Thursday, July 20, 2017

Counting Mountain Crows

Image: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco
When I was exploring the craggy little Snowdonia peak of Yr Arddu after a typewritten climbing guide to the mountain’s diminutive little cliffs, written by Showell Styles, had fallen into my hands, my visits were inevitably greeted by a posse of raucous crows who-as crows generally do- were just hanging around the crags before taking off and wheeling around the sky before landing on a nearby outcrop and lettering rip. 'The clapperclaw of crows’ was Edward Abbey’s poetic description of their vocal powers. Of course the correct collective name for a group of crows is ‘A murder of Crows’, and sadly, this reflects society’s negative view of corvids in general, as dark, menacing necromancers. Black as coal and with a refined taste in rotting flesh.

British folklore had long condemned corvids to the dark margins of myth and imagination, long before Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Ghastly grim and ancient Raven’. Even Ted Hughes, a poet of rare perception and respect for the natural world, painted the crow as the ‘King of Carrion’....’His palace is of skulls. His crown is the last splinters of the vessel of life. His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s Rack and final stretcher. His robe is the black of the last blood. His kingdom is empty’.

Referring to ‘Crow: From the life and songs of the crow’. Professor Neil Roberts, Emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield’......

‘Crow holds a uniquely important place in Hughes oeuvre.  It heralds the ambitious second phase of his work, lasting roughly from the late sixties to the late seventies, when he turned from direct engagement with the natural world to unified mythical narratives and sequences. It was his most controversial work: a stylistic experiment which abandoned many of the attractive features of his earlier work, and an ideological challenge to both Christianity and humanism. Hughes wrote Crow, mostly between 1966 and 1969, after a barren period following the death of Sylvia Plath. He looked back on the years of work on Crow as a time of imaginative freedom and creative energy, which he felt that he never subsequently recovered. He described Crow as his masterpiece.’

Despite the traditional misplaced fear of crows and those within the Corvus genus- Ravens, Jackdaws, Magpies and Rooks- in recent years there has been a marked upturn in the amount of attention and respect these birds are now receiving. Acknowledged as possibly THE most intelligent of bird species and one of the few capable of using logic and tools to solve problems, the crow and the Corvus clan in general are finally losing their sinister image and gaining a new legion of admirers.

Perhaps those in the outdoor community can claim to be in the forefront of the crows rehabilitation, given how we’ve shared the mountains with them for as long as man has frequented the high places. For climbers in particular, the sight of a crow perched on a nearby rock. Casually surveying his mountain kingdom, cannot fail to diffuse tension and lift the spirits. This extract from Guido Rey in ‘The Matterhorn’, written in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of one of the darkest periods in mankind’s history exemplifies this perfectly.

The Crows of the Matterhorn

The crows of the Matterhorn are strange,large birds with jet-black shiny feathers, with long bills and beautiful blood-red claws. They are a strange tribe, who live up in the heights in summer, concealed in unexplored recesses on inaccessible precipices of the Zmutt and Furggen faces. They are well disposed towards the few men who climb the mountain; they know they are harmless folk and much too busy with other matters to wish to go after them.

When the weather is fine, they watch from above, parties of climbers as they make their toilsome ascent; they fly down to meet them and circle about them, as dolphins in the sea swim about in the wake of a ship. If the weather be threatening, they utter their sad, unpleasing cry, as if to tell me of the coming tempest. They restlessly come and go, and beat up against the wind with their strong wings,sometimes hovering almost motionless in the air; then they dash headlong into the mist with folded wings, dropping like stones to flee the storm.

As will be discerned by the titles and imagery associated with these blogs, my fondness and respect for this most attractive, entertaining and beguiling of bird species, echoes the sentiments expressed by Guido Rey above.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Unesco's Lake District award: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The news that The English Lake District has received UNESCO World Heritage status-up there with Machu Picchu and The Great Barrier Reef- has been met with mixed reactions depending on one’s perspective. For environmentalist, George Monbiot, writing of the possibility back in May, it would be...and now is presumably..’a disaster!’. For like a lot of environmentalists, George sees the Lake District as one of many UK ‘Sheepwrecked landscapes’. An artificial environment where a once healthy and diverse ecosystem has been bludgeoned to near death by the heavy hand of man. All in the interest of profit above ecological sustainability.

In particular, the farming and landowning community who own so much of the Lake District and who have left the mountains and valleys tamed and de-wilded through their agricultural and forestry activities. Hillsides once richly laden with trees now grazed to the bone. Valleys similarly tamed, manicured and reworked in the accepted contemporary tourist chocolate box image.

