Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dark Waters: One dog's great escape!

Fergus:The dog with the pine earring.
It's pretty well known amongst those outdoor folk familiar with those everyday dangers that wait like a baited mousetrap for the unwary and inexperienced, that crossing a fast flowing river-even one not more than knee deep-can have possible fatal consequences. A river that is in spate after a period of heavy weather can easily take your legs away from under you and send you spluttering and bouncing into possible deeper waters. If you have a heavy rucksack on your back to boot, then arresting your descent and getting back on your feet can be next to impossible. 

Teaching students how to safely cross a fast flowing river is part and parcel of all outdoor courses for those seeking qualifications or just experience. Another fairly common accident which quite often sees fatal consequences is when a dog owner gets into the water to effect a rescue when their animal gets into difficulty.

Despite my own experience in the great outdoors which includes a session on a mountain leaders course which involved the safety elements surrounding river crossing, and despite being more than wary of getting into a situation in which I might find myself getting in over my head--quite literally!- Probably less than an hour ago I found myself involved in an incident which could have had fatal consequences. The act of writing it down now will I hope prove cathartic.

I had taken my 8 year old Springer Spaniel, Fergus on one of his local walks which passes a fast flowing river. A broad sweep of water very quickly funnels into a gorge which is a grade 3/4 stretch of foaming white water.

As I scrambled down the bank I saw that Gus was in the river up to his chest waiting for a stick. Absent mindedly I chucked one into a fairly shallow stretch close to the bank before the river gains momentum before the gorge. However, the stick was very quickly swept down river at a rate of knots,and as he followed it he was swept into faster waters, heading towards a bay which had collected a fair amount of driftwood of all shapes and sizes.

All too quickly I realised that he was fighting the current and not making any progress. In fact he was getting deeper in the water with only his head showing and getting gradually washed under a branch. Then he was gone. I jumped in the cold water up to my waist and the current pinned me to the stack of driftwood. However, by pulling myself along a branch which appeared fairly well wedged in the pile, I made it to the edge of the bay where the river begins to narrow before the gorge. Suddenly, Fergus's head popped up. He was wide eyed and still fighting the river but alive at least.

At full stretch I reached out and tried to grab what I could of his head.I put my hand around his muzzle but he was immediately swept away and shot off down river,disappearing and reappearing several times before he managed to fight his way to the opposite bank just before the rapids. Pulling himself out onto the bank he appeared shattered.
He was well enough though to trot upstream to a wider section and ferry glide across to his shocked owner. I just kissed him on the head and pulled him out. By now I was gasping and shivering.More with shock than cold.My left leg was aching. It had caught under a submerged branch and the shin was skinned and bruised but all that was of no concern. Fergus was still alive!

There was a terrible moment when he slipped from my despairing grasp when I thought 'he's finished'. After he had already been under water and fighting to get out for what seemed like several minutes-it might have been less than 60 seconds?- I couldn't see him having the strength left nor the luck,to survive the maelstrom just around the bend.

In hindsight I can see that by jumping in and fighting to reach him, I didn't actually achieve anything. He survived through those innate instincts which characterise the Springer. A supreme confidence and ability in water. After my experience would I jump into a fast flowing river to save my dog again?.......Probably!


Monday, January 25, 2016

Sheer Heart Attack.

Photo: Ogwen MRT

Last summer, I received a phone call which no one wants to hear. A friend and former climbing partner had died suddenly at home from a massive heart attack. Dave was only in his sixties and was still out in the mountains every week with his Collie.Tramping oe'r hill and down dale right until the end. Although it was a shock, this wasn't the first time outdoorsy friends have suffered heart attacks. Four friends have so far bounced back from heart attacks and what they all had in common is that they are all either of average weight or on the skinny side of average. None of them smoked, ate badly, drank heavily and all were/are highly active.

How can this happen? Is it genetics, stress, overworking the body or just a freak occurrence that defies explanation?

What I do know from my days in a mountain rescue team is that deaths in the mountains from heart attacks far outweighs deaths from falls. In a nutshell, if you are going climbing on Tryfan, you've more chance of dropping dead on your way up to the Heather Terrace than falling off Munich!

