Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The slow death of outdoor education in the UK

I was reading an article in the Guardian about an outdoor charity group warning that the continual cuts to social and youth services from central government as part of its ideologically driven austerity economic strategy, is seriously impacting on those client groups who benefit most from services provided by these outdoor education organisations.
Back in the 1980’s I was involved with a North Wales charity group which took socially disadvantaged youngsters on outdoor activity weekends. Using bases in N Wales and Langdale in the English Lake District, we would set off on a Friday evening in a mini bus and spend the weekend taking our charges hill-walking, rock climbing, kayaking and sailing. For many of these  young teenagers it would be their first experience of the great outdoors. The client base was referred to us by the child services team within the social services. Those referred by the team would be seen as most likely to benefit  from a break from their often traumatic home lives. More often than not, living dysfunctional lives within dysfunctional families on some of NE Wales’s  lousiest housing estates.  In those days, the charity had a great working relationship with what was then known as ‘The Intermediate Treatment Team’ based in N Wales’s largest conurbation, Wrexham . 

The IT Team’s mini bus was made available to us and 95% of referrals were put forward by the IT unit.It was a perfect working relationship. Social Services providing the client group and transport, the charity group providing the experienced outdoor activity leaders, outdoor equipment, accommodation and the organization of the activity weekends.

Things went well for most of the decade. Hundreds of youngsters got away from what could be a pretty unpleasant home life and usually had a great time dangling off rock faces, falling out of kayaks and climbing mountains. Apart from the activities on offer, just socialising with a new group of friends and being around adults who were not likely to humiliate or beat the crap out of them was an eye opening experience.  Suggesting that there was in fact a life outside of hanging around street corners swigging cider with stoned mates.

However, an event in 1993 sounded the death knell for the group. The Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy which saw four youngsters drowned while canoeing on the south coast, sent shock waves through the system. All too soon, charity and youth groups like ours, found that they just could not get insurance cover or the cover became prohibitively expensive. Organisations like LEA's and the Social Services took fright and fearing expensive litigation, pulled the plug on referrals. Although many outdoor centres carried on, small organisations lacking the professional base that under pinned the larger private and LEA funded centres, quickly folded.

Some would say, and a good thing too. Leave it to those professional outdoor centres like Plas y Brenin ,The Outward Bound Organisation or LEA funded centres like The Towers. Problem is, many of these centres are catering for a totally different constituency. What percentage of say PyB’s clients are from sink estates with a single parent bringing up a family on benefits?  My observation of PyB is that it is catering for a largely middle class clientele who can afford the expensive course fees. 

Since the group I was involved with folded, hundreds of similar organisations across the UK have folded too.  Another factor in the equation has been the number of LEA outdoor centres who despite employing highly qualified staff, have been closed down completely and been sold off as local authorities are forced to cap spending. The selling off of school playing fields-often for housing-to raise funds for cash strapped local authorities- is another element of what could be seen as the unfortunate reality of neo liberal economic policy. State funding of what are seen as non essential services like the provision of outdoor education has been well and truly jettisoned on the alter of right wing economic dogma practiced by both Labour and Conservative governments since the relatively enlightened 60’s and 70’s

Meanwhile in 2013... back on a street corner in Wrexham.......


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The folks who live on the hill

Times shot of Tom Price on the summit of Glaramara on his 90th birthday

I’ve just heard about Tom Price passing away aged 94. For those unfamiliar with this unassuming character, Denis Grey writes a short biography of his friend on the BMC site.  Tom Price always seemed a fascinating figure from a bygone age. Someone for whom the mountains stood as an overarching source of inspiration behind a wide range of activities which extended beyond the simple act of climbing them. 

I saw the picture of TP (above) on the summit of Glanarma near his Lake District home on his 90th birthday and wondered if I might ever find myself in that fortunate position? To have lived a long and healthy life and still be able to reach a mountain top in my ninties? Unlikely I would say. How many people even reach 90 never mind reach that venerable age and still be fit and well enough to engage in an activity like mountain walking?

