Monday, December 23, 2013

It's only words

Getting in the Christmas spirit at Crow Towers

As the last days of 2013 flicker and ebb away, I thought it would be opportune to share some of the blogs which have entertained, informed and inspired me over the past twelve months. In so many ways, the blog has become one of the greatest gifts of the post modern internet age. Giving a voice to those previously disenfranchised from the mass media and opening up a creative world in which everyone- from political dissidents in Libya and Palestine, to an outdoor activist in Salford-can open a creative door and reach the outside world. Expressing  hopes and fears, plans and achievements, be they profoundly political and philosophical statements, or just the mundane thoughts of a cyber diarist.

As in any creative field, the product is only as good as it’s creator. Fortunately, the outdoor world in particular throws up a larger than average number of quality writers, although by far and away, my favourite blog of 2013 is not actually an outdoor blog.  That’s how the light gets in by Gerry Cordon is essentially a cultural blog in which art, music, books and politics feature alongside the authors’ European travels. Gerry is a Merseyside based retired academic who apart from being an outstandingly good writer is a pretty good photographer to boot! Some of Gerry’s art pieces have featured on Footless Crow and continue to be enduringly popular. 

I’ve only recently discovered Because they’re there by Alan McFadzean. An excellent outdoor blog which is put together beautifully by its professional author. Like Gerry Cordon, Alan publishes his work through Wordpress and is another blogger covering a wide area of interest and who is equally adept with words and images.

Most people will be unfamiliar with the former writers but it’s fair to say that some of the outdoor world’s biggest names are as adept with words and images as they are at establishing state of the art mountaineering ascents. Both Andy Kirkpatrick and Nick Bullock knock out highly readable blogs despite the hectic lives they lead at mountaineering’s coal face. Veteran outdoorsman and writer, Chris Townsend’s blog is always a treat. Offering his Highland based perspective on everything from outdoor gear to conservation. Over in the States, Boulder resident Peter Beal’s  Mountains and Water, is another fascinating well written blog which will be of particular interest to climbers everywhere. On a walking and environmental theme, David Lintern's Self Powered is another cracking outdoor blog with some exceptional images illustrating the always fascinating text.

From my sea kayaking days, it's good to see someone described as 'the doyen of sea kayakers'-Douglas Wilcox, still putting out his excellent trips blog- Seakayaking with Seakayak Photo.Com

So...there you have it. Some of the blogs which I’ve been reading and enjoying this year. If you have any recommendations then do post a link in the comments. Unfortunately, I have to field comments to prevent spammers and advertisers posting junk but everything else gets through.All the best for 2014.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Death rides a pale horse

The quiet hills surrounding  Nantmor have, historically, never attracted climbers, save a few indefatigable  locals activists like Showell Styles and Paul Work who, in the 40’s and 50’s, garnered  a few dozen climbs of a modest technical standard, on the bristling flanks of Yr Arddu, Moel y Dyniewyd and the Aberglaslyn Pass. As we approached the end of the century, a handful of new activists became drawn to these modest crags, outcrops and boulders. Not least because a new CC Tremadog  guidebook was in the offing ,which would finally include areas like Yr Arddu- never featured in a guidebook before.

Traditionally, the area had been described by Showell Styles as being more suited to the ‘rabbit than tiger’. However, a new breed of activist drawn to the area in the late 80’s, quickly began to put that theory to bed by exploiting steep new crags which offered micro routes up into the high extremes.

Towards the end of the last decade, I had begun to explore this beautiful backwater with various partners. Several first ascents were made on the Yr Arddu crags although in truth, I’m sure several of these lines had been done before and left unrecorded, or perhaps just lost from the records?

A year or two earlier, across the valley, I had done a direct version of one of Paul Work’s best known climbs. Christmas Climb - first done on Christmas day in 1947. My direct version came 50 years later although not, I’m sorry to say, on a Christmas day. After moseying on up the valley, I discovered another tier of rock which at the time was unclimbed and which-as it was unnamed-I described as, Craig y Mwyner (Crag of the Miner) in respect of the old copper mine at its base. (Since renamed Craig y  Wernas in the current CC Tremadog guide.) I’d been up with one of my sons and his friend and done a couple of easy routes and returned soon after with the veteran campaigner, Harold Drasdo.  A sharp, knife edge arête was a prominent feature on the crag and it cried out be climbed. A first attempt with HD was successful, in the fact that we got up most of the arête. However, at a break, half way up, a huge loose fang of rock prevented me from gaining the upper sharp edge. A rather cack handed, ascent up the back of the arête was successful and- as it turned out-harder than the direct line at-E1, but the purity of the line had been severely compromised.

