Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mike Tomkies: Death of a Naturalist

I was sorry to learn of the death of nature writer and wilderness man, Mike Tomkies last week. I first came across this fascinating man when I read his classic Alone in the Wilderness. A tale best re-countered in the publisher’s blurb.....

"This is the story of a man who achieved what thousands only dream of. He shed the pressures of urban life as an international journalist and exchanged it for solitude, self-sufficiency and new purpose. He emigrated to Canada, found a plot of rock, trees and cliffs in a remote part of the British Columbian coastline, and moved in with typewriter, tent and the barest necessities to build his dream cabin.

How he eventually built his log cabin, learned to live off the sea, adjusted to and worked with the hardest taskmaster of all - Nature - fought loneliness and was inevitably drawn to greater understanding of his remote wilderness and its wild creatures, is an inspiring story. His adventures with nesting bald eagles, a cheeky raccoon, grizzlies, a lame seagull, killer whales and other creatures, are as informative as they are enthralling. Three extraordinary characters enhanced his experiences: Ed Louette, a skilled backwoods carpenter; Pappy Tihoni, a Scots-Indian who guided him on his most dangerous but fulfilling expedition into the mountains and wild dog Booto, who scratched at his cabin door with wagging tail when loneliness threatened to overwhelm.
This book is as compelling and perhaps even more relevant today with the world's great wilderness areas continuing to disappear.’
 (Alone in the wilderness-Whittles Publishing)

Alexandra Bastedo
The fascinating aspect of the story was the fact that Mike Tomkies fell by accident into this role as a champion of the wild. Previously he had been the archetypal metropolitan playboy. The celebrity journalist who chinked glasses with Hollywood icons and shared beds with glamorous actresses. This was someone who turned up at the Oscars ceremony in a beat up pick up truck and was mistaken for Warren Beatty, then in line for an Oscar for Bonnie & Clyde. Prompting Bob Hope to comment in his speech...'I see Warren Beatty is keeping in character for the ceremony’!

A former soldier before he became a celebrity journalist,it is said that Tomkies Canadian wilderness experience was prompted by his separation from glamorous actress Alexandra Bastedo and his desire to escape from the emotional turmoil. When I first read ‘Alone in the Wilderness’ I initially didn’t warm to the man. Comments made regarding the UK political climate and trade unions marked his out as someone of reactionary politics. I imagined this ex Coldstream Guardsman was probably a fellow traveller with the likes of Ranulph Twisteton Fiennes in the right wing libertarian Freedom Association.

However, despite political differences, further reading of the Tomkies oeuvre revealed a man who was totally sincere in his love of wildlife and the conservation of the natural environment. Of his many books, it was his Scottish tales of wilderness life described in ‘A Last Wild Place’ and ‘Between Earth and Paradise’ that really set the seal on my huge respect and admiration for a man who when it came to environmentalism, walked the walk and didn’t just talk the talk.

Reading these books recently it struck me that there was something of a contradiction in the manner of his wilderness life and his practicality, or rather his lack of practicality. Here was someone who could live an off grid life in a remote croft without mains services yet within the text of his books there were many descriptions of him going about his wilderness life which suggested he retained an urban impracticality and often appeared to make unnecessary hard work for himself. Nevertheless, for years he survived in the wild and funded his chosen life through his increasingly popular nature books.

A self taught photographer and film-maker, Tomkies went to great lengths lugging equipment into difficult to access locations and would often camp out for days in his hide,trying to get 'the money shot' of a sea eagle or a Monarch of the Glen. As with some of his writing work, many of his films and photographs were often more perfunctory than polished and finely honed. Produced to 'turn a buck' rather than inspire critical acclaim. Nevertheless, whatever the quality-and there certainly was quality aplenty in much of his work- one has to admire his gritty determination and resilience in producing material which whetted the public's growing appetite for ecological media.

