Thursday, July 24, 2014

Climbers...the taming of the shrewd

John Redhead makes a statement bouldering in Nant Gwynant. N Wales:JR Collection

My old friend Harold Drasdo once told me an interesting story. He was in a climbing hut with a certain well known climber where the conversation had veered onto dangerous ground. That is, the gathered throng were excitedly engaged in a passionate debate about....well... I can’t remember actually whether it was politics, the arts or some current cultural hot topic? Whatever it was, they weren’t talking about climbing. After several minutes of banter our celebrated climber learns forward and bangs the table. Declaring...'enough of this...let’s get back to talking about climbing!’

As someone who is engaged passionately with climbing and the whole culture surrounding mountain activities, I’m only too happy to communicate with fellow climbers on the subject. However, like many in the field, I’m also very interested in a whole range of subjects, from the arts to politics. To be honest, as I write I’m more concerned about the 700 + Palestinians who have been murdered by the Israeli state in Gaza than I am about Joe Bloggs establishing some V9 boulder problem in the Peak. In my experience, it’s true to say that the most interesting climbers I have met have been those for whom climbing is but one element within a rainbow of interests. Poets, artists, writers, philosophers, environmentalists, political activists etc. By the same token, the most boring and one dimensional climbers I have come across are those like our aforementioned anonymous friend for whom climbing is all the be all and end all of what on the surface at least,appears to be a pretty limited perspective on what really matters in life.

The social network is full of ‘names’ in the climbing world whose tweets or status updates are inevitably concerned with some banal aspect of their training regime or latest project...’managed an extra circuit of the wall tonight #feelingstrong’ ...’working until late on ‘the move’ which should unlock the project; #inthebag’. To make matters worse, there is always an audience of sycophantic hangers on who offer ‘ Nice one Dude’.... ‘Brill stuff Big Man..buzzing for you’...... Stop it !!!

It appears that as the UK, Europe and the US has become more self centred and conservative in the post Thatcher/Reagan era, In this regard, the superficiality of ' the me generation' is reflected in the outdoor media. Certainly, the old school of left wing, socially aware climbing writers who had an outlet in the magazines of the 70’s and 80’s are now a fading memory. Today, the climbing/mountaineering media is generally mindless pap aimed at satisfying advertisers and it’s apolitical readership.

Ed Drummond who was something of a genuine climbing renaissance man once commented on this constituency and observed their ‘juvenile obsession with big numbers’. Dearest Ed is now approaching the end and when he’s gone then that will be another nail in the coffin of the old school of politically aware climbing activists who saw the world outside the narrow paradigm which defines climbing culture in the 21st century.

As traditional climbing declines in the face of the irresistible rise and rise of sports climbing, bouldering, road and mountain biking and other activities which offer more of an instant fix than trad climbing can deliver. So we also see the decline in the number of outspoken climbing writers who are unafraid to lend their voice to progressive causes. Ironic that as the world becomes more fractured and threatened with environmental, political and religious crimes, the outdoor world continues to retreat into it’s safe little glossy bubble. A world of fashion, gadgets, travel tips and who is the latest cock of the walk. Held together by the most sterile and soul less photographic imagery you could ever imagine. The mags have become catalogues for flicking through. Devoid of substance but high on advertorials.

As Edward Abbey wrote...'It is not the writer's task to answer questions but to question answers. To be impertinent, insolent and if necessary..subversive.'

Any climbing subversives still out there?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Slate...ghosts in the machine.

All photos...marymary

A year or so back, I blogged about the kerfuffle that had occurred after the Llanberis slate quarries had found favour with metro graffiti artist,Jack Murray who had used the quarries' grey walls as a blank canvas for his work.'Slate of the art' Fast forward to this week,and I am contacted by artist marymary who has taken the concept further by juxtaposing images of long dead quarrymen at various sites within the complex. For the full story, click on Pony and Rider.( There are parallel scroll bars so make sure you find the inner bar. I had trouble at first scrolling down the page). However,if you have trouble, I’ve taken the liberty of lifting the original piece and setting it down here.

The Slate (Fuck the Movie Industry)

I swear there are elements of cosmic collision happening on enormous personal vibrations- events that are so entangled that the outcomes sometimes seem like they are fired straight into your person by design.  There seems to be little point for an average thinker like myself asking, why? The answer almost always is what you want it to be and therefore, objectively useless.  The following paragraphs acknowledge all the flaws in this author’s rickety galleon floating in its universe of cack, quagmire and beauty.

