Friday, 18 May 2018

Out in the Big Apple

I started to be really proud of the fact that I was gay, even though I wasn't
Kurt Cobain.

Watch it’ I warned as I tried to get established over the top of the overhanging side, of one of the Columbus boulders in New York’s Central Park. The Big Apple at the end of June is hot and muggy like being in a sauna, and sweat poured into my eyes as I hung there contemplating a fall. As I continued to struggle, I became conscious that a bearded, gangling fellow had appeared as if from nowhere, and was now sitting cross legged and chanting out aloud beneath myself; occupying the only possible landing place.
Desperation set in and with a last gasp effort I managed with a type of belly flop to somehow get safely landed on the rounded summit of the boulder. Feeling angry about the action of this inconsiderate newcomer, I descended quickly intending to give him a rollicking, only to find him sitting in the lotus position, chanting and oblivious to that which was going on around him.
Hey....what are you doing?’ I testily demanded… He looked at me bemused and I guessed he was spaced out? But then he announced ‘This is my Karma centre’ ‘A Buddhist, what kind Hinayana or Mahayana?’ I enquired. ‘I’m Zen man, Zen’ he replied then continued chanting his mantra. He certainly looked like being in touch with something other-worldly, sitting on the pile of wood chips spread by the local climbers, along the base of the boulders to provide safe and clean landings. ‘Only in the US of A’ I mused as I moved away, to seek out another bouldering venue in the Park, near to the Zoo.
Such was to be my introduction to climbing in the City, a place to which I had been briefly before on several occasions, passing through on my way to climb at the Shawangunks and in New Hampshire. But here I was for two weeks attending the biggest athletic/cultural event outside of the Olympics, with 11,000 other participants, from 31 sports, and 2500 artists, taking part in everything from jazz concerts, art and photographic exhibitions to dance and theatre performances. This was to be the Gay Games lV, and I have never been to anything before or since which matched it for interest and a fun time.

It all began for me with a notice on a board at the Foundry Climbing Centre in Sheffield announcing ‘Sports Climbing is now to be included in the 1994 Gay Games, in New York. You do not have to be gay to take part, just gay friendly’. A contact given for the UK was Phil Judson, whose address indicated he lived near me, so intrigued, I phoned him to enquire about further details of the event. It did sound interesting and Phil asked if I could try to persuade some of the British Sports Climbing team to take part, as he felt it was necessary to make a strong showing, as some who would take part, especially from the USA would be of international standard. I contacted two members of the British team known to me, and was shocked by their homophobic responses. Typical of these was the one who declined, because she felt that if she did take part, people would think she was gay, and this might adversely affect her standing in our sport.

Sorrowfully I had some time later to advise Phil that I had not been able to get any of our National team to take part. ‘Would you be willing to make up the team?’ he enquired, and after some hesitation, for Gay in 1994 was not accepted as it is in 2018, I agreed. To then find myself to be one of the British participants, selected by the Gay Outdoor Club (whose existence until then I was not aware of), made up of three guys and two gals.

Due to flight availability I flew out ahead of the others, and was surprised, to find on my arrival in New York that two locals had volunteered to be my hosts for the two weeks of the Games. Like thousands of others in the City they had agreed to put up a participant/s free of any charge, and I was soon to find out what an incredible piece of luck this was. Their apartment overlooked the western aspect of Central Park, New York’s impressive green oasis, which must be the most interesting of its kind anywhere? I could be out there bouldering in minutes, watch the roller-bladers in the Mall, sit and listen to talented busking musicians, including the finest jazz funk combo I have ever heard, and also watch the soft ball players. I could stroll in the Strawberry Fields (a tribute to John Lennon), go for a run on the reservoir track, and attend the numerous events held in the Park which were to be a part of the Games, including the Marathon.

