Far Easedale, after a relaxed day's climbing on Lining Crag, below Greenup Edge. Only the day beforehand I had received a telegram, awaiting on our return to the Old Dungeon Ghyll from a day spent climbing on Gimmer Crag. I was instructed to report at Greenock on 2nd September, only three days later, to join the first troop convoy of the war.

I was due to sail on 3rd September, the third anniversary of our marriage.We strolled down the dale with a deep sense of things ending; of parting and uncertainty about the future. I recall saying to Joy: "Whatever else changes, these hills will still be the same when it's all over." 

Self-evident though they were, these words implied the fun we had enjoyed during July and August of that year. We had rented a bungalow at Braithwaite, and later taken a cottage in Grasmere, after returning from India. Our stay in the Lakes had been intended as a retreat from my studies for the Army Staff college exams. But as the days passed, bringing war even closer, that work became ever more irrelevant. In fact, we spent everyday climbing during those eight weeks; I still have the long list of climbs we did during that run-up to the declaration of war. The prospect of an end to those happy days, and to other days spent in Snowdonia during our three years of marriage, weighed heavily on our minds on our way back to Grasmere.

As things turned out, I had a rather good war as far as the mountains were concerned. I ran a training course at Helyg for members of my Brigade, and trained Commandos to climb in the Cairngorms and Snowdonia, and overseas there were times spent on Olympus, Athos and in the Appenines. There were opportunities to ski in the Vermion mountains, in the Peleponnese and on the hills surrounding Athens. But most memorable were the brief opportunities to return with Joy to the Lakes and North Wales during spells of leave from abroad. The first of these occasions was, to say the least of it, unfortunate. I had returned from India during the summer of 1940, and our first chance to return to the hills was in December of that year. We were expecting our second child early in 1941, so Joy would not be climbing and we would not go far afield.

We decided to spend the day following our arrival at Ogwen Cottage in the area surrounding Llyn Bochlwyd. It was one of those rare mid-winter days, with a clear sky after an overnight frost. Aware of my lack of form after 12 months since I had last climbed; conscious, too, of my forthcoming paternal responsibility, I resolved to do only a few modest climbs. I soloed happily up several routes on Bochlwyd Buttress, and moved on up to the Alphabet Slab on Glyder Fach. Beta and Delta presented no problems. It was now past mid-day; time to rejoin Joy, who was patiently waiting for me beside Llyn Bochlwyd. Should I do one more climb? 

With growing confidence I started up Alpha. All went well until I reached the final pitch, which I remember as requiring a pull-up on small holds from an exiguous stance. Alas! I lacked the strength to make it. With a sense of resignation about the inevitable outcome, I lowered myself gingerly to the small ledge where I had stood. Once again I tried to pull up, yet knowing the hopelessness of it. This time toes failed to find the stance, and I was 'off'. I fell.... the grey rock flashing past my vision like the walls of a lift when you descend to the basement. There was no sense of fear. I felt — or was aware of — a terrific bang, before floating into nothingness. I had fallen 100 feet before hitting the screes, and may have rolled a few more yards down the slope. Close by were the rucksacks of a CUMC party who were engaged on the Direct Route. They found me a further impediment to their baggage when they returned from their climb.

Eventually help arrived from the valley in the persons of a policeman and a doctor from Bethesda; mountain rescue was not an organised business in those days. With the Cambridge party acting as carriers of the stretcher which had been brought up from below, and with Joy in close attendance, we descended to the road. So much for paternal responsibility! A year later, in December 1941, I had recovered from the accident and we were again staying at Ogwen Cottage. Once again it was a perfect winter day when we prepared to start out on what, in view of the limited daylight hours, was a somewhat ambitious programme. We proposed to cross Bwlch Tryfan on our way to Lliwedd, climb the East Buttress via the Avalanche Route, traverse Snowdon, Crib y Ddysgl and Crib Goch and return to the cottage: all this was on foot, of course, for we had no car in those days. This time we had a companion. Marco Pallis was a climber with Himalayan experience; he had climbed in Sikkim with Freddie Spencer-Chapman. He had also led an expedition to the Gangotri area of the Central Himalaya in 1933.

