Friday, August 15, 2014

Climbing's love labour's lost

Ken Wilson's classic 'Classic Rock'. Arenig routes are unlikely to grace future editions. Photo Baton-Wicks

I was reading on the BMC site about the Arc’teryx sponsored‘Lakeland Revival’. A project which it is hoped, will breathe new life into some fifty or so classic Lakeland climbs which have fallen out of favour in recent years. Looking at the list, it is remarkable to see some absolute three star classics which have lost their appeal to the extent that they are now falling back into their pre first ascent vegetative state. Routes like Nagasaki Grooves, Communist Convert, Grendel, Extol and Westmorland’s Route. Route names which will resonate with any student of climbing history.

Here in North Wales, we’ve had a similar bash organised by the BMC at Tremadog, where once popular routes were cleaned and re-ascended in the hope that they would attract a new clientele. The big question is...will this approach work?

I would say...sadly....No. I blogged some time ago about the noticeable lack of climbers to be seen in Llanberis Pass on a pleasant summer’s evening these days. Despite The Pass being considered a UK climbing Mecca, the rock pilgrims who once swarmed through the valley, are now devoting themselves to other sacred places. As previously mentioned on here, the explosion of interest in road and mountain biking, has drawn a number of participants away from the sport. Furthermore,the popularity of bouldering and sports climbing in the UK, plus the opportunity to escape the UK’s Godawfulclimate and head south to indulge in some sun kissed rock ventures in Spain, Morocco or the south of France, has to be seen as additional factors in traditional climbing’s increasing lack of appeal.

I’ve always enjoyed escaping the madding crowds and climbing on remote crags where you get the whole place to yourself and get the chance to discover some lost gems or establish some new routes of your own. It’s a fact though, that the majority of these routes will have now returned to nature. Particularly in Mid Wales. I was thinking the other day about a route called Automedon which I did with Harold Drasdo in 1997 on the east face of Arenig Fawr. The Simddu Ddu crags hereabouts are defined by their structure of tiers which rise up from the rough slopes above Llyn Arenig to the flat top of Pen Tyrau. It was a long term project of HD to put up a route which would be a continuous unbroken line which linked the tiers but which avoided the breaks.

His experienced eye finally fell upon a line at the south end of the cliff which appeared to tick those boxes. And so, on a pleasant day in July, we climbed a five pitch VS climb which fulfilled the continuity criteria and which as a climbing experience offered itself as an excellent adventure. The top two pitches had been explored previously via some circuitous ramblings which included a fine HVS route called Achilles Heel which reached ‘the’ feature of this part of the crag; a great balanced tower, some 15metres high and not unlike ‘The Table’ on The Cyfwy Arete just down the road. This had been named ‘The Trojan Horse’ when Hal had first reached it (Greek Scholars might at this point have noticed a theme here).

Achilles Heel’s first ascent saw some fine climbing by David Craig to reach The Trojan Horse. A steep and thin slabby wall which had that crumbly black moss halting progress in several sections, and which offered very little in the way of natural protection.

Automedon (In Greek mythology, Automedon, son of Diores, was Achilles' charioteer. ) has probably never had a second ascent but with classic routes like Doom and Acheron falling into neglect, just over the valley on Aran, then I can’t see climbers queuing up for this one.

Strangely enough, there was talk of Ken Wilson including an Arenig Route in a new edition of Classic Rock. When he approached Harold for a recommendation there was no hesitation in putting Automedon forward as Arenig’s Classic Rock route. Sadly it appears that that project is indefinitely on the back burner so it looks like Automedon will remain something of a footnote in climbing history and will probably disappear one day from the guide books. Particularly given the modern trend towards selective guides.

Going back to the Lakeland Revival/ Tremfest  gigs. They are great projects which will give a lot of people a buzz but ultimately, as far as saving once classic routes from oblivion I think it’s shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Traditional climbing on unfashionable crags, is a dying art I’m afraid. Fifty years from now, I wonder just how many from the Lakeland list will still exist and be listed in the mid 21st century equivalent of our climbing guidebooks?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Snowdon....Vertical real estate at sky high prices!

Clogwyn Du Arddu: Part of the Yr Wyddfa estate to be sold in plots.

There’s nothing like a mountain being put up for sale to attract the headline writers and ratchet up the comments in the outdoor world. No sooner have we been treated to the Blencathra saga then lo and behold, our beloved Cloggy and its environs are being hawked around by a land agent acting for landowner Dafydd Morris, as if it was a Barrett Homes estate in Telford! You see, the farmer who owns this rather beautiful but famished and unproductive land, wants to maximise his profit by selling it in plots of up to 1000 units. By selling it this way he hopes it will bring him in a rather greater profit than by just selling it as one estate. In this case, £7m. Given the National Trust’s track record in paying vastly over the odds for two neighbouring Snowdon estates then I’m not sure why his agent hasn’t offered it directly to them? 

However, the landowner who will retain over 1000 acres of mountain estate, has fired a salvo at those environmentalists who have correctly pointed out that overstocking an ecosystem of limited feed value with sheep is not exactly conducive to maintaining a healthy, diverse ecological balance. The ubiquitous sheep is not known as ‘The Desert maker’ for nothing. Cropping the sallow mountain slopes like an industrial vacuum cleaner; shrubs, trees, wild flowers and other upland vegetation species are hovered up by an animal that boasts an almost unnatural ability to access the most difficult locations. A high, apparently inaccessible mountain ledge is no guarantee that a solitary Rowan sapling will ever mature if a ragged welsh mountain ewe with a lamb in tow is in the vicinity.

Referring back to the first Snowdon purchase by the NT. The landowner in that case pocketed over £4m for what is in fact a vanity project for NT directors who might know something about selling cream teas in a Stately Home but nothing about mountain estate management. Hence their paying vastly over the odds . Not content with this piece of financial ineptitude, they consolidated their portfolio with another over-priced purchase. This time a Nant Gwynant Farm which might have raised £500k if sold as a working farm, but certainly not the £1m+ the Trust paid. 

The landowner is working on the assumption that the ‘Cloggy Estate’ will bring in over £12k an acre when in fact, rough upland pasture will usually only realise between £1k and £3k an acre if marketed by a farm management agency as upland grazing. The marginal uplands offers little in the way of agricultural diversity and it is for this reason that farmers have overstocked the mountains with sheep and milked the EU subsidy pot dry. There is little money to be made in running an estate in a sensitive and ecologically self sustaining manner when you can just drop the tailgate of a lorry and usher out another batch of sheep onto the hillside.

If for environmental purposes we wish to take the animal equivalent to Agent Orange out of the equation, then that leaves just one other option. That is essentially, to leave the land and let nature take its course to a great extent, but in a managed way which will encourage ecological diversification. This is largely what is happening with the Wild Ennerdale project. An environmentally sensitive management of a once beautiful valley which was blighted-much to Wainwright’s chagrin- by extensive conifer plantations.

The latest mountain sale is driven not by altruism but by greed. If the landowner had any interest in seeing the mountain thrive he would give the estate to a sound and experienced mountain management organisation like The John Muir Trust . Given that the JMT have recently indicated an interest in purchasing a Rhinog mountain estate and given their success in managing upland estates in Scotland, then I can’t think of anyone better equipped in this area.

That has to be a far nobler legacy than dying with £7m in the bank!