Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Adventure climbing: Beyond the world we know


He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

The Beatles

One thing that’s always struck me about Pen Llyn-The Lleyn Peninsula- is just how relatively unexploited the areas climbing potential is. True, in the past, people like Joe Brown and Tony Moulam have thrown up a few routes and Pat Littlejohn has certainly made a mark on the sea cliffs hereabouts, but apart from visits from latter-day rock jocks like Calum Muskett and James McHaffie, there is still whole swathes of rock which awaits exploration.

Take the area around
 Nant Gwrtheyrn on the north-west coast. Driving down into the village I’m always amazed by the massive cliffs which capture the eye as you negotiate the zig-zag bends. These admittedly rather dank and vegetated cliffs which face out towards the sea must be at least 400‘ high. A cleaner section on the left-facing in- certainly looks like it would go but belays at the top look worryingly hard to find on the steep, heathery ground above.

If this section looks too much trouble to clean and equip with anchor points for an abseil return to base, what about the natural outcrops and quarries which sit above the village to the west? Looking up, its hard to take in just how much rock there is up there. Buttresses abound. Pale granite cliffs and man-made quarried areas tumble down the hillside in such a haphazard way that it’s difficult to focus on a particular area. It’s as if the climber’s brain cannot compute this much information and becomes literally stoned!



Perhaps that is why there is no history of climbing in these parts as there is just too much to take in? Although I suspect that more prosaic reasons are behind the areas’ neglect? For a start, access is not easy. The crags and quarries are scattered across the steep hill side in such a haphazard manner that getting from one area to the next is not easy. When I set off to look at a promising face, I found myself on a moving belt on loose scree and ankle snapping larger rocks which had me most of the time on all fours. Grasping at larger rocks, heather, and bracken as I set off small avalanches of scree with every footfall. Once I had reached my destination, weighed up the potential and set off across the hillside to look at other areas which looked promising, it became easier said than done. Some of the quarries had sheer drops which meant that you had to re trace your steps and try and find a way down. 

Finding myself on one quarry face, I noticed that it tapered down towards a gully at the far end. Perhaps I could scramble down and reach the scree at its foot. Taking my iPhone out of my back pocket in case I slipped back and smashed it, I carefully put it in a lower front pocket of my cargo pants. ‘Carefully’..not quite. Next thing I noticed was my phone tumbling down the gully to fortuitously land in the bobbing fronds of a clump of bracken which had rooted on a ledge. Tantalisingly out of reach, I downclimbed as quickly as possible and just reached it at fingertip length before it disappeared down the gully.

All these exertions were taking place on the lower reaches of the hillside. Exploring the higher slopes was not an option with the autumn sun fast disappearing over the horizon.It would take an age to take in every possible area of rock with climbing possibilities.

I doubt very much that the climbing potential of this area will ever be realized given how modern climbing is increasingly focused on accessible, established areas and no one these days is interested in the type of adventure climbing that the crags and quarries hereabouts, lend themselves to. Perhaps a new climbing ethic will develop in the future? Climbers will tire of polished crags, sports climbs, and chalk-stained boulders and actually seek out these obscure, unexploited areas?

Virgin Llyn Granite

Perhaps in 2050, adventure climbing involving death-defying approaches, gnarly descents, dubious rock etc, all undertaken without having reference to information online or in a guide, will appeal to future climbers? That voyage into the unknown. Where just reaching a virgin cliff is an achievement in itself.Even before the climbing begins. Possible I guess, for as the world becomes more overcrowded and the great outdoors shrinks evermore. Battered by tourism, wind farms, pylons, dams, new roads, housing, forestry, shooting, and fishing, etc. Perhaps by then, these hard to access places will come into their own as places of sanctuary and sanity in an increasingly mad world and become-in a tiny country like the UK at least-the last redoubts of adventure.



Sunday, September 10, 2017

Buying cameras and gear through the Grey Market.



When I was looking to buy a Phantom drone, I did what most people do. I checked out the reviews and then shopped around for the best price available. As to be expected Amazon and outlets through eBay appeared to be the cheapest.However, it was a supplier I'd never heard of who were offering the drone at a good £50+ less than the nearest dealer. So..I placed the order and in about 8 days the drone arrived. It was set up and performed as it should without any problems. It was only when a few months later, when I was looking to buy a Sony mirrorless camera and discovered that once again, this supplier was the cheapest around-a good £100 cheaper than anyone else- that I realised that the supplier was based in Hong-Kong and selling through the so called 'Grey market'.