My aforementioned friend was once on his way up Foel Goch above Nant Francon when he stopped to chat to a walker who had stopped for a fag and a coffee on his way down . When Dave returned he noticed that the walker was still there and as he passed he noticed that his cigarette was still held between his fingers but had burnt down to ash.Yes..he'd just expired from a heart attack. A few weeks later on the same mountain,a female friend walked up with her husband. Near the top he stopped for a rest and urged her to carry on to the top without him.'ve guessed it. By the time she got back to him he'd passed away.

Of course,if we lived our lives by avoiding risk, stress or exercise we wouldn't get out of bed and the only life worth living is one in which we push ourselves to our limits to achieve something of lasting worth. However, we can't ignore the fact that once you get passed 50 or 60,the risk of heart attack increases considerably. Not that young people or the younger middle aged don't suffer heart attacks too,but stats show that the mid 50's to mid 60's seem to be the optimum age for a heart attack. Those old climbers and walkers who reach their 70's and 80's are more likely to succumb from other ailments like cancer, dementia, Parkinsons, and strokes it appears.

Somebody once told me that the average life expectancy of a member of the UK Fell and Rock Club is 88. That's way above the UK average so does this throw another element into the stats. A matter of class? Given that clubs like the F and R, the Climber's Club and the Alpine club overwhelmingly have a middle class membership, does it suggest that you can avoid a heart attack if, as a nice educated middle class professional ,you are more conversant with the positive effects of exercise and diet and the detrimental effects of smoking and boozing?

Well, yes and no. Yes in that if you are aware of those positive and negative elements it can help you live a longer, healthier life; No in that as previously mentioned, none of my friends who suffered heart attacks were obese,junk food gobbling, chain smoking boozers.

In the last couple of years I've twice undergone heart tests. Once after I had a dizzy spell and palpitations while driving on a motorway. The doctor suspected an irregular heartbeat and I wore a monitor for seven days which revealed no abnormalities in my heart patterns,and recently, after suffering chest pains-in hindsight probably indigestion- I had two sessions on a tread mill and a cycling machine which again raised no issues.

For years now and without medical recommendation, I've taken one 75mg aspirin a day in the hope and belief that aspirin reduces the risk of blood clots which cause heart attacks and strokes. Will the strategy work? Who knows? Heart Attacks in the mountains from exertion appears to be something of a lottery for all concerned but maybe,just maybe,that tiny little pill might just be the difference between life and death?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mellow Yellow...Rejoining the V Dub Camper cult!

EX AA Van Camper Conversion
It must be over ten years since I owned a camper van-V Dub of course- and I've always planned to get another one day. I started looking on eBay and Autotrader in the summer and couldn't believe just how much even beat up old bay campers from the 70's, in need of restoration were going for! Volkswagen has always enjoyed an iconic status in the field and despite the competition from other makers like Renault, Peaugeot, Ford, Fiat and the Japanese manufacturers,these other makes just don't cut the mustard in the 'cool' stakes whatever their practical and mechanical merits.

I was watching Cameron McNeish's excellent BBC Scotland programmes aired over Xmas on iPlayer at the weekend and Cameron was waxing lyrical about his state of the art camper complete with every home from home comfort you could wish for. I think it was a Hyundai and these modern campers can set you back over £40k these days. You could buy a house in Blaenau Ffestiniog for that! In a way, impressive though these luxury campers are with regard to creature comforts, I'm more inclined towards the more basic facilities provided in an older bus like the earlier VW's. Let's face it,you will have to use one of these luxury buses a lot to make it financially worthwhile given that you can hire a cottage quite cheaply these days. Especially through AirB&B

When I bought a V Dub Camper back in the day I would often roll up at someone's house where I'd noticed a neglected camper sitting in the drive. More often than not they would be willing to sell and for as little as £125 I've bought a V Dub bus to restore and sell on at a profit. That was then and this is now. As I've mentioned above, those days are long gone and V Dubs of all types fetch top dollar. With this in mind, I'm in the process of buying another VW camper which I noticed on my travels. Like a lot of bright yellow campers, it's an ex AA van which has been well converted into a camper with a raising roof,cooker,fridge,sink and ro-ro double bed. Unlike my previous campers this has a turbo diesel engine so I'll expect about ten mpg more than the gas guzzling 1600 petrol engines in the bays which would struggle to deliver 25mpg.

