Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Another Green World: Climbing's lost horizons

The Green Man: Harold Drasdo on the first ascent of Jac Codi Baw. An HVS climb on the remote green cliffs of Arenig Fawr. A route which like nearly all hereabouts,will almost certainly have never received a second ascent.

I recently blogged about the situation in the Lakes where the Fell & Rock Club’s latest guide to Borrowdale, had left out hundreds of obscure, off the beaten track, or rarely ascended routes, to the chagrin of a lot of older traditional climbers. Many of whom had seen routes they had probably put a lot of effort into, consigned to the archives or even oblivion? Just after that I read of a range of cliffs in north Wales- which had never even been in a guidebook despite climbers including myself and veteran Showell Styles, putting up routes there- had been worked on with all the ‘new route’ information and route descriptions appearing online.

I must admit, despite my own penchant for climbing in back of beyond locations and in many instances-certainly when an area guidebook was being prepared- recording those routes and submitting the information to the guidebook writers-I and many other climbers I know, had operated a somewhat arbitrary policy of leaving some cliffs unrecorded. Certainly if they were fairly remote, in a guidebook no mans’ land or later discovered to harbour rare plants or wildlife . The cliff mentioned above is one such cliff. A winding edge of rather loose pale rock which is quite vegetated and home to ravens, peregrines and foxes.

It just seemed totally appropriate that climbers should leave the coal black corvids and fleet foxes to their own devices. Hence my disappointment that the cliff had been developed. Of course, the likelihood is that now its been worked on and recorded, the explorers will inevitably move on to the next Crag X and this cliff will quickly return to being an unfrequented backwater. In fact throughout north and mid Wales, the vast majority of cliffs have become unvisited backwaters and I guess this will be the case in Scotland and the Lakes.

Some climbers appear to be driven to mop up and record climbs on every piece of undeveloped crag they can find. Regardless of scale or the the length of route. I’ve seen micro climbs recorded that are barely boulder problems in length but hey ho...line em up and we’ll knock em down! It might get a mention in the glossies or online but in the greater scheme of things, these new routes are inevitably destined to be binned. Along with a great many old routes which have been recorded since the second world war.

At one time, this would have distressed me. After all, one of the first articles I ever had published in the climbing media, back in the early 90‘s, took the Climbers Club to task for leaving routes by people like Ron James, Tony Moulam, John Neill et al, out of the latest guidebook which covered the Tremadog/ Moelwyn area. After all, I argued, if climbers of their status and reputation felt their routes were good enough to be recorded and submitted then what right had the guidebook committee and team to leave them out of the definitive work?

However, I had not anticipated how traditional climbing would evolve over the next thirty years. Squeezed by new activities like mountain and road biking, paragliding, bouldering, sports and indoor climbing. Now enter fat biking, packrafting, kite surfing etc etc. For young people who want an outdoor fix these days then there are certainly easier ways than lugging a 40 pound rucksack up to a remote cwm and either working out a project that will never be repeated,or trying to find a supposed classic climb which they quickly discover, has now disappeared under a mantle of vegetation.

There are a fair few virgin crags which I’ve climbed on in recent years which are nevertheless still worthy of bringing into the public domain by virtue of their accessibility and quality of climbing. However, the other side of the coin suggests that the majority of remote, unrecorded cliffs and even many established cliffs which have fallen out of fashion, perhaps really should be left to the slumber in their splendid green isolation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mountaineering Scotland: Sleeping with the Enemy

The Last of the Clan
I wonder at which point someone in Mountaineering Scotland thought ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to put out a joint statement with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Voicing our concern about plans to re-wild the uplands through a tree planting programme’ ? The issue has been extensively covered in the media.Including national news media like The Guardian and Times. But if you haven’t been aware of the brouhaha or have been out of the country let me bring you up to speed.

According to the Guardian..'The two groups have written to Scotland’s environment secretary to raise issues about plans to increase the country’s woodland cover from 17% to 25% by 2050. The Draft Climate Change Plan includes a commitment to plant 10,000 extra hectares of trees between now and 2020, extending to 15,000 hectares per year by 2024.

Basically a quite reasonable goal which will go a small way towards restoring what was once an important ecological component of the uplands. Before human interference with the natural environment, large swathes of the Scottish uplands had been covered with trees. The Great Caledonian Forest according to Wikipedia, consisted of...'native pinewoods which formed this westernmost outpost of the taiga of post-glacial Europe-estimated to have covered 15,000 km2 (3,700,000 acres) as a vast wilderness of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper, oak and a few other hardy species. On the west coast, oak and birch predominated in a temperate rain forest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens.’