Llyn Bochlwyd
He was also a competent rock climber, who had pioneered Birthday Crack on Clogwyn du'r Arddu with Colin Kirkus and Maurice Linnell. From his Himalayan experience he had adopted the Buddhist faith which, I suspect, had some bearing on our fortunes during that December day; he was imperturbable and oblivious to the passage of time.

Joy and I had planned an early start, but Marco arrived very late and it was mid-day before we were able to leave the cottage. It took us three and a half hours to reach the foot of Lliwedd. Marco was out of practice and unfit, so we made slow progress on the climb. By the time we had finished the route we were in total darkness, and had some difficulty in climbing the easy Terminal Arete. On the summit of the East Peak, having no torches, we were in real trouble. To continue over Snowdon and along the Horseshoe ridge was out of the question. Indeed, so minimal was our vision that we resorted to crawling on hands and knees, hopefully heading for the scree gully leading down to Llyn Llydaw, anticipating disaster from a fall over some minor crag on our way. During the descent Marco sprained an ankle, making progress even more snail-like.

At Pen y Gwryd we had a stroke of luck when we met a member of the Home Guard coming out of the hotel, who gave us a lift to Capel Curig. Here, by another fortunate coincidence, a good samaritan appeared in the person of Ifan Roberts, a local quarryman and botanist who was to become a good friend to myself and many other climbers. He was on his way home after duty as a member of the Observer Corps and he, in turn, gave us a further lift to Ogwen Cottage. It was nearly 2am. Great was the relief of Mrs Williams and her daughter, who were just about to report our absence to the police. I recall that episode with affection and respect for Marco Pallis, whose serenity and patience throughout the expedition was an object lesson to myself. And there were other friends who joined us during further visits to Snowdonia, before I was again posted overseas in 1943.

Indeed, our climbs, enjoyable though some of them were, were less important than the company we kept. I remember a splendid day in the Great Gully on Craig y Isfa with Alf Bridge. Alf, a perfectionist, was a dynamic and loveable character, who resigned at various times, from both the Climbers' Club and the Alpine Club on matters of principle, but remained a close friend of many climbers. He had helped me run the training course at Helyg and was later to play a vital role in the assembly and dispatch of our oxygen equipment on Everest in 1953. I recall a much smaller climb with Wilfred Noyce during that Helyg course: on Chalkren Stairs, Gallt yr Ogof, when he, a brilliant rock climber, 'came off' while climbing the final slab, and I had the privilege of holding his fall and then giving him a top-rope! During the Commando courses I enjoyed the company of Frank Smythe of Everest 1933 fame, and David Cox. Frank, a gentle and most unwar-like person, was commandant of the Commando and Snow Warfare school. He was a member of the party which made the first ascent of Longland's on Clogwyn du'r Arddu; but he, like Marco, was no longer in his prime on hard rock.

1963 Everest reunion at the Pen yr Gwryd

With David Cox I did a number of climbs from our Commando Training base at Braemar. I also recall a very pleasant route we did on Craig yr Isfa, in the Arch Gully area of the crag. For David, Wilfred and myself, those years marked the beginning of a very happy partnership after the war, in Britain and in the Alps. With Wilf, that shared experience later extended to the Himalaya and the Pamirs. I remember how peaceful were the hills in wartime.

How remote they were from the global conflict. In Snowdonia, the roads were narrow and winding in those days, bordered by the ancient dry stone walls and burdened by a negligible flow of traffic. No tourist industry brought visitors in their thousands at at weekends to the 'honey-pot' areas of Beddgelert, Capel Curig, Betws y Coed, Pen y Pass and Llanberis. There were few climbers or walkers around. Apart from mainly sea training orientated Outward Bound Centre at Aberdovey, no activity centres had been established, to add their colourful anoraks to the scenery and to create congestion on the more popular climbs. Plas y Brenin was still the historic Royal Hotel. At Pen y Pass, the Gorfwysfa Hotel, famed for the reunions convened by Geoffrey Winthrop Young at Easter, was still in business.Ogwen Cottage was still a humble inn for the likes of Joy and me.

