Thursday, September 26, 2013

Grade Drift: A cautionary tale.

Pitch Two of Desire: Photo Tom Hutton

I believe it was Ken Wilson who coined the term ‘Grade Drift’. The context was entirely negative. It suggested that guidebook writers were nudging up the technical grades of traditional climbs without having just cause. It suggested that if a climb was graded V Diff for example in the 1960’s then why on earth should modern authors-I think we are talking 1980’s here-up the grade to say Hard Severe and apply a technical grade. Particularly as modern gear would make the climb easier than for those first ascentionists with their rudimentary equipment and big boots. On the face of it it seems a persuasive argument. It’s not an argument however that holds water for me. I’m not sure why early guidebook writers should be seen as the true arbiters of climbing grades above modern authors?

My experiences of being involved in guidebook work suggests that the grading particularly of lower grade climbs can often be totally out of touch with reality. David Craig had an article first published in the Fell and Rock journal and re-published on Footless Crow-An intriguing failure- which detailed an attempt to climb an obscure Lakeland V Diff. It’s an article that will ring true for climbers described by Steve Ashton as being ‘of a pioneering bent’ It describes backing off a low grade horror which was thin, dirty and poorly protected. 

When I was helping out with the last CC Ogwen guide, I found myself covering some of the areas’ rarely frequented backwaters. What quickly emerged was the undeniable fact that these unpopular areas are usually just copied verbatim from one guidebook to the next without any checking by the writer. Ogwen was unusual in that unpopular areas like the West Face of Tryfan were checked out for probably the first time since Menlove Edwards was involved in guidebook work. It was pretty clear that many traditional climbs were hopelessly undergraded.

It’s interesting to note that even first ascentionists can often make a total dog’s dinner of grading their own routes. In fact the term ‘sandbag’ is a fitting riposte to those who throw the term ‘grade drift’ around. In the mid 90’s on a cold November day, I remember doing a not particularly memorable two pitch 150’ route on the beautifully situated but unpopular cliff of Craig Dinas above the Lledr Valley. I named it ‘Desire’ and graded it as a Hard Severe 4b. As I was covering the crag for the 2000 Meirionydd guide I included it and guessed that it wouldn’t see much traffic in future. A couple of years ago I found myself re-climbing it with some guidebook team members. Three things struck about the route. First, my description was appallingly inaccurate. Apologies if you’ve ever tried it but I’m guessing you won’t have actually done it as it was conceived. Secondly, it was actually a pretty good route and worth a star and thirdly, the consensus was it was more a VS than HS. A couple of months ago I did it again with the outdoor writer Tom Hutton and the feeling was that actually 4c was a more accurate technical grade than 4b. Not a huge drift in the scheme of things but when the context is a HS-4b being reclassified as a VS-4c then that kind of thing is bound to get Ken’s goat up!

Not that Desire was unusual on that cliff. A route called Grooved Slab had not appeared in a guidebook since Tony Moulam’s 1970 Snowdon East guide showed it as a V Diff on a crag topo. There was no route description in the text though. After climbing it I graded it VS-4c! A grade reconfirmed by a new team of writers last year. From V Diff to VS in the blink of an eye. Not so much grade drift as grade earthquake! Of course if it hadn’t had been actually climbed and had been just copied up as a V Diff we’d be well and truly in sandbag territory.
Tom on the first pitch of grade drifted Desire.

So...sandbag or grade drift; What do ordinary climbers prefer to be met with when they select an unpopular route? Speaking for myself, I’d take a soft touch anytime over a hopelessly under-graded sandbag and I’d take a modern revised grade over something that Menlove Edwards wrote up in the 1930’s any day!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dog Day Afternoon

Is that a bagel I see before me?

On Saturday I set off on a memorial walk for David Hooper. Much loved guide and stalwart of the UKC climbing community who died a year ago. His friends and family had organised a walk up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) on what would have been the week of his  60th birthday. It seemed only yesterday that I had had the honour of closing his funeral service with a reading of Yeats’ ‘Lake Isle of Inishfree’ and it was still hard to accept that his larger than life character was no longer holding court at his Capel Curig bolt hole.