For the Lake District Tourist Chief Executive, Richard Leafe, it’s ‘Great News!’ which will see at least a 20% increase in the number of Lake District visitors. Great News indeed...if you are looking forward to sitting in an 8 mile tailback on the Kendal By-Pass approaching Windermere, instead of a 5 mile tail back! The thing is, the last thing the Lake District needs is more tourists. As someone who does in fact like the Lakes, even though it is in effect a manicured park as opposed to a wild mountain area-like many people, I wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of the place during the summer holidays. Winter and late autumn are the best times to visit although compared to North Wales and Scotland, it’s still fairly busy. Spring is an option although by then it becoming noticeably busier, but come the third week in July....Release Hell!’

Places like Bowness, Ambleside and Keswick resemble London’s Oxford Street for crowds and who in their right mind would put themselves through that?? So...what exactly will UNESCO World Heritage status bring to the table? Actually...nothing really. The same planning laws will apply. The same wages will be paid to Polish bar staff and Romanian hotel chamber maids. The car parks will still be full. The B&B’s and self catering cottages will still charge an arm and a leg and the pubs will still sell their beer at marked up prices compared to northern town and city prices. People will still queue to climb on Raven crag, walk in a slow convoy up Helvellyn, tear arse around Grizedale Forest on mountain bikes and picnic in great numbers on Catbells.

But it will give Tourist advertising agencies another angle to sell the dream. The images will inevitably show snow topped mountains, a boat gently bobbing on empty waters, red squirrels, daffodils and long dead poets. The UNESCO award could though be seen as rewarding farming bad practice. Furthermore it rewards a ruthlessly exploited property system, driven by wealthy outsiders, which has led to social cleansing of local people. Victims of sky high property prices and the second home boom which brings in train the inevitable social consequences. Lake District second homes equals school closures, shops and post offices closed down. Bus services ended. Once living villages reduced in winter to slumbering film sets where no dog barks, the windows are shuttered and the chimneys are dead and cold.  It rewards short sighted bureaucrats who are more concerned with profits and numbers than sustainability, and it uses a very narrow market definition of what constitutes a site worthy of world heritage status.

I will still visit the Lakes to pick off some of the summits I’ve never done and take a sup for old times sake in the ODG, but the whole UNESCO thing leaves me quite cold I’m afraid. You do have to question the credentials of UNESCO officials AND the Lake District blow in Petite bourgeoisie who have driven this ill conceived exercise in self promotion over environmental impact.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Waterway access rights: A river runs through it.

The late great Mike Jones
If the hikers Right to Roam is still a distant dream for walkers in England and Wales, the canoeists' right to paddle is right out there in the distant realms of the galaxy. Remarkably, what used to be a common right-the right to travel freely upon UK waterways- has been eroded to such an extent that in 2017, paddlers and other recreational waterway users, enjoy access to just 4% of our rivers....FOUR PERCENT!!!

What paddlers are up against is the all powerful landowner/fishing lobby backed up by the government, who enjoy absolute control over waterway usage. Those free spirited paddlers who do risk so called ‘bandit runs’ do so at risk of incurring the wrath of the landowner/angling lobby,and the very real risk of  being on the receiving end  of often violent retaliation. Stones have been thrown at paddlers, barbed wire stretched across fast, inescapable sections of river. Canoeists have returned to their cars to find their tyres slashed...etc etc. Not surprisingly, for most canoeists, its just not worth the aggro and expense. Hence the Riparian lobby continue to exercise their complete control over waterway usage through violent acts of intimidation and political indifference.

Naturally, the government and its agencies of state, including the police, continue to display contempt for the basic freedoms and rights of ordinary people and in matters of dispute, inevitably side with the Riparian lobby. Several years ago I took part in a memorial paddle down the Upper River Dee in North Wales- The Mike Jones Rally- which was a charity paddle in memory of the eponymous paddler who drowned  in Pakistan when paddling on the Braldu River that flows off K2.  I remember the great buzz I had as a non paddler at the time, joining with hundreds of other paddlers in various boats- from little slamon kayaks to great hulking Canadians- and exploring this ‘forbidden’ river for the first time. My friend and I were just about the last people on the water that mid November afternoon in our ancient two man boat as we set off from the village of Cynwyd, heading for the Horseshoe Falls, 12 miles away at Llangollen. We arrived when it was almost dark but it was wonderful, paddling in the fading light, seeing all those secret places from the water. By then, everyone had finished and would be happily engaged in the apres paddle festivities as we held up the rear in the quiet gloom.

It was an all too rare glimpse of what open access on our waterways could be. Free to travel these quiet water roads. Enjoying a rare glimpse of our land as no one else can see it. A few years later, I got into sea kayaking and have since travelled most of the Cornish creeks by sea kayak and what a great experience it has been. Winding off the main creeks to explore the shallow side creeks. Inaccessible to all but the paddler. At times it is like being on an Amazonian tributary with just the quiet swish of the paddle, the chatter of birds and the splash of leaping mullet to disturb one’s reverie.

