Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Barking up the wrong tree: Irish mountaineering club's dog advice.

It was a posting on the Irish Mountaineering Club’s Facebook page which prompted raised eyebrows and ruffled a few feathers amongst the wider mountaineering community. After posting a You-Tube video of a dog running free and chasing a sheep onto cliffs in Devon, the clip was accompanied by a stern recommendation from the club..’ if you are going into the mountains then leave your dog at home’.

Even for non dog owners the advice came across as a rather OTT knee-jerk reaction to an incident that didn’t even happen in Ireland. Of course dogs do worry sheep; a particular problem right now in the lambing season when terrified ewes can abort, and in the worst case scenario an out of control dog can kill or injure lambs, rams and ewes.

Thankfully, given the tens of thousands of dogs who go into the hills, these incidents are rare. 99% of dog owners in my experience are in the control of their dogs and will keep them on a lead amongst livestock and will have them trained to remain within the owner’s orbit.

My own interest in this is as a dog owner who wouldn’t dream of doing a mountain walk without taking Fergus, my six year old Springer Spaniel. For a start, as a breed Springers need the exercise and stimulation which is part and parcel of their high octane working pedigree. Of course, like most active dogs he enjoys being out and about in the great outdoors and he is in fact great company. Apart from the fact that he gets impatient if I stop for a rest and often barks until I get going again!

He’s not a dog I’d take to a crag though if I’m climbing. He’s too keen to follow and in general is just a pain. I’ve seen lots of dogs at the crag though. Relaxed and content to just chill next to the owners rucksack while the owner sports themselves above. The majority of climbers in my experience, like seeing dogs at the crag and will happily ruffle their ears and feed them bits of sandwich when they stop for lunch. There’s no denying though, that a small majority of mountain walkers and climbers hate dogs with a passion and will jump on any negative anti dog bandwagon they can. In this instance the Irish Mountaineering Clubs’ ill considered edict.

The author on the first ascent of 'Twa Dogs' VS-5a on Clogwyn Gigfran,N Wales.Named in tribute to a friends'two dogs who usually accompanied these new routing jaunts.
Dog threads on forums such as UKC will always generate heated debate and stimulate trolling from the haters. Let these bilious little people spill poison from their keyboards. Personally, as someone increasingly moulded in the Wainwright outdoor template, I’d rather see dogs in the mountains or at the crag than people! Certainly their impact on the mountain environment is hardly in the same league as the assembled hoards who descend on the national parks and uplands at the weekends.

As Pascal is quoted as saying...’the more I see of humanity, the more I love my dog’ .

Friday, April 3, 2015

Obscured by clouds:Wainwright's 'Bad Weather' quote revisited.

Eric Robson and Alfred Wainwright:Not a rain cloud in sight!: Photo Richard Else-Striding Edge

‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’  As mountain related sayings go it has become something of a cliche. Used by outdoor companies in the advertising promotions; quoted ad naseum by outdoor/travel writers, bloggers and just about anyone with an interest in persuading us to endure the masochistic ‘delights’ of undertaking an activity in inclement weather.

The quote is of course usually attribute to Alfred Wainwright although I’ve also seen it attributed to Ranulph Fiennes and described as a ‘Norwegian Saying’. The Wainwright source is given as his Coast to Coast walking guidebook but as I don't have a copy to hand I cannot check this out. However, whether or not this is verifiable doesn’t alter the fact that all the evidence suggests that Wainwright never actually  believed this patent tosh. A piece of hokum which sounds more like it emerged after a brainstorming session in a US advertising agency- working no doubt, on behalf of some outdoor apparel giant- rather than being the invention of a north country fellwalker who was noted for his stubborn refusal to embrace technical outdoor clothing.

The contradictory nature of this saying can be clearly evidenced in a UK TV documentary featuring Wainwright and his trusted interviewer and friend, Eric Robson. Sitting in a Borrowdale cafe, the pair looked to the stormy rain battered fells and Wainwright commented ‘ It’s certainly not a day to be out on the fells’. Note; not ‘If only I had my £400 Gore-Tex kag, Event Over trousers and my Seal Skin lined £300 Italian boots I’d be oop on’t fells like a shot’ !

When Eric asked him how he dealt with bad weather in the fells, AW was quite clear in his response. He simply said if the forecast was bad he just changed his plans and went on another day when the weather was more clement. An approach totally at odds with the attributed ‘ No such thing’ quote.

