Thursday, November 28, 2013

There is a light that never goes out

About five miles away, as the crow flies, lies the Upper Dee Valley village of Cynwyd. Tucked up in the lee of the Berwyns, just outside the village, is the former home of Everest hero Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine who with George Leigh Mallory may or may not-depending on your gut instinct- have been the first man to stride out on the summit of Everest. I realized recently that I used to take one of my daughters up there-no longer in the Irvine family these days- where she rode out into the Berwyns on one of their horses. 

A few weeks ago I was told an interesting and poignant story about the house and family. After Irvine disappeared on Everest, his mother would light a candle in his bedroom every night to guide his way home. Something she did for many years until she died. I was touched by the romanticism of this little ‘ceremony of the innocents’. I have a mental picture- having been there- of approaching up the wooded drive, with the owls carousing amongst the trees, and seeing the flickering flame in an upstairs window.

When I first heard the Mallory/Irvine story, I always felt for Irvine as the inexperienced greenhorn. Reliant on Mallory who was the outstanding mountaineer of his generation to guide them towards their goal and get them home safely. I remember thinking ,what if Mallory died first and left his partner alone and ill equipped to return by himself. Was that the reason an ice axe-believed to be Irvines- was found carefully placed on a rock.We now know that Mallory fell and was fatally injured. Did Irvine witness this and without the strength or will to continue, simply placed his axe down and went to sleep? 

If I could write fiction, I imagine there’s a nice short story to be told.The walker caught out on the Berwyn ridge in a winter white out, meeting by chance, a fellow mountaineer in curiously dated attire who happens to be on his way home. Passing through the endless drifted shadows they plough on in silence. Passing the ancient stone circle of Moel ty Uchaf and the tumbling Afon Llynor until they reach the clusters of white cottages gathered around the Dee....

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
'Here he lies where he longed to be;Home is the sailor, 
home from sea, and the hunter home from the hill'. 
 RL Stevenson

Monday, November 25, 2013 being savaged by a dead sheep

UKC-ers gather for one of their picnics

A couple of weeks ago I posted a mischievous piece surrounding Climb magazines' spiking of a John Redhead article, which included extracts of the joint editor’s increasingly heated email correspondence directed at the author. Not surprisingly, the story pretty quickly broke out of the blogosphere and became a hot topic on the climbing forums. An area of discussion and debate which ironically, is remarkably free from intelligent discussion and debate!

Rather, controversial topics on a forum like UKC, usually evolve into something straight out Arthur Miller’s  The Crucible. Little wonder that most serious climbers and writers avoid it like the plague these days.  Apart from the story itself, the original blog piece had a political point which was the media’s application of strict political correctness to censor freedom of expression. Quite naturally, this element was totally ignored as the mainly anonymous contributors directed their bile at the writer and subject. As someone who used to post regularly on the UKC forum, I was quite used to being the quarry of the UK herd –although perhaps flock would be a more accurate collective term- and it certainly didn't phase me. I don't think JR would lose much sleep being criticized by some of these pious,po-faced prigs either.

By Friday, as I guessed would eventually be the case, John’s controversial article was published on Footless Crow. If it sounds like the whole thing was contrived between us to gain maximum publicity for all parties concerned then I can assure you that it wasn’t. Although after saying that, a site like Footless Crow is always going to be the more likely destination for left field works that don’t fit into the glossies’ commercial agenda. 'the last refuge of the scoundrel' you might call it. By now the article was drawing a lot of heated debate and as expected, a lot this debate was being generated through forums like UKC and UK Bouldering. The consensus to the article from what I would describe as ‘Climbing’s Creative Element’  was overwhelmingly positive. By contrast, the majority of UKC sheep hated it. UKB  contributors on the whole were much more grounded and objective about the article. 

Perhaps if contributors to forums had to use their real names instead of hiding behind anonymity we might get a more objective debate instead of the usual toxic, febrile sound and fury that is generated when individuals,concepts and ideas don’t conform to the accepted orthodoxy of the flock.

I’m pleased to say though-And I'm thinking of hits generated here- that we haven’t heard the end of the story just yet. . One of Redhead’s ethical points concerning the purity of subsequent ascents of The Indian Face has generated a response from one or two activists who have first hand experience of the route and been involved in proceedings. Later this week on Footless Crow, a Tolkein-esque riposte to ‘The Mad Monk of Yr Wyddfa’. Be there or be square as they say in Cliff Richard films.