The Mike Jones Rally finished on the Dee that year I believe. Despite being a charity event, the Landowning/Angling lobby were not minded to let it continue as an annual event-for one day a year for God’s sake!- and I understand that’s now being held up on the upper Tyne in the North East of England.

Somewhat bizarrely for those climbers and hikers who do at least enjoy their activity without any incurring any financial penalty, paddlers who do wish to exercise their limited rights of access, have to pay for a licence to do so. British Canoeing who oversee the activity offer this advice on their website.

“If you want to canoe on many of our rivers and canals you will need a licence to do so. British Canoeing has teamed up with navigation authorities who manage the waterways to offer British Canoeing members a great rate for a waterway licence in England. Included with your British Canoeing membership is a licence to paddle over 4,500km of rivers and canals.’

Adding...."As a British Canoeing member, you are given a membership card which also serves as your waterways licence. A lanyard is also provided for ease of display. Carry your British Canoeing membership card with you at all times, as you may be asked to show this to authorised navigation officials. You can see the list of included waterways in the list below.’

Imagine the uproar if climbers, mountaineers, hikers, surfers etc etc, had to pay a licence to carry out their chosen activity! A jobsworth wandering under the cliff at Cloggy checking a climbers’ licence or being met on the summit of Cader Idris by an employee of the BMC..’ Can I just see your hillwalking licence sir?’.

Pity the poor paddler, Screwed over by Landowners, Anglers, The Government and even their own body. In instances like this I always reach for my Edward Abbey book of quotations; 'A Voice Crying in the Wilderness'. How about his classic, ‘If wilderness is outlawed,only outlaws can save the wilderness’. That’ll do....... Bandit Run down the Dee anyone?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

'Rise like Lions after Slumber'

The Good Guys
What is it that attracts people to engage on outdoor activities? Is it the thrill and pleasure in the activity? The tenuous move that delivers success for the climber; the buzz a mountain biker feels as they wheel full pelt through forests and streams, the crunch of gravel in their ears and the rush of air in their faces. The quiet contemplation the hiker finds as they take in an empty vista from upon high? Of course the activity itself delivers an almost spiritual awakening for the participant following a day considered well spent. However, underpinning the actual activity itself and a vital component  of the whole experience is that most abstract concept...freedom.

On the face of it, there is nothing which connects climbing a route on a remote crag where you only have the crows and sheep for company, and attending a music festival like Glastonbury with 200.000 other people. As I write it is indeed the Glastonbury weekend and as usual, I have just been a distant observer on TV and following the Guardian blogs. By coincidence, the paper also carries a feature on camper vans. What is noticeable-more especially after the wildly enthusiastic reception Jeremy Corbyn received yesterday where he drew a record crowd-has been the vitriol and hated emanating from the Tory/UKip trolls towards young people, festival goers and even campervan owners. In fact their hatred is for anyone who values freedom, creativity, self expression and who has a social conscience.

People having fun, enjoying the festival or living off grid in a campervan, drives these bitter and twisted little bigots nuts! And you can see where these Tory Party useful idiots are coming from. I have a picture of your stereotypical freedom hating troll. Living in a bungalow in some nondescript Midlands town. Trapped in a career they hate and a loveless marriage. Never in their entire lives have they even been to a live music event, climbed to the top of a mountain,smashed through the surf in a sea kayak; spent a night looking up at the stars, ridden a horse; Parked up a camper in a quiet forest in the dead of night. In short, the most exciting thing these people will ever in their sad lives is to wash their 10 year old Honda Civic on a Saturday instead of a Sunday or visit a different garden centre to their usual Sunday haunt.

Having a tame and servile populace who do not as a rule, seek to express themselves outside of those narrow parameters defined by the state as ‘normal’ conduct is of course an essential pre requisite of a state and society which functions in the interests of a privileged few. You will have noted with the Grenfell Tower disaster that it was the marginalized who had been shunted into inadequate accommodation. The poor, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the ethnic minorities. Most people of a certain age will remember how another minority who expressed different values to the state and who sought a life of freedom outside of the narrow confines of production and consumption. Who rejected the unthinking blind acceptance of knowing your station and accepting your lot.  The New Age Travellers in the early 1980's totally rejected the norms and values of Thatcher’s Free Market philosophy and chose poverty and freedom as infinitely preferable options to  just being just cogs in the machine.

