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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In search of north Wales' mountain spirit.

Wee Timerous Beastie: The rugged little peak of Rhobell y big

After being pretty down on Yr Wyddfa in my last blog where I lamented its despoliation and the insensitive way it has been managed by the powers that be. I thought I’d change tack from gloom merchant and purveyor of despair and offer a positive take on the mountains of north Wales.In this I thought I’d offer my favourite mountains which as you might guess, tend to be those peaks far from the madding crowd. Having a Wainwright-esque desire to keep the gore-tex hoards out of sight and mind, increasingly I’ve gravitated towards the lesser known peaks where you can often find yourself following a pathless trail across the hillsides, where only the odd bleating sheep or cronking crow break the silence. no particular order.

Ruin under Dduallt
Rhobell Fawr/ Rhobell y big/ Dduallt.
Three separate peaks of course but geographically and you might say romantically, part of a rugged triumvirate of remote south Snowdonia mountains. Boldly standing in isolation and separation from the neighbouring Arans and Arenigs to which they all look out to. All three can be bagged together as part of a fairly demanding day’s walking. Given that Rhobell y Big and Dduallt in particular are not over endowed with defined paths and instead demand some testing heather, bog and felled forest stumbling. By contrast, Rhobell Fawr is one of the easiest peaks to attain if you approach via Rhydymain. By driving up into the forest you can park opposite the little gritstone like edge of Fridd Craig Fach which is listed in the CC Merionydd guidebook. I discovered it in the 90‘s and put up a VS route on the far edge of the crag with Harold Drasdo. It has since been worked on by mid Wales climbing maestro Terry Taylor who has added several hard routes to the few more modest things of my own on there.

Getting back to ascending the mountain. From the forest lay by, its an easy 30/40 minutes walk to the 2400‘ summit. Climbers have the option of bouldering their way to the top, as the flank is peppered with outcrops and boulders. Just don a pair of old comfortable rock boots or approach shoes and wander from rock to rock. Choosing a line as hard or easy as your skills allow. Rhobell Fawr was a favourite mountain of 1930‘s Guardian columnist and walking guide author, Patrick Monkhouse who wrote the classics ‘On foot in north Wales’ and ‘On foot in the Peak’. Just a couple of miles north west of Rhobell Fawr is the diminutive little peak of Rhobell y Big. Despite being only 1600‘. Rhobell y Big is an attractive little mountain with a jagged cock’s comb peak.

Its little summit walls and slabs-like its bigger neighbour-offers the climber some sport. To the east, by the same distance,lies Dduallt. A veritable little Armadillo of a mountain. Just 2100 high but studded with outcrops and largely pathless. The only blemish is a pointless stock fence across its spine. Farmers....ever heard the word ‘Hefting’. Or do only Lake District sheep have this instinct? At the base of its eastern face lies the source of the mighty River Dee which emerges amongst the rocks of what appears as a man made structure, as a seeping puddle.

Yr Arddu

Another sub 2000‘ gem, the little  Moelwynion outlier, Yr Arddu, packs a punch beyond its size. Another peak studded with outcrops, many of which are recognized climbing venues included in the current Tremadog guidebook, Yr Arddu although lacking in soaring grandeur or even an obvious peak-its long heathery whale back offers a couple of high points, neither of which stand out-the whole massif is nevertheless a complex jigsaw of rock, defiles, tarns and rough ground. One lake in particular offers itself a fabulous wild camping spot. Despite its scale, the outlook in every direction is stunning. Particularly looking south west to the sea.

A slightly surreal little mountain-Manod Mawr.

Graig Goch and Manod Mawr.
Graig Goch is not so much a mountain more a winding escarpment which stands out on the edge of the Migneint. The start of the ridge is easily gained by parking just off the B4407 and bog trotting to the start. Despite this, its rare to ever see anyone up here and a clearly defined path follows a serpentine line just above the cliffs to eventually reach another forgotten climbing crag, Carreg y Fran which was briefly popular in the 70‘s and had a few bold routes put up in the early part of this century before retreating back into obscurity. Beyond the rock of the crow lies 2200' Manod Mawr. Another mainly pathless peak easily approached via the quarry road where you can park opposite Carreg y Fran-thereby gaining a lot of ascent- and wander across the cropped flanks between boulders and streams to find yourself looking down on the delights of downtown Blaenau Ffestiniog! Its surreal to be sure, this speckled lump of a mountain with a working quarry blasting out slate on its shoulder, the tumbling grey terraces of Blaenau to the north and to the east, the empty rippling moorland of the Migneint. Its unique vibe further reinforced by the knowledge that under your feet during WW2, the crown jewels and contents of our national galleries and museums were stored for safe keeping in the bowels of the mountain until the war had ended.