Mindful of the horrendous crowds who descend on the mountain at the weekend, I decided to walk up from just outside Beddgelert, following a public footpath to reach what I believed was open access land. The rammed car parks and crowded verges confirmed I’d made the right decision as I dropped down into a sombre Gwynant Valley swept by showers.

I had considered walking up a track on National Trust land. Heading up to the outlier of Craig Wen before heading over to Yr Aran and on to Yr Wyddfa. On Google Earth it showed a good track leading up to and passed a farm, continuing up to old quarry barracks and workings. Problem was, when I pulled up in the lay-by I was met with ‘Private’..’Keep Out’ signs. This is NT land we are talking about here but don’t get me started on the NT. Actually DO get me started on the NT because as an organisation their only real talent is for allowing its members to be fleeced by greedy landowners. Witness the ludicrous amounts it paid-through public donations-for two mountain estates hereabouts and compare it to what the John Muir Trust have paid for mountain estates in Scotland.  There’s no comparison. The JMT appear to have skilled negotiators and apply sensitive land management strategies to the estates they acquire. The NT by contrast, appear particularly clueless as to land value in different parts of the country and their management skills leave a lot to be desired. They should stick to stately homes and leave mountain estates to more appropriate organisations.

Anyway...I ended up  following my original track from just outside Beddgelert and initially it was a rather pleasant approach. The problem came when I struck off for the higher ground and was brought to heel by a piercing whistle, perfected from a lifetime of sheepdog management. I wandered back down and went through the ‘get orf my land’ routine. Being told that ‘this is my land’, there was no right way up the mountain and the only open access was on the tops. Not wishing to quote ‘all property is theft’ or discuss Tom Paine and the rights of man, I followed his directions and found myself back on the road. This time the other side of Beddgelert.

By now it was too late to reach the summit and meet the other walkers who were mostly coming up the trade routes so I ended up walking up Bryn Castell above Llyn Dinas where my parents-and Menlove Edwards- ashes were scattered. By now, the sun had come out, Yr Wyddfa had come out of the cloud but nevertheless, it would be heaving . I was sorry that my part in Dave’s memorial walk had all gone pear shaped but it was very pleasant here upon the knoll, far from the madding crowds.

It’s hard for me not to get angry when I consider the feudal access rights we have in Wales-and England. Despite being promised a right to roam by the Blair government, what we got with the compromised Crow act was a piece of tripe created by timid bureaucrats and aimed at appeasing landowners. I blogged a while ago-(Access all Areas) about access problems in mid Wales, where a private estate bans walkers from directly accessing an impressive waterfall, and sends them on the potentially life threatening detour. 

The idea that we are anywhere near to enjoying a right to roam is fanciful in the extreme. When even organisations that purport to be managing land in the interests of the people are telling those very people to keep out and advising there is no access across the land they own and manage then you realise just how far we have to go before we really do have open access in England and Wales.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Shipwrecked on dry land

A few weeks ago I finally made it across to Llanech-y-Mor to take a look at the Duke of Lancaster. This former cruise ship moored up on the Dee estuary had featured in the last few months in quite a few national newspapers, including The Guardian, Telegraph and Mail. It’s newsworthiness based on its transformation from rusting hulk into a giant steel canvas for a European street artist movement, The Du-Dug Collective-Welsh for The Black Duke. The story of The Black Duke from its birth in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast in 1956, to its current status as an art installation and political battlefield is as surreal and outlandish a story as the most fevered imagination could conjure up. It is a story that is crying out to be made into a film documentary. A tale involving cold war paranoia, political corruption and a cultural divide.

According to the Wikipedia entry regarding, The Duke of Lancaster, it was built as a passenger cruise ship which operated from 1956 to 1979. After being decommissioned by the owners-British Rail it was sold to a Liverpool based company and brought down from Barrow in Furness to an empty dock at Llanerch y Mor on the Dee Estuary. The new owners originally planned to get around the archaic planning laws which ruled against trading on a Sunday by exploiting a loop hole in the planning regulations which saw ships at sea outside of these restrictions. Furthermore, it’s rebranding as ‘The Funship’ was aimed at developing the ship as a floating market with bars, restaurants and accommodation to exploit North Wales’s tourist market. 

