Tuesday, April 23, 2013

All along the Watchtower

I've seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms,and lightning that made my hair stand on end'

I've seen fires burn so hot,they made their own weather.

I've watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me,and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke.

If there's a better job in anywhere on the planet,I'd like to know what it is.

Phillip Connors: Fire Season.

'Fire Tower'...interesting!.. I'd been looking at the OS map of my backyard, looking for some new local walks where I could take the hound,and my eyes alighted on the above feature. In the state owned forests of the UK, fire towers- or forest look out points- are few and far between,unlike over in the States where remote Fire Towers are often manned-or even wo-manned- by firewatchers who are often on duty for up to six weeks at a time,at these isolated stations.

Some regarded literary figures have been employed as Fire Watchers at one time or another. Notably Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey. Both authors recording their lives in the forest through works such as Kerouac's Dharma Bums.However, the best literary work I've ever read in this field was Phillip Connors fairly recent book Fire Season. It's a fascinating and well written work which details his decade in the wilderness atop a fire tower on a remote mountain above millions of acres of forest which stretched as far as the eye could see.

With the advent of satellite technology, Firewatching in the US is going the way of Lighthouse keeping over here. However, the biggest forests in the US are still employing fire watchers who often need pack horses and muleteers to ferry their provisions to the work stations which might be days away from a highway. Once they are there, they usually remain on the job for over a month. The work routine involving the daily ritual of climbing the tower to scan the horizon for tell tale wisps of distant smoke-usually started by lightning strike. At the end of their shift,they climb down and settle into their simple cabin abode which of course is inevitably without main services. But why don't you just read Fire Season to get the full romantic picture.

As for my Fire Tower. I set off to find it but any fire breaks had been taken over by the self seeded conifers which made the direction I was heading for impossible to reach. I'll try again perhaps later this week via another route. I have an image of a rusting tower, unseen and unused for decades ,reaching up into the sky supporting a viewing platform. Perhaps it's fallen down and all that remains is a twisted scattered hulk? There must be something there though?...Watch this space.

Fire Season

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nantmor ghost materialises

Jeremy Trumper(left)and Eric Jones after their Devil's Tower climb: Photo Cambrian News

To most climbers and outdoor folk,the splendid name 'Jeremy Trumper' will probably not ring any bells. Apart from perhaps suggesting a character in a PJ Wodehouse  book or Harry Potter film. However, it was a name from the past which came alive for me this week when I read a story in a North Wales newspaper. About 15 years ago, I was privileged to be loaned a rare copy of Showell Styles' private climbing guides to the virtually unexplored little crags around the western fringes of Snowdonia. Yr Arddu, Moel Ddu and Moel y Gest above Portmadog amongst them.

These charming little typewritten, carbon copied pages were liberally annotated with scribblings and notes made by the owner. Amongst the scribblings were references to Jeremy Trumper and 'Pip'. I knew Pip was Showell Styles himself. In fact, using these guides, I made some explorations on Yr Arddu which included about 10 or so easy new routes which were in character with the mellow vibe of this lovely little off the beaten track mountain. During this period had a surreal conversation by phone with Showell Styles. At this time he would have been well into his eighties and deaf as a doorpost. At stages after shouting ..'What..What!!, he would pass the phone to his wife to act as his interpreter. One thing I did learn from him. That he ascended Cnicht, 'The Welsh Matterhorn' nearly 900 times when he was living in Croesor.

I'm not sure if he lived longed enough to find his explorations on the western fringes finally included in a Climbers Club guidebook,sixty years after Menlove Edwards first made reference to Yr Arddu as a climbing venue? Menlove himself lived for a while in Nantmor and must have scrambled and climbed throughout  this area.

Scott Lloyd on the first ascent of Obscurer on Bwtres Mawr-Yr Arddu

My only regret from the time I held the Showell Styles guides comes from the fact  that I didn't fill my boots on Moel Ddu and Moel y Gest before I passed on the information to the then Tremadog guidebook team who promptly went on a new routing extravaganza. Most of the routes falling in the amenable lower-middle grades.

Anyway...no use crying over a blotchy carbon copy; to get back to Jeremy Trumper. In a week when Welsh ITV  aired an excellent peak hour profile of 77 year old Welsh climbing legend, Eric Jones, I read in the Cambrian Times that Eric has just returned from climbing The Devil's Tower in Wyoming with none other than our very own Mr Trumper. Finally, this mystical figure had come to life. With the aforementioned old climber coming in at 75 years young, then even my remedial level of arithmetic can work out that the Devil's Tower team boasted a combined age of 152.  From Potted Precipice and Marmalade Wall to the Devil's Tower and back. That's quite a trip!

Jez and Eric's big adventure can be seen on the Welsh language S4C channel this Thursday-18th April.* 2014

Cambrian News Story

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thatcherism and the rise and fall of the UB-40 climber

One of the numerous social phenomenons associated with the post 79 Thatcher era was the rise and rise of the UB-40 climber.For those outside the UK, a UB-40 form was used for signing on as unemployed and claiming state benefits. Given the Thatcher government's economic philosophy- wholesale privatisation, refusing state aid to struggling industries-so called lame ducks- wiping out entire industries such as ship building and coal mining and transforming the UK economy from a manufacturing base to a service and finance based economy; it was not surprising that unemployment went through the roof.

