Friday, August 15, 2014

Climbing's love labour's lost

Ken Wilson's classic 'Classic Rock'. Arenig routes unlikely to grace future editions. Photo Baton-Wicks

I was reading on the BMC site about the Arc’teryx sponsored‘Lakeland Revival’. A project which it is hoped, will breathe new life into some fifty or so classic Lakeland climbs which have fallen out of favour in recent years. Looking at the list, it is remarkable to see some absolute three star classics which have lost their appeal to the extent that they are now falling back into their pre first ascent vegetative state. Routes like Nagasaki Grooves, Communist Convert, Grendel, Extol and Westmorland’s Route. Route names which will resonate with any student of climbing history.

Here in North Wales, we’ve had a similar bash organised by the BMC at Tremadog, where once popular routes were cleaned and re-ascended in the hope that they would attract a new clientele. The big question is...will this approach work?

I would say...sadly....No. I blogged some time ago about the noticeable lack of climbers to be seen in Llanberis Pass on a pleasant summer’s evening these days. Despite The Pass being considered a UK climbing Mecca, the rock pilgrims who once swarmed through the valley, are now devoting themselves to other sacred places. As previously mentioned on here, the explosion of interest in road and mountain biking, has drawn a number of participants away from the sport. Furthermore,the popularity of bouldering and sports climbing in the UK, plus the opportunity to escape the UK’s Godawfulclimate and head south to indulge in some sun kissed rock ventures in Spain, Morocco or the south of France, has to be seen as additional factors in traditional climbing’s increasing lack of appeal.

I’ve always enjoyed escaping the madding crowds and climbing on remote crags where you get the whole place to yourself and get the chance to discover some lost gems or establish some new routes of your own. It’s a fact though, that the majority of these routes will have now returned to nature. Particularly in Mid Wales. I was thinking the other day about a route called Automedon which I did with Harold Drasdo in 1997 on the east face of Arenig Fawr. The Simddu Ddu crags hereabouts are defined by their structure of tiers which rise up from the rough slopes above Llyn Arenig to the flat top of Pen Tyrau. It was a long term project of HD to put up a route which would be a continuous unbroken line which linked the tiers but which avoided the breaks.

His experienced eye finally fell upon a line at the south end of the cliff which appeared to tick those boxes. And so, on a pleasant day in July, we climbed a five pitch VS climb which fulfilled the continuity criteria and which as a climbing experience offered itself as an excellent adventure. The top two pitches had been explored previously via some circuitous ramblings which included a fine HVS route called Achilles Heel which reached ‘the’ feature of this part of the crag; a great balanced tower, some 15metres high and not unlike ‘The Table’ on The Cyfwy Arete just down the road. This had been named ‘The Trojan Horse’ when Hal had first reached it (Greek Scholars might at this point have noticed a theme here).

Achilles Heel’s first ascent saw some fine climbing by David Craig to reach The Trojan Horse. A steep and thin slabby wall which had that crumbly black moss halting progress in several sections, and which offered very little in the way of natural protection.

Automedon (In Greek mythology, Automedon, son of Diores, was Achilles' charioteer. ) has probably never had a second ascent but with classic routes like Doom and Acheron falling into neglect, just over the valley on Aran, then I can’t see climbers queuing up for this one.

Strangely enough, there was talk of Ken Wilson including an Arenig Route in a new edition of Classic Rock. When he approached Harold for a recommendation there was no hesitation in putting Automedon forward as Arenig’s Classic Rock route. Sadly it appears that that project is indefinitely on the back burner so it looks like Automedon will remain something of a footnote in climbing history and will probably disappear one day from the guide books. Particularly given the modern trend towards selective guides.

Going back to the Lakeland Revival/ Tremfest  gigs. They are great projects which will give a lot of people a buzz but ultimately, as far as saving once classic routes from oblivion I think it’s shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Traditional climbing on unfashionable crags, is a dying art I’m afraid. Fifty years from now, I wonder just how many from the Lakeland list will still exist and be listed in the mid 21st century equivalent of our climbing guidebooks?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Snowdon....Vertical real estate at sky high prices!