Ironically for the wilderness man, after his Canadian, Scottish and Spanish peregrinations he ended up living in the fat south of England in prosperous Sussex. Far from the Atlantic gales and deprivations encountered when living the life of a crofter on the Scottish west coast. Mike Tomkies died after collapsing on a nature reserve aged 88 . It was, I guess, the only way he would have wanted to go. Certainly his remarkable life reads like a work of fiction. A quite surreal double life as the Hollywood hack who evolved into nature writer, is by any definition, beyond extraordinary.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A little bit of Monkey Wrenching in the north Wales Hills

In a recent blog I bemoaned the fact that so much of Wales is falling victim to the subsidized obsession for stock fencing vast swathes of the countryside. In many cases, areas which have never previously been fenced. To rub salt into the hill wanderers' wounds,farmers and landowners inevitably top off their fences with barbed wire.A totally pointless and useless gesture which has absolutely nothing to do with keeping stock in and everything to do with keeping people out.

With most of north and mid Wales being stocked-rather overstocked- with sheep then even the most myopic NFU official would have to agree that barbed wire topped stock fence is pretty pointless for keeping sheep confined to their pasture. As for larger beasts like cattle and horses, again, barbed wire just isn’t necessary as they rarely will attempt to jump fences of sufficient height and if say a horse does attempt to jump a barbed wire fence, it faces having it’s under quarters sliced open.Expensive for owner and possibly deadly for the animal.

As intimated in the ‘Wire in the soul’ blog piece I decided that enough is enough. Outdoor folk are too wet and accepting of restrictions placed on them by ignorant landowners. Organisations like the BMC and the Ramblers naturally prefer negotiation and a mutually agreed policy regarding access. Unfortunately,large sections of the landowning/farming community will never agree to open access on their land and their response has been the rash of fences erected in the uplands. Time to do a wee bit of Monkey Wrenching!

Armed with a pair of mini bolt cutters, I set off into the local uplands to tackle a long ridge walk which when I first did it about 5 years ago, I was dismayed to find the long undulating expanse of moorland ridge severely interupted by a stone wall topped with three strands of barbed wire,providing an 2.5m/8ft barrier to the walker. Why? It’s rough, rolling heather moorland which is not even grazed by sheep? I could understand high fencing for deer but this is not deer or cattle country. I encountered something like this a few weeks ago on a circular walk on Yr Eifl on the Lleyn Peninsular. I’d come down from the final peak to find a stone wall, topped with two strands of Barbed wire,providing a 7‘ barrier. Having the dog with me and no cutters,it provided an interesting challenge to get passed.

Beyond the first little peak, two barbed wire topped fences...snip, snip. Onwards to ‘The Wall’. With great pleasure I snipped the three strands of wire and lifted the dog over and carried on. Even the final peak which is well frequented by peak baggers had barbed wire across the fence beneath the summit. Walkers had cobbled together a few rocks to create some steps and had tied a fertiliser sack -that farmers are fond of leaving blowing across the hillsides- around the barbed wire to try and lessen the chances of slicing open your person or clothing....snip! In fact...snip, snip, snip, snip...and hey presto a dog gate!

Taking my inspiration from Edward Abbey’s classic tale of ecotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang, I feel its incumbent on walkers who value open access and the right to roam to stop just accepting these barbed sanctions on our freedom, get themselves a pair of mini bolt cutters which slice through barbed wire a treat, and get snipping. As Abbey says...’If the wilderness is outlawed,only outlaws can save the wilderness!’.’s not exactly the Earth Liberation Front stuff but its something that every lover of the great outdoors can do to make our passage over the land that bit easier and to symbolize our rejection of this unacceptable trend to fence in the open spaces.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Vertebrate Double Top at the Banff Mountain Festival

Vertebrate Publishing books by Andy Kirkpatrick and Simon McCartney have both scooped awards in the 2016 Banff Mountain Book Competition. 
Andy Kirkpatrick’s 1001 Climbing Tips has won the Guidebook prize, while Simon McCartney’s mountaineering epic The Bond was announced as the winner in the Mountain and Wilderness Literature Non-Fiction category. There are now seven category winners eligible for the $4,000 Grand Prize, which will be announced on Thursday 3 November at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Other category award winners include Yosemite in the Fifties, by Dean Fidelman, in the Mountain Image category, and Rock Queen, by Catherine Destivelle, in the Mountaineering History category. 