Officially,over three million were unemployed although the true figure was probably double that. Not least in northern cities like Liverpool where unemployment was over 30% of the total work force.

For the climbing community however,the enforced exclusion from the work force was a perfect opportunity to put that free time into doing something positive. Not least, spending every spare minute on the rock face. Not just getting stuck into UK campaigns but quite often taking off abroad. The tales of the UK climbing vagabond abroad provides a rich seam of anecdotes. Often living in Alpine camp sites like Snells Field, these climbing dole-ites would often supplement their meagre benefits with a spot of private enterprise. In particular, 'lifting' outdoor clothing and equipment from local stores and flogging it on to fellow climbers.

In was during this period that technical standards went up exponentially to the number of unemployed. with record numbers of climbers hitting the crags 7 days a week, standards went up considerably. Given the leftist bent of the majority of climbers,then it's no surprise to see on the social networks that there is little wailing and gnashing of teeth at her passing. In fact I had a spit coffee over the keyboard moment when I read comedian Frankie Boyle's tweet..'first time I've ever been able to wear my black suit and tap dancing shoes at the same time'!  For climbers of a certain age however, the Thatcher years provided a unique period of development and self expression. The UB-40 climber...gone but forever in our thoughts.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The road to nowhere

Despite a good forecast for the weekend, I'd not pursued the possibility of going climbing as with the snow lying on the ground hereabouts for two weeks, I'd so much to catch up on outside. However, by the afternoon,with the sun beating down and a clear blue sky above, I  just had to get out, even if  it was only  a local jaunt for a few hours. I decided to link together four little cairned peaks, three of which I'd only discovered in the last few weeks despite them being on my doorstep. It had gone two by the time I set off and pretty soon after leaving the car, I was down to my T shirt, despite trudging through snow which was still lying at some depth in the forest.

Without giving a blow by blow account of the walk, suffice it to say it all came together perfectly as a fine six mile circular upland walk.Once again,in the words of Wainwright, ' I felt like the last man in a dying world' with not  a soul to be seen all day. There were however some perfect moments; not least seeing a Red Admiral framed between an ultramarine sky and the dazzling snow banks. It's flight path eventually lost in the glare. Within a minute a mountain hare skipped across the snow, strangely unseen by the hound. Making my way over to the final little peak- Mynydd Poeth- I came across something which has really caught my imagination and which has caused me no amount of theorizing. Cutting through a boggy plateau we came across a raised road of some considerable expanse. It led in one direction over the summit of Mynydd Poeth to reach a tiny back lane,in the other, it just ended abruptly at a field, beyond which was the very edge of Clocaenog Forest.

It didn't make sense? A considerable feat of engineering; the construction of a raised road of stone with a perfectly  smooth now grassed over surface. From nowhere to nowhere. Certainly, it could never have been built to service the local farming community; there is no history of quarrying or mining hereabouts. In fact this remote spot is as far removed from industry as it is possible to be.

That night I consulted the oracle...Google Earth..which if anything made the mystery even more puzzling. GE showed the mysterious road quite clearly, however,where it abruptly ended was at a vivid green field which stood out clearly from the tawny scrubby surrounding moorland. Theories abound. Was this field the site of a remote abbey or monastery destroyed by Cromwell's goons? Was the road perhaps built 100 years ago by IRA work gangs imprisoned at the nearby Fron Goch concentration camp as a form of chain gang punishment? Fron Goch housed Irish republican prisoners including Michael Collins after their arrest in the Easter rising.

I can't find any information on Google re historic buildings in the area. The road remains a mystery? Favourite theory though is that the road led to a remote abbey or monastry. I'm guessing that much of the lands attached have disappeared under forest but remains of settlements still survive in the area. Perhaps the road's foundations are the remains of this building?

To add a romantic flourish to what had been a beautiful day which by now was leeching into twilight, as I headed down towards the forest, two geese broke the silence, approaching from the west making that wonderful  cronking sound. As they reached us they dropped down and circled us four times before cronking off into the sunset. Menlove Edwards,the great climber once wrote of 'the inate symbolisms of life'. I've never been quite sure what he meant. Perhaps he would have found lost roads and greeting geese as containing some innate symbolism?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tortoise takes hare in health race

Runners set off on a mountain marathon.By the time it's over, walkers would have lost more calories and accrued more health benefits over the same period.

Interesting to read this morning that scientists in the US have found that walking has greater health benefits for the participant than running. As an ex runner who does a lot of walking, that's good to hear. Time was when the daily run became an almost obsessive ritual in my life. I would enter half marathons and pound those hard highways with a zealous determination, even after a hard day's work. Then I saw the light. Well...actually, my knees started to suffer from the pounding. 