Who could forget the vile treatment dished out by Thatcher’s state goons at the Battle of the Beanfield and at other locations, where this most peaceable of communities had gathered. Brutally beaten by baton wielding state thugs who had been ordered to remove their ID tags by those who sought to cover up their nefarious activities. A pregnant woman dragged through a broken window of a bus, long haired crusties with shattered skulls and blood matted hair. Confused, frightened and lost. Children screaming as they watched their parents set upon by faceless thugs. Their twisted features hidden behind sweat dripping visors. The long convoys of smashed buses, campervans and coaches accompanied by bare footed travellers carrying their pathetic belongings on their backs or in wheelbarrows. It was a scene reminiscent of historic  war time displacements or the more recent refugee convoys which have shamed Europe in recent years.

This was their country as much as the pin striped gangsters who unleashed this terror against ‘The Enemy Within’. The Thatcher government further legislated against freedom by rushing through laws on trespass and making it illegal for more than a limited number people to gather in one place. Designed to prevent the large convoys and free festivals which had spread like wild fire throughout the land that summer. Once freedom takes hold, it is an intoxicating draught which inspires and seduces those with open minds and open hearts. In this respect, the brutal suppression of this alternative lifestyle community which had rejected the values of the market driven state, could not be tolerated by a right wing authoritarian government. In hindsight, it was always doomed to fail given how powerful the Thatcher government was in terms of a parliamentary majority and how ruthlessly they were prepared to be to protect the status quo.
The Battle of the Beanfield
Which brings me back to 2017 and the ties that bind the free spirited outdoor community with those who seek to live an alternative lifestyle. As Buffalo Springfield once sang...There’s something happening here...what it is ain't exactly clear?. The endless cycle of political, economic and social crisis which currently grips not just the UK but Europe and the US in its dark maw, is a challenge for all progressive,radical individuals and movements. The rise in popularity of left wing populists like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Saunders is a positive sign to be sure. However,there is a long road ahead. The UK/US/EU states will continue act as a dead hand on those who value freedom, self expression, alternative lifestyles and progressive ideals. 
As Orwell observed Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. Its a long way from Worthy Farm to Llanberis Pass but in their way, each location embodies the spirit of freedom,adventure and the desire to live a life less ordinary. Climbing in particular has always been considered an anarchic activity which has attracted many great minds and free thinkers. Its probably the most cerebral 'sport' of all and as such, that unique mountain spirit captured in word and deed by so many gifted individuals within the field, chimes with that spirit of hope and quiet determination. Once freedom is out of the box you cannot put it back in.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Keswick Mountain Festival boycott call after 'Chaotic 2017 Festival'.

A small outdoor businessman, Ethan Thomas who owns and runs Summiteer Equipment, has called for a boycott of the annual Keswick Mountain Festival by other outdoor businesses after describing  'one of the worst weekends of my life' at a chaotic 2017 festival in the Cumbrian town. Writing on his Facebook page, the young outdoor retailer described the events organisers as 'self centred, chaotic and rude'. His full statement in full went on.....

"I've just had one of the worst weekends of my life at Keswick Mountain Festival. I don't think I've ever come across an organisation as self centred, chaotic and rude as Brand Events who run the place.

I had to fight like crazy to be allowed to get my stock and the van off the field today in order to go home. This was after they shut down the Festival because of the weather and told all exhibitors that they would have to come back and collect their things tomorrow. Not even allowing them to check if their stock was ok.

A lot of the staff and organisers were incredibly rude but after a weekend of being treated like shit even I was appalled when one of the main organisers stormed off shouting at me (in front all the other organisers) "you're irritating me now!" when I was merely trying ask him for a solution so I could get my van (that I needed to drive down to Yorkshire for this evening) and collect my stock in the bad weather. The bad weather was now about a 20mph wind with the occasional gust. However a "health and safety manager" which was simply a man wearing a caving suit and a helmet, making over the top decisions, decided to treat it like a war zone.

And this was just the icing on the cake.

On Friday they trapped me on the field until 11:15pm because their policy was that they couldn't let exhibitors on or off the field whilst the public were on it. This might make sense, until you find out that we were parked outside the public area and would have driven down a cordoned off track mat for exhibitors only.

On the Saturday, having got to bed at 2am the previous night (due to having had to restock so late) and having had to get up at 5:30am to finish restocking, we rang the festival office and asked when we would be allowed on until. The answer was "until just before 9." So when arriving at 8:25am we were amazed to find that they had decided to close the road leading to the festival so they could run a triathlon on it. There solution was that we paid for their parking at the other end of town and walked our down sleeping bags back and forth to our stall in the rain. After yet more complaining and tireless arguing we were eventually allowed to drive our vehicle to our stall and unload it at mid day (missing out on morning sales).