Following the announcement of the winners, Vertebrate’s owner and managing director Jon Barton commented: ‘Tremendous news for Simon and Andy, and the culmination of many years of work for our team in Sheffield. When we first saw the manuscript for The Bond we knew it was something special, and we instinctively felt the same about 1001 Climbing Tips. To have them both recognised like this by a jury of our peers is a great feeling”.

The Bond is Simon McCartney’s gripping account of the first ascents of the north face of Mount Huntington and the south-west face of Denali with Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts over thirty-five years ago, and about the bond that links climbers together. Simon barely survived the Denali climb, and the story is told through his own words and excerpts from Jack’s and others’ journals. 1001 Climbing Tips is Andy Kirkpatrick’s irreverent take on the instructional manual, packed full of bite-sized wisdom. 

Vertebrate titles have won the Banff Grand Prize on two prior occasions: in 2009, with Revelations by Jerry Moffatt and Niall Grimes, and in 2014, with One Day as a Tiger, John Porter’s poignant memoir of his friend Alex MacIntyre. Vertebrate’s Peak District Bouldering also won the Guidebook prize in 2011. The Bond is also shortlisted for the 2016 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, the winner of which will be announced at the Kendal Mountain Festival on Friday 18 November. 

About Simon McCartney
Simon McCartney was born in London in 1955 and was introduced to the mountains of the UK by his father, Mac. He became addicted to climbing in his early teens and spent his school holidays climbing all over the UK. A fine season in 1977 as the sorcerer’s apprentice to Dave Wilkinson, one of Britain’s leading alpinists, produced a number of paradigm-changing climbs. A first and extreme ascent in the Bernese Oberland and a string of second ascents and test-piece climbs around Chamonix changed Simon’s perspective on what was possible. The pair attempted a summer ascent of the north face of the Eiger but were thwarted by poor weather. Simon climbed the route in the winter of 1979. In 1977 Simon met Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts in a Chamonix bar. A partnership was formed and the pair went on to test the limits of their ability on two remarkable first ascents in Alaska, the second of which, on Denali in 1980, effectively ended Simon’s climbing career. Simon is now a successful businessman living in Hong Kong where his dubious talent in calculated but compulsive risk-taking has continued, albeit on South-East Asia’s most prestigious buildings. The Bond is his first book.

About Andy Kirkpatrick
Andy Kirkpatrick has a reputation for seeking out routes where the danger is real and the return questionable, pushing himself on some of the hardest walls and faces in the Alps and beyond. He was born and raised on a council estate in Hull, one of the UK’s flattest cities, and suffered from severe dyslexia which went undiagnosed until he was nineteen. Thriving on this apparent adversity, Andy transformed himself into one of the world’s most driven and accomplished climbers and an award-winning writer. In 2001 he undertook an eleven-day solo ascent of the Reticent Wall on El Capitan, one of the hardest solo climbs in the world. This climb was the central theme of his first book Psychovertical, which won the 2008 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. His second book, Cold Wars, won the 2012 Boardman Tasker Prize. In 2014 he partnered BBC One’s The One Show presenter Alex Jones as she climbed Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park in aid of Sport Relief. He is currently working on a film with Jen Randall based on his first book Psychovertical.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wire in the Soul

I’ve just finished reading a review copy of Rob Collister’s latest collection of mountain essays, ‘Days to Remember’. I’ve met Rob once at a meeting of the John Muir Trust at Plas y Brenin when the trust were trying to get a Welsh JMT group off the ground. I knew that like myself, Rob had settled in North Wales a long time ago and had come to consider this brooding, wet place as home. Reading his beautifully constructed essays on all aspects of his mountain life, it was when he touched upon matters of a green hue that I began to shift uneasily in my chair. Particularly when reading his observations relating to the sponsored despoliation of the natural environment.