I have to say, this approach is plain common sense to me. If you live in the locale as AW did and can afford to change your plans then why not? Call me a fair-weather outdoor activist if you will but I see absolutely no point in going out climbing, hillwalking or mountain biking if it’s lashing down and a westerly gale is sweeping over. It would be different perhaps, if you had driven 200 miles to get your outdoor fix and had accommodation booked etc. Then I can see how you might find yourself quoting ‘Wainwright’ as you  zipped up your kag, hoisted a pack on your back and headed off into the mountains as white torrents tumbled down and the tops were wreathed in clag.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men etc, do not always follow the expected trajectory. Being unexpectedly caught out is par for the course if you get out regularly in the great outdoors. On several occasions I’ve been caught out climbing in the rain and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself, to quote Morrissey ‘Shipwrecked on dry land’. That is, when I’ve been hit by a squall in extremis. Trying to remove a gear placement which is suddenly under water is an interesting experience, as is trying to find your rucksack which you secreted in a niche at the foot of the crag except the niche has suddenly disappeared behind a waterfall! 

The most terrifying experience of all for any mountain goer is being caught in a thunder and lightning storm. Having just finished Direct Route on Glyder Fach, my partner and I were hit-almost literally- by an explosive storm which saw the sky take on a blue hue and the atmosphere bristling with menace. Running down the mountain side as lightning cracked around us and with our ears ringing with thunderclaps ,was not an experience I’d like to repeat anytime soon.

Captain Ahab unsuitably attired for an outdoor activity. In this case, the first aid ascent of Moby Dick.

There are always of course, the outdoor Captain Ahab’s. Not lashed to the mast in an Atlantic tempest or struggling to overcome 'The Great White', but gaining a perverse pleasure in elemental suffering by undertaking an activity when common sense suggests a day more suited to festering in caffs. Driving back and forth through Snowdonia I see these ‘Ahab’s regularly. Particularly the road bikers. Dressed in nothing but lycra, head down and peddling furiously into the wind and rain funneling down Ogwen Valley, or the perversely enthusiastic hillwalkers, returning like drowned rats from a day on the mountain when you can't see your hand in front of your face or the rain has matched a tropical monsoon in intensity

‘No such thing as bad weather’?....Au contraire mon ami and if Wainwright was still alive I’m sure he’d concur!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

All that Glitters is Garnet's Gold

The documentary Garnet’s Gold’, re-titled ‘The Lost Gold of the Highlands’ on BBC , was a brilliantly filmed feature surrounding the strange life and times of one Garnet Frost. A late fifty-something Londoner who, never having married or lived with a partner, had stayed with his mum in a state of splendid artistic dishevelment in a comfortable semi in that anonymous London sprawl which John Betjemen referred to as ‘Metroland’.

For reasons not quite explained, Garnet had paid his first visit to the Scottish Highlands twenty years previously and somehow found himself wandering the midge infested bounds of Lock Arkaig where he found himself tumbling down a ravine; coming to rest on the shores of a fast flowing small river which would enter the Loch further down. Lodged in one of the bank side rocks was a curious gnarled staff. It’s possible significance lost on the finder who starving, cold and dehydrated lapsed into a state of semi consciousness; prepared to accept the inevitability of death.

By a million to one chance he was rescued by a passing stalker and his return to civilisation coincided with his discovery of the legend of Prince Charlie’s Gold. During the Jacobite rebellion, funds in the form of gold bullion was brought over from the continent to financially underpin the campaign. However, defeat at Culloden saw the booty carted hither and thither across the Highlands until-legend has it-it was hidden someone near the shores of Loch Arkaig.

The bothy near Lock Arkaig: Walking Highlands 
Before the focus moves oop north, Garnet’s life with his 90 year old mother and friends is developed through talking head interviews and footage showing his predilection for beer, fags, dancing and crooning at the local boozer. As great outdoors activists go, Garnet is just about as far away from the norm as you can get.

Without any discernible means of income, our hero somehow manages to get himself an old Land Rover Discovery, a small boat and a weather balloon with a camera attachment and takes off with two friends for whom the wilds of Scotland are as alien to their suburban comfort zone as the jungles of the Congo!

Staying at the old bothy, Garnet takes off alone into the wild. His apparel refreshingly logo free and looking as if it was bought from an army and navy stores in the 1960's.His face quietly erupting into a midge bitten visage of swollen red skin. His bare legs inviting every tick in the area to climb aboard.
Ed Perkins captures it beautifully with some truly stunning footage; all taken apparently, on a single camera by the director himself.

Certainly well worth checking out. It might even still be on BBC iPlayer as we speak. Available in the UK only.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mountain Bandit Routes

The term Bandit Run, is generally a term used by paddlers to describe river trips where there are access problems with landowners and anglers and paddlers have to boldly do the run and be damned. Often facing abuse and even physical violence from those on the river bank. The trip down the River Dee (The Welsh one) between Bala and Llangollen is a notorious bandit run which I’ve done once. And a beautiful stretch of river it is and its criminal that it’s not a public right of way. In fact-as I’ve mentioned on a blog before- only 8% of English and Welsh rivers do enjoy open and free public access.