Most days I went out to the boulders early in the morning before it became too hot to climb, and through doing this I made acquaintance with a climber from Boulder, who was working on a short-term construction project in New York. Chuck was physically ripped and as he climbed wearing only shorts and rock-boots, with his muscles bulging in acute definition he looked more like a body builder than a climber. The third day I was bouldering with him, working the classic traverse from right to leftwards of the Columbus boulders, two guys came running past obviously training for the Marathon, wearing Gay Games T- shirts. 'Jeez look at those faggots’ Chuck exclaimed to me. ‘I just don’t get it, they will be on the cliffs next, and I’ll be moving out!’

Coming to the end of our session, changing from rock boots into trainers he then began to quiz me on my life and background. And, ‘Why was I in the Big Apple?’ I swallowed hard and had difficulty responding but managed to gasp out ‘I’m here for the Games’. This he mistook for the Soccer World Cup then in progress; Ireland my mother’s country having beaten Italy just the preceding day. ‘Boy you Limeys will go anywhere just to watch a game of soccer. Me I would sooner watch the NBA’ ‘No I’m here for the Gay Games’ I managed to blurt out’. ‘Holy shit man…. I’m sorry, I did not wish to offend you’ he replied, so obviously embarrassed. I am sure he didn’t, but homophobia lies deep in the psyche of some climbers, and in the past, my own climbing friends and I might have been just as guilty of the cheap jibe and hurtful stereotype.

Ian McKellan shows his support: New York 1994

From daily attending at the boulders I met a keen Latino lady, Renato. She was in her early twenties, tall and elegant, with an impressive shock of black curly hair. Every day she was there early in the morning working the classic traverse, but always failing on the final difficult two step moves. But nevertheless, because she was so keen I dubbed her ‘The Queen of the Boulders’. Eventually after daily practice, I had these final moves wired and could manage them at every crossing. This as long as the sun was not on the rock, for being a smooth volcanic series, it then became greasy and almost un-climbable.

Why don’t you work the final section?’ I suggested to her after she had failed for the third time one morning. She grimaced but took my advice, and after completing the end moves successfully several times, took a long rest, then set forth. This time she climbed faultlessly and easily completed the whole traverse. At which she was openly delighted and turned and hugged me to her. ‘Tonight you must come out with me’ she decided. ‘Can you dance?’ ‘No Renato no’ ‘You will’ she advised letting go of me. ‘My friends and I are going to the concert here in the Park this evening; it is Ben Jori the best Salsa band in the world. There will be thousands attending from New York’s Latino community’.
Who has not heard of the famous open air, summer concerts in Central Park?...... Simon and Garfunkel, Mahalia Jackson, The New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, but Salsa? I expressed my doubts to Renato that I thought this music would not be my kind of beat, but just a few hours later I had to confess a new found enthusiasm for Latin American music. Literally tens of thousands of enthusiasts were up on their feet, including myself, twirling and moving to the Ben Jori sounds.

New York despite being a huge metropolis, with a large climbing community, had I was surprised to find out only two climbing walls; one in a converted bath house, run by a voluntary group ‘The City Climbers’, as a co-operative without the benefit of air conditioning, whilst the other one which had, was in a ritzy health club.

This was inside the Manhattan Plaza between 9th and 10th Avenues, and so the next day with Renato as my guide, I went to check this out.
It had fitted carpets, wall to wall, icy cold air conditioning, was quiet like a library and only about the size of a small sports hall. The routes were rather unimaginative, but what was the worst feature was the entry price.
That night I attended the ‘Out of Towner’s Ball’, which was the first event of the hectic social round, to be run in tandem with the Games. This was held at Roseland, then the biggest disco in the world, and my hosts advised me that ‘If you wanna to see some good dancing, you must go there early’, and so I did.
When I arrived there were only about six guys on the dance floor, but they were all gold medal standard dancers. Moon walking, back flips, somersaulting all in time to the music, it impressed on me what an art form this had become. Staying late, for the evening only peaked after midnight, and then travelling home on the subway was as exciting as traversing a Himalayan icefall. The hint of menace at two in the morning, inside those cavernous depths where muggings were at that date, a nightly occurrence kept the adrenaline flowing.