Most people who enjoy mountain pursuits, would I imagine support the Scottish government’s plans to restore a small part of what was once an extensive ecosystem which supported a diverse range of species, before large landowners decided that sheep, deer and grouse were more profitable than maintaining a healthy ecosystem. A system and social order which included the people who worked the land in a sensitive and sustainable manner.

What makes Mountaineering Scotland’s statement with the SGA so crass and ill judged is the manner in which it totally ignores one of the most shameful chapters in Scotland’s history; The Highland Clearances. When estate goons- forebears of the SGA brethren-drove the people off the land. Destroying communities and often burning out those who tried to resist.Apart from the ecological impact, the human tragedy was immeasurable. Communities and families torn apart and driven into destitution. For some members of what was essentially a pastoral community, they were driven to the coast and had to learn how to become fisherman. Others were driven to the cities.Notably Glasgow where they found themselves trapped in poverty and appalling social conditions. More still scraped together what they could and simply emigrated to the new world.

The Climbing writer and Highland Clearances authority, David Craig called it  ‘Scottish Biafra’. A genocidal act which destroyed a way of life and wreaked havoc and despair upon the long suffering highlanders.Whichever way you dress it up. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association are in the main still lickspittles to the Lairds, foreign investors and nouveau riche
landowners who still own much of the Highlands and who are still part of the ongoing issues surrounded sensitive land management and access.

By campaigning to keep the Scottish uplands as a tree free, moorland environment of limited ecological diversity, the philosophy which drove the clearances still dominates the thinking of groups like the SGA. Practices such as poisoning raptors, shooting mountain hares and foxes and ‘controlled’ burning, displays just how backward these people are. The late environmentalist and nature writer, Mike Tomkies, observed while living on the Scottish island of Shuna where shooting was part of the estate’s business model, the terrible impact of controlled burning by gamekeepers and estate workers. Witnessing how nests and habitats for birds, lizards,snakes and mammals like hares, voles and mice were wantonly destroyed to create the green shoots which pheasants and grouse eat.

Other environmentally damaging practices carried out in the interests of the sporting estates include using JCB’s to tear out tracks into the mountains, to enable tubby, tweedy chavs to fall off the back of a trailer pulled by a 4x4 and start shooting at anything that moves. Not that there’s going to be that much choice in such an ecologically limited environment apart from tame grouse and deer.

'Their skulls are made of lead,for that is why they cannot weep': Fedrico Garcia Lorca

It seems as if the mountain environment attracts two types of outdoor activist. Those who see it as an adventure arena. Simply a place where they can ride a mountain bike, weild an ice axe,run off a slope with a chute or climb a cliff; and those who can do these things but who can also appreciate the uplands as a living mountain. A natural environment which although degraded by human activity is worth protecting and improving. Even if that improvement is driven by government policies such as the Draft Climate Change Plan.

So.Mountaineering Scotland...what were you thinking ?!!!


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Vertigo Myth

Ed Byrne Follows Stuart Marconie over the Hinterstoiser Traverse...also known as Sharp Edge.Image Life of a Mountain
Vertigo, it’s probably the most misused and misunderstood word in the English language..” ‘ Oh I couldn’t do what you do, climbing those sheer cliff faces...I suffer from Vertigo!’.
According the Wikipedia....’Vertigo is when a person feels as if they or the objects around them are moving when they are not. Often it feels like a spinning or swaying movement This may be associated with nausea, vomiting, sweating, or difficulties walking. It is typically worsened when the head is moved. Vertigo is the most common type of dizziness’. Basically it has nothing to do with a fear of heights which is ‘Acrophobia’ and you can feel the effects of vertigo standing on the pavement.

Given the fact that Acrophobia is a recognized condition, like a fear of open spaces, a fear of enclosed spaces or even a fear of spiders!, I often wonder how many of those who claim to have a fear of heights are actually acutely affected. Or is that fear simply the result of not having any experience of that environment.In short, it is not a fear of heights but a fear of the unknown? I was watching Terry Abraham’s beautifully filmed ‘Life of a Mountain-Blencathra’ on BBC4 last night and was amused to see David Powell-Thompson lead comedian Ed Byrne and DJ and writer, Stuart Marconie over Sharp Edge. Whereas as Ed Byrne nonchalantly sauntered across like a seasoned scrambler, Stuart Marconie-despite his hillwalking experience- was visibly outside his comfort zone.

