Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tryfan's game of ghosts



The news last night that a daughter in her early 20's watched her father fall to his death on Tryfan yesterday, was a terrible reminder of the perils of descending unfamiliar ground on a mountain. Although the circumstances haven’t been made public yet, North Wales Police have revealed that the man in his early 60‘s, fell when he was descending the East Face’s North Gully. For those unfamiliar with Tryfan-and there can’t be many walkers and climbers who haven’t set foot on the mountain- the east face of the 3000‘ peak above the Ogwen Valley in northern Snowdonia- is essentially five buttresses. Each separated by a gully.

The main summit is situated on the Central Buttress where the monoliths, Adam and Eve stand proudly against the skyline. Tradition has it that a true ascent of the mountain involves leaping from one block to the other, although the consequences of a slip here, high above the Central Buttress doesn’t bear thinking about. Separating the Central Buttress from the neighbouring North Buttress is the deep defile of North Gully. For those familiar with the mountain and with experience, it is a tempting quick way down to Heather Terrace. Providing you locate Little Gully with is an offshoot of North Gully on the right-facing out-and approximately two thirds of the way down.

Even if you do locate it, it is still a steep and polished down scramble which requires care and confidence. Problems arise if you miss this deviation as the continuation of North Gully is lethal. A steep drop which at the very least requires an abseil descent. Several years ago when I was helping out with the CC’s Ogwen guidebook, I got to know the mountain as well as anyone. I seemed to be up there all the time. Checking out the West face climbs and scrambles. Often on my own- and helping the guidebook author locate and climb many of the East Face’s ‘lost’ routes.

Usually a day on the East Face involved coming down North Gully. One early evening after we had reached Heather Terrace we noticed a middle aged couple coming down after us. Despite being warned that they were heading for a potentially catastrophic section of gully and being directed back up to the start of Little Gully, macho man decided he knew what he was doing and ignored all warnings with the inevitable consequences that saw his wife fall and smash herself up quite badly and requiring being airlifted off the mountain. Luckily she survived.

Not that I haven’t been similarly cavalier myself on Tryfan in the past. About twenty years ago I found myself on the summit with my young son one late afternoon in late November. At that time of the year, late afternoon turns into night before you know it. Nothing for it but to come down North Gully. Unfortunately I missed the start of Little Gully and in the gloom decided to pick a line across the North Buttress. Weaving across rock climbs, scrambles and unfrequented terrain. Going down carefully then helping the laddo negotiate the frequent rock steps and awkward passages. We made it to the terrace as night was really setting in. Even then, its an awkward descent getting back down to the A5 in the dark and little wonder every year walkers get benighted or phone the MR Team to bail them out.

I was once told that more people have been killed on Tryfan than on the Eiger. Whether this is true or not I cannot say, but the mountain certainly features heavily in the MRT incident stats. For those with experience both faces can be  wonderful playgrounds. From the lonely multi pitch mountaineering routes and scrambles on the rarely frequented West Face, to the hustle and bustle of the east buttresses. Don’t believe all the scare stories you hear about Tryfan. After an incident on the west face several years ago, a MR spokesman said it was so dangerous..’even the mountain goats don’t go there!’ . Well that’s a bit over the top and once again, if you are an experienced outdoor person who is familiar with technique on steep terrain and who is properly equipped then you’ll find your way up or down the West Face. The East Face though is a different proposition.


Because it is generally steeper and rockier than the west face, those descending the mountain-if they are not experienced rock climbers- will inevitably be restricted to the gullies and as you’ve been reading. Unless you have your wits about you, it could be the last descent you ever make. Take care.
 

Monday, May 8, 2017

An ascent of the Welsh 'Mount Analogue'

Top Dog: Fergus on the summit of Mynydd Anelog.Bardsey Island in the distance. 
‘Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing is a classic novel by the early 20th century, French novelist RenĂ© Daumal.’