However the next morning I was up early to catch a bus from the Port Authority terminal, north to the Catskills to meet up with a Slovak climber ,who I had climbed with previously in that country. Two hours later I arrived in New Palz at the foot of the Shawangunks, from where I set out to try to hitchhike to Sky Top, one of the furthest away of the Catskill outcrops, at which I was eventually dropped off by a local apple farmer driving a pick- up truck.

I had not seen Pietr for quite some time, but now here he was living and climbing in New York State. He had ‘escaped’ the Eastern-bloc during the 1980’s, and had managed to gain refuge in the USA, where he was now an entrepreneur in the real estate business. I had been worried that the good life might have made him indolent but he was just as lean, tall and fit looking as I had remembered him. At this reunion we fell to laughing remembering how he had presented me as a rich relative from England, when we had to face the authorities in Bratislava over an illegal currency exchange.

Sky Top is an amazing place. Unfortunately like the rest of the Shawangunks you have to pay to climb there, something that grates in the so called ‘Land of the free’. But once inside it’s a magic place, with walkways and gardens, and a large hotel complex; surrounded by rock outcrops set above a picturesque artificial lake. After soloing, a couple of easy 5.5 routes, we decided to move up the grades to Mini Belle a 5.8 pioneered by an old friend, Fritz Wiessner in 1946.

I had ascended this before but for Pietr this was a challenge. It starts with a difficult section from off the ground and then a series of steep pulls and layback moves to reach easier terrain. My companion,
with an initial hesitation then quickly overcame these, and soloing up behind him, I was impressed that when I had previously climbed the route over 20 years before, it had not registered with me how difficult those first moves really are.

That night I returned to New York to meet up with the rest of our team who were flying into the JFK airport. They had arrived just in time for the Games opening ceremony, which was held the very next day in the Wein stadium out in a City suburb. I guess that is when I first began to realise what an enormous event the Games organising committee were overseeing, as it finally got under away. Maybe I was badly informed prior to this, but perhaps most other climbers of my generation would have been similarly ignorant?
11,000 athletes had assembled from 44 countries, and marching along and involved that day was every level of performer from some like myself, just there for the hell of it, to Olympic gold medallists, a Wimbledon winner, and former world record holders. The organisers had brought in some of the biggest names in show business to orchestrate and produce the event. There were marching bands and cheerleaders, a choir and an orchestra. Amongst the British contingent marching along were Stephen Fry and Ian McKellen. I ventured to ask Stephen Fry which event he had entered for, but he laughed out loud at this, then replied ‘They have not included my event yet’. ‘What is that’ I asked thinking he might be keen on Sumo or some other similar sport, ‘Flower arranging dear boy, flower arranging’ he advised.

Our British team for the Sports climbing then held some last minute training at the City Climber’s Wall situated in an old bathhouse down on the lower West Side. This was run by climbers for climbers, several of which were behind the organisation of the climbing event to be held at the Games. Although this facility was small by modern standards, boasting only about 40 routes, and not very high, they were then the best such climbs I had encountered on a climbing wall, where route setting is key to achieving such a result. The City Climbers kindly let us use their facilities for free, and at our team meetings I was impressed by the strength of one of our members, Zak Nataf, a film director from London. She was actually at home, being a local girl born in Harlem, NYC!
Vision Video Memories: New York 94
The Sports Climbing, competition needed to be held in New Palz at the ‘Inner Wall’, there being no suitable venue then available in New York. This was a fine modern panel wall and the route setting had been carried out by a team led by Ralph Erenzo. On arriving there with the rest of the competitors I found out I was entered in the Veterans class and that the competition was to take place over two days, a qualifying one and then the finals. There were more than 90 competitors mainly from the USA, but some were from Europe and even Australia.
The Gay Games was the brainchild of Dr Tom Waddell, who finished sixth in the 1968 Olympic Decathlon, and though the standards in the Sports Climbing were as expected much lower than those pertaining in other current Internationals; for many of the other events only a world class performance could secure a win.