* Since posting I understand that this has been linked on UKC. I wondered why it was getting so much traffic! I guess I should prepare to be knocked off a few Christmas card lists then :)

john appleby 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mountain literature awards:the taming of the wild?

Doris Lessing:'what have I done!'

Congrats to Harriet Tuckey on winning this years’ Boardman-Tasker prize with her painstakingly researched biography of her father, Griffith Pugh. At first sight, a work titled ‘Everest-The First Ascent’ might smack of yet another Himalayan blockbuster winning over a cautious panel of judges, yet I found Harriet’s book was indeed a cut above the usual Everest fare in that the author didn’t hold back from offering some less than flattering observations of, until now, previously unassailable establishment heroes. Furthermore, her book was certainly no hagiographic portrait of a mountaineer who had had a raw deal from the mountaineering historians. Griffith Pugh was presented warts and all and there were certainly many aspects of his character and behaviour towards, not least his own family, which marked him out as-in the vernacular of the time-‘a bit of a cad!’. A fascinating read to be sure, but do we actually need a mountaineering ‘Brit Award’ to sell an above average book like this to the public?

I was pondering this over the weekend, just why Climbing/mountaineering as  activities which are supposedly the preserve of  anarchic and free spirited individuals actually needed literature awards at all? We’re used to a raft of awards ceremonies from the Oscars to the Soap Awards where essentially very rich and privileged people engage in an orgy of self congratulation and finger down the throat maudlin tearfulness . Do outdoor writers really want to engage in something so naff and mind numbingly awful as an awards ceremony?  I suppose the main movers for mountain lit festivals are the publishers who would argue that as the audience for mountain literature is relatively small, then they need all the help they can get. Occasionally the odd work from the great outdoors will escape into the mainstream-‘Touching the Void’..’Into the Wild’ etc- but a lot of works count sales in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands.

With self publishing becoming in many ways the only way an outdoors writer- in particular a lesser light- can get a book into the market, you have to wonder how comprehensive and inclusive  mountain lit festival long and short lists really are? After all, a relatively unknown writer printing off a small run of work will never be able to match the power and influence of a major publishing house.  Are they destined to be a voice crying in the wilderness? Unread and unappreciated to all but a tiny clique? With this in mind, just how reflective of quality are these lit bashes?  

Perhaps an organisation like the Boardman-Tasker might consider a whole new concept to replace its current hit parade shin-dig. A more inclusive approach which involves the promotion and wider dissemination of minor works within the genre. Free from subjective appraisal and promotion by a small and perhaps not that representative panel of judges who concentrate on works by an often predictable list of usual suspects and promoted by publishing big hitters.  Maybe the outdoor writers who operate on the fringes might take solace from the words of Virginia Woolf when asked why she had refused a honour from the King...’I was brought up never to accept sweeties from strange people’ or as Doris Lessing who died yesterday said on being told she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature...’Oh Christ!’

Friday, November 15, 2013

Communication Breakdown

Boardman-Tasker chair, Steve Dean. Will his panel's decision be music to our ears?

I was supposed to be getting a call today from one of the Boardman-Tasker panel to tell me who had taken the prize this year. I promised to do a wee blog piece about it but unfortunately, the curse of BT/Open reach has struck again. As per usual, the lines are down again in the boondocks and I’ve no land line or internet until God knows when? It’s one of my pet rants- the god damn awful post privatisation service from a company which once served the people before it became a profit driven entertainment company. BT/Open reach now employ less than a third of the engineers it employed as a nationalised service, consequentially, in a far flung geographical area like North Wales, a skeleton staff of engineers find themselves covering a huge area. Of course, jobs which were once dealt with immediately are now put on hold and customers have to like it or lump it. It’s even more galling in a week when BT had proudly announced it had outbid Sky to screen European football next year. Does one have to ask, wouldn’t the three quarters of a billion pounds been better spent employing more engineers?...Rant over.

To get back to the other BT; I’ve not always been a huge fan of the Boardman-Tasker Award in that I find that in common with other mountaineering awards, it tends to play safe and go for predictable works authored by 'names' in the sport. Essentially, I find it a very conservative set up which has bestowed its glittering prize on some pretty mediocre works in its time. However, with Steve Dean in the chair this year I’m optimistic that the committee might choose something a bit more left field than the usual Boy’s Own fare. Steve has authored an excellent biography of Colin Kirkus, one of our great doomed romantics and several important biographical essays in his time. Here’s hoping?

