Friday, June 27, 2014

God on the Rocks

The brilliant Eli Reimer. The first Down Syndrome person to walk in to Everst base camp.

I was contacted recently from someone in the US to see if I could support and publicize the efforts of a charity group known as The Elisha Foundation (TEF). The attached video showed stirring footage of 15 year old Eli Reimer who has Down Syndrome, trekking in to Everest base camp as part of a team which included his father. People who know me closely will understand that I have a special interest in the development and promotion of Down Syndrome issues so it was with keen anticipation that I tuned in to the video.

Slick and well edited, I was ready to hit the ‘share’ button and was already composing a short promotional blog piece in my head until Eli’s father spoke to camera.

My secular/liberal sensibilities were instantly rattled by a stream of evangelical Christian bunkum! I really didn’t like the way his son’s brilliant efforts were being undermined by his father’s medieval mindset which attributed his son’s achievements to ‘The Lord’  rather than a far more divine entity- Eli Reimer himself.

Christian fundamentalism like all religious fundamentalist movements, for me, really does leave the human race floundering in its mire of superstition, ignorance and petty factionalism, and it's such a pity that vulnerable people like Eli are used as unwitting pawns in these people’s dubious campaigns. In fact some Christians like former England football coach, Glen Hoddle, have expressed their belief that 'being born with Down Syndrome is a punishment from God for sins carried out in a past life'!

Christian fundamentalism might play well in Boidy-Bong, Idaho or within the comfortable living rooms of vile Tea Party activists, but over here in secular and religiously diverse Europe, that strategy risks alienating a lot of potential supporters. In the UK, less than one percent of the population attend a Christian Church.

As someone who used to be involved in organising outdoor activities for socially disadvantaged youngsters through a registered charity, I am 100% behind extending opportunities in the great outdoors to the disabled and those outside of the traditional routes into the outdoor activities. I also have no problem with Christian or other religious groups providing those services, But please God/ Jehovah/Allah, keep your proselytizing propaganda out of the equation and bestow your praise on your charges, not some abstract illusion.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Poetry in Motion

One of Britain's leading poets....and Simon Armitage.

I’ve just finished Poet Simon Armitage’s Walking Home-Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way. In a nutshell, if you haven't read it, Simon decides to walk the Pennine Way- iconoclastically from North to South rather than the more commonly practiced trod which most people start in the South before heading oop north to the Scottish border. His big idea is that he will stay in various hostelries en-route and by not taking any money with him, he will instead, ‘sing for his supper’. Performing his poetry in return for his bed and board.

It sounded a great idea and I’ve always loved Simon’s work, on the page and television. He seems like the sort of guy with whom you could easily share a pint-a real pint of brown stuff-not a poncy glass of Chateau la Tour 75- and who would happily discuss the works of Homer or the early albums of The Smiths with equal enthusiasm. As a card carrying Yorkshire patriot, he might have been born on the wrong side of The Pennines, poor lad, but he nevertheless has his imagination and humour as compensation. Although he did lose some Brownie points this morning when I discovered he’d accepted a CBE in 2011. I’m old fashioned. I prefer my creative heroes firmly anti-establishment but nobody’s perfect.  transpired that Simon’s Pennine Way journey was not quite as I had imagined it. For a start, he had trumpeted his plans via his website and consequentially had fans falling over themselves to offer accommodation, meals and entertainment at each stage of his journey. Furthermore, he was bringing with him-for reasons unknown?- a bloody big turquoise suitcase christened ‘The Tombstone' which his supporters would ferry for him between each leg. And then there was ‘The Sock’. At each performance, Simon would pass around a walking sock-washed I trust?- for donations. Bringing in a grand total of £3,086.42 or an average of £171.47 for each 30/45 minute reading. That’s not bad for ‘Singing for your Supper’. In fact you could liken this approach to a form of walking ‘Glamping’. Walk 12 miles and get paid, wined and dined for the privilege.

Taken with the fact that he was walking relatively short legs with a day-pack, then you have to admit that it’s not quite Cheryl Strayed or Chris Townsend territory. However...despite this element, I think there is a lot to be said for ‘civilised backpacking’ like this. Last year I had great plans for a long distance walk of my own which I had mapped out across north and Mid Wales and which started out on the English border near Oswestry. Unlike Simon’s civilised quest, I intended to carry everything I needed for the journey on my back. Camping out each night with my hound in a one man tent. In retrospect, perhaps not a good idea. Wet dog, wet walker, tiny tent! I would get water from the abundant mountain streams- just popping in a sterilizing tablet- and eat mainly pre-dried packet food...yum! 

