Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mike Tomkies: Death of a Naturalist

I was sorry to learn of the death of nature writer and wilderness man, Mike Tomkies last week. I first came across this fascinating man when I read his classic Alone in the Wilderness. A tale best re-countered in the publisher’s blurb.....

"This is the story of a man who achieved what thousands only dream of. He shed the pressures of urban life as an international journalist and exchanged it for solitude, self-sufficiency and new purpose. He emigrated to Canada, found a plot of rock, trees and cliffs in a remote part of the British Columbian coastline, and moved in with typewriter, tent and the barest necessities to build his dream cabin.

How he eventually built his log cabin, learned to live off the sea, adjusted to and worked with the hardest taskmaster of all - Nature - fought loneliness and was inevitably drawn to greater understanding of his remote wilderness and its wild creatures, is an inspiring story. His adventures with nesting bald eagles, a cheeky raccoon, grizzlies, a lame seagull, killer whales and other creatures, are as informative as they are enthralling. Three extraordinary characters enhanced his experiences: Ed Louette, a skilled backwoods carpenter; Pappy Tihoni, a Scots-Indian who guided him on his most dangerous but fulfilling expedition into the mountains and wild dog Booto, who scratched at his cabin door with wagging tail when loneliness threatened to overwhelm.
This book is as compelling and perhaps even more relevant today with the world's great wilderness areas continuing to disappear.’
 (Alone in the wilderness-Whittles Publishing)

Alexandra Bastedo
The fascinating aspect of the story was the fact that Mike Tomkies fell by accident into this role as a champion of the wild. Previously he had been the archetypal metropolitan playboy. The celebrity journalist who chinked glasses with Hollywood icons and shared beds with glamorous actresses. This was someone who turned up at the Oscars ceremony in a beat up pick up truck and was mistaken for Warren Beatty, then in line for an Oscar for Bonnie & Clyde. Prompting Bob Hope to comment in his speech...'I see Warren Beatty is keeping in character for the ceremony’!

A former soldier before he became a celebrity journalist,it is said that Tomkies Canadian wilderness experience was prompted by his separation from glamorous actress Alexandra Bastedo and his desire to escape from the emotional turmoil. When I first read ‘Alone in the Wilderness’ I initially didn’t warm to the man. Comments made regarding the UK political climate and trade unions marked his out as someone of reactionary politics. I imagined this ex Coldstream Guardsman was probably a fellow traveller with the likes of Ranulph Twisteton Fiennes in the right wing libertarian Freedom Association.

However, despite political differences, further reading of the Tomkies oeuvre revealed a man who was totally sincere in his love of wildlife and the conservation of the natural environment. Of his many books, it was his Scottish tales of wilderness life described in ‘A Last Wild Place’ and ‘Between Earth and Paradise’ that really set the seal on my huge respect and admiration for a man who when it came to environmentalism, walked the walk and didn’t just talk the talk.

Reading these books recently it struck me that there was something of a contradiction in the manner of his wilderness life and his practicality, or rather his lack of practicality. Here was someone who could live an off grid life in a remote croft without mains services yet within the text of his books there were many descriptions of him going about his wilderness life which suggested he retained an urban impracticality and often appeared to make unnecessary hard work for himself. Nevertheless, for years he survived in the wild and funded his chosen life through his increasingly popular nature books.

A self taught photographer and film-maker, Tomkies went to great lengths lugging equipment into difficult to access locations and would often camp out for days in his hide,trying to get 'the money shot' of a sea eagle or a Monarch of the Glen. As with some of his writing work, many of his films and photographs were often more perfunctory than polished and finely honed. Produced to 'turn a buck' rather than inspire critical acclaim. Nevertheless, whatever the quality-and there certainly was quality aplenty in much of his work- one has to admire his gritty determination and resilience in producing material which whetted the public's growing appetite for ecological media.