I'm not planning any trips in the next few months but I've pencilled in the Lakes for a maiden voyage around April. After that, well the Scottish west coast, Northumbria and Cornwall are on the summer agenda. Not being a fan of commercial camp sites I'll be checking on isolated locations where you can park up for the night. Google Earth is good for this. As the late Ian Dury wrote..

soon I was rumbling through the morning fog
with my long haired children and my one eyed dog
with the trucks and the buses and the trailer-vans
my long throw horns playing Steely Dan

Wagon's Roll!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tim Farron and the floods: Drowning in ignorance!

Liberal leader Tim Farron:More Sheep Please!

Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats appears an amenable soul. Self deprecating and always offering a smile. A devout Christian who nevertheless voted for the Syria bombing campaign-how would Jesus have voted!- Tim 'Nice but Dim' might have trouble separating his 'Prince of Peace' from his 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' but when it comes to getting a handle on the cause and effect of the recent Cumbrian floods, he appears to have even less of a grasp on reality.

His comments that the decline in upland sheep farming has contributed to flooding in places like Glenridding, Cockermouth, Appleby and Carlisle is so far from the truth you would have say that his eco compass requires a sharp tap and resetting. It's hard to understand how Farron could  fail to equate the intensive grazing of the fells by sheep with the inundation of the Cumbrian villages? Before intensive sheep farming took hold in the last century, tree cover extended far up the fellsides. Typically, birch, rowan, holly, hazel, Scots pine, sessile oak and aspen served a valuable ecological service by binding the soil, reducing water run off and preventing the worst excessive of seasonal cloud bursts.
On top of this of course, the woodland was a rich habitat for all manner of wildlife. From mammals to rare bird species, lizards to insects. Rare plants and shrubs were protected within a this arboreal environment and the woodland provided a renewable source of fuel and building materials for the indigenous populations.

How things have changed and a thousand times not for the better! Despite the glib 'Countryfile' view of farmers as 'creating the countryside we know and love', in truth, the countryside they have created is a sheep cropped, manicured desert. 'Sheepwrecked' as George Monbiot puts it. The fellsides in Cumbria-as in Wales and Scotland-have been grazed to the bone by these desertmaking ruminants who will eat any vegetation which breaks the surface. Trees, shrubs, wildflowers, herbs....nothing stands a chance, hence the bare closely cropped fields allows heavy rainfall to run off and overwhelm the watercourses which in turn delivers an uncontrollable volume of water into the rivers below.

By this stage the rivers themselves do not have the capacity to take up water in the volume it is pouring down from the hillsides  and consequentially bursts over the river banks with predictable consequences. Unfortunately, despite only contributing a miserly amount to the nation's GDP, farmers and the agribusiness corporations enjoy an unprecedented amount of government influence. Politicians like Tim Farron simply buy into the great con. Sheep farmers bravely battling against the odds for little reward. Selflessly creating a pastoral rural heaven by dint of their farming practices.

The irony is that our recent governments-both Labour and Conservative- have operated a neo liberal market economy where Laissez faire rules apply. 'Lame Duck' industries like coal, shipbuilding, car manufacture and heavy industry have been allowed to go to the wall, yet farming remains outside the free market rules of supply and demand and sheepfarming in particular, exists as a subsidized industry where farmers are paid to over produce and the product is sold to consumers at an inflated price. Have you seen the price of lamb in a supermarket or butcher's shop!!!

Pooley Bridge...gone! What we need now is even barer hillsides to allow the rain to run off even faster!
Floods that we have seen in Somerset, Cumbria and here in Wales will continue as long as politicians like Farron buy into the 'farmers as heroes' myth. By continuing to subsidize ecologically disastrous farming practices which have negatively impacted on the upland ecosystems and refusing to consider positive ideas like 'rewilding' the countryside, promoting agricultural diversity, alternative business ventures and actually paying farmers not to farm, but to plant native trees instead, then you can put your money on the fact that in future, 'a hard rain's gonna fall!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Carnage to Patagonia: The Eco Warriors who lost their way!

I was depressed to read in the Guardian the other day about plans to build a huge dam in Patagonia. To quote......the presidency of Argentina’s Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner enters its final days, her greatest – and arguably most controversial – legacy project is just getting under way in the remote grasslands of Patagonia. Here, amid herds of wild guanacos, condor nests and the occasional rhea, a Chinese-financed team of engineers will soon be dynamiting hillsides and pouring millions of tonnes of concrete for two giant hydroelectric dams that will flood an area the size of Buenos Aires'.