Look west to Arenig Fach

Arenig Fach
Much as I love neighbouring Arenig Fawr where I have walked, climbed upon and written about. Detailing the mountain’s unique art and climbing history, little Arenig Fach by comparison is something of a Cinderella...or should it be ugly sister? Incidentally, I’ve never understood why Arenig Fach ever became Arenig Fach (Little Arenig) when that title really should go to Moel Llyfnant which is joined to Arenig Fawr. Arenig Fach by contrast is totally separate and isolated from great Arenig??? Anyway, that being bye the bye, Arenig Fach is nevertheless another mountain within the rough bounds of the Migneint. Just over 2000‘ high, the approach from any direction involves some serious heather bashing and bog trotting as the hoards have yet to beat out a clearly defined path. I always approach after parking next to a little copse just off the A 4391 and following my nose through some pretty unforgiving terrain until I crest a saddle and look down upon remote Llyn Arenig Fach. A veritable wild swimmers delight in summer. This deep lake is fringed under cliffs by rocks which make perfect diving platforms. As an hors d'oeuvre before the main course or as a post peak dessert on your way back, its certainly one of the best wild swimming lakes in north Wales. The mountain’s rather gloomy north eastern face is nevertheless dramatic. A sweep of broken cliffs which have been climbed on but which as yet, have not seen those climbs recorded. The summit itself is rather pleasant with the heathery approach surrendering to a flat rocky pavement and summit cairn which offers wonderful views all around.

Llyn Arenig Fach. One of the best wild swimming lakes in Wales...but not on this particular day!

And there you have it. Not exactly the wilderness experience but a wee bit off kilter and relatively unspoiled.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Snowdon, Chinese lanterns and environmental Daydream Believers.

Local newspapers and social networkers were running a story this week which picked up on comments and photographs from a Snowdon walker-Andrew Ennever- who was concerned with the problem of litter around the summit of the mountain. Particularly around the summit cafe. Photographs showed a doorway entrance strewn with discarded wrappers, plastic bottles and bags etc. Q much hand wringing on social media and tweets from August bodies like the BMC and the Snowdonia Society. The newspapers were particularly outraged ‘Litter louts ruining Snowdon Summit’ ran the Daily Post while Wales Online which is from the same media stable as the Post declared ‘Tourists are accused of leaving one of Wales' most beautiful sites in a shocking state’.

Ignoring the fact the doorway looks like the back door of B&M Bargains in Bootle in the photograph, this is the summit of Yr Wyddfa we’re talking about. A summit which hosts a railway line and a summit cafe which has been described as resembling a Lidl supermarket in the past but which I feel more truly resembles a morgue! A morgue where the mountain spirit goes to die! In summer especially, the crowds gathered around the cafe and summit would not disgrace a League One football match. ‘’One of Wales most beautiful sites’..That’ll be right!

In short, as is so often the case when it comes to environmental issues,many people who should know better become fixated on minor details without seeing the bigger picture. Its what I call ‘The Chinese Lantern Syndrome’ . Every so often the news outlets and social media run stories about the environmental and animal welfare issues surrounding Chinese lanterns. I’ve even seen petitions crop up on sites like Facebook calling for Chinese lanterns to be banned. Farmers claim that cattle can eat them and some conservationists claim that birds and seals can become tangled up in the wire. I’ve seen Chinese lanterns floating across the sky once in my life. I have however, waded ankle deep in plastic and assorted aquatic detritus along the western Angelsey coast.

I know that the sea bed and shores hereabouts are littered with old wrecks, sunken fishing nets and lobster pots. Drums leaking oil and hydraulic fluid, in fact, all manner of man made pollution. I also know that onshore many pasture fields are littered with barbed wire and bits of rusty stock fencing, corrugated sheets and old bedsteads rammed in the boundaries. Plastic feed bags and jagged plastic buckets. But lets ignore the real threat to the environment which stems from the way the land and sea is exploited for profit and instead, wring our hands over Chinese lanterns and litter tossed around a mountain slum.

One of my much quoted political and environmental heroes, the US Eco/Anarchist Edward Abbey wrote.. 

I tossed my empty out the window and popped the top from another can of Schlitz. Littering the public highway? Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.

I’m not sure if Abbey really did this or was he mischievously winding up one of his favourite targets, those he called ‘kneejerk liberals'. Its not that Abbey as an anarchist was a friend of the Right, but as with above examples, I think that his contempt was for those who obsess about relatively minor issues like litter, but who close their eyes to the really big environmental and political issues which are really causing the degradation of natural habitats and wildlife.