‘Sponsored by whom’ might ask? Well, at risk of upsetting probably the majority of people reading this, sponsored by the EU through its insane agricultural grants policy! You see, we might close our eyes to the overstocking of the uplands with sheep to rake in subsides; we might choose to ignore huge agri-barns, tracks being gouged out of hillsides to create access tracks, ponds being drained, copses being cut down to create more pasture or arable land; hedgerows removed and wetlands drained etc etc. We can shrug our shoulders at the explosion of wind turbines and hydro pipelines appearing across the Welsh countryside-after all, 'it’s green innit!'- but there is yet another creeping malaise spreading its tendrils far and wide across the uplands...stock fencing.

Vast areas of the countryside now being fenced off. Areas which as Rob points out, ‘have never been fenced before’. I’ve noticed this myself on my peregrinations across the open spaces of north Wales, a rash of ugly, barbed wire topped grey/green fencing, criss-crossing the once wide open spaces. Ugly symbols of greed over conservation and visual amenity. ‘Greed’, yes well here’s thing thing and get this....Farmers can claim a subsidy of £9.00 per metre to put up stock fencing on their land yet they can get fence contractors to erect stock fencing at just £3.00 a metre. Yes... you’ve got it; putting up fences in areas which have never traditionally been fenced is a money making scam! Why bother doing what good farmers do. That is, managing the land in a sustainable way, when you can sit back, do absolutely nothing and rake in EU grants for desecrating our open spaces!

Its not just greedy farmers and landowners who are fencing off the countryside. The National Trust-not an organization I must admit, I have a lot of time for when it comes to environmental matters- are busy parceling off their north Wales estates with brutal alacrity. Take their Gelli Iago estate which includes Yr Wyddfa summit. I used to wander freely all over the beautiful wild expanses above Nantmor. More especially when I was exploring and putting up new rock climbs on the then under exploited little crags under the spine of upland which separates Nantmor from the Gwynant Valley. As soon as the NT acquired the estate they started erected miles of high stock fencing without even offering the walker a single stile to negotiate this pointless, ugly barrier.

Mini bolt/fence cutters. Recommended for anyone walking in the Welsh hills these days!

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, The NT should stick to running stately homes and leave wild land management to organizations like the JMT who actually care about protecting the natural environment.

I recently read and reviewed American environmental writer, Ken Ilgunas's ‘Trespassing across America’. His epic journey south from Canada to the Bay of Mexico, following the controversial proposed line of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Crossing the ‘open’ spaces of the American mid-west, the author was struck by just how obsessed farmers and landowners were with parceling off their land with ugly fencing and barbed wire. Add in the factor that hikers are an unknown quantity in these areas and treated as vagrants. Where knocking on a homestead door to ask for water often involves staring down the barrel of a gun, then you wonder how rural society came to this? Ken, like Edward Abbey before him laments the invention of barbed wire. A physical and political symbol of exploitation, greed and the death of freedom.

Back here in North Wales, the same arguments apply. As Rob points out in his book, just why do farmers top their fences with barbed wire anyway? Its pointless and useless for containing sheep as they are not generally adept at hurdling 4 or 5 foot fences. As for cattle or horses; again they generally won’t jump over a barrier but if they did, they risk being torn open on the barbed wire. And as for people...well, which outdoor person hasn’t had to climb over a barbed wire fence and cut their hand or had their clothing ripped open. Certainly I have,many times. In fact, I often carry a small pair of wire cutters for such occasions now.

So there you have it. We the general public and outdoor community are having our freedom to roam OUR open spaces, increasingly curtailed and restricted by EU sponsored vandalism. Indeed, how else would you describe the blight of ever increasing subsidized fence erection in the countryside but as vandalism? When even our highest mountains are being fenced in, you know that in the crazy world of agricultural subsidies something has to give. At the moment it looks like the freedom to roam unhindered by obstacles and the right to view a mountain vista without the visual blight of fencing are losing out in a big way to greed.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Lakeland legends gather for an evening of stories and insights

Nick Wharton climbing on Gouther Crag
A Kendal based climber and guide book writer is bringing together three rock climbing legends, whose achievements span the last 70 years, for an evening of stories and insights.

Nick Wharton, whose work includes two climbing guides to the English Lake District, says Paul Ross, Pete Whillance and Dave Birkett continue to inspire rock climbers to this day. And that despite advances in climbing technology and safety some of their climbs remain unrepeated or rarely tackled.