It feels a shame that a company like mine, which goes out of its way to do good things and treat people fairly, has had this experience. We've paid nearly £800 to basically be treated like we're dirt on someone's shoe and just a necessary nuisance in order for the organisers to make a bit more extra money. I will also add that we only got a day and a half of exhibiting done on a three day event and I wasn't allowed to collect my display marquee, stands and anything else other than stock. The answer being "you will have to claim this on insurance". And just to let you know, I think it is very unlikely that I will be refunded for this having already spoken to most of the (incredibly arrogant and rude) senior organisers who seemed very reluctant to take any liability for anything what so ever.

All these above events are just the highlights but right now I am too emotionally drained and tired from it all.

All I will say is this....Please boycott Keswick Mountain Festival.It is a festival run by greedy, selfish people who really don't care about anyone or anything other than their own pay checks.....

Ethan Thomas:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Walt Unsworth: Death of a Mountain Man

Image: Cicerone
When I first started getting into climbing and hillwalking,Walt Unsworth was one of the first names I came across as I began to read outdoor publications. As the editor of Climber magazine and author of numerous mountain related books, his name became synonymous with the great outdoors. Appropriately in the circumstances as he was the founder of The Great Outdoors/TGO, hillwalking magazine. Now Uncle Walt has gone. He died at the fine old age of 89 at his Cumbrian home last Tuesday. I must admit,apart from his books and editorial stints, I never really knew that much about him, and I guess that’s true of most outdoor folk who knew the name but nothing about the man.

Walt Unsworth-as his name suggested-was very much the archetypal northerner. A Lancastrian by birth and a Cumbrian by residence. The lure of the hills inspired him to follow that well trampled path taken by working class northerners which leads to the crag face and in the words of Ewan McColl, the ‘Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow's frozen sea...The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains’.

Writing on the Outdoor Writers and Photographers website, outdoor writer Roly Smith who knew him better than most, offers this rich appreciation of Walt’s life and times....

Walt Unsworth, who has died after a short illness at the age of 88, could justly be regarded as the father figure of British outdoor writing. He founded the respected Cicerone Press with his climbing friend Brian Evans exactly 50 years ago this year. Frustrated at the lack of practical climbing guides to the Lake District, they got together to produce their first independent guide in 1967. Together they made an ideal team, with Walt as the writer and Brian as the artist, designer and printer. The guide sold well, and the proceeds of each new book went into the production of the subsequent one.

He was born at Ardwick, Manchester and educated at Abram, near Wigan, where he first met his wife, Dorothy. Walt began fellwalking in the Lake District as a youth during the Second World War. Rock climbing was a natural progression, and during the 1950s, he was one of many other young tigers, such as Joe Brown and Don Whillans, for whom the “bob-a-night” (5p) Wall End Barn in Langdale became almost their second home. After conscription and service in the Army, Walt was offered an assisted place at Chester Teacher Training College and his first teaching job took him to as a science teacher to Wolverhampton. Later he became Head of Physics at Birch Road Secondary Modern School at Walkden, Manchester.

But his first and abiding interest was always climbing and the outdoors, and he introduced many of his pupils to the hills. While at Birch Road he also introduced one of the first Duke of Edinburgh Schemes, a fact recognised by a visit from the Duke himself. He eventually achieved his ambition of becoming a full-time writer, specialising in walking, climbing and travel. He wrote several climbing guides himself, notably to Anglezarke Quarry, near Horwich, where he made many first ascents. His English Outcrops (Gollancz, 1964) was described as “one of the seminal books of post-war climbing.” He eventually became editor of Climber (later Climber and Rambler) magazine on the recommendation of Chris Brasher in 1962. As editorial adviser to the publisher, Holmes McDougall, he also named and helped launch the revamped magazine as The Great Outdoors (now TGO).

He was also a founder member of the Outdoor Writers’ Guild – now the Outdoor Writers’ and Photographers’ Guild – in 1980, and later became its first president. Cicerone Press produced over 250 well-respected guides “for walkers and climbers, written and produced by walkers and climbers” under his leadership. Walt gave many Guild members their first opportunity to be published, and he was always fiercely supportive of them.

Tom Waghorn, outdoor journalist and a friend for over 40 years, said of Walt: “He had a tremendous ability to discover talent, and as a canny businessman, he knew how to spot a gap in the market.” Kev Reynolds, who wrote more than 20 guides for Cicerone, commented: “Walt was both my mentor and my friend. When I did my first book for him – Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees in 1978 – I had no idea that I would be able to make a living at it, but Walt encouraged me at every step.” Mark Richards, another of Walt’s protégées, said: “He was my guiding light – the man who gave me a start and encouraged my creativity. I’ll always be grateful to him.”