The mountains were not under threat from new hydro-electric schemes or other equally unfriendly development. There was no perceived need for planning controls; it would only be a decade later that the Lake District and Snowdonia would be designated as National Parks. When we were able to return to those hills in 1946, the words I spoke on the way down from Far Easedale on that glorious evening at the end of August 1939 were still true.....'These hills will still be the same when it's all over." 

John Hunt: First published as 'Some memories of climbing in war time' in the CCJ 1995 

Friday, 16 June 2017

Remembering Royal Robbins

Image: Glenn Denny
It may seem a strange thing to say, but Royal Robbins carried British climbing values into American climbing culture with permanent benefit for both climbers and the rock they climbed. There were to be no more peg scars in Yosemite cracks, which now became finger locks for climbs protected by nuts, and bolt ladders became the guilty ‘machine in the garden’, to use Leo Marx’s famous phrase, that they always had been. So when he came to the UK, often at the suggestion, behind the scenes, of Ken Wilson, Royal reflected back at us, in his gracious, principled, quiet, steely manner, our own best selves, in case we had forgotten and had started bolting beside cracks in quarries like Harper Hill.

It was his mother, who moved to California when he was a teenager, who taught Robbins self-reliance – breaking through low self-esteem at school, the disappearance of two fathers, an attempted robbery - and it was the Boy Scouts that introduced him to rock climbing in the High Sierra. He wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, ‘Scouting is a vehicle through which good men change forever the lives of boys, and are forever remembered for doing so’. Bouldering and top-roping after school at the local sandstone outcrops at Stoney Point, Robbins gained his first lessons and a broken wrist.

In 1952, Robbins made the first free ascent of the Open Book in Tahquitz, California, pushing free climbing standards to 5.9. Five years later, he, Jerry Gallwas, and Mike Sherrick completed the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome over five days. But it was the 1967 ascent with his wife Liz of The Nutcracker (5.8) in Yosemite, after a visit to the UK had convinced him that pitons could be replaced by nuts, even on a 500 foot route, that changed everything. Warren Harding had been sieging and bolting his way up Yosemite’s walls, sometimes with six months gaps between pitches for weather and partying, and Robbins was determined to demonstrate that there was a better way.

As his partner Tom Frost said, ‘His philosophy was that it’s not getting to the summit but how you do it that counts’. Harding declared that Robbins was the ‘Valley Christian’ in his advocacy of ‘clean climbing’. Perhaps nowhere was Robbins’ preaching more eloquent than on the West Face of Leaning Tower, which had taken Harding seventeen months to climb with the use of fixed ropes from bottom to top, and multiple partners, topping out in November 1958. Four and a half years later Robbins soloed the route over four days, using some of Harding’s bolts, but cleaning his pitons after each pitch (five years before he discovered the even cleaner use of nuts).

This was the ‘Golden Age’ of Yosemite climbing, but during this period Robbins also applied his approach in first ascents on Alpine walls elsewhere, such as his 1962 first ascent of the American Direct (ED: 5.11, 1000m) on the Aiguille du Dru with Gary Hemming, and the 1963 first ascent of the Robbins Route (originally VI 5.8 A4) on Mt. Proboscis in Canada's Northwest Territories with Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor and Dick McCracken. It was in Yosemite, however, that Robbins forged his climbing ethics.

In 2010 Robbins reflected, ‘I think that we were drawn to our ethical stance because it was harder that way, frankly, and I think whatever’s harder has to be better’. In later life Robbins admitted to really being in thrall to ‘the fame dragon’ as much as Harding and admired his sheer grit in staying focussed on his routes. Harding had answered Robbins’ Half Dome ascent with the epic first ascent of The Nose of El Cap, bolting the last pitch with desperate determination through the night. Robbins replied with the first ascent of the Salathe Wall with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt, taking a natural line that required only thirteen bolts, before Harding did Leaning Tower. Robbins’ second ascent of The Nose was made in a continuous, seven-day push with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost.