What is The Grey market? Well...to borrow from an article about the market in The Guardian.


'A Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge mobile phone for £530 instead of £619, or an iPad Pro for £650 when it’s almost £800 elsewhere – these are some of the tempting offers you can find online if you visit websites selling products without the manufacturers’ authorisation. Goods such as these are known as “grey” products or parallel imports. According to the International Trademark Association (INTA), these goods are genuine in that they have been manufactured by, or for or under licence from, the brand owner. The discount comes because they are not being sold through official channels, and are usually brought in from another country.'

So, basically the buyer is bypassing EU and UK import tariffs by buying directly from a market which operates outside of the conventional laws and legislation applied by states such as the UK, to outlets based in Europe, The US or Japan.Thereby avoiding import duty and taxation.


So what's the catch? Well...it appears that if say my DJI drone had developed a fault within a couple of weeks, it is questionable if the supplier would play ball and supply a replacement or refund. Then you would have the hassle of sending the item back to China/Hong Kong. Furthermore, a manufacturer like Apple, Sony or Canon, would not offer any guarantee on a product which was not sold through an officially recognized outlet. In a nutshell.'you pay's your money and you takes your chances!.


That being said, a camera like the Canon D70- superseded by newer model but still being sold new- selling through the aforementioned grey market outlet for £661 compared to up to £1000+ through an outlet like Amazon puts into perspective the massive mark up that manufacturers and governments apply to products sold in the regulated market.

Worth a punt? Well....that's for the individual to decide.Is it a risk worth taking?

 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Too Many People

Release Hell!: Yr Wyddfa Summit.Image- The Telegraph
The recent news that police were advising that the Isle of Skye ‘was full’, must have surprised even those of us who live in tourist destination areas and who have become used to the annual nightmare of gridlocked roads during the school holiday season. An event which sees many like myself just keeping way out of central Snowdonia for the duration and getting our outdoor fix in the areas which have yet to be discovered by the hoards. The situation on Skye this summer can be seen on vloggers, Tim and Mandy ‘Saved Purple Cat’ video linked below where they found themselves unexpectedly rolling up in their Mazda Bongo in the middle of the tourist tsunami.

All across the UK in the tourist hotspots, it’s the same story. Cornwall, The Lakes District, The Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia. Too many people crowding into too small an area with the predictable consequences. This comes at a time when the Lake District National Park has just been awarded Unesco World Heritage Status which caused Park National Executive Richard Leafe to boast how it would boost tourism in the Lakes by at least 20%. As I commented at the time, should we really be getting excited about 8-mile queues on the Kendal by-pass over 5 miles queues? If there is one thing the LDNP doesn’t need it’s more tourists, and for some years now I’ve applied the same summer criteria to the Lakes as I do to central Snowdonia...just don’t go there! The Lakes are far better in autumn, winter and early spring anyway.

Last bank holiday in North Wales we had a 13-mile tail back on the A55 Expressway.. ‘Expressway'!!! Who could not smile at the dark irony of that description? Meanwhile over on the creaking A5 which brings the bulk of English Midlands traffic into North Wales, those traditional bottlenecks, Llangollen and Corwen, continue to funnel traffic into their narrow, rat trap streets where a convoy of cars, campers, caravans and motorbikes, wait in frustration at traffic lights. An experience which if anything is even worse on the journey home.

Does it have to be like this? Well...Yes and No. There’s no getting around the fact that the UK is a heavily over-population island with limited space for the 65 million population to escape to, from the urban jungle for even a short space of time. It is predicted that the population will have exceeded 70 million in the next ten years and is on course to overtake Germany as the largest state in Europe by 2050 with a population of over 82 million. When this stat was reported in The Guardian, the writer could hardly hide his excitement. As if winning the population race was like winning the European football championship, instead of the sober reality which in effect condemns the country to a pretty depressing Bladerunner-esque future!