That is, it’s not really a type of mountaineering book that will appeal to readers of ‘Country Walking’ or ‘Trail’ magazines! ‘Mount Analogue is pretty, dense, obscure and to many, unfathomable. According to MA’s Wikipedia page, “The novel is both bizarre and allegorical, detailing the discovery and ascent of a mountain, the Mount Analogue of the title, which can only be perceived by realising that one has travelled further in traversing it than one would by travelling in a straight line, and can only be viewed from a particular point when the sun's rays hit the earth at a certain angle.’.....Got that !

One person who did was my late friend and Grade A Clever Clogs, Harold Drasdo who had a stab at writing the ending of the unfinished novel in ‘Mount Analogue and Free Will’ Currently the Featured Archive article on Footless Crow.


Yesterday, I finally ascended Mount Analogue and the views all around were stunning! I’m not talking about ascending the mountain in a spiritual or intellectual way, but by putting one foot in front of the other and actually reaching the cairned summit. OK...here the link becomes somewhat tenuous, but last year, when perusing the OS Lleyn Peninsula west map, I discovered that right down near the furthest point of the Llyn was a little high point, Mynydd Anelog. I was amused that here was an unknown Welsh ‘Crystal Mountain’. Standing above the waves which crash in from the west. A relative pocket Mynydd...just 192m/629‘ high but because it rises from the flat plains of the Llyn and sits above the sea, an attractive and shapely elevation nonetheless.

From the top, Bardsey Island loomed up, larger and closer than I remembered, the high points to the east were sharply delineated against the perfect deep blue sky and the jagged coastline unfurled into a distant haze. I wondered if the bold Bradford lad had ever stood here? I could have stayed up here for hours but despite the strong sun, the easterly wind was nipping at my bare arms and all too soon, I had retreated out of the wind to the sheltering protection of the mountains’ western flank. 
St Hywyns, Aberdaron
A pint of local, Nefyn brewed ‘Glyndwr ‘ golden ale awaited, and an appointment with the ghost of RS Thomas in St Hywyns churchyard at Aberdaron.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Postcards from the Edge



Drone shot of Cwm Pennaner from the summit of Moel Gydros

I was amused to see this from a Trip Advisor reviewer after a visit up 'Mount Snowdon'.

'I was so looking forward to taking the Snowdon Mountain Railway. I had climbed Snowdon as a kid and had very fond memories of the place. I was DEVASTATED to see how ruined it was with FAR too many people. At the bottom we wanted a bite of lunch. The cafe was disgusting. Dirty, poor food choice and service that was about the most miserable and rude that I had ever seen. Absolutely awful. Still I thought the railway journey would be exciting. How wrong I was. We were crammed into a carriage that should have taken a maximum of 6 people but they crammed 8 people in. We were like sardines in a tin which made the whole experience horrible. At the top we were greeted by the smell of sewage and literally hundred of people milling around. You actually had to wait to get space to reach the highest point. They had built a visitors center since I had last visited. It was disgusting. The toilets were a disgrace. It reminded me of facilities in 3rd world countries but probably even worse as the smell was overpowering. Whoever is responsible for the center should be ashamed of themselves as this gives Wales a really bad name. I will never go back and I highly recommend others to give it a miss.'


Apart from the fact that the contributor 'Harry from Edinburgh' doesn't see the irony of him complaining about the despoliation of a Welsh summit through the corrosive effects of over popularity and commercial exploitation when he is part of the problem. He does have a point about the summit caff which really is an eyesore. Although I don't think planning committees working within the SNPA and Welsh county councils have a Ruskin-esque appreciation of architecture and visual amenity so what can we expect!


Of course Yr Wyddfa is a special case. It's a tourist destination and most serious hill walkers wouldn't go near it with a barge pole. However, its still amazing how many people still repeat climbing summits they have ascended umpteen times before when even in a relatively small environment like North Wales or the Lake District, there are always smaller hills and mountains to be found off the beaten track. For some hill walkers there is often a reluctance in ascending something under 2000'; the magic number which unofficially at least, separates mountains from hills.