Clogwyn Du Arddu: Part of the Yr Wyddfa estate to be sold in plots.

There’s nothing like a mountain being put up for sale to attract the headline writers and ratchet up the comments in the outdoor world. No sooner have we been treated to the Blencathra saga then lo and behold, our beloved Cloggy and its environs are being hawked around by a land agent acting for landowner Dafydd Morris, as if it was a Barrett Homes estate in Telford! You see, the farmer who owns this rather beautiful but famished and unproductive land, wants to maximise his profit by selling it in plots of up to 1000 units. By selling it this way he hopes it will bring him in a rather greater profit than by just selling it as one estate. In this case, £7m. Given the National Trust’s track record in paying vastly over the odds for two neighbouring Snowdon estates then I’m not sure why his agent hasn’t offered it directly to them? 

However, the landowner who will retain over 1000 acres of mountain estate, has fired a salvo at those environmentalists who have correctly pointed out that overstocking an ecosystem of limited feed value with sheep is not exactly conducive to maintaining a healthy, diverse ecological balance. The ubiquitous sheep is not known as ‘The Desert maker’ for nothing. Cropping the sallow mountain slopes like an industrial vacuum cleaner; shrubs, trees, wild flowers and other upland vegetation species are hovered up by an animal that boasts an almost unnatural ability to access the most difficult locations. A high, apparently inaccessible mountain ledge is no guarantee that a solitary Rowan sapling will ever mature if a ragged welsh mountain ewe with a lamb in tow is in the vicinity.

Referring back to the first Snowdon purchase by the NT. The landowner in that case pocketed over £4m for what is in fact a vanity project for NT directors who might know something about selling cream teas in a Stately Home but nothing about mountain estate management. Hence their paying vastly over the odds . Not content with this piece of financial ineptitude, they consolidated their portfolio with another over-priced purchase. This time a Nant Gwynant Farm which might have raised £500k if sold as a working farm, but certainly not the £1m+ the Trust paid. 

The landowner is working on the assumption that the ‘Cloggy Estate’ will bring in over £12k an acre when in fact, rough upland pasture will usually only realise between £1k and £3k an acre if marketed by a farm management agency as upland grazing. The marginal uplands offers little in the way of agricultural diversity and it is for this reason that farmers have overstocked the mountains with sheep and milked the EU subsidy pot dry. There is little money to be made in running an estate in a sensitive and ecologically self sustaining manner when you can just drop the tailgate of a lorry and usher out another batch of sheep onto the hillside.

If for environmental purposes we wish to take the animal equivalent to Agent Orange out of the equation, then that leaves just one other option. That is essentially, to leave the land and let nature take its course to a great extent, but in a managed way which will encourage ecological diversification. This is largely what is happening with the Wild Ennerdale project. An environmentally sensitive management of a once beautiful valley which was blighted-much to Wainwright’s chagrin- by extensive conifer plantations.

The latest mountain sale is driven not by altruism but by greed. If the landowner had any interest in seeing the mountain thrive he would give the estate to a sound and experienced mountain management organisation like The John Muir Trust . Given that the JMT have recently indicated an interest in purchasing a Rhinog mountain estate and given their success in managing upland estates in Scotland, then I can’t think of anyone better equipped in this area.

That has to be a far nobler legacy than dying with £7m in the bank!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Climbers...the taming of the shrewd

John Redhead makes a statement bouldering in Nant Gwynant. N Wales:JR Collection

My old friend Harold Drasdo once told me an interesting story. He was in a climbing hut with a certain well known climber where the conversation had veered onto dangerous ground. That is, the gathered throng were excitedly engaged in a passionate debate about....well... I can’t remember actually whether it was politics, the arts or some current cultural hot topic? Whatever it was, they weren’t talking about climbing. After several minutes of banter our celebrated climber learns forward and bangs the table. Declaring...'enough of this...let’s get back to talking about climbing!’