To my shame and embarrassment I had to abandon the journey on the first day. The route itself which I had planned from the border over The Berwyn Mountain Range was actually excellent and followed footpaths and bridleways whilst avoiding public roads....and people.  The route took me through some impressive quiet upland border country but the problem was my feet. Wearing an old pair of KSB’s which I thought would be comfy,with some decent socks, the reality was the boot/sock combo just didn’t cut the mustard. By the time I reached the lower slopes of the Berwyns, I was applying compeeds to my raw red feet and looking up at black clouds encircling the 2.700’ summits. By this time, my water had run out and far from finding myself surrounded by babbling clear mountain streams, the only features offering anything like a vague suggestion of moisture, were the rank peat bogs which I stumbled through.

Luckily, I had a get out of jail card as I live not far from the other side of The Berwyns. If I could stagger into Llandrillo that evening then I knew that a hot bath and cold beer awaited. Which brings me right back to the Simon Armitage school of walking. I still plan to do my planned walk one day before my body totally disintegrates. This year is out as all my energies are going into restoring a cottage. But next year possibly, although I won’t be seeking out kindly souls to put me up and transport my rucksack from stage to stage. I certainly won’t be carrying everything on my back. Next time, I’ll do a pre walk stash of water and food at different stages and ditch the tent in favour of a Basha. Although I am aware of some roofed ruins I could use for night shelter. Not quite drawn from the Simon Armitage school of civilised poetic ramblings, but a lightweight approach which might..just might, offer a possibility of my completing this particular Home Boy's odyssey.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Cracking Bastions....The Art of Route naming.

 Don Whillan's descriptive Roaches classic-Sloth

Cracking Bastions
The naming (and shaming) of mountains
Early Days....

Napes Needle, Pisgah Buttress, Kern Knotts Crack, Eagle’s Nest Ridge Direct, Agag’s Groove, Frankland’s Green Crack

Pre and Post War....

Overhanging Bastion, Devil’s Slide, Savage Slit, Devil’s Highway, Leopard’s Crawl, Cenotaph Corner.

The Sixties....

Moonraker, King Rat, A Dream of White Horses, Nagasaki Grooves, Praying Mantis, Footless Crow.

Present Day....

Gates of Delerium, This Septic Heil, Rubbelsplitskin, Cystisis by Proxy, Screamadelica, When Dildos Ruled the Earth.

David Craig

David Craig’s piece...I’m not sure if you would describe it as a beat poem?...reflects comments he made in the early 90’s radio programme, ‘Hard Fire Inside’ about the importance he feels about first ascentionists  choosing a route name which reflects a reverence for nature; be it descriptive, witty, imaginative or poetic. Citing imaginative Pete Livesey names, Dry Grasp and Footless Crow as names  which fulfill this criteria, he continues in the programme, to outline his belief that a route name should ‘honour nature or at least how that person felt when they did that route’  He then goes on the offer some route names from the above ‘Present Day’ list which use sexual practices, pathological terms and physical deformity as terms which conjure up images of suffering, pain and cruelty.

Pandy Outcrop's Cannon Arete.Some route names you just have to go with the obvious!

Names which he sees as drawing from the Californian drug culture and which have no place in his opinion in British mountain culture. Certainly a lot of the route names which David finds offensive are from the John Redhead routes canon. Knowing both David and John well, the irony is that both these creative climbers are cut from the same cloth. Both sharing a romantic reverence for the natural world which they translate through their craft.

Getting back to the art of route naming; it’s actually harder than you think to come up with a route name which has real poetry in it. Something eloquent and descriptive of what has gone before...A Dream of White Horses, Darkinbad the Brightdayler, One Step in the Clouds, Space below my Feet, Margins of the Mind..etc. Some route names tell a tale.. Black Sunday in Eskdale describing the feelings of local climbers usurped the previous day by Welsh raiders!  Sheepslayer in the Llanberis Pass recounting a trundled flake which...well you can guess the rest. Tremadog’s  WOB translates as ‘While others bathed’  and recalls climbing on a scorching July day in 1956. Dolphin’s Lakeland classic Kipling Groove, named because it was ‘Ruddy ard’ and Communist Convert, because it climbed from right to left....etc

Some route names proved too hot to handle for conservative guide book committees. Menlove Edwards popular classic Flying Buttress in the Pass was originally named ‘Sodom’ but shocked CC officials persuaded him to plump for something more prosaic, although his Side Entry appears to have escaped the CC’s red pen. These days, although Dildos might once have ruled the earth in an age of psychedelic lycra and ripped tank tops, modern young climbers appear quite conservative and traditional in their choice of route names and I haven’t noticed anything particularly controversial recently.