A more radical statement was made in Robbins’ second ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light on El Cap in 1971 with Don Lauria. Robbins was outraged at the first ascent made in typical Harding siege style, later writing: ‘Here was a route with 330 bolts. It had been forced up what we felt to be a very unnatural line, sandwiched between other routes, merely to get another route on El Capitan and bring credit to the people who climbed it. We felt that this could be done anywhere; instead of 330 bolts, the next might have 600 bolts, or even double that. We felt that it was an outrage, and that if a distinction between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable had to be made, then this was the time to make it.’ Probably the TV appearances Harding made as a hero of Yosemite climbing had something to do with Robbins and Lauria making plans to remove the route, chopping the bolts off the wall as they climbed.

Their six day climb also became the first winter ascent of El Cap. When Geoff Birtles cheekily asked Robbins to write Harding’s obituary for High magazine Robbins rose to the occasion with honesty, grace and wit, recalling his last visit to Harding in his hospital bed where, as Robbins was leaving, Harding looked up at the tubes coming into his arm and said, ‘More wine!’ After arthritis curtailed his climbing career, Robbins made many kayak first descents in the Sierras after he realised that some were only possible in meltwater floods. This included the ‘Triple Crown’ of the last three great rivers in the Sierra that had yet to see a descent. In 1967 Robbins launched a climbing-gear company, importing boots, ropes, and helmets with his wife Liz who was his real rock. By the 1980s, this small gear company, Mountain Paraphernalia, had blossomed into a business producing no-nonsense, reliable clothing, called ‘Royal Robbins’ which, although they sold it in 2003, is still going strong today.

Robbins also became known for his classic instructional books Basic Rockcraft (1971) and Advanced Rockcraft (1973) which taught the techniques of clean climbing. Robbins even included a ‘Sermon’ in Advanced Rockcraft in which he summed up his ‘rules’ of climbing: stay safe, be honest, and leave the stone unchanged. More recently the three published volumes of his autobiography reflect wryly on the philosophy behind his statement climbs and generously acknowledge his debts to his mentors, protagonists and partners.

It was sad that Robbins was probably unaware of the earlier death of his old friend Ken Wilson because, like Ken, he was suffering from dementia. I heard of Robbins’ death in an email from my Californian climbing partner, Larry Giacomino, who expressed the feelings of a local: ‘A really sad day for us here. He was a cut above the rest of us in terms of ethics - a couple of cuts above in skill. And his judgement was impeccable. I must go to his “Camp Four Wine Café” in Modesto on my next trip to the Valley.’ Royal Robbins had a Camp Four Wine Café? Had he stolen one idea from Harding after all?

Terry Gifford: 2017. First Published in Climber-April 2017 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Blue Remembered Hills

As a tribute to Walt Unsworth who died on Tuesday at the fine age of 89, the following article is a piece he wrote for Climber magazine in 1983 when he was editor. His long and active life in the world of mountain literature as an author, editor and publisher, can be discovered in fuller detail in the linked Cicerone appreciation at the foot of this article.

Everyone has their own favourites amongst the lesser hills of Britain; places to which they can return time and again, not in the expectation of a dour struggle against mountain and weather perhaps (though sometimes they surprise you) but for spiritual renewal, in the way that the old mill workers used to tread the draughty Pennines. My favourites have always been in my backyard, so to speak. When I lived in the Midlands I found much pleasure in tramping the Stiperstones and scrambling about the weird, witch-begotten rocks that mark the top of that strange hill; when I lived in Manchester the Anglezarke moors became a favourite and I remember particularly one long winter's walk with A. B. Hargreaves and Jim O'Neil, staggering down in the frosty darkness to a hotpot supper at Rivington Old Barn.

Nowadays my favourites are the Howgills which I can just about glimpse from the look-out on the roof of my house, put there by a long dead sea captain, who wanted to see the ships coming into Sandside. He traded in slaves, incidentally. The Howgills are, for me, the very essence of Housman's 'blue remembered hills' — much more so than the others I've mentioned. They are hills as a child would draw hills: steep sided cones clustered together in a broad clump. From a distant viewpoint like Farleton Fell they often seem literally blue, or more accurately perhaps, a  pale mauve — then the light will change and a hint of green show through, dappled by shadows from passing clouds. I first saw these hills as a child during the war when I was periodically shipped off to Edinburgh out of harm's way. The gorge of the Lune was always one of the highlights of the journey, the great steam locomotive of the L.M.S. charging into the narrow dale, cinders flying from the smoke stack and the steep sided hills crowding in on either hand. They made a marvellous picture framed by the carriage windows and, strangely enough, that same view of the Howgills is still the best, in my opinion. Though nowadays it is more often viewed from the adjacent motorway, where the view is wider
and more long lasting.