The Migneint: Far from the Madding Crowd 
Getting back to where we are now in relation to our crowded great outdoors. Thankfully there are still plenty of opportunities to avoid the crowds and many beautiful areas where it is still rare to bump into another person. Crags in the back of beyond which rarely see a climber, Hills where the hiker or wild camper is almost guaranteed to have the place to themselves. Quiet lakes set on pathless moors, caves and old quarries returning to nature, forest trails where the mountain biker will be all but guaranteed a lonely ride. All it takes is an OS Map and a bit of imagination-(Tip- Google Earth is a great resource too)- and it’s still possible to find yourself far from the madding crowd. As the population and car ownership increases, it will certainly take more effort in future to stay ahead of the pack, but I’m pretty sure it will still be possible to enjoy the outdoor experience in relative peace and quiet in the near future at least. Leaving places like Skye, the Central Lakes, Snowdonia and Cornwall to an ever more hellish and overcrowded future.

 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Guys win Prizes! :Mountain Writing and the Gender Gap

Boardman-Tasker 2017 shortlist: Image BT
So...the Shortlist has been announced for the 2017 Boardman-Tasker Award for mountain literature and in contrast to recent shortlists, there is a surprise entrant on the list....a woman! Yes, Canadian writer, Bernadette MacDonald who actually won the award in 2011 with ‘Freedom Climbers’-  which charts the disproportionate impact Polish climbers had on post war mountaineering, despite their isolation behind the iron curtain- has climbed mountain literature’s slippery slope and planted a flag for female writers amongst the usual BT cast of male hard nuts and romantics. In fact, you have to go back to 2013 to find a female writer on the shortlist and as it turned out, Harriet Tuckey’s biography of her father, Griffith Pugh, took the first prize with her ‘Everest-the First Ascent'.

But this is not to have a go at the Boardman Tasker committee who select their long and short lists from books generally submitted by publishers. You can only deal with the hand that you are dealt, and if books penned by women are not forthcoming, or if those which are, are deemed not good enough, then that’s no fault of the powers that be. The lack of successful female mountain writers should come as no surprise I guess, as a lot more men climb at the extremes of the sport. Both as rock and winter climbers and as extreme mountaineers, and it seems as if literary committees are more inclined towards favouring what I’ve described in the past as 'tales of derring-do’ over more mundane fare.  However, that begs the question, why should climbing at a lower technical standard or writing about people, places and experiences which are set in say, the English Lake District or Snowdonia, be considered as lesser works of art?

Personally, some of my favourite climbing books have been autobiographies which were firmly rooted in a world which is familiar and accessible to the everyday journeyman or women, Bill Peascod's Journey after Dawn, David Craig’s Native Stones, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Harold Drasdo’s The Ordinary Route, Harry Griffin’s Coniston Tigers, Gwen Moffatt’s Space Beneath my feet, even John Redhead’s esoteric, and one for the crow.

For the creative female writer there is material aplenty to fashion into a worthwhile literary work-as all of the above have done- without having to explore the greater ranges or describe being benighted at 24000‘, surviving avalanches or watching helplessly as a partner falls down a 2000' Himalayan ice face. With more women than ever taking part in mountain activities and more than holding their own with most men, I am left wondering how long it will be before female mountain writing really starts to make inroads into the macho world of mountaineering and climbing literature?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Drone pilot enters the hall of the mountain king

It appears I am now a fully paid up member of the mountain environment desecration Society... (MEDS). Membership is quite expensive I’m afraid. Several hundred pounds, but hey...drones don’t come cheap! Yes...For a while now I have on occasion taken my modest Phantom drone into the great outdoors to shoot some aerial footage for use on videos, and perhaps use some of the stills for illustrative purposes. Thus far without causing any undue distress to the either the wildlife or hikers. You see, I’m pretty respectful of other mountain users and would never fly a drone on a mountain top or where other people have gathered. Especially since I saw what happens when a drone throws a prop and comes down to earth like an Exocet missile! Thank God, it came down in a neighbouring farmers field and not on the summit of somewhere like Tryfan!

However, today I was outed as an eco vandal by a countryside warden. You see, I was wandering up to a local mountain top to take some footage. As I approached I met a guy coming down whom I presumed, by the tripod and camera he was carrying-it was a telescope it turned out- was a photographer out for a bit of bird snapping. After a couple of minutes of chit chat, he asked what I was doing? The hard shell case on my back was a bit of a giveaway. I told him I was planning to take some drone footage over yonder. Then came ‘The Lecture'! I was informed that no drone flying was allowed anywhere hereabouts. Wildlife..blah blah..rare birds..blah blah..beautiful unspoiled environment blah blah...which was fine and I said I would respect that.However, he had to follow that up with a sneering comments along the lines of..’why anyone would want to spoil the peace and quiet of this special place with a drone...sneer, sneer ‘.