As someone who is engaged passionately with climbing and the whole culture surrounding mountain activities, I’m only too happy to communicate with fellow climbers on the subject. However, like many in the field, I’m also very interested in a whole range of subjects, from the arts to politics. To be honest, as I write I’m more concerned about the 700 + Palestinians who have been murdered by the Zionist thugs in control in Tel Aviv than I am about Joe Bloggs establishing some V9 boulder problem in the Peak. In my experience, it’s true to say that the most interesting climbers I have met have been those for whom climbing is but one element within a rainbow of interests. Poets, artists, writers, philosophers, environmentalists, political activists etc. By the same token, the most boring and one dimensional climbers I have come across are those like our aforementioned anonymous friend for whom climbing is all the be all and end all of what on the surface at least,appears to be a pretty limited perspective on what really matters in life.

The social network is full of ‘names’ in the climbing world whose tweets or status updates are inevitably concerned with some banal aspect of their training regime or latest project...’managed an extra circuit of the wall tonight #feelingstrong’ ...’working until late on ‘the move’ which should unlock the project; #inthebag’. To make matters worse, there is always an audience of sycophantic hangers on who offer ‘ Nice one Dude’.... ‘Brill stuff Big Man..buzzing for you’...... Stop it !!!

It appears that as the UK, Europe and the US has become more self centred and conservative in the post Thatcher/Reagan era, this trend has become reflected in the outdoor media. Certainly, the old school of left wing, socially aware climbing writers who had an outlet in the 70’s and 80’s magazines are now a fading memory. Today, the climbing/mountaineering media is generally mindless pap aimed at satisfying advertisers and it’s conservative readership. 

Ed Drummond who was something of a genuine climbing renaissance man once commented on this constituency and observed their ‘juvenile obsession with big numbers’. Dearest Ed appears to be roaming in the gloaming and when he’s gone then that will be another nail in the coffin of the old school of politically aware climbing activists who saw the world outside the narrow paradigm which defines the current orthodoxy.

As traditional climbing declines in the face of the irresistible rise and rise of sports climbing, bouldering, road and mountain biking and other activities which offer more of an instant fix than trad climbing can deliver. So the chroniclers of traditional climbing  also decline and exit stage left. A small but once influential element within climbing culture which had an opinion on subjects other than climbing and who were not afraid to air them. Ironic that as the world becomes more fractured and threatened with environmental, political and religious crimes, the outdoor world continues to retreat into it’s safe little glossy bubble. A world of fashion, gadgets, travel tips and who is the latest cock of the walk. Held together by the most sterile and soul less photographic imagery you could ever imagine. The mags have become catalogues for flicking through. Devoid of substance but high on advertorials.

As Edward Abbey wrote...'It is not the writer's task to answer questions but to question answers. To be impertinent, insolent and if necessary..subversive.'

Any climbing subversives still out there?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Slate...ghosts in the machine.

All photos...marymary

A year or so back, I blogged about the kerfuffle that had occurred after the Llanberis slate quarries had found favour with metro graffiti artist,Jack Murray who had used the quarries' grey walls as a blank canvas for his work.'Slate of the art' Fast forward to this week,and I am contacted by artist marymary who has taken the concept further by juxtaposing images of long dead quarrymen at various sites within the complex. For the full story, click on Pony and Rider.( There are parallel scroll bars so make sure you find the inner bar. I had trouble at first scrolling down the page). However,if you have trouble, I’ve taken the liberty of lifting the original piece and setting it down here.

The Slate (Fuck the Movie Industry)

I swear there are elements of cosmic collision happening on enormous personal vibrations- events that are so entangled that the outcomes sometimes seem like they are fired straight into your person by design.  There seems to be little point for an average thinker like myself asking, why? The answer almost always is what you want it to be and therefore, objectively useless.  The following paragraphs acknowledge all the flaws in this author’s rickety galleon floating in its universe of cack, quagmire and beauty.