The morning of the commencement of the Sports climbing competition all of the competitors and volunteers travelled to New Palz from New York, on a fleet of buses, provided by the organisers. During that first day each of us had to climb six routes, of which only four would count towards the elimination scores. Each route had been awarded a number of points, with the easiest having the lowest and the hardest the highest. I decided to climb three easy ones, and then try three, which were much harder. I failed on one of these but managed the others successfully. And so when my scores were added up, I found I had qualified for the finals, so had Zak and Phil. But unfortunately our other two team members, Martin and Sophie just had not amassed sufficient points to make the cut.

Immediately the first day’s competition was over and the names of the qualifiers announced an impromptu party began. Led off by a team of Lesbian drummers; and then a Canadian competitor took over, who earned his living as a stand up comedian. He had everyone laughing out loud at his comedy aimed at the incongruity of climbing up an artificial wall, instead of the real thing, the rocks of the Shawangunks lying literally just up the road.

The finals the next day could not have been better supported, with the Inner Wall packed to suffocation with failed competitors, and spectators. There were two routes set, which had to be attempted by both the men and the women (I think these latter would not have wished it otherwise). I was rather gob-smacked to find we veterans were to attempt these as well, and we had to also suffer isolation.
In the men’s event I had drawn out to be the first to climb, and when I walked out to the foot of the first route I was greeted by a thunderous applause. Which was to be a real anti-climax for the spectators, for after completing the preliminaries, tying onto the rope and starting out on a difficult rising traverse, I simply greased off the holds and landed onto the floor to be counted out.

Phil fared somewhat better than me and made quite some progress before he too fell off. It seemed that the first route was difficult, for the favourite, a 21 year old local climber appropriately named Mountain Miller, also failed to complete this, but climbed high enough to qualify to attempt the second route. On which he stormed up to reach the belay chain, a feat which, no other male competitor succeeded in managing, and so he was the outright winner of the men’s competition.
The women were actually stronger than the men, and as Diane Russell was a participant, and a former USA National Sports climbing champion, our team member Zak knew she was in for a real challenge. It was to be a really impressive performance by Diane which won the day, for she completed both routes, whilst Zak managed within one or two moves to complete the first, but happily was successful on the second. No other women or man managed other than Mountain Miller to complete either of these routes.

That was the end of the competition and both Phil and I were surprised, at the awards ceremony held at its finish, to find he had won the Veterans gold medal and I the bronze, whilst Zak had won the silver medal for her performance in the women’s event. Thus our team had won three medals, and only the USA had bested us.
Within minutes of the completion of the Awards ceremony, with much cheering of every medallist, as they were called up to receive their award, another party was soon under away. This was the most enjoyable such sports climbing event I have ever attended. And as someone who was an organiser along with the equipment manufacturer from Wales, DMM of the first World Cup event in Leeds in the late 1980’s, I can honestly report this one was much more friendly and fun.

The closing ceremony at the end of the New York Gay Games in the Yankee stadium exceeded every other such ceremony I have attended. 55,000 people turned out for the most spectacular entertainment one could imagine. This was more impressive than most closing ceremonies at the Olympic Games, for it was so varied and included something such events usually lack; humour. No West End or Broadway theatre could have afforded the cast list, for it included a thousand member gospel choir; dancers from the New York City ballet, and once again marching bands, stars from the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway, jazz , classical musicians and much more. But for me Cyndi Lauper stole the show, singing ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ supported by a troupe of male dancers, from the New York City ballet in drag. So ended for me two weeks, made up of many memorable experiences, and If you have never been to the Big Apple, my advice it to go there as soon as you are able, and if you’re a climber pack your rock gear, but also a pair of dancing shoes, ready for a spot of moon walking. 