Ironically for the wilderness man, after his Canadian, Scottish and Spanish peregrinations he ended up living in the fat south of England in prosperous Sussex. Far from the Atlantic gales and deprivations encountered when living the life of a crofter on the Scottish west coast. Mike Tomkies died after collapsing on a nature reserve aged 88 . It was, I guess, the only way he would have wanted to go. Certainly his remarkable life reads like a work of fiction. A quite surreal double life as the Hollywood hack who evolved into nature writer, is by any definition, beyond extraordinary.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A little bit of Monkey Wrenching in the north Wales Hills

In a recent blog I bemoaned the fact that so much of Wales is falling victim to the subsidized obsession for stock fencing vast swathes of the countryside. In many cases, areas which have never previously been fenced. To rub salt into the hill wanderers' wounds,farmers and landowners inevitably top off their fences with barbed wire.A totally pointless and useless gesture which has absolutely nothing to do with keeping stock in and everything to do with keeping people out.

With most of north and mid Wales being stocked-rather overstocked- with sheep then even the most myopic NFU official would have to agree that barbed wire topped stock fence is pretty pointless for keeping sheep confined to their pasture. As for larger beasts like cattle and horses, again, barbed wire just isn’t necessary as they rarely will attempt to jump fences of sufficient height and if say a horse does attempt to jump a barbed wire fence, it faces having it’s under quarters sliced open.Expensive for owner and possibly deadly for the animal.

As intimated in the ‘Wire in the soul’ blog piece I decided that enough is enough. Outdoor folk are too wet and accepting of restrictions placed on them by ignorant landowners. Organisations like the BMC and the Ramblers naturally prefer negotiation and a mutually agreed policy regarding access. Unfortunately,large sections of the landowning/farming community will never agree to open access on their land and their response has been the rash of fences erected in the uplands. Time to do a wee bit of Monkey Wrenching!

Armed with a pair of mini bolt cutters, I set off into the local uplands to tackle a long ridge walk which when I first did it about 5 years ago, I was dismayed to find the long undulating expanse of moorland ridge severely interupted by a stone wall topped with three strands of barbed wire,providing an 2.5m/8ft barrier to the walker. Why? It’s rough, rolling heather moorland which is not even grazed by sheep? I could understand high fencing for deer but this is not deer or cattle country. I encountered something like this a few weeks ago on a circular walk on Yr Eifl on the Lleyn Peninsular. I’d come down from the final peak to find a stone wall, topped with two strands of Barbed wire,providing a 7‘ barrier. Having the dog with me and no cutters,it provided an interesting challenge to get passed.

Beyond the first little peak, two barbed wire topped fences...snip, snip. Onwards to ‘The Wall’. With great pleasure I snipped the three strands of wire and lifted the dog over and carried on. Even the final peak which is well frequented by peak baggers had barbed wire across the fence beneath the summit. Walkers had cobbled together a few rocks to create some steps and had tied a fertiliser sack -that farmers are fond of leaving blowing across the hillsides- around the barbed wire to try and lessen the chances of slicing open your person or clothing....snip! In fact...snip, snip, snip, snip...and hey presto a dog gate!

Taking my inspiration from Edward Abbey’s classic tale of ecotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang, I feel its incumbent on walkers who value open access and the right to roam to stop just accepting these barbed sanctions on our freedom, get themselves a pair of mini bolt cutters which slice through barbed wire a treat, and get snipping. As Abbey says...’If the wilderness is outlawed,only outlaws can save the wilderness!’.’s not exactly the Earth Liberation Front stuff but its something that every lover of the great outdoors can do to make our passage over the land that bit easier and to symbolize our rejection of this unacceptable trend to fence in the open spaces.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Vertebrate Double Top at the Banff Mountain Festival

Vertebrate Publishing books by Andy Kirkpatrick and Simon McCartney have both scooped awards in the 2016 Banff Mountain Book Competition. 
Andy Kirkpatrick’s 1001 Climbing Tips has won the Guidebook prize, while Simon McCartney’s mountaineering epic The Bond was announced as the winner in the Mountain and Wilderness Literature Non-Fiction category. There are now seven category winners eligible for the $4,000 Grand Prize, which will be announced on Thursday 3 November at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Other category award winners include Yosemite in the Fifties, by Dean Fidelman, in the Mountain Image category, and Rock Queen, by Catherine Destivelle, in the Mountaineering History category. 