“This is a rare opportunity to hear the three men talk about their achievements and the motivation required to operate at the cutting edge of climbing development. It is also a great opportunity for the audience to put their own questions to them” said Nick Wharton.

“Paul Ross, Pete Whillance and Dave Birkett each made rock climbing history and continue to be passionate about a popular sport that appeals to all ages.

“In the 50's and 60's Paul Ross, from Keswick, established many climbing routes around Borrowdale, Langdale, Thirlmere and Ennerdale which continue to challenge climbers today. In the 70's and 80's Pete Whillance successfully tackled free ascents of notoriously difficult routes which are still revered and considered too bold for most climbers. They include the depths of Hodge Close Quarry to the heights of Great Gable as well as other notable classics in Scotland and Wales. From the 90’s onwards Dave Birkett, born and bred in Little Langdale, pushed standards to dizzying new heights. From his first ‘E9’ on Iron Crag in Thirlmere in 1992, to the current day, he has left the trail of often unrepeated lines that most climbers struggle to contemplate. Many are on the buttresses of Scafell, England’s highest mountain, where his grandfather farmed.

“The Lake District has been at the heart of rock climbing developments since the very earliest days of the sport. Each generation has produced its own leaders who have set the standards for others to look up to and try to follow and those legends include Paul, Pete and Dave.

“The evening brings together three larger-than-life characters who will share with us their motivation, vision and drive to achieve all they did. I hope they will inspire the audience to find their own adventures” he added.

The evening is being held at Brathay Hall Clappersgate Ambleside on Friday 16 September at 7pm. Monies raised will support local charity, Brathay Trust’s work with disadvantaged and vulnerable young people. To purchase a ticket, priced £20 which includes a hot pot supper, visit Brathay’s website:

Friday, August 26, 2016

Boardman Tasker 2016 Shortlist.

Interest in the Boardman Tasker (BT) Award for Mountain Literature remains as great as ever and this year’s competition has resulted in 35 books being submitted,from personal journeys and adventures, poetry, biographies and autobiographies to novels.  For the full details of all the submitted books, please see the new BT website, The last three
years have seen well over 100 entries and a very high standard of submission has generally emerged.

The BT Award highlights afresh the memory of Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker,but it seeks to do more than that. The Award recognises and rewards outstanding books of literature concerned  with the mountain environment, books which will in turn challenge and inspire their readers, perhaps to climb or to explore the world of mountains,perhaps to write or perhaps to look at the world in a different way. Perpetuating and refreshing the challenge and inspiration of mountains through literature is one way in which the BT Trust seeks to remember Pete and Joe.

This year’s judges Graham Desroy (Chair), Terry Gifford and Helen Mort have selected the following books for this year’s shortlist:

Alex Honnold with David Roberts
Alone on the Wall

(Pan Macmillan)
The cover of this book sends a shiver down the spine. The life of an unroped solo climber is its sensational subject. But it is the quality of Alex Honnold’s articulation of his approach to this purest of pursuits that grabs the reader, together with his honesty about the personal costs of his lifestyle and amazing achievements, contextualised by David Roberts in this well crafted book.


Simon McCartney
The Bond

(Vertebrate Publishing)
Simon McCartney’s title is the theme of his book the bond between climbers upon which he increasingly comes to rely in his accounts of two epic new routes in Alaska in 1978 and 1980 that demonstrate a remarkable self awareness verging upon hubris, as he readily admits.


Steve Olson

(W.W.Norton & Co)
When a smoking Mount St Helens actually erupted on a spring Sunday morning in 1980 fiftyseven people were killed, some as far as thirteen miles away. Steve Olson not only tells their personal stories, but also turns the tension between the science and thecultural assumptions at play on that day into a drama that reads like a tragic thriller.


Mark Vallance
Wild Country

(Vertebrate Publishing)
More than the story of ‘the man who made Friends’, this book reveals that the spirit brought to bear on friendships, climbs, BMC management and tough business dilemmas,can be harnessed to deal with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in a direct and at times humorous narrative.