Surprising to myself, negative comment appeared about my own participation in the Gay Games, as detailed above. Which is why I did not write up a fulsome report at that time, with merely a short note appearing written by myself in ‘On the Edge’ magazine, but this is the first occasion I have covered these events. Fortunately this is now against the tide of developing opinion within the sport, which is to be more inclusive, equal and diverse. Long may this trend continue to expand and influence the thinking of today’s participants!

There are now around a dozen climbing walls in New York, illustrating how-popular indoor climbing has become in that City.The next Gay Games are to be held in Paris in 2018 (Limerick and London were short listed), 17 cities have bid to host the 2022 event, including Capetown, Guadalajara (Mexico), Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.The Winter Games are held at one site, Whistler in Canada. 

Dennis Gray:2018 

Friday, 4 May 2018

Loose Rock : A Memory of Pillar

Pillar Rock: W Heaton Cooper. From the Cooper Studio.....
This impressive view of Pillar Rock was painted by William in the 1930’s when he began to make drawings for the early rock climbing guidebooks, published by the Fell & Rock Climbing Club. Here he has simplified the form of the infamous crag, seen in the fading evening light, to produce a monumental painting that reveals his deep knowledge of ‘rock architecture’.

I may not be alone, among the older generation of climbers, in recalling my return to the fells in 1946, the first year of the peace, as a uniquely emotive experience; for me it was almost an act of thanksgiving for survival. In late August, 1939, as the clouds of war gathered over Europe and my recall to military duty became imminent, my wife and I, with Heaton Cooper, were walking down Easedale towards our rented cottage in Grasmere on a glorious evening of that long, hot summer. We had been climbing on Lining Crag below Greenup Edge. I recall saying to my companions: "Whatever else happens, these hills will still be here when it's all over." A few days later I sailed from Greenock in the first convoy of the war; a copy of Heaton's "The Hills of Lakeland" was in my baggage and this helped to keep hope alive during the months and years ahead of me.

True, there had been a few opportunities to climb in war-time, during the brief spells of leave and while training Commandos in mountain and snow warfare in Scotland and Wales. But I had not returned to the Lakes in all those six years. So it was with a special sense of anticipation that Joy and I came down from Scotland after a few days climbing in Glencoe, to spend Easter with Professor A.S. Pigou at Gatesgarth. His other guests were Philip Noel-Baker, at that time a Minister in Clem Atlee's administration; Harry Tilley, with whom I was shortly to climb in Skye; and Wilfrid Noyce. Wilfrid, a most improbable soldier, had turned up in my regiment at the beginning of the war before being posted to duties more attuned to his talents; I had made the most of his skill and experience during the short spell to help me train soldiers of my Brigade and later, Commando units, in North Wales.

It was during those weeks that we had played truant — or taken busmen's holidays — and climbed together. It was as though to give thanks for personal survival that, on our first day that Eastertide, I suggested we return to Lining Crag after climbing on Scafell. Joy, having the responsibility of being mother to our young family, was not climbing that year, but she came along to watch our antics and meet us when we reached the top. We spent a splendid day on Eagle Front and other climbs in Birkness Coombe on our second day, the pleasure of it by no means diminished by a dressing down from the `Prof' for being late for dinner. For our third and last — and best — day we chose Pillar, my favourite Lakeland crag, which held many good memories from pre-war years.

It was typical of Wilf that he should compose a recipe worthy of the occasion: it was Easter Monday and, for more reasons than one, we were in a mood to rejoice. He proposed three routes which, together, would make a synthesis of strenuous and delicate climbing, laced with a high awareness of exposure. The ascent of Savage Gully would provide that first ingredient: by the standards of over forty years ago it ranked a very strenuous climb. But we had not reckoned on another ingredient of Wilf's menu: loose rock. The guidebook informed me that, while being "one of the most exacting climbs on Pillar, its reputation for loose rock is quite undeserved".