Despite the general public enjoying a greater degree of open access in the mountains and countryside in general, there are still many peaks where access is problematic. Yesterday I walked up the modest peak of Garn Prys; technically an Arenig outlier on the very edge of the Snowdonia national park, this little 1700 peak is a fine hill which stands in isolation from its neighbouring peaks and which has a unique geological make up. A sub strata of an attractive purple slate is overlaid by a strange conglomerate rock which outcrops across the summit. Obviously the result of volcanic upheaval aeons past, this granite like rock suggests a Cornish moor or sea cliff. Unique in Wales in my experience.

Approaching Garn Prys via a bridleway to the south

When I first mentioned a trip up Garn Prys I was told about access problems and angry farmers chasing walkers off the hill. A quick perusal of an OS map confirms that there are no public paths up the hill. I eventually sneaked up on the hill from the west. Walking up Blaen y Cwm to the saddle at Foel Frech; looking around for farmers; cocking my ear for the sound of a quad bike and then legging it until I was out of sight!

Yesterday’s ascent was more leisurely. Following a pleasant bridleway until it reached the road then the aforementioned ritual was re-enacted before another lung busting push to reach a point where I was out of sight. Sure enough, fences had to be climbed as there are no stiles of gates to enable access to the upper reaches.

It still strikes me as a strange state of affairs when there are peaks in Wales-and presumably England-where there is no recognized access and you have to undertake a bandit run to gain the top. It’s certainly not uncommon to find upland areas like this without public rights of way. Looking at a hillwalking site, its log book records a fair few ascents of Garn Prys but the comments suggest total confusion as to routes up the hill, with clambering across farm land and scaling fences pretty common.

It’s certainly an issue which demands the full attention of the Welsh Assembly which has shown a greater willingness to action progressive policies than the Westminster establishment. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Narrowboating: The long and winding water road

Timothy West and Prunella Scales: Raging against the dying of the light.Photo Telegraph

Narrowboats don’t exactly fall into 'the great outdoors' category but for a long time now I’ve had a fascination with the boats themselves and the entire history and culture surrounding what we used to just call barges. Barges themselves are a distinct vessel to the narrowboat, being a broader commercial craft common along main rivers like the Thames. The Narrowboat itself was also at one time a commercial boat, used for hauling everything from timber to coal around the country before the roads killed off the commercial potential. The positive effect of this commercial change however, was the transformation of the humble narrowboat into a recreational craft and a low cost floating home. 

Before the great boom in recreational boating however, the narrowboats fall from favour saw many of our English and Welsh canals fall into disuse and total disrepair. Especially those canals passing through the great towns and cities where the passing of traditional industries which used the canals to transport goods and materials, heralded a transformation which saw the waterways become rubbish filled, weed infested collapsing open sewers!

Thankfully, the canals had its individual champions and visionaries who with the help of volunteers and the cooperation of the British Waterways, dragged these derelict stretches back to life. Amongst those fine upstanding people were the most unlikely of canal volunteers, two of our finest thespians, Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales.

At the moment Channel 4 is following a series it launched a year ago with a follow up featuring the said actors. I certainly consider it a televisual gem amongst a sea of dross;or should it be a waterway of dross? Apart from the fact that it is beautifully filmed and put together, the programme shows the incredible spirit of two venerable soul mates (Timothy West is 81 and Pru Scales in 83) raging against the dying of the light. Prunella Scales is in the early stages of dementia yet it doesn’t stop her clambering along lock gates and putting her back into heaving them open while her husband takes on the master and commander role on the tiller. Even if he does bounce off the odd passing narrowboat and retaining wall!

By some strange quirk, ITV are also showing a celebrity/narrowboat programme at the moment featuring ex news reporter John Sergeant- ‘Boating around Britain’. Sadly, in contrast to Channel 4’s programme which features two long time narrowboat enthusiasts, The ITV programme falls into the celebrity/travelogue dross category which the channel  appears  to specialize in. John Sergeant is amenable enough, but is so wet and effeminate you can’t imagine he’s ever done anything more taxing than watch cricket. Unlike the grizzled and determined octogenarians on 4, Sergeant gives the impression that he’s a metropolitan fish out of water. Not helped when he emerges on deck in a white bath robe, delicately holding a china tea cup!

Alas, Narrowboating looks like being one of those many interests that I'll never be able to fully experience even if I am prone to tell young people especially,that if I was in their shoes, I'd buy an old narrowboat, do it up and take off into the wide blue yonder.

There’s some great books out there about life on a narrowboat and the vessels place in our history and culture. Amongst these are Tom Rolt’s classic Narrowboat and Paul Gogarty’s canal odyssey, The Water Road.