On an overcast July day, a few weeks later, I returned with my then 14 year old son Liam, and his friend Henry Hobson-who did the first ascent of Ogwen’s lovely Red Slab Direct with me. With Henry ensconced across a defining gully on a neighbouring buttress with my Nikon, and with Liam anchored at the bottom, I took off with the initial aim of removing the offending flake and gaining the upper edge. Quickly reaching the half way break, I scrabbled around, looking for sound anchor points, and after satisfying myself that I could contort myself safely on my perch , I began to rock the metre+ fang with my foot.

Imperceptibly at first, it began to move. No more than a few centimetres at first but it was at least detached from the body of the cliff and not a fixed feature. Hanging off the rope from above, I used both feet and heard a dry crack. Back down on my perch and with one foot this time, I kicked hard with my heel. The rocking motion setting off a final irreversible shift in momentum. Like a rotten molar in a scabby jaw and with a final crack, the fang finally succumbed to gravity and began to topple over.

Then something totally unexpected happened. The fang ripped out of its core and twisted 90 degrees from its expected trajectory. The consequences of which became only too horrifyingly apparent. The rock was going to hit Liam! With events unwinding in slow motion I finally let out a yawl which echoed across the valley....LOOK OUT!!!. This was not the time or place for the climbers’ polite warning refrain.. ‘Below’ . Instinctively, Liam pulled himself into the rock as the flake hit once...hit twice...and at the last nanosecond, hit thrice and glanced off into space like a murderous prehistoric bird; passing over his head by mere inches and close enough for him to feel the terrible, sulphurous rush of air!

 From my perch I was stilled into silence. I couldn’t see or hear anything save the clatter of shifting scree. Finally, a voice rose up... ‘Christ...that was close!’ The words came like an echo of angels! The relief was overwhelming.  Certain death had been but a geological rift away. A indefinable tilting of the edge in earths’ molten dawn , just enough to cheat catastrophe.

On autopilot, I completed the climb which became Stonecrop. A modest VS climb, although the slides taken by Henry that day, show me looking lost and blank. I remember little of the climb except I have a vague idea that it is actually a good route. That night, I would awake several times in a blind panic, imagining-in the words of Captain Kurtz....the horror...the horror of what might have been.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

All this useless beauty

Wern Ddu wind farm-delivering miniscule energy output but healthy subsidized profits for its shareholders.Photo JA

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money. Cree Indian Prophecy

The last days of the forest as we know it, is measured by the quiet places that remain. Already tracks are being widened to accommodate the huge flat bed trucks; borrow pits (quarries) are being excavated to supply hard core and anemometers touch the sky.  If anything symbolizes the ‘lunatics are running the asylum’ folly of our political masters obsession with wind power then perhaps Clocaenog Forest in North east Wales could be considered an appropriate example.

Despite the fact that the state has offered up a planning enquiry overseen as usual by an unelected civil servant, like a Soviet era show trial, the outcome of the planning enquiry is never in doubt. Its true purpose, to bestow an illusion of democratic respectability upon a giant German energy company, RWE’s planning application. With hundreds of millions of pounds in profits tied into the application, the enquiry might be a sham but given the profound environmental implications which come in train with the development, then for environmentalists, it is a sham too far. Certainly, given that its impact will extend far beyond the forest itself .