Its their loss as there are many fine, shapely peaks to be discovered in the 1/2000 range. As someone with the 'been there, done that, bought the T shirt' club of Snowdonia explorers, I rarely do anything which could be remotely described as popular these days. For a while now I've been picking off small peaks. Especially in North East Wales which is notably quieter than the North West. I hadn't appreciated just how many high points there were in that unfrequented part of Wales. The same applies to the old county of Radnorshire (Now Powys) which straddles the English border.


I recently went up the little 'Dewey' (A peak in the 500-600m range) of Moel Gydros which forms part of that rolling range of hills between the Arenigs and the Berwyns. Despite its modest 570 height, it proved to be a fine and obviously rarely visited peak with stunning views all around. Like neighbouring Garn Prys-another fine Dewey slightly to the north, evidence if evidence were needed, that there is life outside of Harry's world!

 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Climbing's Creature Features.

Harold Drasdo on a route called 'Wanda' Beware of black adders on this unfrequented Tremadog route!
I was shuffling through some photographic prints the other day when I found an image of Harold Drasdo on a totally obscure and rarely climbed Tremadog VS called ‘Wanda’. I had climbed the second pitch and pulled up to a narrow ledge with my eyes focused on the wall beyond. When I finally refocused on the ledge itself, I realized that I was looking into the eyes of an adder about six inches away! Thankfully, the handsome reptile slowly slithered off without first delivering a bite upon my sunburned face. With more of a weather eye now open for possible further reptilian intrusions, I climbed carefully on. By the time Harold reached the ledge, the adder had returned. I can imagine the poor creature must have become more than a little miffed at the constant interruptions to his basking routine. At least on this route called Wanda, snakes won’t be seeing too many vistors passing through!

It made me think of those rare, magical moments when climbing and the natural world come together and for a short time we can become part of the natural environment of the creatures for whom the cliffs and the surrounding moors, forests and caves are home. In the UK, we are not going to experience any ‘Climb to the lost world ‘ moments when Tarantulas and venomous snakes are part and parcel of an ascent. Nor do we risk standing on a rattlesnake, being mauled by a bear or sharing a sleeping bag with a black widow spider. The biggest risk we face is being hit by a flying sheep. Those fearless ruminants who regularly, it appears, nibble off more than they can chew when roaming across verdant cliffs in search of succulent greenery.

Despite the adder incident, I’ve seen hardly any native snakes when walking and climbing in the UK. Here in Wales a lot of their habitats have been destroyed over the years by farming and forestry practices. Seeing an adder or a grass snake in the wild is something that for the the majority of people in the UK will be an experience they will never go through. I have seen the odd slow worm which of course is snake like in appearance but which is classified as a lizard.

Of course, the most likely creature the climber will meet on the crag will be those of the feathered variety. The mountain environment is home to many of our most iconic bird species. From Eagles to Capercailles; Ravens to Red Kites, however, for me it is the incredible Peregrine Falcon who encapsulates the spirit of the mountain. I’ve had some amazing encounters with these masters of the air and each one has left an indelible mark. Climbing a new route in the Arenigs, I arrived with some difficulty at a cave on the line of what would become-with one or two deviations-a five pitch VS route called Automedon. Within the cave was what I can only describe as a sacrificial altar! Here, where no man had stood before was a flat topped boulder covered with small animal and bird bones. Amongst the bleached bones were dozens of coloured racing pigeon tags. A few weeks later, on the Black Cliff, I pulled up and the final moves of the climb and was face to face with a Peregrine.Once again, surrounded by bones. It seems as if Peregrines take their prey back to convenient ledges and sheltered rock features to consume their bounty.


The bird itself was no more than a foot away and appeared more curious than alarmed. We gazed at each other, scarcely moving for about 30 seconds before the peregrine decided I wasn’t going to disappear from his kitchen any time soon and took off into the fading early evening light. The plaintive cry of the peregrine is unmistakable and I often wonder if it strikes fear into creatures which falls within its purview? With its incredible vision and unmatchable speed-The Peregrine is the fastest creature on earth- no small mammal or bird stands a chance once its steely dark eyes have fixed upon it.