Entries for 2013

1 SNOWDON: The Story of a Welsh Mountain
ISBN 978-1843235743
Jim Perrin Gomer
2 BOUNDLESS: An adventure beyond limits
ISBN 978-1-904207-66-5
Karen Darke Akreative
3 ECHOES One Climbers Hard Road to Freedom
ISBN 9781906148539
Nick Bullock Vertebrate Publishing
4 THE CARBON CYCLE Crossing the Great Divide
ISBN 978-1906120634
Kate Rawles Two Ravens Press Ltd
5 ALL BUT ONE: One Woman's Quest to Climb the 52 Highest Mountains in the Alps
ISBN 9781906148607
Barbara Swindin Vertebrate Publishing
6 EXPLORING GREENLAND: Twenty years of adventure mountaineering in the great Arctic wilderness
ISBN 9781906148096
Jim Gregson Vertebrate Publishing
Nick Williams e book partnership
8 COLLIDING CONTINENTS: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakorum, & Tibet
ISBN 978-0-19-965300-03
Mike Searle Oxford University Press
9 ENCOUNTERS IN THE AMERICAN MOUNTAIN WEST. A Sinner Amongst the Latter-Day Saints
ISBN 978-1-906000-24-0
Ian R Mitchell Neil Wilson (Imprint: The In Pinn)
10 FROM HIGH HEELS TO HIGH HILLS. One woman walking the Lake District-in her own style
ISBN 978-1-908779-02-1
Tanya Oliver Step Beach Press Ltd
11 GOING UP: Tales Told Along the Road to El Capitan
ISBN 978-0-9830076-0-9
Joe Fitschen Whole Town Press, USA.
12 ADVENTURES IN MIND A Personal Obsession with the Mountains
ISBN 978109148690
Heather Dawe Vertebrate Publishing
ISBN 978-2-9540879-1-7
Jerome Blanc-Gras Blue Ice Press
14 SHIPTON & TILMAN The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration
ISBN 978-0-091-79546-7
Jim Perrin Hutchinson, Cornerstone
15 THE SUMMITS OF MODERN MAN: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment
ISBN 976-0-674-04799-0
Peter H.Hansen Harvard University Press
16 CRUEL CROSSING ESCAPING: Hitler across the Pyrenees
ISBN 978-0857-52051-7
Edward Stourton Transworld Publishers
17 EVEREST, THE FIRST ASCENT The untold story of Griffith Pugh, the man who made it possible
ISBN 978-1-84604-348-2
Harriet Tuckey Rider, an imprint of Ebury Publishing (Random House Group)
ISBN 978-1-927330-70-8
Susan Oakey-Baker RMB Rocky Mountain books
ISBN 978-1-84953-393-5
Phoebe Smith Summersdale
20 LAST HOURS ON EVEREST, The Gripping Story of Mallory & Irvine's Fatal Ascent
ISBN 978-0-00-745575-1
Graham Hoyland William Collins
21 A LONG WALK WITH LORD CONWAY, An Exploration of the Alps and an English Adventurer
Simon Thompson Signal Books
22 Starry NIGHT
ISBN 978-1-937391-21-8
Isabel Suppe Romeii
23 SHORT PEAKS, 33 Brief Mountain Tales
ISBN 978-0-9918076-0-4
Jerry Auld Imaginary Mountain Surveyors
24 CHARLIE MEG AND ME, An epic 530 mile walk recreating Bonnie Prince Charlie's escape after the disaster of Culloden
ISBN 978-1-908373-61-8
Gregor Ewing Luath Press
25 CALEB'S LIST, Climbing the Scottish mountains Visible from Arthur's Seat
ISBN 1-908373-53-9
Kellan Macinnes Luath Press
ISBN 978-1-846-55670
Wu Ming-Yi Harvill Secker-Random House
27 THE SUNLIT SUMMIT, The life of W.H.Murray
ISBN 978-1-908737-38-0
Robin Lloyd-Jones Sandstone Press
28 EMPIRE ANTARCTICA, Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins
ISBN 978-0-701-18689-0
Gavin Francis Chatto & Windus
29 THE CONQUEST OF EVEREST, Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent
ISBN 978-0-500-54423-5
George Lowe & Huw Lewis-Jones Thames & Hudson
30 LETTERS FROM EVEREST, A First-Hand Account from the Epic First Ascent
ISBN 978-0-9555255-3-7