Having a pretty awful natural gait, a sort of Donald Duck waddle, it naturally imposed stress on my joints. I've always walked and mountain bike occasionally so it was no big deal to just switch off the walking a concentrate on climbing, walking and M Biking. I must admit I don't miss running at all.

One of the things I've noticed in running is that it does attract a certain type fanatical devotee. Like a devout Catholic who comes to stay and asks where is the nearest Catholic Church as they have to attend Mass or face confession when they get home. The more fanatical of the running tribe will often inform you as soon as they arrive, that they will have to take their leave of your company for a few hours while they do their daily penance..sorry run.

It's an interesting phenomena though with the real hard case runners; and that's just how unhealthy they often look. Gaunt, wiry and with faces like tanned cow hide. I suppose it's all in the eye of the beholder and some might see this indicating a robust vigor and healthy constitution.  For me, well.. they just look like they would succumb to the first virus that blows their way. It's a well documented fact in mountain rescue that those who survive prolonged periods of exposure, are more likely to be carrying some excess weight. The first people to 'buy the farm' as they say in the States are those individuals who share the emaciated running zealots' physique.

According to the research by Dr Paul Wiilliams at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California and published in the journal of the American Heart Association, walkers were twice as likely to reduce the risk of heart disease as runners and would lose more calories than their speeding brethren. Walkers were also nearly 50% less likely to suffer first time blood pressure than runners.

So...there you go. You can bin those overpriced New Balance trainers, ditch the nipple tape, put your lycra running top in the charity shop bag and dig your walking boots out of the garage. You know it will be good for you in the long run!

Sound advice from health pioneers-The Ventures

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Honey Pot Syndrome

A Sunny, snowy Easter weekend in north Wales. I thought about heading into Snowdonia. Well; at least for half a nanosecond before coming to my senses. The traffic convoys down the A5, The slow chug through chockerblock Betws y Coed; the fight for a parking space at the honeypot venues..Ogwen Cottage, Pen y Pass, Rhyd Ddu, The Gwynant valley and all points north,south,east and west.... And that's even before you get into the mountains. The walkers paths and ridges heaving with crocodiles of walkers slushing their way up and down from the packed tops; or perhaps heading into Cwm Cneifion for a climb or two . Well roll up roll up folks and join the queue. Snow+ blue skies+ a bank holiday means there will be more people in the Cwm than there were at The Millenium Stadium for the recent Wales v England match.

It's long been a source of bemusement to me why outdoor folk show so little imagination when it comes to choosing a walking or climbing venue? Even on the busiest weekend or bank holiday, I guarantee there will be peaks and paths which will not see a solitary footprint in north and mid Wales. Mostly, these quiet backwaters lie outside of Northern Snowdonia; amongst the 'badlands' of the vast Migneint; in the undulating uplands of Mid Wales, upon the rolling Hiraethog or in the lonely Berwyns. Even a relatively popular range of mountains like The Rhinogs have their little outliers which will be free from all but the most determined walker. 

That's just the walking venues I'm talking about. If we are considering climbing crags either as summer or winter venues then we are in a totally new ball game. If anything, climbers are even more ovine like than their walking brethren. I bet that 90% of climbing takes place on less than 20% of our listed crags. This is not some abstract off the top of my head theory. As someone involved in guide book work, I'm more than aware that many crags do not see a visit from one year to the next. True, these might be a high mountain crag which involves an hour and a half of rough trodding but quite often these outposts sport some cracking climbs.

The author, bumming around on some obscure crag as per

Even in Northern Snowdonia there are dozens and dozens of outlying crags which are effectively lost for now. The only time they get cleaned up and re-climbed is usually when there is a guidebook in the offing and one or two team members set to and give these crags a clean up and regrade routes which quite often are hopelessly under-graded.
The honeypot syndrome seems to be skewing the influx of outdoor activists into the respective areas of activity in an ever more pronounced and observable way. As more people are drawn to walking and climbing, the rapidly expanding numbers of people heading off to the mountain areas is creating real ecological and social pressures on the natural environment and human resources.

This phenomena could of course be seen in a positive way in that it leaves the wildest empty places for the the Alfred Wainwrights amongst us, who are happy in our own company or sharing a rope with a climbing partner or two on a deserted crag. A pressure valve if you will,which keeps many of our wilder fringes as just that..wild and unfrequented.

Returning to Easter Saturday..... convinced at the folly of leaving my local environs. I headed off once again into the rough bounds of Hiraethog. Taking in an unknown 150' spectacular waterfall reached via an old pack horse bridge, untrammelled snow tracks through the forest which broke out upon empty uplands which looked out to vast horizons. A solitary spectator gazing across empty fields and snow capped hills, studded with old ruins and criss-crossed with winding drovers roads. 

In three hours I just caught a single person,a horsewoman- who I happened to know- exercising her chestnut mare on the snowy tracks. Apart from the muffled hoof fall in the snow,the land was lost in an all encompassing silence.....unlike Ogwen Cottage!

Easter Saturday: Hiraethog