Another bird which while not matching the peregrine in the velocity stakes, nevertheless uses another natural sense-its hearing-to great effect is the owl. Although owls are usually to be found at less elevated sites as the peregrine, they nevertheless do nest on crags. An old Scotty Dwyer route, now named Excaliber’ above Llyn Gwynant includes ‘beware of tawny owls’ in the route description. Or at least it did. Apparently they used to nest in a subterranean fissure on the climb which the emaciated could squirm through. Never being of that build, I had to climb up the outside of the cleft. Not that I would want to intrude upon a nest of baby owls. However, when climbing down the valley on Dyffryn Mwbwr, I did indeed disturb an owl. I was concentrating on climbing deep crack. My body totally covering the defile when an owl came out of the gloom, climbed up onto my shoulder and flew off. I don’t know who would be the more shocked; me or the owl?

A more alarming encounter than the owl came in the shape of a stallion which came galloping down the hillside on Dyniewyd above Nantmor, in full snorting,bucking mode.It took a full blooded whack across his rear end with the remains of an old fence post to dissuade him from kicking our lights out! Encounters with wild ponies are common in north Wales’s Snowdonia uplands but this was the only time I’ve been charged at.

The fox is of course a common and oft seen inhabitant of the mountains and valleys. Sadly, I have come across a fox which had died a horrible death after being snared. I was so angry I went back the next day and took down the entire section of fence where the snare had been set with bolt cutters! At least on another occasion I was able to free a fox from a snare and witness him run off none the worse for wear. Climbing a new route at Clogwyn Gelli I once witnessed a fox bridging manfully up a vegetated neighbouring groove  to top out and run away up the hillside. It was quite an impressive feat of climbing for a creature who normally inhabits a horizontal world.

But of course, most encounters with creatures in the uplands are not threatening or tragic but simply a delight. Boxing hares and curious goat kids; sunbathing lizards and raucous rooks; startled badgers and bob tailed roe deer exploding into life when their forest reverie is disturbed.


 You won’t see any of that down at the Climbing Wall!
 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Ethnic diversity in climbing : An unscaled mountain.


Myles Washington
An article in the US edition of the Huffington Post caught my eye recently. It was about a young black teenager who was making waves in the US climbing scene. It was deemed unusual enough to warrant a feature in a national media. It seems that even in the US with its much larger black population compared to the UK, rock climbing/mountaineering is still overwhelmingly a white middle class sport.

Here in the UK, if you flick through the climbing glossies, attend a club meet, roll up at Tremadog or peruse the hardware in an outdoor shop, you will inevitably be white. Probably from the educated middle classes- as even white working class participants in the activity are dwindling-and your climbing circle will be inevitably resemble a Britain First cell. In ethnicity if not in dress sense and haircuts!


That's not to say there there are no climbers from ethnic minority backgrounds. But these individuals are notable in their isolation. I was considering from a social and cultural perspective why Asians for example have never really taken to rock climbing? Its not through lack of opportunity as ten of thousands of young Asian kids from the English West Midlands have attended outdoor activity courses at their LEA's outdoor centres in North Wales. Despite this, very few are entranced enough by the activity to take it up when they leave school.

Undoubtedly, there are cultural factors at play here. Peer pressure will play a part and we all know how merciless and cruel young people can be towards anyone who is seen as different and who deviates from the accepted cultural pathways. I know this from my own experience. Coming from a white, working class background on Merseyside, I attended a secondary modern school which had a hillwalking club. Despite loving the outdoors and being constantly encouraged by teachers to come along on one of their fell walking trips to the Lake District, I always declined the invitation.


It was the middle class kids from the A and B streams who did that sort of thing. I was a C streamer and we played football....morning noon and night. If I had joined the school fellwalking club, A..I would have no friends in the group and B...I would be ragged mercilessly by my working class mates. So its easy to see why young Asians from Birmingham and Wolverhampton just don't get involved.


However,what I have noticed is a steady rise in the number of people from non white backgrounds who are going hillwalking.Whether, its the rise in health and fitness awareness, the ease of access to the mountain areas from the cities or through the emergence of a growing educated Asian, Black, Chinese etc,middle class who now have the financial means and the confidence to go where previously their parents have feared to tread?