Following the announcement of the winners, Vertebrate’s owner and managing director Jon Barton commented: ‘Tremendous news for Simon and Andy, and the culmination of many years of work for our team in Sheffield. When we first saw the manuscript for The Bond we knew it was something special, and we instinctively felt the same about 1001 Climbing Tips. To have them both recognised like this by a jury of our peers is a great feeling”.

The Bond is Simon McCartney’s gripping account of the first ascents of the north face of Mount Huntington and the south-west face of Denali with Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts over thirty-five years ago, and about the bond that links climbers together. Simon barely survived the Denali climb, and the story is told through his own words and excerpts from Jack’s and others’ journals. 1001 Climbing Tips is Andy Kirkpatrick’s irreverent take on the instructional manual, packed full of bite-sized wisdom. 

Vertebrate titles have won the Banff Grand Prize on two prior occasions: in 2009, with Revelations by Jerry Moffatt and Niall Grimes, and in 2014, with One Day as a Tiger, John Porter’s poignant memoir of his friend Alex MacIntyre. Vertebrate’s Peak District Bouldering also won the Guidebook prize in 2011. The Bond is also shortlisted for the 2016 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, the winner of which will be announced at the Kendal Mountain Festival on Friday 18 November. 

About Simon McCartney
Simon McCartney was born in London in 1955 and was introduced to the mountains of the UK by his father, Mac. He became addicted to climbing in his early teens and spent his school holidays climbing all over the UK. A fine season in 1977 as the sorcerer’s apprentice to Dave Wilkinson, one of Britain’s leading alpinists, produced a number of paradigm-changing climbs. A first and extreme ascent in the Bernese Oberland and a string of second ascents and test-piece climbs around Chamonix changed Simon’s perspective on what was possible. The pair attempted a summer ascent of the north face of the Eiger but were thwarted by poor weather. Simon climbed the route in the winter of 1979. In 1977 Simon met Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts in a Chamonix bar. A partnership was formed and the pair went on to test the limits of their ability on two remarkable first ascents in Alaska, the second of which, on Denali in 1980, effectively ended Simon’s climbing career. Simon is now a successful businessman living in Hong Kong where his dubious talent in calculated but compulsive risk-taking has continued, albeit on South-East Asia’s most prestigious buildings. The Bond is his first book.

About Andy Kirkpatrick
Andy Kirkpatrick has a reputation for seeking out routes where the danger is real and the return questionable, pushing himself on some of the hardest walls and faces in the Alps and beyond. He was born and raised on a council estate in Hull, one of the UK’s flattest cities, and suffered from severe dyslexia which went undiagnosed until he was nineteen. Thriving on this apparent adversity, Andy transformed himself into one of the world’s most driven and accomplished climbers and an award-winning writer. In 2001 he undertook an eleven-day solo ascent of the Reticent Wall on El Capitan, one of the hardest solo climbs in the world. This climb was the central theme of his first book Psychovertical, which won the 2008 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. His second book, Cold Wars, won the 2012 Boardman Tasker Prize. In 2014 he partnered BBC One’s The One Show presenter Alex Jones as she climbed Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park in aid of Sport Relief. He is currently working on a film with Jen Randall based on his first book Psychovertical.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wire in the Soul

I’ve just finished reading a review copy of Rob Collister’s latest collection of mountain essays, ‘Days to Remember’. I’ve met Rob once at a meeting of the John Muir Trust at Plas y Brenin when the trust were trying to get a Welsh JMT group off the ground. I knew that like myself, Rob had settled in North Wales a long time ago and had come to consider this brooding, wet place as home. Reading his beautifully constructed essays on all aspects of his mountain life, it was when he touched upon matters of a green hue that I began to shift uneasily in my chair. Particularly when reading his observations relating to the sponsored despoliation of the natural environment.