I suppose for those who do a bit of climbing or scrambling, Sharp Edge is not exactly the Hinterstoiser Traverse! But there’s no doubt that some people get genuinely freaked out in places like this. In fact I commented on Twitter that ‘I thought ‘The Freak Zone’ was your Six Music Show?’ which was offered in a spirit of gentle joshing rather than sarcasm.

So....was Stuart’s discomfort Acrophobia or Xenophobia which is literally ‘Fear of the Unknown’, and not simply a fear of foreign people which you would think if you only read the Guardian. I’m guessing it is the latter and I’m sure given time, coaching and opportunity, then Stuart would be gamboling along Sharp Edge like a Herdwick ram.

Everyone who climbs has an inbuilt appreciation of the environment which surrounds them. Without that awareness most rock climbers would end up dead. Even super human climbers like Alex Honnold have to be aware of that unique, life threatening position they find themselves in and it is that fear which offers caution. Keeping the climber within an environment where they remain in control. At times sheer bad luck or simply pushing through and beyond that zone brings disaster. Happily for most climbers and scramblers, they exist within their comfort zone.

Which brings me back to Vertigo or should I say, Acrophobia.It exists as a condition of course, but how many of those who claim to have a morbid fear of heights really suffer from this, and how many are simply xenophobic?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Women Climbing Writers: Space beneath their feat.

Gwen Moffat:Climber and respected author.Image Gwen Moffat.
I checked the Boardman Tasker winners list recently, just to see how many women had won the prize since the BT’s inception 34 years ago? Five. To be honest, I’m surprised it was that many as I wasn’t sure if a female climbing writer had ever won. The Boardman Tasker has always had a fair representation of women on the judging panel. This year’s judges are Kate Moorehead, Helen Mort and Peter Gillman, but I guess the judges can only work with what they are presented with. It’s impossible to do a scientific study on the gender ratio of mountaineering/ outdoor books but from my experience based on putting out the Footless Crow site for 7 years, doing the occasional book review and just keeping a weather eye open on the outdoor media market, then I imagine that at least 80% of books falling into this category, are written by men. On the subject of articles published in Footless, sadly, only four women writers have featured. Barbara James, Barbara Jones, Jill Sumner and Ruth Janette Ruck. This is not for the want of trying or through any sort of sexist discrimination on my part I can assure you.

It wouldn’t be that hard to look at this in a socio/cultural context. Men do tend to be more narcissistic, ego driven and self publicizing than women. Look at the social media and the comments columns in newspapers like the Guardian. Its mostly men who get involved in heated threads and who promote their latest exploits. Be it a mountain bike ride-’Really buzzing after 30k in a blizzard man!’... Running-’Hey..knocked 3 seconds off my PB’. Climbing- “ Managed an extra circuit of the wall tonight...stoked!!!’ and other such mind numbing rubbish that gets a few sycophantic ‘likes’ and comments..’Awesome Dude’...’Respect’.... Yes even in Europe, Wayne’s World speak has taken root in the vernacular of the Twitter generation.

Getting back to female climbing writers though. There has always been strong figures like Dorothy Pilley, Elizabeth Coxhead, Brede Arkless, Gwen Moffatt, Lyn Hill, Catherine Destivelle and Wanda Rutkiewicz who have written about their achievements and produced articles and books of merit. However, if judged on sales, the achievement of ‘classic within the genre’ status or even reaching out into the heart of the mountain/climbing community and gaining wide respect, these female writers have never been accorded the same respect or achieved the commercial success as a Bonington, Krakuer, Simpson or Macfarlane for example.

Certainly, in 2017, an era when women in the west are perceived to enjoy equal rights with their male counterparts, regardless of the field or career they are engaged in, old habits die hard. The commercial publishers driven by profit, not surprisingly look to sure fire winners who are guaranteed to stimulate sales and interest. In a relatively small commercial market like the climbing media, where book and magazine sales are usually limited to those engaged in the activity-unless you have a rare cross-over smash like ‘Touching the Void’-it is the Kirkpatricks, Bullocks, Fawcetts, Boysens and yes, Bonington, still!, who tick the commercial boxes. Female climbing writers are still plugging away, producing quality material and getting stuff out there in print and online, but without achieving the same iconic status as wordsmiths as male writers.

Of course, this might be to over complicate the issue by lobbing in these socio/cultural theories. There are probably more male to female climbers anyway and hence, many more males writing about it. Authors like Bernadette Macdonald and Audrey Salkeld have achieved both critical acclaim and a measure of commercial success of course, but they remain in the main as exceptions within the field. Lobbing the occasional hand grenade into the complacent, patriarchal outdoor media.