Perhaps this growing awareness and confidence will lead to those from the ethnic minorities taking up rock climbing and its associated activities? Certainly, one factor which will drive this forward will be the growth of the urban climbing wall. Throughout the towns and cities of the UK, people have been drawn to the wall in the same way as they have to gyms. Even people who have never set foot on a crag or even seen a mountain have slipped on a pair of climbing shoes, tied on to a rope and picked their way up the multi coloured holds. As much I imagine, as an exercise regime for many, rather than as is traditionally accepted, a way of pushing up their grades on the rock face.


It will be a long time before the numbers of climbers from ethnic backgrounds reflects  that percentage of the population from which they are drawn, but its likely that for many of the reasons outlined, that number will gradually increase year on year. And it will be driven, as most things are, by education and financial muscle which in turn brings rising self confidence. However,
it will be a slow evolution to be sure. The one important factor which will may slow this trend-and this applies to working class white kids as well-is the steady decline of the LEA outdoor centre. Sold off by cash strapped local authorities and thereby slamming the door of opportunity in the face of those who need it most. What this will mean sadly, is that it will only be those from the Asian, Black, Chinese middle classes who can afford to attend commercially run outdoor centres like Plas y Brenin, who will enter the sport.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Van Life: Powering up on the road.



Vroom with a View: Menai Straits from The Mermaid Inn, Ynys Mon, North Wales.

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right


Yes, it’s been a while since I took the camper on a road trip but in the next couple of weeks I’m planning on a trip to the Lakes for starters, with Scotland, North Yorkshire coast, Radnorshire and maybe The Isle of Man pencilled in over the next few months. To get my fix of V Dub van life. I’ve been watching some of the many You Tube videos put out by Camper aficienados. I mentioned the brilliant Kombi Life/Hasta Alaska a couple of weeks ago. Another nice set of videos have been put out by Theo and Bee whose Brummie tones and upbeat positivity add real zest to their slickly produced slices of van life, wild camping and general outdoorsyness coming at you through their 'Indie Projects' series of vlogs.

One of the issues they dealt with which has become a familiar problem for travellers in this high tech age; how can you keep all your gadgets charged up on the road? I know for myself that if you are into recording your adventures and want to set them down on a laptop when you get back to the van, then it can be a problem. Especially given the variety of gadgets we use these days. Typically, even on a days hillwalk I’ll take a Phantom drone with a powerful battery that only gives 20/5 minutes of flight and needs charging after every session. Ditto the drone controller. Then I need a tablet to monitor drone recordings in flight, a digital camera, a sports cam, an iPhone and if I’m away in the van..a laptop/netbook.

Most gadgets can be charged through a car powerpoint or cigar lighter as we used to call them. Even my drone has a car charger adaptor. However, a lot of travellers use inverters which basically is an electronic device or circuitry that changes direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). That is, you can plug it into a 12v car charger or direct to the battery terminals and power something like a laptop or even a small TV. However, I’m no expert so I’ll point you in the direction of this page which goes into detail about inverters.

The aforementioned Theo and Bee use a power pack called a ‘Goal-Zero’ when on the road. This small device offers USB points, car charger and AC points.It can be charged on the road or plugged in at the mains. No denying that the Goal Zero looks rather cool. Not much bigger than a car battery, its chunky green and grey exterior ticks the aesthetic boxes as far as gadgets are concerned, but here’s the thing. Does the average weekend or holiday traveller actually need one? Even allowing for the amount of equipment that those of a photographic or video recording bent will take with them on a trip?

I would suggest no. The thing is, a powerpack like the Goal Zero starts at nearly £200. Add on a solar charger and there’s another £100+ The small GZ’s don’t actually throw out much power. You might get two full laptop charges from a fully charged GZ  but here’s the thing; apart from the fact that as I previously mentioned, you can charge most things from you car charger-buy a triple adapter and charge three things at once-you can actually buy a powerpack at a fraction of the price. I’m talking about a good old fashioned car jump starter/power pack. These start at around £30, have a bigger output and almost all will include a car charger point which you can plug devices into. Including iPhones, laptops, cameras etc-providing you have the adapters of course. You won’t get an AC socket but you will get a tyre compressor and built in lantern to boot! The more powerful booster built for diesel engines will of course being carrying a more powerful battery within its plastic housing,hence you will be able to charge more gadgets on a fully charged booster.