Among Walt’s many publications were Portrait of the River Derwent (Robert Hale, 1971); Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering (Robert Hale, 1975), and his definitive history of Everest, first published by Allen Lane in 1981. As a former teacher, he was justly proud of the fact that his trilogy of childrens’ books based in the Peak District during the Industrial Revolution – The Devil’s Mill, Whistling Clough and Grimsdyke (Gollancz, 1968-70) – became recommended reading as part of the National Curriculum. Walt’s Everest won the ITAS Prize for Mountain Literature at the Trento Festival in 1992, and he was awarded the OWPG’s Golden Eagle Award in 1996.

As a travel writer, Walt and his wife Dot visited many countries around the world, either privately or as a guest of tourist boards or travel companies, and he wrote up his trips for many national newspapers. The couple married in 1952 and had two children; Gail, a retired radiologist and now garden plant specialist and Duncan, a former BBC cameraman and photographer. Walt had five grandchildren and one great granddaughter. In later years, he delighted in running the annual Milnthorpe Art Festival from Harmony Hall, his elegant Georgian home, raising thousands of pounds for local artists and charities.

Walt’s quietly-spoken Lancashire burr always communicated good, no-nonsense, northern common sense, and he was immensely supportive of me when I became chairman of the Guild in 1990. He was the mentor and guiding light to many prospective outdoor writers, and will be sadly missed by the entire outdoor community  

Roly Smith (OWPG) 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

All aboard for Desolation Road

We need to talk about politics. For some in the outdoor community, that’s a signal to run for the hills. Let’s keep friction and controversy out of the equation and instead talk about how many hours you need to spend on the wall to maintain standards or wax lyrical about Jet Black’s awesome new sports route in Mugglethorpe Quarry. For many others though in the outdoor community, talking politics an essential part of who they are. Especially through the conduit of the social media. I recall a well known North Wales climber was once sitting in a club hut surrounded by excited young companions discussing politics when, unable to contain his frustration any longer, he slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed..’enough of this...let’s get back to talking about climbing!’

For anyone brought up immersed in politics, its an odd perspective. As outdoor activists, politics informs everything we do.From access issues to ecological degradation; Climate change impact to regional instability in traditional destinations. How can anyone who climbs, rambles, paddles, sails, bikes etc, not be interested in issues which impact upon their chosen activity?

The advent of social media,particularly Facebook, has changed the game of political communication completely. Whereas in the recent past, forums like UK Climbing were the only places you could have a good old rant. These days the ranter can unburden themselves in the Guardian or Independent comments section, but more especially, on their Facebook page which has the advantage of being uncensored and unlimited. This of course is a double edged sword. Although we tend to be attracted to those who generally share our political beliefs, it can spill over into quite bitter acrimony. Especially when others outside of your own circle pile in with comments.

Probably even more of a problem than a spot of verbal aggro in the comments section is the way the social media distorts one’s political perspective. ‘The Facebook Bubble’ is that phenomena where a member of a friendship circle gains a false impression of political reality by only reading comments and seeing ‘likes’ from those who share their point of view. Despite evidence to the contrary being all too readily available, there is often a refusal to confront the obvious truth when it appears that all the evidence points to a different truth.

This was most obvious in the post Brexit social media world. Despite the result being close, the 4% margin was pretty conclusive and it soon became clear that both the Tory government and a future Labour government would respect and implement an exit from the EU. Despite this, many liberals became convulsed with emotions which all to quickly bore all the hallmarks of the Kubler-Ross model for the stages of grief. Denial-Anger-Bargaining-Depression, and twelve months on, for the majority at least- acceptance.

Remarkably, just after the Referendum vote, previously ‘right-on’ Liberals were wishing the elderly dead and fermenting with anger against the working/underclasses and the under-educated. Constituencies whose rights the left were traditionally supposed to champion!  Even the Welsh and Northern English received the sort of bigoted abuse from metropolitan europhiles which previously had only been used by right wing knuckleheads. For months this constituency believed it could do something which had never been done since democracy was first established in Great Britain. Overturn a democratic vote and award victory to the side with the least votes. This curious example of velveteen fascism was vigorously pursued without any concern it appeared, of the brutal irony. Those supposedly on the left who felt that middle class voters with qualifications and careers should have their votes weighted favourably against the underdogs. It was turning back the clock a hundred years to a time when the same arguments were used against women having the vote.

Despite having a remarkable belief that democracy could be overturned by petitions, marches and repeating the mantra ‘it was only advisory’, the mathematics of the vote only told half the story. It has become clear in recent months that the true margin between the Euro Sceptics and Europhiles is far greater than the vote suggested. For a start, a large number of Leave voters stayed at home after being convinced that it was in the bag for the Remain. Also, a large section of Remain voters were reluctant Remainers. Either convinced by government propaganda that the UK would sink into immediate chaos, or sticking with the principle , Better the Devil you know. The recent polls showing only one in five now think the UK should stay in the EU is a striking example of how social media delusion can mask reality and shows that sometimes, even such an apparently indisputable statistic often masks a deeper truth.