For a while it was successful but very soon came up against the dead hand of corrupt and inept local politicians. The then Delyn Council slapped enforcement notice upon enforcement notice upon the owners, claiming the ship was in breach of trading regulations and threatened the council’s own monopoly trading status. At this point it’s appropriate to point out how Welsh councils and their planning committees are essentially composed. Councils in North Wales are overwhelmingly made up of what would be described as a white petit bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, farmers and small businessmen, with a sprinkling of professionals like solicitors and educationalists. In many North Wales authorities, these frankly low calibre politicians fly under flag of ‘Independents’.

In planning applications involving licensing and trading there is more often than not, barely disguised self interest involved. Those politicians whose livelihoods are threatened by an enterprise like The Duke Of Lancaster will usually fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo and protect their own interests. Throw in the role of freemasonry which unites many local politicians with the North Wales Police- within whose ranks freemasonry is endemic- and you have a powerful  force for continuity and planning conservatism. I recommend you read ‘John’s Story’ on the Duke of Lancaster website for the full tale of political shenanigans surrounding The Black Duke’. 

If you want evidence of the ineptitude of North Wales local authorities,witness local government reorganisation in the 90’s which saw Denbighshire inherit massive debts from the failed, bankrupt Rhuddlan Borough Council and more recently, Ynys Mon ( Island of Angelsey) council declared such a dysfunctional basket case authority that The Welsh Assembly government appointed a team of commissioners to run the authority.  It has since had its powers returned.

If these political intrigues are almost beyond belief then the DuDug collective’s account of the history of The Duke of Lancaster takes the story into the realms of Hollywood. According to the group, the ship-which was built during a time of cold war paranoia- was intended to be a floating centre of government in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. While Britain suffered a nuclear conflagration, The Duke of Lancaster would sit out the conflict in the Atlantic with passenger role comprising of government ministers and members of the Royal Family. According the DuDug website... “The ship included: sleeping quarters, war rooms, amphitheatres, kitchens, dining areas, infirmaries, brigs, psychiatric cells, barbershops, storage rooms, sewage treatment facilities, body storage/disposal areas, gun ranges, and decontamination showers. Most importantly, she had the most elaborate and powerful communications equipment ever installed aboard a ship, at that time.’

For a full account, I recommend following the linked pages of the owners and the arts collective. 

As far as my own visit was concerned. Despite arriving on a wet grey day, I was expecting some sort of carnival atmosphere surrounding the ship. Street Artists hard at work, tourists taking photographs and traders plying their wares on the quayside. What met me was an impressive but nevertheless neglected rusting hulk moored alongside a weed infested dockside which was hidden behind fencing and razor wire. A porta-cabin with two cars parked outside suggested security goons were in residence. Somewhat disappointed by the state of affairs I followed the path to the waterfront. The fence continued down towards the waterline. Fortunately the tide was out and by scrambling down over seaweed covered rocks I could get around the barrier and into the dock. Not wishing to trigger the release of a couple of slavering Rottweiler’s  I knocked on the cabin door to ask permission to take some photos. I was met by an unsmiling  young guy with an expression of ‘how they hell did you get in' on his puzzled face. Permission was not forthcoming and I was thrown out of the dock. Well...not literally thrown out as in marched out with my arm wrenched up behind my back. I walked out the way I came in but not at all impressed with the hospitality on offer.

Thinking about the Duke of Lancaster situation today, I can’t help ponder the irony of a Liverpool based enterprise being moored in the cultural wasteland of Deeside. Given the city’s  transformation into an international venue for arts festivals and music  gatherings, and the local authorities willingness to exploit the city’s magnificent waterfront and maritime heritage, then you can only but wonder at what fate would have delivered if the ship was moored on the Mersey?  It could be a major arts and tourist centre with studios for local artists, galleries, bars, cafes and a flea market below in the massive car deck.  Unfortunately, when the owners bought the ship and looked at possible moorings, Liverpool City Council was as dysfunctional an authority as any in Europe and sadly for the owners, it was most definitely the right place but at the wrong time.

In the mean time, thank God for The DuDug collective ! It least someone is fighting on behalf of The Black Duke!


Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Last Refuge

Maeshafn youth hostel 1985: Photo Sludgegulper

Re-reading Alistair Borthwicks’ closing chapter from ‘Always a little further’ published on Footless Crow this week, the author who was writing in the late 1930’s, touched upon the great socio-cultural revolution taking place amongst working class outdoor activists; essentially ramblers, climbers and cyclists, who had been liberated by the provision of hostel accommodation in the mountain areas.  The idea of youth hostels began in Germany but by the late 20’s had spread to the UK with the present England and Wales YHA emerging from a Merseyside based association.

One of its first purpose built hostels was at Maeshafn in the Clwydian limestone country above Mold.  This historic timber structure was sold in 2011 and has probably been demolished by now? Romantic that I am, I can’t help feeling that buildings like this, which are of great cultural importance should be preserved, but still when have politicians and planning departments ever attached importance to cultural factors in planning decisions?

I was a member of the YHA for a few years in the early 90’s but even then the association was living on borrowed time. What was once offered as cheap and basic accommodation for outdoor folk was rapidly losing its appeal and value. The attraction of sleeping in a single sex dorm and doing chores as part of your package was incredibly archaic and even the rise of private rooms in YHA hostels and the doing away of these chore duties couldn’t disguise the fact that hostels were of their time but not particularly attractive places to stay in this day and age. By the end of the decade, I had discovered that it was in fact cheaper to hire a cottage than stay in a hostel.

 and you get some weird people staying in club huts!

YHA hostels were getting expensive. For example, even in the late 90’s some of the bigger hostels were charging £15 a night for accommodation when you could hire a cottage for a group or family which would be considerably less.

I took a peek at what the YHA are charging in 2013. I checked out  the historic  Pen y Pass hostel in Snowdonia . Rooms from £47.50-beds from £19.50....Gosh!... I’ve just booked a old fisherman’s cottage for October, right on the sea front  for my partner and I which is £25.00 a night. That’s £12.50 each...and they allow dogs! I could book a cottage right now set in a beautiful Lakeland Valley which sleeps 8 for £130 for a three day weekend. That’s actually just a fiver per person per night. We are talking about a warm centrally heated  traditional Lakeland stone cottage with all amenities and yes ...they do allow dogs. Furthermore, there are no restrictions. You can come and go as you please. No lock outs, tippy toeing in trying not to disturb the punters or suffering the late arrivals who crash in like a herd of elephants.

That’s actually cheaper than many Climbing Clubs huts and once again, you are not suffering dorm living, bunked up with snoring farting strangers.

In common with the YHA hostels, even the more modestly priced climbing club huts are losing their appeal. A historic club hut like Helyg only sees a 40% occupancy rate. Does anyone really enjoy sleeping in a sleeping bag on a creaking top bunk? Call me soft but I’ve been there done that and bought the T Shirt.

Which brings me back to dogs? My experience of the outdoor community is that 80% of activists like dogs and enjoy their company. However, a small minority hate dogs with a passion and it is this dour element who the climbing clubs and YHA organisation bend the knee to with regard to allowing dogs to stay. Personally as a dog owner, I can’t see why a well behaved dog cannot stay in a hostel or club hut as they can in private, self catering places but then I am biased. I realise that some dogs can be a pain but that’s usually a reflection of the owner. Another good reason though to avoid huts and hostels though.

Pen y Pass Hostel in N Wales

In recent years, the YHA has been selling off many of its less popular hostels including some right in the heart of national parks. A trend which will continue as the cheaper and more attractive alternatives become more apparent to an increasingly discerning clientele. If you read a book like Patrick Monkhouses’ On Foot in Snowdonia’ you realise just how many hostels the YHA used to run. There must be less than a quarter the number of hostels now compared to the number the organisation had at its peak. I can see a time when even the bigger climbing clubs will be forced to sell off some of their huts. In the harsh economic glare and taking social and cultural changes into account, the clubs and associations are living in the past. Folk can just Google ‘Self Catering Accommodation in......’ and find cheaper and more flexible alternatives to the bureaucratic and usually rigid regimes of the climbing clubs and hostel associations with their outdated rules and regulations. An accommodation system which increasingly appears as an anachronistic reflection of a bygone age. 

Memo to Climbing club and YHA  bureaucrats.... It's not 1939 anymore!