Thousands of travellers over the years must have had their curiosity aroused by the conspicuous gash of Carlin Gill which is the focal point of this scene. Perhaps some, like Hassan, went a little further and determined to someday penetrate the Gill, looking for the last blue mountain. Though not many, I think. The Howgills are never overpopulated despite the fact that they have a Wainwright guide, not to mention a Harvey large scale map. They are not to everyone's taste- thank God- being, as someone once said, neither 'fish nor fowl'. Meaning that they had neither the rugged grandeur of the Lakeland fells which flank them to the west, nor the bogtrotting bleakness of the Pennine moors to the east. The qualities they possess are their own. Exceedingly steep slopes and a short, dry, springy turf which makes walking a pleasure. They are by no means gentle hills, but neither are they savage in the way that, say, Bleaklow is. Technically, I suppose, several of the tops in the Howgills are not hills but mountains, if one accepts the generally agreed definition of a mountain as something of 2000ft or over.

The highest point, The Calf, is 2219ft: Randygill Top, Yarlside, Fell Head, all make the magic mark, though ‘nobbut just' as they say, whilst most of the others miss out by the merest of margins. Nor are they hills in another sense: they are of the North West and therefore `fells', in the proper Norse tradition. 

My first excursion into the Howgills, like that of many walkers, was to climb The. Calf from the Cross Keys temperance hotel at Cautley. It has the advantage of superb scenery insofar as it gives close views of the gaunt and crumbling Cautley Crag and that celebrated showpiece of the district, the waterfall of Cautley Spout. It has the disadvantage of being short and steep if you take the most direct line and intend going no further than The Calf. Both objections are easily overcome. The first visit began inauspiciously, I remember. Somebody had put a bull in the field at the bottom of Cautley Holme Beck. It was necessary to pass quite close, and my thoughts, which should have been on the beauty of nature, were on whether it was possible to run up Yarlside carrying a rucksack and the folly of wearing a red cagoule! Fortunately the bull just stared at me balefully.

I've never seen one there since, I'm glad to say, especially as these days I know I couldn't run up Yarlside. On this walk the best way to reduce the overall steepness is to climb the slopes to the col at Bowderdale Head, between Yarlside and The Calf, then continue in the same direction to an obvious slanting trod which circles round the flanks of The Calf to the summit plateau. The Spout is the main feature of the walk, without doubt. It is really a string of waterfalls in two main sections, looking like a silver ribbon carelessly tossed down the fellside. It is attractive, impressive — far more so than any waterfall in the Lakes- and comparable with The Grey Mare's Tail near Moffat.

This walk can be lengthened by continuing over Bram Rigg Top, Calders and Great Dummacks, then descending the steep fellside back to the Cross Keys. I once did this on a meet led by John and Fredda Kemsley, who had the happy knack of organising club meets in the lesser known hills. The previous day we had been over Wild Boar Fell and Mallerstang Edge in hot weather, with ABH searching for a suitable pool in which to have a dip, en route. Sadly, John and Fredda were to lose their lives a couple of years later in a storm on the Dent d' Herens.

There is a more energetic approach to The Calf from the Cross Keys which Pat Hurley and I took one time and which visits some of the less frequented eastern tops. We began up Westerdale, crossing the Backside Beck by a little footbridge, then following the old farm road which leads from Narthwaite to Mountain View. This is a short valley by Howgill standards, so before long we were climbing up to the col below Randygill Top and following the fine little ridge that leads to the summit. What an extensive view there is from this fell! In the distance the blue ridges of Lakeland sweep across the horizon from Coniston Old Man to Carrock Fell. Cross Fell rises massively to the north, then, turning in a half circle eastwards, we could pick out Wild Boar Fell, Ingleborough, Whernside and the tangle of fells around Barbon. The nearer view, too, is impressive, especially the long trough of Bowderdale which lay directly below us. The ridges and deep troughs of the Howgills were revealed in their complexity; hump upon hump, like a shoal of stranded whales. The slopes of our next objectives, Kensgriff and Yarlside, looked horrendous as they shimmered in the hot sun. 