Meanwhile, back here on June 8th, 2017 and the General Election promises more of the same. Hope and optimism trumped...sorry to use that word... by its old foes,disappointment anger and confusion. Like most people in the Outdoor Community, I would love to see a Labour Government tomorrow replacing the vile, self serving Tories.  Even better if it was supported by a the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens. The Tories worst nightmare..... 'A Coalition of Chaos’! However, I fear that remains just a faint hope. I expect a comfortable Conservative victory followed by five more years of austerity, division, bitterness, acrimony and the predictable diminishment of public services and the NHS.

At least there’s always to mountains to escape to.

So.....24 hours later and it appears there probably will be a 'Coalition of Chaos' but not the one we hoped for. A Tory/DUP minority administration. Delivered as a Pyrrhic victory to a soon to be ex Prime minister who was hoisted by her own petard. An arrogant, hubristic attempt to destroy the Labour Party which ended up exploding like a firework in May's face. Corbyn and his Momentum followers were brilliant while the majority of his back stabbing MP's should just crawl back under their stones and let real Labour candidates fight the next election for Labour.
It was pretty devastating to see the SNP lose so much ground in Scotland, but as I've suggested above, that in part was due to the SNP rather foolishly allowing themselves to be a zealously pro EU party when a large chunk of the electorate are Euro sceptic.
But the real winners of the June election-expect another one in October- have been the young. A previously maligned constituency who finally got their act together and voted in large numbers. In the main for Corbyn's radical brand of politics.

All of a sudden, the future looks a lot brighter.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Boardman Tasker celebratory evening announced

A BoardmanTasker celebratory evening will be held on October 11th 2017, commencing 7.30pm at the Buxton Opera House Arts Pavilion. This will be a truly unique event, with readings and talks by some of those closely involved with the charitable trust that administers the mountain literature prize, and two leading mountaineers who have each won the award.

The evening programme will commence with a reading by Martin Wragg from ‘The Shining Mountain’, Peter Boardman’s award winning first book, followed by a similar delivery ex Steve Dean from Joe Tasker’s great work, ‘The Savage Arena’.

Andy Cave a BT winner will talk and lecture from his own master work, ‘Learning to Breathe’ and Stephen Venables another BT winner will explain about how this bolstered his adventurous life, and his latest climbs in South Georgia and Antarctica.

There will be an interval between Andy and Stephen’s talks, and a short appropriate fund raising entertainment will ensue!

Tickets are on sale at the Opera House, details on the Heason Events web site. Photographs of the speakers, for publication can be obtained via

Dennis Gray: BT Trustee


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 René 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. 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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lights, Camera, Outdoor Action!

Respected Lakeland explorer Vyvian Withnail above Hawswater
For those seeking a televisual fix of the great outdoors, UK TV offers pretty meagre fare to say the least. Apart from very occasional programmes featuring people like Julia Bradbury walking the fells, or Steve Backshall on some adventure in far off climes, the only fairly regular  TV programme which based on the Great Outdoors is BBC Scotland’s The Adventure Show. Only available in England and Wales through iPlayer of course.

Thankfully, these days we are no longer solely dependent on terrestrial or digital TV channels and can access a huge variety of material through the magnificent media behemoth that is Google’s You-Tube organisation.

From sailing the high seas to mountaineering; road trips to white water pack rafting. Whatever your bag, its out there on You-Tube, and if you have a modern TV which has a YT channel pre-installed then you can sit back and watch these films and documentaries in the comfort of your armchair rather than squinting at a laptop or desktop screen, as was the case when You Tube was first launched.

These days, making a half decent climbing, hillwalking or road trip video is totally within the reach of just about anyone with the creative drive and equipment. Modern advances in photography and movie recording devices have brought professional quality stills and recordings within reach of nearly everyone. Of course, you can make a video with a smart phone or £20 digital camera and there are indeed, some watchable videos which have been made on the most basic equipment. However, as a rule of thumb, to make a quality You Tube film-I’m discounting Vimeo here as unlike You Tube, Vimeo’s free service is frankly appalling and limited to one tiny media file per week- you essentially need three good quality bits of kit. A drone, a super compact digital camera which records HD video files, and a Go-Pro style sports cam. To these recording devices add on an extending selfie stick which holds a sports cam, a dashboard mounted sports cam holder-for road trip films-a smart phone or small tablet-essential for recording drone footage and of course a laptop for editing.