So...there you have it. If you’ve £300 spare and fancy a trendy powerpack, go for it. On the other hand, you could spend one tenth of that and get something which will also do the job.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Outdoor Writing: Reviewing the Reviewers



Outdoor writing in the UK, particularly relating to rock climbing or mountaineering, tends to be pretty parochial and generally does not have a huge appeal to those outside of what is after all, a relatively small climbing fraternity. As such, books written about pre-war mountaineers or those autobiographies of rock jocks whose fame extends no further than the UK, generally find  sales tallied in the low thousands or in some circumstances, even in the hundreds. Although a ‘name’ like Chris Bonington or Doug Scott will find an international audience of course-particularly in the US- and will also pick up sales from the general public who as a rule have no interest in the great outdoors but like a good yarn. Witness Joe Simpson’s extraordinary crossover success with Touching the Void. Not surprisingly, climbing and mountain publishers tend to be specialists and not literary Jack of all trades, although occasionally a well know publisher like Faber & Faber will dip their toe in the outdoor market.

Given, the tight profit margins involved in publishing books which often won’t even cover costs, it’s no surprise that publishers tend to be cautious and generally only plump for books by or about-relatively speaking- well known figures in the game. Often, in the case of a climbing autobiography, if that person is not an experienced or accomplished writer then then the publisher will suggest the involvement of an experienced writer who can then make something of an acceptable literary silk purse out of what may have been, something of a mangy sow’s ear!  For reviewers of outdoor books, this generally means that most books coming up for review tend to be well written and interesting.

As someone who does on occasion review climbing and mountaineering books, then I’m sure I speak for anyone who has ever reviewed a book when I say that no one ever wants to damn someone’s hard work. If a writer has put months or even years of effort into researching and collating information about a historical figure, or if they have poured out their soul into an honest and frank autobiography, then its difficult to write a bad review even if the work is underwhelming. In these cases, usually the reviewer will couch their review in terms which emphasize the positives and play down any negative elements. Thankfully, as I’ve already suggested, publishers-particularly in a narrow field like climbing-don’t tend to publish turkeys so the need to either tread lightly or be bluntly truthful doesn’t arise.

Although I’ve read plenty of climbing books which were a bit so-so and forgettable, I’ve read very few books that I’ve felt were really poor or I’ve disliked for whatever reason. One book which springs to mind was written by a US writer about bouldering. The author’s attempts to instill a Zen like spirituality into the activity and his purple flights of fancy into the far reaches of West Coast surrealism left me cold. Unable to make head nor tail of the book I passed it on to Harold Drasdo whose intellect and sharp literary mind far surpassed my own. Perhaps he could review it? A week later it came back.Nope...he was as nonplussed as I was!

Ninety Nine per cent of reviewers, I would suggest, are honest and conscientious. they tend to be scrupulously fair and objective and never allow personal feelings about an author cloud their judgment. However, that’s not to say that there are not some bad apples in the barrel. One of our best known climbing writers does a good line in rubbishing authors he sees as rivals by writing one and two star reviews on Amazon under a series of pretty transparent pseudonyms. Rather amusingly, he gives his own books five star glowing reviews. Rather he did although I hear that Amazon, under pressure over false reviews, are now only allowing verified purchasers the opportunity to offer reviews and the company have been busy deleting these phony reviews after pressure from other writers and reviewers.

Writers as highly regarded as Robert Macfarlane, David Craig and Boardman Tasker winner, Harriet Tuckey have all been victims of this literary villain’s poison pen. As least they can console themselves that a rather sad attempt to undermine their work was quickly exposed and recognized by other writers in their field before any damage to their reputation was done.

Thankfully, cases like this are very much the exception and in the main the UK outdoor media can pride itself on the honest and sober objectivity of its reviewers.