BLOG ENTRY 28/DEC/19
Happy Holidays: the weather is still great for DWS. Here are two visitors from SE Asia who were at the crag today.
BLOG ENTRY 21/DEC/19
The Winter Solstice brought a nice, cold northeasterly wind – ideal for The Great Head.
BLOG ENTRY 13/DEC/19
Ben Silvestre wrote some superb pieces for my book The White Cliff. Here are some of his latest writings published on the Chalkbloc site.
BEN SILVESTRE – NOTES ON THE MARGIN
Ben eyes the next hold on his new route in the Ogwen Valley, North Wales: The Dispossessed (E7 6c). Photo: Jethro Keirnan
Onsight trad climbing is a funny business. It’s climbing in its simplest form, as it should be, without any of the nonsense which so often tarnishes the sport. When you’re not trying to push yourself, you just go outside and enjoy the movement, the landscape, the company. But simplicity isn’t always what we desire. If you want to break new ground, the key for most is incremental progress, carefully pushing your comfort zone. Could I get more pumped than this, and stay in control? Could I stay confident above fewer runners? Could I be brave enough to even try? Those are the questions we ask ourselves. Sometimes, when everything aligns, it all just feels easy. And then you know it’s time to really go for it.
My year started well, with a successful season in Patagonia. High levels of commitment on Fitzroy and Cerro Torre set the right cogs in motion, so far as the psychological side of climbing is concerned. In contrast to what is usual on those sorts of trips, we did a lot of bouldering in our down time, and it was refreshing to come back with a decent pair of arms, as well as a good head.
Of course, the brain called for a rest when we returned. I’m growing tired of the inherent danger of alpinism, uncomfortable with the selfishness of it all. So I set to work on a few boulder projects while I worked things out. Climbing the magnificent Wonderwall (7C) at Crafnant suggested that I was in better form than usual, and having relaxed my stress muscles a bit, I was soon ready to put a rope on again.
I wanted to do something different, to get familiar with a new place, far from the madding crowds of the Llanberis Pass. Tess and I recently bought a house above Bethesda, with stunning views of the Black Ladders and Llech Ddu. A traditional miners cottage, steeped in history, our home is situated in a hamlet which was a centre point for the Penrhyn quarryman strikes at the start of the 1900’s. I’m not so familiar with the Ogwen side of Snowdonia, so in conjunction with learning the history of the people who lived here, I was keen to learn more about the climbing too. Ever enthusiastic, Calum Musket was happy to show me around, and between bike rides in Braichmelyn woods, we pottered about on discreet crags which I’d never heard of.
After a few good days, Calum mentioned a project which Tim Neill had tipped him off about. Twid Turner had tried it back in the day, but never managed to lead it putting the gear in. We set off one morning, full of anticipation, and arrived at a perfectly smooth, ochre coloured wall. There were a couple of obvious lines, the right of the two looking significantly harder. We thought the crack line on the left might go without trouble, but the start looked bold and dirty so we decided to abseil in for a look. It soon became apparent that the route was significantly harder than we had anticipated, with strenuous climbing leading to a desperate crux. That first session we worked out all the moves, but we were a long way from linking them.
We returned a few days later in humid conditions, and it felt worse. Nonetheless, it was valuable time spent cleaning the route – the finger locks felt a little better each time we went up. But after that session we got distracted. Calum returned for a session with Luke Brooks, and had a good lead go, whilst I got sucked into another project elsewhere. It drifted away from my attention.
A couple of weeks later, I was ready to lead my other project, but on the day that it was meant to be, my partner cancelled. Thankfully, I had a second offer from Alex Mason – to go and try a new route with him in the Ogwen valley. Calum had mentioned that Alex knew about the crack, and I was intrigued to find out if that was his intent. Of course it was, and I headed up to the crack with him to see how he was getting on. We both struggled to make good links on a top rope, but I managed a lead go nonetheless, falling low on the route. A poor attempt, but the spell was broken, and the thing began to feel possible for me.
The following day I returned with Calum, who was keen to have another go before heading to the Alps for a summer of guiding. Calum went first and fell from the final move, millimetres from success. Shortly after I did the same, and Calum wondered whether to try again or not. After a good rest he went for it, and I could have sworn it was in the bag, but then he was airborne and that was it – he wouldn’t get another chance. Dropping him off at his house, he gave me his blessing to complete the route. If Alex hadn’t been on the scene I would have waited – I’m not in the business of stealing projects, and it had been a team effort so far. But this was too good an opportunity to pass up on.
Alex had a free afternoon the following Tuesday. It had rained hard the day before, and we were convinced that the route would be wet. But I headed up early to check, and Tess decided to come at the last minute. Surprisingly it was dry, and a cold wind promised good conditions. Warming up, the locks felt immeasurably better than they ever had done before, and I knew it was on. Sat at the bottom, I was nervous. I knew I could do it, but it would take every ounce of effort that I had. Eventually, I couldn’t sit there any longer. I’d wanted to wait for Alex, but the cold was pressing on me, and I knew that if I didn’t go soon I’d have to warm up again. This time, I arrived at the rest before the crux smoothly. The resting locks felt good, and I had a word with myself, reminding myself to dig deep. Latching the finishing jug, fully stretched out on poor footholds, it was hard to believe that I’d done it. But it was in the bag, and I was ecstatic.
Belaying Alex a couple of hours later, I was impressed at how easily he seemed to climb it, on his first lead attempt no less. He asked me what I would name it, but I wasn’t sure. Our move to Bethesda was facilitated in part by my grandfather’s sister, Ogwen, and given that the route was more or less in the Ogwen valley, I thought it appropriate to honour her with the name. A batty old Welsh lady, she’s recently been deteriorating into Alzheimer’s, though she deals with it incredibly well. I wanted to call it Ogwen is Cracking Up, or Ogwen has Cracked, but routes with similar names already exist.