All this will set you back at least £1k but that’s small beer if like the cream of the YT outdoor movie making crop, you want to make watchable films and perhaps establish your own You Tube Channel. When it comes to Movie editing you can save money by using the excellent free Windows Movie Maker editing suite. Although its no longer supported by Windows-it has been around since 2013 and was part of the excellent Windows Essentials package which included a very good photo editing suite-you can still download the full Monty from some third party sites.  Another money saver will be found by avoiding the horrendously over-hyped and over priced Go-Pro range of cameras and buying one of the many copies out there. The best of which can easily match the Go Pro in terms of quality and at a fraction of the price. One of the best is the Apeman series of Sports cams. Identical to the GP in size and the interchangeable range of accessories which will fit either camera. The top end Apeman 4k. 20mp sports cam comes in a zipped case with a range of accessories and spare battery and costs £79.99.The popular Go Pro Hero 4 costs £300 by comparison.

It's der gear la; The outdoor vloggers basics

I have a basic 1080p Apeman which costs under £40 and the image quality is still pretty amazing and more than adequate for videos. Most videos include stills and really you need a good quality camera like one from the Sony stable-the NEX or Alpha range- which take quality photographs and video footage. The Sony A 5100 for example offers 24mp and packs a DSLR sized sensor which gives you DSLR quality but in a pocket size camera. The Sonys are mirrorless cameras with detachable lenses although when you buy the camera it does come with a 16-50 zoom lens which is often all you need anyway. Not cheap. The 5100 for example costs £450+ but you can buy cheaper if don’t mind buying through the so called ‘grey market’ where you can find them up to £100 cheaper than through traditional outlets.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in creative video work in recent years has been the rise and rise-no pun intended!- of the ubiquitous drone. Previously the preserve of the military and professional media and access organizations, the availability and subsequent drop in price of what were up until a few years ago, a pretty rare site in the outdoors, has really opened up a whole new creative dimension to video creators. Those sweeping overhead shots and dramatic eagle’s eye view of rolling vistas were previously only available if you had access to a helicopter or small plane! Now anyone can achieve stunning aerial footage at relatively little cost.

One of the most popular ‘serious’ drones in the world-you can get drone or quad copters as they’re sometimes called, for under fifty pounds on eBay- is the DGI Phantom 3 Standard. Retailing at around £400, The Phantom 3 comes with an on-board 2.7k camera which shoots AVI and Mp4 footage and HD quality stills. Its probably the most widely used drone being used by amateur outdoor vloggers at this moment in time.

If you haven’t delved into the wonderful world of the outdoor vlogs on You Tube then here’s a few of my own personal favourites....

Kombi Life/Hasta Alaska...Adventurous Jersey boy Ben Jarman escapes island life and heads to the tip of South America, buys an old air cooled VW Camper and over the next 4 years wends his way to Alaska. En-route picking up young travellers and a Peruvian street dog, (a cocker spaniel he names ‘Alaska). Beautifully filmed and skillfully edited, Hasta Alaska perfectly captures the trials and tribulations which are part and parcel of travelling in a 25 year old air cooled V Dub. More importantly perhaps, the vlog also captures the spirit of the people and places he passes through.

Scotland’s Mountains/Steaming Boots...I’ve only recently discovered this but it sure looks good. Described as the work of ‘a team’ I’ve only actually seen one vlogger on camera but by using more or less the equipment described above, they capture perfectly the wild beauty of the Scottish mountain environment. Some great drone aerial footage (Using the aforementioned Phantom 3 Standard) and some great photographs really show off the Scottish mountains in all their glory.

SavedPurpleCat...The curiously titled vlogger is actually Tim from Buxton way who with his partner Mandy are keen wild campers,gear reviewers and road trippers in their Mazda Bongo. Tim’s videos have technically come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years and again, using similar gear to the above, and he has created some really attractive vlogs which have been complimented by some stunning photography. Tim is a bit of a born again Christian but thankfully, his vlogs are not overtly proselytizing although the odd Christian power ballad does occasionally make its way on to the incidental soundtrack!

Alastair Humphries...British adventurer and promoter of outdoor ‘Micro Adventures’ has created some very watchable short videos. Covering everything from bothies, to biking and pack rafting. Long distance travels to scrambling, these skillfully made and creatively edited videos are well worth a gander.

Rob Johnson...North Wales mountain guide Rob Johnson has created some great videos with the drone used to great effect to capture our dramatic mountain environment. Rob throws in some tutorial stuff into the mix such as choosing a wild camp site, and offers features on the work of the local mountain rescue team of which he is an active member.

So...the moral of the story is, if you are dismayed by the lack of outdoor related material on the box, then you are looking in the wrong place. Then again, why not go out there and make your own videos like these guys!