I read years ago that the average life expectancy of a member  the UK’s Fell and Rock club is 88. That’s way above average UK stats. Allowing for the fact that a climbing club is bound to lose some of its members through accidents then that figure is more impressive still. Of course there will be social factors behind those statistics. A member of a club like the Fell and Rock or The Climbers Club is more likely to be middle class and statistically, those from a higher socio-economic groups are more conversant with the benefits of exercise, eating well, not smoking or boozing to excess etc. I expect you would find similar stats in any club which attracts a middle class membership.

It’s a sorry fact that the better off you are the longer you are likely to live.
When I started climbing in the 80’s I was in an unofficial group of in the main, working class climbers who called themselves ‘The Clwyd Hard Bastards’ ! Actually, this was intended to be ironic for none of us were particularly ‘hard’ when it came to climbing at a high standard. As working class lads-and it was a 100% male set up- there was an overwhelming appreciation of junk food, booze, fags and a certain banned narcotic. I rarely smoked but liked a pint and was known to succumb to the odd pasty and bacon butty.Although thankfully, never swelling to Whillans-esque proportions!

It struck me the other day, I was the only one left out of around 15 CHB’s who still climbed. No one has died yet* (Sadly no longer true *) but work, divorce, re-location and new interests from Tai Chi to Deep Sea fishing has whittled away at this once irreverent band of brothers. One or two old cohorts have suffered health problems as well, so it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely that there will ever be a Bradford Lads style reunion

David Craig penned a moving piece about giving up climbing after succumbing to various health problems which had accelerated as he approached his ninth decade. At the Corrie of The Black Raven. I suppose that unlike Tom Price, David’s climbing trajectory will be by far the most common path for most of us. As The Specials once sang..’Enjoy yourself...it’s later than you think’ !

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Running Talus: the lost art of boulder hopping

In the mid 70’s, legendary US climber Doug Robinson penned an essay for the Chouinard Equipment catalogue titled ‘Running Talus’. For those in the UK, this is basically running full tilt down a boulder field- leaping at speed from rock to rock. Robinson suggested that this was great training for the actual physical act of climbing and scrambling- developing balance and confidence. On the face of it, hurtling down a boulder field at full speed, leaping from van size boulder to fridge sized boulder to rucksack sized boulder to...well... you know what a classic boulder field looks like- seems like a recipe for disaster. 

The potential to seriously injure of even kill yourself through taking a purler from a large slippery jagged boulder doesn’t bear thinking about. But really, just how dangerous is it as an activity?

When I was younger, I prided myself on my balance and sure footedness when coming down a boulder field. Although I never ran full belt down such an expanse of rock-- inevitably I had a rucksack on my back- I could easily gain rapid momentum to the extent that I would look around at the bottom and see my cohorts gingerly picking their way down in the distance. As I’ve got older and well into middle age, I’ve definitely lost that natural ability. My balance has deteriorated; my body’s youthful suppleness has gone, leaving me much stiffer and awkward and of course, that confidence of youth has gone. I can still walk and bike long distances, climb and scramble but as for leaping around like a spring lamb...afraid not!

Getting back to Doug Robinson and his Running Talus. Not surprisingly perhaps for someone brought up in the sixties’ Californian hippy culture, Doug applied some Zen philosophy to the act of running talus. Describing how with practice, the mind and body harmonize the action of hurtling down boulder fields. Bestowing upon the participant an almost sublime state of consciousness. As the Talus runner gains momentum, his brain has already computed where the next foot fall will land before he/she has even touched down on the preceding move. The runner is in the air almost the moment their foot has landed.

In this scenario, there is almost no time to slip as there is no purchase-  just an explosion of movement. The foot becomes a coiled spring rather than just an anchor rooting the body to the earth. When running at speed down steep inclines like this, leaping from boulder to boulder, it almost becomes an act of flight rather than an act of earth bound movement. A top Talus Runner like Doug Robinson in his youth would probably spend more time in the air twixt boulders than touching down.
Thankfully, in the UK at least, the activity remains an obscure and little appreciated art; free from competition, commercial sponsorship and turgid ethical discussion. Can you imagine...  ‘The 2014 Red Bull National Boulder Running Championships at Cader Idris'!

Monday, August 12, 2013

From Genesis to Revelation

Catcher in the Sky: With the more delicate lower slab behind me, I can just pad across the easier upper slab with the first ascent in the bag.