There is a place in north Wales that I have always had a chesty affinity for- the Dinorwic slate quarries above the village of Llanberis and (crucially to these events) just outside the border of Snowdonia national park- ‘One of Britain’s breathing spaces’.  Since first going to these quarries to climb on the slate, I have sensed the negative space where the mountain once was like an invisible weight.  I have touched the rusted chains and machinery and sensed the lives, lived and killed of men who worked in radical conditions.  For me, Britain’s breathing space most definitely extends throughout the quarries and while you breathe the air, seasoned by the damp, the grey, the rust, the tunnels, the devastation, you breathe in the heritage of souls who lived and died in these vast holes.

And so it was, living abroad I booked a trip back to north Wales for a visit in June.  I found images of quarrymen from the early part of the twentieth century from which I made stencils to install in the quarries.  My idea was not to make a big splash, but to place the images with reverence, unobtrusively where they might be seen by the observant, the lucky or the adventurous.  I spent many hours becoming acquainted with the features of the quarrymen while cutting the stencils.  Fuck me, I could even be related to one of them!  My mind drifted around the quarries while I worked and I thought of one area in particular, a hole known to climbers as, the Lost World.  This was my favourite place in Dinorwic- a place accessed by some adventure with rusted ladders to a hole known as Mordor and then a tunnel leading to Lost World itself and the most humid of quarry bottoms.  Spagnuhm moss, huge ferns and rhododendrons enjoyed decades of growth beneath imposing walls of purple grey angles, streaked with wine stains and stabbed with rotting orange ironmongery, hanging from its sides like decayed attack.  Which was how I found the place on my recky hike.

A slate hut, obscured by lush greenery until really quite close, had over the years been maintained and somewhat weather proofed, becoming an aloof shelter for the discerning visitor.  Behind its glossy red door, redundant machinery stood silent- an exhibition of the past while the evidence of modern communion- candles, half full camping gas cylinders, a broom suggested the ongoing use for overnight visits.

 I pressed on, considering sites to paint and it was on the way out, back on the public footpath where I saw a sign, informing users of the path that the quarries would be closed to the public three days hence, for filming of a Warner Bros. movie. 

I returned two days later to install the paintings and began in Lost World.  The first image I did was on a piece of slate which I positioned inside the hut.  I considered the ghosts of the men I was painting-did they work in this very hole? Was this bad ju-ju? Or good? My motivations were sound. I judged tribute. I placed a few more paintings in Lost World and Mordor.  And sprinkled a few throughout other areas of the quarries, visible only to people off the main drag.  I did however leave one in full view- a thin rectangle of slate propped up in the slag, just above the public footpath.  How long would it last, this un-secured and easily moved piece? I threw some venomous hex unto it, should some cock sucking opportunist take possession.  I laid it good sail though, too.  Just in case a local, whose connections reach far into the quarries nabbed it to put on the mantelshelf next to the clock.

Two weeks later my sister and I came to the quarries for a hike about to check out the work.  Hollywood had been and gone.  Sure enough the piece near the path had been and gone too-  probably in some movie-twat’s London bathroom.   Resigned, we made our way to Lost World.  Emerging from the tunnel anticipating the lush prehistoric greenery, my perception was thrown awry by the absence of it.  Quite stunned, I refocused and panned around the quarry.  I saw total destruction of the quarry floor from massive rock fall.   The chaos of dry destroying angry slate boulders laid waste to life and heritage beneath it.  The hut had been crushed beyond use and appreciation, its legacy now void.

In the time between installing the work and coming back to witness the destruction, there had been some rain, but no significant weather event.  The only abnormality was the closure of the quarries for filming.  Don’t tell me those fuckers didn’t blow up the quarry. For a fucking Tarzan movie.

The quarries belong to First Hydro and the local authority and are not quite in Snowdonia National park.  This likely means no one will raise a stink. I guess the heritage of the area, of the local people is just not as valuable as an explosion for some bloated and forgettable Warner Bros. movie.

Personally, I see the slate quarries as perfect settings for transient art-or Goldsworthy/Nash-esque nature/landscape art. As artist marymary describes above, the massive rock fall which destroyed one installation site shows just how unstable these places are. Artificial,man made environments which are in a state of constant geological flux. The old quarrymen even referred to parts of the quarry as 'galleries' although I don't think they necessarily had a Tate Modern concept going on when they used that term!