The truth is, dams are ALWAYS bad news for the environment. By trying to interfere with the natural world and tame it to suit our consumer needs, ecosystems, unique cultural sites of historical significance and indigenous populations inevitably suffer. From the Glen Canyon dam which destroyed much of the magnificent Colorado in Arizona to the Three Gorges dam in China which saw entire towns and villages submerged and a rare species of fresh water dolphin declared extinct. From The Planning Institute of Australia...

The Three Gorges Dam, a giant hydroelectric dam located along China's Yangtze River, has the biggest installed capacity of any power station in the world. But the project, finished in 2012, hasn't exactly been a triumph over dirtier forms of energy like coal power. Concerns about pollution, landslides, earthquakes, and biodiversity abound. And for about 4 million people, the dam project was mostly a disaster, as it flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,352 villages. (Everyone was relocated to new settlements built on higher ground, which in an Orwellian feat, were given the same names as their former communities.

Here in Wales, we've had our own controversial developments. Most notably the Llyn Celyn dam which in the 1960's destroyed an entire valley including an historic  100% Welsh speaking village. See The Drowning Season. In the 19th century, the Lake Vyrnwy development saw the village of Llanwddyn destroyed. Both projects  driven to supply water to Liverpool. Similarly, Alfred Wainwright's 'most beautiful valley in Lakeland' Mardale in the north Lakes was destroyed to provide water for Manchester.

In a way, the damming of natural rivers to create hydro power of water sources conveniently highlights the growing schism in the environmental movement between Conservationsts like myself and the new breed of Technophile 'Greens' who dominate organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.These Technophile greens see science and technology as the answer to the big issues of the day like energy production and climate change. 

The wilderness and ecosystems can be sacrificed for the greater good of humanity. Who needs freshwater dolphins or red squirrels when industry needs power and domestic users demand the right to leave their houses lit up like Xmas trees 24 hours a day! These shrill voices can be heard in liberal newspapers like The Guardian. Berating the conservationists and rural dwellers as 'Ruddy Cheeked Tories' more concerned with their aspect and house prices than global warming.

It's a message defined by the term 'Green Fascist'. I have an image of these Greenpeace Guardianistas. Thirty something metropoles, flying around the capital on their £2k mountain bikes, courier bag flapping in their wake.  Careful not to spill out their expensive iPhones and iPads as they wheel their way to a local FOE meeting  in the Mung Bean Eatery and Meditation Centre. Inevitably white, male and middle class, these humourless emaciated geeks are the fundementalists of the movement.  Zealous proselytisers who have chosen the one true way to salvation and woe betide anyone who challenges their essentially right wing orthodoxy.

Yes..right wing! -for these Technophile Greens embrace an imperialstic philosophy which is every bit as reactionary as its Victorian Empire building variant. The wild places, rare species, indigenous populations and natural resources exist to be exploited in the interests of the common good. Except the common good  is conveniently served by large corporate interests who make billions out of these so called green projects. 

The Three gorge Dam Project in China which literally unleashed hell!
Calling a massive dam project ' Renewable Hydro Power' is the 'get out of jail card' for corrupt national and regional governments and the private companies who exploit the powerlessness of native populations and the natural environment which they call home. For the global corporations, the politicians and the  Green Technophiles who act as the willing footsoldiers for these nefarious shysters, its not enough to call youself 'Green'. Actions speak louder than words and as the man said, ...You're no Green Bruv!'

Sadly, within hours of posting this piece, I learned of the death of Doug Tompkins in a kayaking accident in Chile. Doug is probably best known as a bold outdoor pioneer and founder of the outdoor clothing brand-North Face. However, in the context of the above piece, he was more importantly an outstanding conservationist. A committed eco philanthropist who put his millions into buying vast tracts of Patagonian wilderness to protect the land and the species that inhabit it from disastrous developments like the Patagonia dam project above. 
Thankfully through his wife and the foundation he established, his ideals will live on and the tracts of protected wilderness will be a fitting memorial to his life and times.
  Tompkins Conservation

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia...fifty years on!

John Cleare and Tony Smythes’ 1966 Rock Climbers in action in Snowdonia has long achieved iconic status in the field of mountaineering literature. With original copies fetching an arm and a leg on eBay, the news that the book is to be re-printed as a 50th anniversary addition-complete with new original photos which did not appear in the original book-will be welcomed by those who yearn to own the book but whose wallets won’t stretch far enough to buy a rare second hand edition.