We were in for a shock. Wilf, Harry and I made quick work of the first four pitches, which are shared with the North Climb, and addressed ourselves to a different order of difficulty in Twisting Gully: the guidebook says "it is divided by a fine-looking rib", and so it was. Wilf and Harry negotiated the awkward move, some forty feet up the right-hand groove in the gully and, after pulling up on the rib, had landed on the green stance in the left-hand groove. It was my turn to make the difficult manoeuvre. As I started to ease myself around the rib I became aware, to my horror, that a huge chunk of the rib, which provided the "key" hold for the swing across, was loose and beginning to move.

 I was, of course, quite petrified! But there was an even more compelling cause for concern than my own dilemma. Somewhere in the mists below us another party had started up the lower pitches of the North Climb; there was an imminent prospect of a multiple climbing disaster. To this day I am not sure how I, a moderate performer on hard rock, managed that move while leaving the monster undisturbed. Desperation forced me to take deliberate and meticulous care and some other handhold must have been there to accommodate my searching fingers. Considerably shaken, I rejoined my companions on the shelf. So much for Savage Gully's "undeserved reputation for loose rock".

The remainder of that climb was sheer joy. I, for one, was on what we nowadays call a 'high' as I swarmed up the steep, strenuous grooves, cracks and corners to reach the cairn beside The Nose of the North Climb. Far below, lying on his back the better to observe us, Philip Noel-Baker gave us a cheer and we revelled in our good fortune. It was then that Wilf unveiled the rest of our programme: down the North Climb over The Nose, then straight up North West, to trace a kind of zig-zag on the face of Pillar Rock. The descent of The Nose was the easier for myself for two ascents in the pre-war years. For the North West, Wilf changed his Kletterschuhe for tricouni-nailed boots, by way of indicating his relative assessment of the two VS routes that day What a superb finish it made! I have a vivid mental picture of Wilf, in Lamb's Chimney, poised for what seemed an eternity in time.

My diary records: "Craning my neck, I could see him clinging on toe and finger holds, apparently defying all the laws of gravity. It was a tense moment." I fancy that even Wilf, at that moment, may have been regretting his change of footwear. And Oppenheimer's Chimney! Surely one of the perfect finishes to any rock climb, anywhere in Britain. That was one of my most memorable days in the Lakes. We hastened back by the Old West Climb, intent on avoiding further disgrace at the hands of the 'Prof' who had awarded us his famous cardboard medals for our dilatory return from Birkness Coombe. Two days later, after Joy and I had returned home, we learnt of Wilf's accident on the Napes Ridges, when he was blown off the Shark's Fin in a gale. Dear Wilf! He never learned to discern that fine line which, even for one possessing his brilliant skill on a mountain, has to be drawn between safety and disaster.

Post Script. I have often wondered what happened to that unstable block in Savage Gully, which I reported in the Hut Book at (I think) Brackenclose as weighing about half a ton. Its disappearance, long since, will doubtless have restored the reputation of the climb, as described in the 1935 edition of the Fell & Rock guide-book.

*(The Archivist has been unable to find any reference in the Brackenclose log-book of the entry by Lord Hunt, or of its disappearance or being knocked off. It isn't mentioned in the next two editions of the Pillar guide after this incident. Noyce's accident on the Shark's Fin and subsequent rescue are recounted by Rusty Westmorland in his 'Adventures in Climbing' (Pelham Books, 1964'. 

* Editor of the 1990 F&RC Journal.

John Hunt 

First published in the above journal. 

Friday, 20 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard M Barrington

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

Friday, 6 April 2018

Full Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soloing in Scaur Quarry, 1972: Photo HB

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

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

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

Xantho: Photo Grant Farquhar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Grant Farquhar: 2018 

Friday, 23 March 2018

Nick Bullock's tides....reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Gray:2018

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

Images supplied by Vertebrate Publishing