On my way back I was mulling over what had transpired and I got more and more miffed. The thing that irked me most was the fact that here was an environment which had been degraded by things like 4x4‘s, scrambler motor bikes and mountain bikes, but worst of all, it was an environment that to use George Monbiot’s words, had been ‘sheepwrecked’! The moorland was being grazed by sheep who were chomping their way through seedlings and young trees. Trampling the nests of ground nesting birds and doing what sheep do when they are left to their own devices. Create sterile, extremely limited ecosystems. Add to the fact that the area has been extensively degraded by the grouse and pheasant shooting industry who have left many areas hatched with stark breaks in the heather, and what you have is not a ‘special place’, but a degraded environment.

If the powers that be really wanted to create a healthy ecosystem hereabouts, they would start by removing the sheep and the shooters and let the land naturally re-wild. You can see in isolated pockets that trees will soon take hold. Fifty years from now, we would have an entirely different landscape where woodland flourishes which supports a far more diverse range of flora and fauna than it does at present.

Hindsight is a great thing but I’m sorry I am so slow-witted that I could not put these points to Mr Warden; the self-declared great protector of the moor and mountain. The idea that ten minutes of flying a drone on a despoiled, bare mountain top is somehow an ecological crime against nature when thousands of sheep grazing the area to the bone is accepted, highlights how far these agencies and quangos are from reality.


It seems that drones in the mountains are a bit of a thing at the moment. Even The Guardian had an article recently, berating drone users on the Isle of Skye.  Fair enough. No one wants to have their peace and quiet spoiled by thoughtless drone users. But 'thoughtless' is the operative word. Most drone owners who take their drones into the mountains do it to take aerial footage and not as my warden friend seemed to think, just fly them about like a model aeroplane. And most do it with an awareness of other mountain users. As I suggested above. I only take my drone far from the madding crowd and only fly for a short period. Just enough to get some video footage.

Every group who frequents the great outdoors has its share of idiots. From thoughtless mountain bikers who tear down mountain sides without a thought for walkers, to climbers who leave their crap littering the base of crags. As far as drone use in the great outdoors goes. A bit of perspective....please!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Climb is dead...long live Climb!

That was then and this is now
In the beginning was Crags. And Crags begat High and her bastard sister On the Edge, who in turn, begat Climb. And the Lord said unto its high priests, ‘take up thy parchments and make them light, for I have seen the future, and it is a light which can be read by people throughout this land and beyond’.

Yes.... Climb magazine is going digital! The glossy magazine which in one guise or another has been a staple of the British climbing scene for over 40 years, is being pulled from the news-stands by its publishers, Greenshires, and will soon become a free online media which leaves Climber as the only commercial climbing publication left. Other outdoor paper publications such as Trail and TGO continue of course and the BMC’s Summit magazine will still be available as a traditional paper journal but with such a respected publication as Climb joining the digital revolution, it seems only a matter of time before all outdoor publications are digitalised.

Of course, the digital revolution in journalism is not just confined to small circulation publications within the climbing media. A few years ago a senior editor at the Guardian told me that the paper will be a digital only publication by the end of the decade. With only two and a half years of the decade left, I would say that it’s more than likely that this forecast will come true by 2020. After all, The Independent went digital last year and around the world, many traditional newspapers and journals are also following this route.

It's not that hard to see why. The cost of putting out a digital publication is a fraction the cost of producing a paper publication. Furthermore, the circulation of a free to view digital journal will be far in advance of a traditional paper publication. When Rupert Murdoch put his Times newspaper behind a pay wall, it lost 90% of its readers. Pity the poor Times journalist whose work is seen by a tiny fraction of those reading an article written by a Guardian journalist. The inevitable knock on effect on advertising as yet, hasn’t persuaded Murdoch to drop his greedy and parsimonious policy but it's hard to see why an advertiser would want to pay the same rates to a publication hidden behind a pay wall with its limited readership, than it would pay a free to view site like the Guardian, Independent or any of the free to view tabloids? Murdoch's S*n being an obvious exception in the Tabloid market.

Returning to the outdoor media.For nearly two decades, traditional journals have seen online media like the leviathan that is UK Climbing eat into its readership. Young people are more and more likely to get their news, views and information from digital sources. Many of those who go on the UKC site would never consider buying a glossy publication for they would say, ‘what’s the point’. I can read articles and access forums on UKC so why pay four quid for a magazine which might only have a couple of articles in that interest me?