The way ahead, as we knew it would be, turned out to be a very up and down affair, like walking the track of Blackpool's Big Dipper. You've simply got to get used to the steep fellsides if you are to enjoy the Howgills at all, and few come steeper than the traverse from Randygill Top over Kensgriff and Yarlside to the col at Bowderdale Head. The ascent of Yarlside in particular is a real cruncher, like climbing Whernside from Greensett Tarn. Yarlside does have one advantage, however, which even Wainwright seems to have missed. Descending from the summit to Bowderdale Head (another steep knee jerker) gives the best views of Cautley Spout you are likely to see. 

From the col we plugged our way up to The Calf by the usual route then, in descent, followed the beck down to take a closer look at the Spout — not, I hasten to add, a recommended thing to do and certainly not if the weather is bad. That evening we ate at The Fat Lamb. Peering out of the window we thought the sun and the steep slopes had finally done for us and brought on hallucinations. Peering back at us was a llama, of the Peruvian kind. "Oh, my God," I cried. "We've flipped at last!" "It must be the ale," said Pat, who is a doctor and should know about these things.

It was, of course, Henry, the landlord's pet llama. Carlin Gill is different from any other walk in the Howgills. From the narrow road the Romans built along the western flanks of the fells you enter at once into a narrow valley which twists away to the right. So steep are the valley sides that landslip is common and the grass has at best a tenuous hold on the shaley slopes. The path crosses and recrosses the beck, seeking what footholds it can until at last the valley widens at a confluence and makes a splendid camp site. Beyond this it narrows again to a small rocky gorge where the best way ahead is usually the bed of the gill, though in a really wet season this might not be practicable. Once through the narrows, the gill divides in a dramatic manner.

The main stream comes directly down from a splendid little waterfall, known, somewhat confusingly, as The Spout. It is set in a craggy bower, bypassed on the left by extremely steep shaley slopes, the like of which I wouldn't recommend even to a mere acquaintance. The Spout is fine, but is overshadowed by Black Force, a deep ravine which tumbles into the gill on its right bank. There is a scramble up the bed of Black Force which Brian Evans mentions in Scrambles In The Lake District, but most walkers would prefer the fine, steep, grass ridge which bounds it on the left. Pat Hurley and I were here once when the mist was low, giving the head of the gill a Wagnerian atmosphere. Fingers of vapour drifted in and out of Black Force, making it appear much more savage than it really is.

We were very impressed and even more impressed as we crawled up the narrow ridge, the top of which seemed like a miniature model of Halls Fell on Blencathra,with nothing but bottomless pits of mist on either hand. Pure illusion, of course — take away the mist and you have a straightforward slog offering interesting views into the Force. On that misty day we traversed, somewhat uncertainly, over Fell Head and round the ridge over White Fell to The Calf. The compass seemed unreliable, for I tend not to trust an instrument which gives me three different directions for North whilst I'm standing still, and it may be that there are magnetic influences in the underlying rock, though nobody else seems to have noticed them. 

Walt Unsworth: Cicerone Press

Anyway, I kept the compass in my pocket as a good-luck charm, and steered by God and Guesswork, as the old mariners used to say. There were never enough windows in the mist to give us a clear idea of where we were at any one time, but somehow we managed to reach the trig block on The Calf without too much fuss. On the descent, naturally, the mist began to rise and we had a splendid jog down the long ridge of White Fell to Chapel Beck, then cut steeply over Brown Moor and the slopes beyond to reach the Fairmile Gate on the Roman Road. Steak and chips at the Barnaby Rudge in Tebay, washed down with a couple of pints of good ale, ended what had been another memorable day on the Howgills. ■ 

Walt Unsworth: Climber November 1983 

Cicerone Appreciation article