The Welsh Assembly government through the Forestry Commission it controls, designated Clocaenog Forest as one of its ‘Technical Advice notice 8’ areas for wind power development. The development area extends beyond the forest onto Hiraethog- ‘the Moors of longing’, where developments have already taken place- and are spilling out like a contagion into the un-designated hinterlands. The Orwellian sounding Technical Advice Notice 8 plans were basically cooked up several years ago by civil servants in Cardiff who were tasked with selecting areas in Wales where intensive development could take place. Not surprisingly, many of the areas chosen were forests controlled by the Assembly. In this respect, The Cardiff administration, following Westminster and Brussels directives, thought it could reduce the number of expensive planning procedures, where local authorities, more minded to kick out controversial applications, and developers, become locked into long running and expensive enquiries.
As the Assembly took over the running of what was The Forestry Commission and is now Natural Resources Wales, in the early part of the century, it could wave through developments with only a cursory nod towards local democracy. As is happening right now with its transparently loaded Clocaenog enquiry.

Forest borrow pits (quarries) are being worked and extended to service the development as the planning enquiry takes place.

If you want an example of how local democracy is trampled underfoot by the unholy alliance of energy companies and Cardiff administrators then you need to look no further than a development within one of the contagion areas just outside Clocaenog Forest and the Tan 8 area. The Wern Ddu wind farm is a four turbine development near Corwen in NE Wales which is owned by a Anglo German Energy company, Tegni Cymru Cyf. The original application to build- what anyone who has ever seen it will concur- is a highly intrusive development which negatively impacts on a unique landscape, was opposed by every community council in the area. The planning Inspector advised against the development; the planning committee voted 19-1 against the application and it was of course, not surprisingly rejected. You would be forgiven for wondering just how we now have a virtually pointless wind farm on Wern Ddu given the  overwhelming weight of opposition to the development and its rejection by the local authority? 

 Knowing how minded the Assembly is to wave through wind farm developments, even outside its own designated areas, the developer appealed to the Cardiff administration. The Assembly government sent an unelected civil servant up from Cardiff- in the manner of a medieval sheriff sending up a minion to quell the restless natives-who took the appeal and not surprisingly, corporate profits triumphed over local democracy. If the Wern Ddu debacle had taken place in a Central American banana republic then we would just shrug our shoulders and say this is how things are in the third world, but this is Wales, a supposedly advanced democratic nation! On the subject of Wern Ddu, the last energy output figures I have to hand showed it operated at a rather pathetic 19% of its potential capacity. Environmental impact huge- Energy contribution minimal- Subsidised profits to shareholders healthy!

Photo: Cefn Croes campaign

When Clocaenog Forest wind farm was first investigated by developers, it was suggested that the number of turbines erected in the forest would be in three figures. A private conversation I had at the time with the current Welsh Secretary, David Jones suggested that three quarters of the forest would be clear felled to make way for the turbines and the massive infrastructure which comes with it. At this stage, RWE’s application is for 33 turbines although these would be amongst the tallest in Wales and their construction will still see huge swathes of forest cleared. As it stands the bare facts are these: 8k of new tracks will be created;20k of existing tracks will be widened; 4 borrow pits or quarries will be worked within the forest, underground cables will be laid; substations and overhead gantries built, public rights of way will be closed.

What the planning application stats do not tell you, is the tonnage of concrete to be poured into swimming pool sized plinths to root the massive turbines- the amount of woodland which will be clear felled and more importantly, the potentially devastating environmental consequences of such an industrial development within an ecologically sensitive area.

Last year the Vale of Clwyd beneath the Clocaenog development area, suffered catastrophic flooding which took one life and caused millions of pounds worth of damage. For those living in the shadow of the forest in this flood prone valley, the idea of massive clear felling of tree cover with its inevitable impact on water retention and inundation of water courses in periods of heavy precipitation-not exactly a rare phenomena in the north Wales uplands!- must be chilling in its cataclysmic potential.  Despite spending millions of pounds on flood prevention in the area, the dark irony of the Welsh assembly government aiding a development which can only further exacerbate the flooding potential brings me back to my earlier comment re- lunatics running the asylum!

Clocaenog, despite being overwhelmingly a coniferous forest, harbours a variety of indigenous species including some of our rarest creatures. It is one of the last bastions of the threatened red Squirrel, the fringes of the forest is the habitat of rare black grouse and anecdotal evidence from at least two observers suggests the remote westerly edge of the forest is the last domain in Wales of the pine marten. Add to these rare species, deer, foxes, badgers, rodents, hares etc, and all manner of birds including Red Kites, and you have a rich and diverse range of species which are facing either a massive depletion of their numbers given the rape of their natural habitat, or worse, total extinction. 