The pre-publication blurb put out by John Cleare himself reads........ 

by John Cleare and Tony Smythe
To be published early in January 2016 by Mountain Camera.
Similar to the original 1966 edition, if rather fatter, it contains over a hundred of John Cleare’s photographs in a new layout – the original thirty nine plus many others that ‘got away’ in 1966 – together with Tony Smythe’s original text and a few other interesting additions.
The new edition may be purchased on-line (using credit/debit card) after November 15th 2015
direct from the printers at
in hardback at £25 or paperback at £20
plus £3.50 post and packing.

Climbing writer Steve Dean wrote a compelling appreciation of the work in the Climber’s Club journal on the book's 40th anniversary, which was republished in two parts on Footless Crow. See the links below.

I must admit that I’m one of those who has never owned the original work so I’m looking forward to seeing this. More especially those unpublished photographs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

RWE/Innogy's Conwy Falls Scheme:Dark Undercurrents!

Anyone travelling around the Snowdonia National Park recently, can’t have failed to notice the rash of so called renewable energy projects springing up. Two piped hydro schemes are in progress in the Llanberis Pass as we speak. Revealing ugly scars searing the mountainside as diggers carve out a course for the pipelines to follow to the pumping houses. Around the corner in Nant Gwynant, The National Trust already have an operational power plant installed. Utilising the cascading waters which flow down from Cwm Tregalen beneath Yr Wyddfa to reach the Afon Glasllyn.

Further north the £100m Glyn Rhonwy pumped hydro electric scheme above Llanberis has Gwynedd’s bovine local politicians falling over themselves to back this controversial development which will provide huge subsidised profits for the developer. Currently ‘Quarry Battery Company’, although these developers change the names and indeed the ownership of these companies as often as the weather changes in Snowdonia!

Of all the current projects in development and planning, none is more controversial than the quite frankly insane project to dam the beautiful Afon Conwy between The Fairy Glen and the Conwy Falls to provide a frankly pathetic amount of electricity. The developer not surprisingly is German Energy giant RWE using ‘RWE Innogy’ as its ironic ‘green’ handle. RWE were recently revealed as Europe’s biggest atmospheric polluter through its coal power plants, is currently trashing nearby Clocaenog Forest. Building a 33 turbine wind farm after the Welsh Government waved through the development despite the warnings from conservationists and environmentalists that the development would see the habitats of rare species at risk and increase the risk of flooding in one of the UK’s most ‘at risk’ areas. The Welsh Government of course essentially owns the forest through its quango, ‘Natural Resources Wales. The cosy new name for The Forestry Commission.

To get back to the Betws y Coed development. RWE want to construct a dam which will contain the free flow of the river to feed turbines sited beneath the dammed area.(Or should that be ‘The Damned area!) After all, ecologists are warning that the raised water levels will destroy rare plants and insect species whose habitat is effectively a Welsh Rain Forest. Previously untouched by development due to its inaccessibility.

To quote from The Snowdonia Society...

Conwy Falls and Fairy Glen is one of the top ten sites in Wales for the rare lower plants – mosses and liverworts – which only live in such ravines.  Together these sites form the most important areas of ‘Celtic Rainforest’ south of the Scottish Highlands.  Every single one of the ‘Top Ten’ sites either has a hydro-electric scheme already installed or has an application for a hydro-electric scheme in the planning system.
The Snowdonia Society has submitted a detailed objection to the Conwy Falls scheme, highlighting lack of employment opportunities for local people, construction-phase impacts on local businesses and damage to irreplaceable natural features of the river corridor.
Meanwhile, our Freedom of Information request  to Natural Resources Wales (NRW) revealed that conservation specialists have grave concerns over the Conwy Falls proposal which were not reflected in the official NRW response. We are pressing the National Park Authority and NRW to review their approaches.

Despite the opposition of environmentalists, local people, anglers, canoeists and groups like the aforementioned Snowdonia Society, sadly, going on current developments which have been waved through, I’m expecting this crazy scheme will get the nod as well. It appears that a developer only has to whisper the magic word ‘renewable’, and Abracadabra the planning application will receive the stamp of approval from our frankly inept and ignorant local politicians who are putty in the hands of these slick fat cat developers!

As Bob Dylan once sang...'Money doesn't talk it swears!'