Of course, as a park ranger and someone who worked on a remote fire lookout tower as a fire spotter, Abbey had witnessed first hand the powers that be such as the National Park Authorities, driving roads into previously pristine natural environments to service the burgeoning car tourist industry. Where once bloomed deserts and virgin forests came tarmac highways, camp sites, tourist centres and gas stations. Little wonder that he considered the humble Schlitz can an irrelevance in great scheme of environmental concerns.

Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban...EA-Desert Solitaire

Of course,the impact of motorized transport clogging up our narrow roads, lanes and car parks is a far bigger problem here in the overcrowded UK than it is in the less densely populated US.

Careful with that ecological time bomb Eugene!

Given that we live in a tiny overpopulated country then it is inevitable that our wilder places will become increasingly despoiled and polluted.That natural habitats will shrink as new roads and housing takes priority over rural conservation, and that native species of fish, mammals and birds will decline and in some cases become extinct as their habitats are wiped out by bad farming practice and the tumorous growth of urban sprawl.

As a society we show little respect for our environment be it urban or rural. We accept pollution as a natural consequence of the material consumer world we inhabit and turn a blind eye to our own highly destructive lifestyles.Our addiction to air travel....because how else can we go climbing in the Atlas Mountains or skiing in Whistler! We upgrade our iPhones regularly and consume gadgets like there is no tomorrow. We drive big SUV's and Camper vans-yes me too- and spend a fortune on food; a third of which goes into land fill. We jam up the motorways each weekend and sit in gridlocked cities in the working week.But what is all that compared to the cataclysmic ecological impact of Chinese lanterns and crisp bags on Snowdon!

Final word to Edward Abbey who could never be accused of not seeing the wood from the trees....

When the cities are gone and all the ruckus has died away. When sunflowers push up through the concrete and asphalt of the forgotten interstate freeways. When the Kremlin & the Pentagon are turned into nursing homes for generals, presidents, & other such shit heads. When the glass-aluminum sky scraper tombs of Phoenix, AZ barely show above the sand dunes. Why then, by God, maybe free men and wild women on horses can roam the sagebrush canyonlands in freedom...and dance all night to the music of fiddles! banjos! steel guitars! by the light of a reborn moon!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

New Borrowdale guidebook:The future is now?

The new Fell and Rock Club’s Borrowdale guidebook has created a bit of a brouhaha in the climbing world on account of it following the commercial ‘greatest hits’ guidebook formula and producing a work that is big in size, big in price (£26.50)! but small in content. In fact compared to the 2000 guide, the latest ‘rucksack size’ jumbo edition has lost over 500 routes! And not just routes but entire crags have been banished from print and sentenced to remain in fading print or hidden in historical Internet files for all eternity. Unless by some miracle, future climbers suddenly rediscover the adventure bug, turns their backs on the indoor wall, the bouldering circuit and the sports routes and go up country once again.

In the Lakes as here in North Wales, trad climbing as we know it, has been dying a slow death for decades. Hundreds of crags, more especially in remoter areas like Mid Wales or the Carneddau, have disappeared under vegetation. Even on relatively popular crags which sport once classic routes,  the majority of these routes have to be regularly gardened back to life by a handful of enthusiasts who nevertheless, appear to be fighting a losing battle.The irony is, there are probably more climbers active today than in its perceived golden age which in itself is subject to debate but could be seen as the post war decades until the new century.

For myself as someone who after completing many of the north and mid Wales classics, gravitated towards the unexplored back of beyond crags which offered rich new routing potential, it is hard to understand why any climber would forgo these quiet pleasures. The delight which comes from peeling back the green mantle which encases pale rock. Revealing a sinuous line which disappears into the blue sky.When a new route finally ‘goes’, there’s no feeling like it. I was telling the Lakeland climber Paul Ross-who appears underwhelmed by the new guidebook as it happens- about the routes I’d done in the Arenigs. In common with most routes done there, almost certainly never repeated. Paul said of his hundreds, if not thousands of new routes both here in in the US, that he wasn’t at all bothered if they were never repeated because the pleasure was in the adventure. In pushing the envelope as far as he could and if it all clicked into place, brilliant!

Whatever the climbers’ motivation, the fact remains that our traditional climbs and crags are disappearing fast. When popular crags like Tremadog require BMC organised crag cleaning days then what hope is there for Arenig’s Ddaer Fawr or Buttermere’s Sheepbone Buttress? As for guidebooks; the demand these days is towards providing details of those still popular crags with a limited selection of what are considered the crags best routes. These are inevitably a handful of two and three star routes with unstarred and single starred routes left out.  What we are left with are guides like the current Borrowdale Bumper fun book. Except it isn’t really that 'Bumper’- apart from the format and eye watering price tag!