It first caught my imagination sometime in the 90’s. A line up a vegetated groove where two slabs running off at different angles meet. To the left was a pleasant VS; to the right an old Drasdo/Moulam ‘severe’. Then I noticed a few years ago that someone else had claimed the line. Weird!..who else in North Wales would be mad enough to clean out that dirty groove and then climb it? However, I discovered that their new line was further left...a good bit further left and that part of the crag was still untainted by chalky paws. The concept changed last year. Not inclined to bring in heavy earth moving equipment to clean out the groove, at least I could add a top pitch to the veteran’s route. A huge overhang offered itself as an airy challenge. Traversing across it’s exposed face in a real ‘Space below my feet’ position. By today’s standards it didn’t look hard-no more than 5a-but it was delicate and if you fell off you better know how to prusik. Either that, or hope there was enough rope to be lowered down to the lower slab. Better wear a helmet for this one!

The concept changed again last summer when I realised there was a totally independent line up the slab from which you entered a groove and from there you could bound onto the hanging slab and scuttle across. It could be done in one pitch although at around 150’ it might provide some serious rope drag and if you fell off! Better to pull out at the top of the slab and belay on the arĂȘte, from where you could step down into the groove and gain the slab.

For various reasons what I thought would be a nailed on spring project never happened and with people on the climbing forums already asking when the snow will arrive-get a life!- I realised I better get my skates on. And so it came to pass. A dry but cloudy Saturday in August and I had managed to twist Tom’s arm into accompanying me with promises of guidebook immortality!

The crag was a lot more overgrown at the base than when we were regularly up and down there last year, working out it’s seriously under-exploited face. Until last summer there were only about 8 or 9 routes on the cliff. Now there must be at least 20. The slab was dry fortunately and very easy. You can usually get a reasonable idea of a new line’s grade by looking at it. More often than not it turns out harder than it looks. In this case, a rough stab at 4c turned out to be barely 4a. The top pitch which I had down at 5a was also a lot easier, No more than 4b. It was a really good pitch though. Passing over a steep, delicate slab in an outrageous position but with good holds and protection appearing just when you needed them....nice!

I graded it VS rather than Hard Severe given one or two delicate little moves and the exposure. ‘Mild VS’  in reality although of course, we don’t use the Lakeland guidebook ‘mild’ prefix in north Wales although I think we should. I wanted a 'One step in the Clouds' type route name for it and came up with 'Catcher in the Sky'...whaddayathink?   JA

Photos: Tom Hutton 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Who's that Girl?

It all began with an owl. To cut a long story short, I had a beautiful tawny owl trapped in my bedroom. For some reason it had flew into the house one balmy evening when the door was wide open, and couldn’t find its way out again. After catching it I was amazed at how placid it was once it was in my hands. It just sat there and had it’s photo taken before being released into the night. I was inspired to find out more about these amazing creatures and decided to put up a couple of owl boxes as it’s coming up to the time when the latest batch of fledglings get booted out and have to make their own way in the world. Apparently, putting up a owl box increases these outcasts chances of survival by 50%

Anyway, there I was rooting around in one of the outbuildings for wood offcuts to build my owl boxes when I found her.’ Her’ being a mystery female climber photogenically poised high above a stunning Lakeland backdrop. It was a large advertising board for Sealy Beds and I remember snaffling it from  a bed shop owned by a former climbing partner who had a bed business. I’m pretty sure the photo was taken in the English Lake District but who is the mystery female climber...she looks familiar but the photo must have been taken in the late 1990’s? She looks to be in her late 20’s so she must be somewhere in her 40’s now.

As for the venue, I’m going with the left side of Black Crag in Borrowdale. Best known for its classic Severe-Troutdale Pinnacle- but I can’t decide on the actual route though?  I could of course be totally wrong on this and the image might not even have been taken in the UK but that does look like Derwentwater in the background.

If you can shed any light on the matter, feel free to leave a comment.

* I now have it on good authority that the climber is Glenda Huxter who is doing a route on Shepherd's Crag in Borrowdale. Another Borrowdale suggestion was a route called the Dangler at Falcon Crag although as I know the belayer at the time then Glenda on Shepherds it is then