There is a place in north Wales that I have always had a chesty affinity for- the Dinorwic slate quarries above the village of Llanberis and (crucially to these events) just outside the border of Snowdonia national park- ‘One of Britain’s breathing spaces’.  Since first going to these quarries to climb on the slate, I have sensed the negative space where the mountain once was like an invisible weight.  I have touched the rusted chains and machinery and sensed the lives, lived and killed of men who worked in radical conditions.  For me, Britain’s breathing space most definitely extends throughout the quarries and while you breathe the air, seasoned by the damp, the grey, the rust, the tunnels, the devastation, you breathe in the heritage of souls who lived and died in these vast holes.

And so it was, living abroad I booked a trip back to north Wales for a visit in June.  I found images of quarrymen from the early part of the twentieth century from which I made stencils to install in the quarries.  My idea was not to make a big splash, but to place the images with reverence, unobtrusively where they might be seen by the observant, the lucky or the adventurous.  I spent many hours becoming acquainted with the features of the quarrymen while cutting the stencils.  Fuck me, I could even be related to one of them!  My mind drifted around the quarries while I worked and I thought of one area in particular, a hole known to climbers as, the Lost World.  This was my favourite place in Dinorwic- a place accessed by some adventure with rusted ladders to a hole known as Mordor and then a tunnel leading to Lost World itself and the most humid of quarry bottoms.  Spagnuhm moss, huge ferns and rhododendrons enjoyed decades of growth beneath imposing walls of purple grey angles, streaked with wine stains and stabbed with rotting orange ironmongery, hanging from its sides like decayed attack.  Which was how I found the place on my recky hike.

A slate hut, obscured by lush greenery until really quite close, had over the years been maintained and somewhat weather proofed, becoming an aloof shelter for the discerning visitor.  Behind its glossy red door, redundant machinery stood silent- an exhibition of the past while the evidence of modern communion- candles, half full camping gas cylinders, a broom suggested the ongoing use for overnight visits.

 I pressed on, considering sites to paint and it was on the way out, back on the public footpath where I saw a sign, informing users of the path that the quarries would be closed to the public three days hence, for filming of a Warner Bros. movie. 

I returned two days later to install the paintings and began in Lost World.  The first image I did was on a piece of slate which I positioned inside the hut.  I considered the ghosts of the men I was painting-did they work in this very hole? Was this bad ju-ju? Or good? My motivations were sound. I judged tribute. I placed a few more paintings in Lost World and Mordor.  And sprinkled a few throughout other areas of the quarries, visible only to people off the main drag.  I did however leave one in full view- a thin rectangle of slate propped up in the slag, just above the public footpath.  How long would it last, this un-secured and easily moved piece? I threw some venomous hex unto it, should some cock sucking opportunist take possession.  I laid it good sail though, too.  Just in case a local, whose connections reach far into the quarries nabbed it to put on the mantelshelf next to the clock.

Two weeks later my sister and I came to the quarries for a hike about to check out the work.  Hollywood had been and gone.  Sure enough the piece near the path had been and gone too-  probably in some movie-twat’s London bathroom.   Resigned, we made our way to Lost World.  Emerging from the tunnel anticipating the lush prehistoric greenery, my perception was thrown awry by the absence of it.  Quite stunned, I refocused and panned around the quarry.  I saw total destruction of the quarry floor from massive rock fall.   The chaos of dry destroying angry slate boulders laid waste to life and heritage beneath it.  The hut had been crushed beyond use and appreciation, its legacy now void.

In the time between installing the work and coming back to witness the destruction, there had been some rain, but no significant weather event.  The only abnormality was the closure of the quarries for filming.  Don’t tell me those fuckers didn’t blow up the quarry. For a fucking Tarzan movie.

The quarries belong to First Hydro and the local authority and are not quite in Snowdonia National park.  This likely means no one will raise a stink. I guess the heritage of the area, of the local people is just not as valuable as an explosion for some bloated and forgettable Warner Bros. movie.