Robert Wainwright
The Maverick Mountaineer

(Allen & Unwin)
It was the Australian rebel George Finch who demonstrated the value of oxygen in reaching almost 27,000 feet on Everest in 1922. But Robert Wainwright’s biography also reveals an eccentric scientist and inventor whose complicated personal life extended to his strange relationship with his son, the actor Peter Finch.


* All comments on the books are courtesy of Terry Gifford

The winner of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature will be a book that Pete and Joe would be proud of being associated with.  The winner will be announced on November 18th 2016 at the Kendal Mountain Festival after the BT Shortlisted Authors event. Stephen Venables, mountaineer and writer will chat with the shortlisted authors, and they will all read from their books. The anniversary of Pete and Joe’s Changabang in 1976 will be marked by a display. 

See for further details.
Steve Dean
Boardman Tasker Charitable Trust

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pilgrimage to Hergest Ridge

For those of a certain age, the name ‘Hergest Ridge’ is more readily associated with a 1974 Virgin label album than the whale back sweep of high ground spanning the England/Wales border twixt Herefordshire and Radnorshire. Released in 1974 by Mike Oldfield, the album was Mike’s follow up to the global phenomena Tubular Bells. Composed when he was just 17 years old and released as Virgin’s very first LP release a few years later; the album from the ‘Progressive Rock’ stable saw the young musician play over 20 instruments and recorded it as a unique instrumental album. In the 70‘s Prog Rock was known for its long winded instrumental passages- Think Yes, ELP, Genesis, Jethro Tull et al- but normal service was usually resumed when a 5 minute drum solo or Hammond Organ extravaganza duly returned to the vocalist. Tubular Bells was pretty unique in that Viv Stanshall's introduction to the instruments aside, the album was a pure instrumental work of classical ambitions.

Tubular Bells remains for me a timeless work which people will still be listening to in 200 years. However, at the time, the recording and promotion too its toll on young Oldfield and overtaken with the scale of its success and suffering a mild form of LSD induced pyschosis, he retreated to Kington just inside the English border in Herefordshire and under pressure from Branson to record a follow up, composed Hergest Ridge. The name chosen randomly by Oldfield. His eye settling upon the aforementioned 1500' massif which loomed above the town in a 'that'll do' manner.

The album never match TB in either sales of critical acclaim and even Oldfield himself says its not his favourite work, but for many-myself included- its more understated tone and themes still manages to capture one’s imagination. I love it!

Despite my regard for the album, until last week I had never set foot on Hergest Ridge. Despite it only being less than 90 miles from where I live in North Wales. Taking advantage of a decent weather window-see my last blog- I paid a flying visit to the area, intent on finally climbing the ridge itself. Most people it appears start from the lovely little town of Kington but studying the OS map, it looked as if the tiny Welsh village of Gladestry was a good option to gain the ridge from the west. Initially following what is the well trodden Offa’s Dyke path.

Fortunately the weather couldn’t have been better. Clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. Actually a breath of wind would have been nice as it got very hot on the ridge. Walking up from Gladestry was very like walking the little south Shropshire Hills in character. Sheep cropped grass, bracken, undulating bald hills falling into lush, pastoral valleys etc.

You could see why Oldfield liked riding a horse across the flat expanses of the ridge-the song ‘On Horseback’ closes the album....

‘I like beer, and I like cheese
I like the smell of a westerly breeze
But what I like more than all of these
Is to be on horseback.’

With the sun beating down we meandered across the ridge to the trig point, taking care to keep clear of a wild mare with her foal and from there, headed for the remarkable little grove of Monkey Puzzle trees, planted 50 years ago by someone who felt the ridge matched the Patagonian environment from whence they apparently first came. Leaving the Kington end of the ridge for another visit, we dropped down off the ridge and circled back to Gladestry.It had taken a long time but I’d finally made it and with the album booming out of the van speakers, we headed search of cider!

‘So if you you feel a little glum,
To Hergest Ridge you should come.
In summer, winter, rain or sun,
it’s good to be on horseback’.