Harold Drasdo on his own route-Gowder Buttress in Borrowdale

For my own first ascents in North Wales, I’m afraid I can’t claim any brilliant feats of imagination or poetic grand eloquence. More often than not, a lazy borrowing of a song or book title. A particularly strenuous HVS in Ogwen became Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms...geddit! A dangerous ascent in the Arenigs which required gingerly negotiating a dubiously wedged flake via couple of layback moves, became A Hat full of Hollow- borrowed from the Smiths album of the same name.. Another Arenig Route which appeared to have a shrine at its base became Pagan Wall and on the other side of the mountain, a route up the rather suspect Castell Cliff which passed though some pretty loose terrain was named Jenga for obvious reasons by Harold Drasdo.

Across on the main cliffs of Simddu Ddu, a heavily gardened route I made with said Bradford Lad was named Jac Codi Baw- JCB or literally 'John Lifting Earth' by HD while Iron John was not actually a piece of self promotion but referenced Robert Bly’s eponymous classic work which was popular at the time. Aja in the vicinity is not a tribute to Steely Dan’s finest work but a memorial climb to my late old man who had died a year before. AJA being his initials.

Those of a literary bent can identify the era of climbs by their names. Check those Tolkein Lord of the Rings routes on Carreg y Fran..Nazgul and Strider or head across to Cwm Pennant and witness JP in culture vulture overdrive with routes like Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel,  and WB Yeat's referenced The Widening Gyre, The Second Coming and Mere Anarchy.

Whatever the inspiration, these route names have got to be more appetizing than Route One or The Ordinary Route!
Ed Fisher on the appropriately named Roaches climb-Thug!

David Craig piece from The Way to Cold Mountain:Pocketbooks.
All photos by the author.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Blencathra...there's gold in them tha hills!

Saddleback and the Honorary President of the Friends of Blencathra-Chris Bonington.

The news that the Earl of Lonsdale has put the iconic Lakeland mountain of Blencathra up for sale with bids starting just short of £2m, has certainly achieved wide spread publicity across the national news media. From The Telegraph to Trail, The Guardian to Grough, writers and broadcasters in both the news and outdoor media, have found the story offering great scope and potential for some good old fashioned stereotyping. Particularly since news emerged that a group of locals had banded together in an attempt to raise the necessary amount through public pledges and subscriptions. With revered local mountaineer  Chris Bonington in the role of honorary president of the ‘Friends of Blencathra’ group, the media have certainly found the romantic angle to hang the story around.

Plucky locals taking on the huge challenge of scaling the financial heights against the odds and even more  disturbingly, possibly taking on the financial might of an outsider! Russian oligarchs, Texan oil barons, Saudi sheiks have been mentioned...who knows who might be attracted by highly desirable handle ‘Lord of the Manor of Threlkeld’ and the potential to sweep an arm over the mountain and say ‘One day Mohammed/ Ivan/ Chuck....all this will be yours’!

I admit to being a bit cynical about these well publicised mountain sales. Although it has to be better for a charity or organization to own an estate than an individual, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really alter the general publics’ statutory right to access a mountain like Blencathra, and the strict planning controls within our national parks make it impossible to develop them anyway. Apart from grazing , forestry and possibly small scale hydro developments -which are taking off here in the Snowdonia National Park- fat cats are always going to find slim pickings in the mountains. 

So...if the Friends of Blencathra do purchase the mountain, what happens then and what difference will it make for the general public? I imagine those who farm the lower slopes will still enjoy the grazing rights, the footpaths will remain although who has responsibility for maintaining them...The National Park Authority or the Trust/Private owner? At the end of the day, for those who currently avail themselves of Blencathra’s charms- be it through physical exertion or photographic/artistic interpretation- will still be in exactly the same place as they are now. The difference being that a feudal relic will be a couple of million quid better off!

In the Snowdonia National Park, we’ve seen some pretty well publicised mountain estate purchases by the National Trust which are remarkable for the gross financial ineptness of the Trust’s management committee and its financial advisers. Paying through the nose for the Hafod y Llan Estate which included part of the Yr Wyddfa summit, and the Llundy Isaf  Farm near Beddgelert, has not changed the landscape one jot for the general public but it has seen the private landowners who sold the estates, almost certainly dancing a jig. Incredulous at their own good fortune in encountering a charity who throws money around like a drunken lottery winner!

So...Good Luck to the Friends of Blencathra but from an environmental perspective, it might be better for a Charity/Trust to spend a couple of million pounds purchasing a lowland estate where ecosystems can be protected, where traditional skills can be taught, where habitats can be developed and threatened species can be saved. And yes...where our socially disadvantaged inner city kids can be accommodated and given the opportunity to experience outdoor activities and be taught environmental studies. That type of financial investment really would make a difference to the environment and it would provide much needed jobs as well. As it stands, just buying Blencathra will achieve very little in social or ecological terms. It will make a nice story in the Guardian though.