Personally, I see the slate quarries as perfect settings for transient art-or Goldsworthy/Nash-esque nature/landscape art. As artist marymary describes above, the massive rock fall which destroyed one installation site shows just how unstable these places are. Artificial,man made environments which are in a state of constant geological flux. The old quarrymen even referred to parts of the quarry as 'galleries' although I don't think they necessarily had a Tate Modern concept going on when they used that term!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ed Drummond.....every exit is an entrance to somewhere

Legendary English climber, Ed Ward-Drummond appears to be in the final stages of gastrointestinal cancer which combined with the Parkinsons condition he has lived with for the last few years, has finally broken the physical prowess of this unique force of nature .  Now living in the US, Ed appears to have fallen victim to that country’s archaic health system. A system which has left him financially unable to pay his health bills in these difficult twilight months.

Now,Ed’s daughter Fiume-  who is Ed’s primary carer- has launched a financial appeal supported by the BMC to find the extra funds to cover his long-term nursing care which the US Medicare system will not cover.

A Midlander from The Black Country, Ed began his climbing career on the neighbouring Shropshire crags. Places like The Wrekin and Pontsbury Hill where he took his first major ground-fall from near the top of the 120’cliff. An experience which he recalls grounded him in the dark reality of climbing at your limit where the slightest misjudgement can snuff out a life. Not deterred though, Ed went on to create classic routes like The Long Hope in Scotland, a Dream of White Horses in Wales and a solo ascent of a difficult new route on Norway’s Troll Wall. Just a few routes amongst Ed’s impressive back catalogue.

However, climbing was but one string to his well thumbed bow. Philosophy, politics, poetry and performance art were very much part and parcel of who Ed was and he regularly carried out protest ascents in support of environmental and political causes. Including a well publicized ascent of Nelson’s Column in London, in support of the Anti-Apartheid movement. A stunt which saw him arrested and led away on national TV News.

In the late 80’s, following the success of Live Aid, Ed started ‘Climb for the World’. A registered charity set up to raise funds for third world causes. However, the charity founded and left him financially ruined. During this difficult period, his marriage failed and componding his woes, he tragically lost a child. It was during this dark period in his life that he moved to America and settled in San Francisco.

Despite living in the States,he regularly returns to the UK and acted as an advisor to Hot Aches in their making of The Long Hope. Dave Macleod's free ascent of Ed's outrageously long and exposed route on St John's Head.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Campaign to save the Afon Conwy: German company targets SSSI.

Photo: Save the River Conwy.

German Energy Giants RWE-recently voted the UK’s worst energy supplier by customers in a Which survey-are targeting the beautiful Afon Conwy for their latest profit driven wheeze to extract ‘Green’ subsidies from the state. Not content with constructing ecologically degrading giant wind farms across the UK, with the nearby  vast upland forest of Clocaenog in its plans-See All This Useless Beauty-the company want to build a hydro electric scheme on the Afon Conwy near Betws y Coed, an SSI which would affect river down flow by up to 75%. A project which has incensed both environmentalists and paddlers for whom this stretch of the Conwy is one of the most popular kayaking sections in north Wales.

A campaign ‘Save the River Conwy’ has alerted the general public to a scheme which would involve dam construction and extensive pipe laying  within the confines of the gorge. According to a statement from the German company 

“The £12million development would potentially have an installed capacity of up to 4.5 megawatts (MW), and could be capable of generating up to 13,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity each year – enough to supply the average annual domestic requirements of around 2,700 households”

Given how companies like RWE exaggerate the output of their wind farms by up to 70%, then even if you take their figure at face value, 2,700 households is a pathetic output given the ecological degradation and impact on recreational amenity.

In another example of RWE’s Orwellian doublespeak the company offers..

“We propose a modest-sized run-of-river scheme (no dam would be required),”

In fact, what they propose is the construction of a 70 metre long, 1.5 metre high weir...or low head dam, in addition to the construction of footpaths through the SSI. With industrial schemes like this and the gradual encroachment of wind farms, the Snowdonia National Park appears ever more vulnerable to the rapacious plans of multi national energy companies like RWE who use meaningless terms like 'Green' and 'renewable' to make their profit driven projects appear attractive to our more bovine political representatives,planning officers and the general public. You can object to this scheme by following the links on the STRC website.

Full details can be found on the ‘Save the River Conwy’ website.