‘Sponsored by whom’ might ask? Well, at risk of upsetting probably the majority of people reading this, sponsored by the EU through its insane agricultural grants policy! You see, we might close our eyes to the overstocking of the uplands with sheep to rake in subsides; we might choose to ignore huge agri-barns, tracks being gouged out of hillsides to create access tracks, ponds being drained, copses being cut down to create more pasture or arable land; hedgerows removed and wetlands drained etc etc. We can shrug our shoulders at the explosion of wind turbines and hydro pipelines appearing across the Welsh countryside-after all, 'it’s green innit!'- but there is yet another creeping malaise spreading its tendrils far and wide across the uplands...stock fencing.

Vast areas of the countryside now being fenced off. Areas which as Rob points out, ‘have never been fenced before’. I’ve noticed this myself on my peregrinations across the open spaces of north Wales, a rash of ugly, barbed wire topped grey/green fencing, criss-crossing the once wide open spaces. Ugly symbols of greed over conservation and visual amenity. ‘Greed’, yes well here’s thing thing and get this....Farmers can claim a subsidy of £9.00 per metre to put up stock fencing on their land yet they can get fence contractors to erect stock fencing at just £3.00 a metre. Yes... you’ve got it; putting up fences in areas which have never traditionally been fenced is a money making scam! Why bother doing what good farmers do. That is, managing the land in a sustainable way, when you can sit back, do absolutely nothing and rake in EU grants for desecrating our open spaces!

Its not just greedy farmers and landowners who are fencing off the countryside. The National Trust-not an organization I must admit, I have a lot of time for when it comes to environmental matters- are busy parceling off their north Wales estates with brutal alacrity. Take their Gelli Iago estate which includes Yr Wyddfa summit. I used to wander freely all over the beautiful wild expanses above Nantmor. More especially when I was exploring and putting up new rock climbs on the then under exploited little crags under the spine of upland which separates Nantmor from the Gwynant Valley. As soon as the NT acquired the estate they started erected miles of high stock fencing without even offering the walker a single stile to negotiate this pointless, ugly barrier.

Mini bolt/fence cutters. Recommended for anyone walking in the Welsh hills these days!

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, The NT should stick to running stately homes and leave wild land management to organizations like the JMT who actually care about protecting the natural environment.

I recently read and reviewed American environmental writer, Ken Ilgunas's ‘Trespassing across America’. His epic journey south from Canada to the Bay of Mexico, following the controversial proposed line of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Crossing the ‘open’ spaces of the American mid-west, the author was struck by just how obsessed farmers and landowners were with parceling off their land with ugly fencing and barbed wire. Add in the factor that hikers are an unknown quantity in these areas and treated as vagrants. Where knocking on a homestead door to ask for water often involves staring down the barrel of a gun, then you wonder how rural society came to this? Ken, like Edward Abbey before him laments the invention of barbed wire. A physical and political symbol of exploitation, greed and the death of freedom.

Back here in North Wales, the same arguments apply. As Rob points out in his book, just why do farmers top their fences with barbed wire anyway? Its pointless and useless for containing sheep as they are not generally adept at hurdling 4 or 5 foot fences. As for cattle or horses; again they generally won’t jump over a barrier but if they did, they risk being torn open on the barbed wire. And as for people...well, which outdoor person hasn’t had to climb over a barbed wire fence and cut their hand or had their clothing ripped open. Certainly I have,many times. In fact, I often carry a small pair of wire cutters for such occasions now.

So there you have it. We the general public and outdoor community are having our freedom to roam OUR open spaces, increasingly curtailed and restricted by EU sponsored vandalism. Indeed, how else would you describe the blight of ever increasing subsidized fence erection in the countryside but as vandalism? When even our highest mountains are being fenced in, you know that in the crazy world of agricultural subsidies something has to give. At the moment it looks like the freedom to roam unhindered by obstacles and the right to view a mountain vista without the visual blight of fencing are losing out in a big way to greed.