It’s one of the ironies of wind power plant developments that the companies employed by the corporate energy giants to undertake environmental impact studies are inevitably agencies wedded to this branch of renewable energy. In effect, it is like the UK government commissioning  British American Tobacco to do a study on the effects of smoking on health. Despite EU legislation ostensibly offering protection to rare species from developments, environmental impact reports are inevitably doctored in the interests of the developer and the true environmental impacts of massive wind power developments are creatively structured to ignore for example, potential species depletion/extinction or flood risks. Little wonder when you consider that all parties stand to makes millions out of these huge developments. As Gordon Gecko might have said “ How can I make a lousy buck out of a pine marten!
The wider political, environmental and economic issues around wind power demands to be looked at in depth in another article. At this stage, RWE’s Clocaenog development  stands as a fitting example and testament to the greed, delusion and corruption which drives these environmentally devastating projects forward. Of course, apart from the potential withering ecological consequences, there is also the impact on the forests’ human inhabitants though noise pollution, disturbance of the water table and interference with household spring water supplies and pollution of ponds and water courses. The visual impact however will be huge. The wind farm will be highly visible for dozens of miles. Like shattered trees on a first world war battlefield, the turbines will tower over the land and their unsynchronized strobing presence will be seen far beyond the immediate locale. As Edward Abbey once said-’the industrial corporation is the enemy of nature’ and with RWE’s Clocaenog development in mind,who- apart from shareholders in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg- could possibly argue with that?
john appleby 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Winter's tabloid groundhog day.

Photo: JA
About ten days ago we had the first cover of snow here in the north east Wales uplands. Nothing to get excited about. The roads and back lanes remained passable. The livestock was fed, people got to work and school. 24 hours later the snow had gone as quickly as it had arrived. A month before the Daily Express had kick started its annual weather related sensationalist news coverage by predicting a November where...

...the entire country is set for a horror freeze which will bring brutal winds and fierce blizzards.

Temperatures have already started to plunge as a swathe of cold air from the Arctic has swept across the UK in the past few days.

The first long-range forecasts warn of "recordbreaking snowfall" next month.

Well then... November came and went and although Scotland’s uplands experienced its average snowfall for the time of year, North Wales was unusually balmy with night time temperatures often in the mid 40’s f. In fact, frost cover was  virtually nonexistent in the entire month. So much for the ‘horror freeze’ and ‘fierce blizzards’!

That the Daily Express engages in this weather related sensationalism is nothing new. Various commentators from George Monbiot to Alex Hern in the New Statesman have exposed the Express as engaging in weather scare stories based on statements and outlandish claims from some pretty dubious agencies and individuals. In recent months other newspapers have begun to get in on the act, notably The Telegraph who like its conservative counterpart, increasingly puts these scare stories on its front page. Perhaps it’s pandering to the British obsession with the weather or perhaps there are commercial reasons behind it? After all, the more feeble minded amongst us are quite likely to empty the supermarket shelves, fill up their domestic and vehicle fuel tanks and splash out on extreme weather clothing.

Things reached such a head recently after a number of newspapers predicted an extreme ‘Siberian Winter’ that the Met Office were forced to step in and deny that these reports were based on their own forecasts. Adding that they found it difficult to forecast more than two weeks in advance, never mind forecast an entire season. Despite this, anyone perusing the outdoor social network sites cannot fail to discover a number of individuals and organizations wetting themselves over the prospects of a ‘Siberian Winter’. It’s as if the grim reality of tabloid journalism had totally passed them by. Note to said individuals, Mystic Meg cannot predict this week’s lottery numbers, Jonathan Powell and whichever crackpot weather forecasting agency he has invented this week, cannot predict a season’s weather and reindeers cannot fly! I’m sure we’ll get some snow and ice in North Wales this winter but if I were you, I wouldn’t base my plans around Daily Express or Telegraph weather forecasts.

* Since posting, The Express has surpassed itself with its latest slice of sensationalist bilge with yet another Jonathan Powell sourced weather scare story. The Christmas from HELL: Biggest winter storm EVER to wreck holidays for millions in UK. Looks like trolling has finally replaced journalism at the Express!