It's a problem for traditional climbing magazines in that over recent decades, climbing has splintered into ever more distinct sub categories. Traditionally a magazine like High or Climber just covered rock and winter climbing, hillwalking and maybe mountain skiing. Today you have to add, bouldering, sports, dry tooling, deep water soloing etc into the mix and very few people are interested in every area of activity. Some people purely boulder and never go near a rope while others wouldn’t be seen dead on a bolted sports route. Throw in the surge in interest in mountain and road biking which increasingly is attracting climbers into the ranks of the lycra brigade, and you have a difficult juggling act to perform.

On top of the competition from a commercial enterprise like UKC, is the continuing growth a development of non-commercial blogs and blogazines like Footless Crow which while in no way replicating the varied content of a magazine like Climb, given its specialised role, nevertheless, offers itself as another outlet for quality writing. For example, this week on FC, highly respected mountaineering veteran and former BMC president Dennis Gray, is reviewing Bernadette McDonald’s Vertebrate published ‘The Art of Freedom’. Twenty years ago a review like this would have gone into High or Climber, or at least a club journal.

One thing I do hope the new digital Climb achieves. I truly hope given its status within the British climbing scene, it could offer itself as a thoughtful alternative to UKC which I’ve likened to a Soviet era supermarket in the past. ‘Come on in and buy all the pickled cabbage you like, so long as its UKC branded pickled cabbage’! Back in the day I vaguely remember a short lived rival site to UKC which I’m sure was owned by the Guardian’s current IT editor-whose name escapes me at the moment? Lack of competition reduces creativity in any field so I for one will be wishing Digital Climb all the success in the world as it strides into the future and hopefully offers itself as a quality all round mountain media with its own unique digital identity.

 

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Cock and Bull Story: An everyday tale of non country folk

A visual representation of recent National Trust policies.Note to NT legal representatives-Image not shot on NT property!
 
Well...that wasn't expected! The blog piece of a few days ago detailing the National Trust of England & Wales' controversial approach to image rights when dealing with commercial photographs, really put the cat amongst the pigeons!  The number of page visits went off the scale and I was approached by several national media organisations who wanted to interview the photographer in question who had approached me with the information after reading my blog about what we should call, 'The Glencoe Affair'. Sadly for them, my informant wishes to remain anonymous but he/she felt that my article more or less captured the essence of the NT's position on image rights in England and Wales.

With over 60 comments under the piece, it's fair to say the overwhelming majority of comments were from those who were, to put it mildly, not well disposed towards the National Trust. 'greedy', 'expensive', 'out of touch' and 'tartan rugs and overpriced wax jackets' featured amongst the comments! How did it come to this? This is an organisation with 4.2m members and among them 60,000 volunteers. Our political parties would die for those sort of figures. If the National Trust represents the wholesome embodiment of Middle England's 'Countryfile' view what constitutes a conservation and preservation organisation, then it's clear that many of those 4.2 million members, share the reservations of people like myself, who have been critics of the NT on several issues over the past few years.


The Glencoe and Image Rights issues in many ways are just the tip of a PR iceberg as far as the Trust is concerned. It's approach to hunting and bloodsports on its land, its hazy policies on wind farms and renewable energy projects on NT estates etc etc, are just some of the issues which have antagonised both member and non member alike. Whilst these latter projects are considered good PR and are generally well received by the average metropolitan Guardianist, many conservationists question for example, why a scheme like the Hafod Llan hydro-power development which was constructed on the Trust's eponymous estate, near Beddgelert in north Wales, was necessary?

Especially when the rash of these developments across Snowdonia-with ugly scars being torn out of the mountainside- are considered by many to be rather pointless, profit driven exercises, considering the minimal electricity output and the visual impact that comes in train with their development.

Compare the National Trust's management of the rural environment with a genuine conservation movement like the John Muir Trust. An organisation which is totally in tune with the natural environment and the people who live and work within this environment. Although compared to the both the Scottish and England & Wales Trusts, the JMT would be considered as small fry with regard to membership and land ownership. It remains a model of how a conservation organisation can sympathetically balance its role as a guardian and protector of the natural world on its estates while taking a realistic approach to social and cultural issues. NT take note!

Anyway...that's enough National Trust blog pieces for now. Normal service will be resumed asap!