In truth, trad climbing as we know it, seems to have gone beyond the point of no return. An activity which once was seen as the very heart and soul of rock climbing, increasingly the lonely preserve of the dwindling band of greybeards. Lugging their old Karrimor sacks over arthritic shoulders and following faint paths into high cwms. Where only ravens and the odd stray sheep remain. Climbing’s desert island castaways.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Outdoor activists urged to boycott the Royal Oak in Betws y Coed

The crescendo of anger directed towards the Royal Oak Hotel in Betws y Coed, North Wales,reached fever pitch in the last few`days after the widely publicized brutal killing by kitchen staff, of a small, young stray kitten. Bludgeoned to death with a rolling pin. The hotel’s Stables bar is a popular haunt for outdoor activists. Mountain bikers doing the Marin Trail in the surrounding Gwydr Forest, Climbers either climbing on the Cyrau cliffs above the village or passing through en route to the main Snowdonia cliffs and walkers who hike the forest trails.
The anger directed at the hotel has be amplified by the actions of the management who at first tried to cover up the crime. Putting out a` statement describing the cat as ‘vermin’ and claiming in had been humanely euthanized, before finally admitting that their staff had been culpable in an horrific act of animal cruelty and sacking the main perpetrators after the growing chorus of anger.

Bizarrely, there is as yet, no sign of either the hotel or the perpetrators`being prosecuted by either the RSPCA or North Wales Police, despite the fact that bludgeoning a 16 week old cat to death after putting it in a`bag, falls very much within the laws which define animal cruelty.

As someone who regularly used the Stables bar on a weekly basis, I will certainly never set foot in the place again and it appears that there are many in the outdoor world who feel the same. For anyone who has the merest scintilla of compassion and intelligence then it defies comprehension how another human being could commit so vile an act against a terrified small creature.

Like many in the outdoor world,I hope those walkers,climbers and mountain bikers reading this, will share my own revulsion and keep well clear of The Royal Oak/Stables establishment and instead,patronize one of the many excellent pubs in the area where battering defenceless animals is off the menu!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Canada Goose Parkas and the howl of the Coyote

It’s the must have winter apparel of the Hollywood glitterati- from Morgan Freeman to Daniel Craig- and the well heeled thirty somethings living in England’s metropolitan Ya Ya land. You need an Arctic winter coat when your out and about in Henley on Thames! It is the 'Canada Goose' down parka which will usually set you back around £800+ for a standard parka made in the company’s Toronto factory. It was featured last night on the UK’s BBC ‘Fake Britain’ programme where a company spokesman bemoaned the import of cheap  Chinese copies which patently do not bear scrutiny when it comes to the undoubted quality of the genuine item.

However, whatever the qualities of this expensive winter coat, there is a dark and bloody element with sadly taints the product, the company, and those who choose to wear one. Unlike the highly popular North Face Macmurdo Parka which uses faux fur and humanly sourced goose down, the Canada Goose range use real Coyote fur. Trapped in gruesome, steel jawed sprung traps which cause immeasurable suffering to the animal before they are dispatched by gun before being stripped of their coat and dumped in a hellish mound of dead animals.

In recent years as the Canada Goose parka has become ever more popular, it has fueled a huge counterfeit trade which not surprisingly- given the price of a real CG parka- sells poorly made fakes through eBay at prices which betray their dubious origins. Made in the land of fake crap- China- many of these shoddy copies use dog fur brutally removed from live animals by boiling them alive in vats to enable the fur to be peeled off easily. It’s a brutal and grim trade that is being driven by fashion and snobbery. Both the original Canada Goose parkas with their coyote fur trimmed hoods and the counterfeit copies using equally barbarically sourced animal fur, have seen the market for their products grow considerably in recent years. Despite this grim production element which shows such a blatant disregard for animal welfare,receiving wide publicity in recent years.

As the popularity for Canada Goose Parkas increases, so does the demand for Chinese fakes. However, unlike the goose down used in parkas like the North Face which uses down and feathers as a by product from birds dispatched for food production, not surprisingly, the Chinese are not that fussy about ripping feathers and down from live birds.

Despite the fact that the wearing of fur coats has become widely regarded as ethically unsound and a fashion no-no for those who consider themselves as animal lovers, remarkably this element of the fur trade is thriving, thanks to the Canada Goose Company and the production of a garment considered to be outdoor apparel.

Those considering buying one of these parkas need to ask themselves. ‘Is any garment- no matter how functional, trendy and qualitative in design and production- worth an animals' suffering?’ Of course it isn’t! Save yourself several hundred pounds and buy alternative parka made by an ethical company like Patagonia or North Face. You know it makes sense!


Protection of fur bearing animals


The Dodo