With our move to the new house, which is a mortgage away from being ours, I’d been thinking a lot about possession. How lucky we were to have managed to buy that house, how unlucky the miners who once lived there were to be forced to submission, and often starvation, by the Lords of the Penrhyn estate. Similarly in these times, the misfortune of many people as they face the prospect of being forced away from the dream of a stable home in Britain, as the Brexit drama unfolds. How unlucky Ogwen is to be losing possession of her mental faculties. Perhaps I could honour them all with a name together.
The name came to me then, the title of a brilliant science fiction novel by Ursula le Guin – The Dispossessed. A book in which an anarchist race are forced to live on the moon of their capitalist overlords, a book which deals with what it means to have a home. To find a place with meaning, and to set roots there. To feel comfortable in one’s own mind, and retain the memories which allow us to belong. The name worked.
At the time, I also thought the name worked on another level – dispossession of Alex and Calum, who had also attempted the line. A little bit of banter, some harmless fun, but was I right? A fairly recent article on UKC, amongst a tangle of sometimes interesting, but often tenuous ideas, tried to claim that new routing, an activity which has historically been dominated by privileged white males, has always been primarily a colonialist activity, laying claim to pieces of rock.
Ben on The Dispossessed (E7 6c). Photo: Jethro Keirnan
In my initial write up for Climber magazine, I stated that the effort to make the first ascent of a safe, head pointed, single pitch climb was entirely about ownership, given that the experience changed little whether or not it was the first ascent. This was an off hand comment based on my other new routing experiences – deeply adventurous affairs in Alaska and the Himalaya. But the UKC article forced me to think about it in more detail, and I realise that I was wrong.
There is something beyond ownership which permeated the time we spent trying to climb that route. I feel it when I remember the initial sessions with Calum, when we stared at the route wide eyed and childlike. The way we carefully removed lichen and cleaned the finger locks, comparing techniques to make upwards progress as easy as possible. I feel it when I think about the sessions with Alex, mutually inspired to give the route everything we had. To be the best that we could possibly be, all the while not knowing how hard the thing actually was. And then there is the unique feeling of the first ascentionist, the feeling of grabbing the final jug, knowing full well that I was the first to do what I had done.
Of course, I own those experiences – they are mine. But they are also shared, with Calum, Alex, and Tessa. With Jethro, who took photos of us as we climbed, contributing in his way to the excitement of what happened there, without ever laying a finger on stone. We all have our place in that collection of memories, the conception of that line, we are a part of its history. Perhaps there is more in our experience than repeat ascentionists will find there.
In climbing that route, I gained the inevitable feeling of release which proceeds the fulfilment of intensely-felt desire. Does that make me a bad person? Did I feed a stereotype of white men greedily snatching first ascents from the wanting hands of the oppressed? Am I a colonial English monster for stealing the route from local Welsh climbers? Calum might agree on the latter, but in all seriousness, it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like a good time between friends, enjoying time spent in the great outdoors. Relationships strengthened, memories gained, always pushing ourselves a little further. Certainly we didn’t harm anyone in doing what we did. But all of that feels distant now. Completion of that route left me feeling that a door had been opened – that the realm of possibility was larger than it had been before. I was ready to test myself in the real world of on sight climbing.
Ferdia Earl was the perfect companion to do so. We headed to Gogarth, where Ferdia cruised her first Main Cliff E5 – Citadel. Having climbed the route before, I opted to climb Ramadan as the second pitch, an intimidating wall which I’d been told felt nigh on E6. Jamming my hand beneath a flake on the crux, I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore the pain of a spike pressing on a nerve. In a moment of panic I almost stopped climbing, but I slapped to a good hold, and pulled myself on to the ledge above. Pins and needles coursed through my fingers, but despite the pain, I’d engaged my capacity to try hard in the face of the unknown.
A few days later, we descended into Yellow Walls. It was early still, and the greasy first pitch of The Cow put up more of a fight than it might have done, but not enough to stop Ferdia. We moved the belay down to the right, and I stared up at the final pitch of Me. Stories of a detached block after a pitch of intensely pumpy climbing had my nerves up.
‘Looks perilous,’ said Ferdia, and I nodded. Perilous indeed.
The initial looseness forced me into that place of perfect concentration, which doesn’t come often. An age placing a web of gear made me feel that I could go for it on the crux, and steep pulls up flakes landed me at a rest above. I thought it was in the bag, but my arms failed to soften, and my heart just wouldn’t slow. Yellow Walls – it comes with a guaranteed dose of over exposure, how could I forget? Above, I made micro movements on less than adequate holds, bridging wide at every opportunity, to take some strain from my arms. It seemed that all was lost, but I made a desperate move left, craving jugs. Thankfully what I suspected proved to be true, and I shook the pump away, wobbly block in sight. Before long I was on the top, gasping for air, and sighing with relief. I’d managed to push the margins a little further.
That afternoon, we headed to Upper Tier, and slapped our way up Strike, in a state of exhaustion. But it took us to where we wanted to be – an abseil station above Barbarossa (E6 6b). Checking the route for gear, we were pleased to discover a stainless peg, bringing the route back to it’s original state. It looked safe enough, and we decided to come back with fresher arms.
The following weekend I returned with Tess, keen for the lead. I was going to warm up on Strike, but then Tess decided she wanted a go. Tess hadn’t been too bothered by climbing lately, and a pumpy E4 would be a good lead for her if she had, but nonetheless she was up for it. I handed over the reigns enthusiastically, and was proud to see her dispatch the route in style, though not without a battle at the top. I wish I had that sort of ability, off the couch. But she was inspired, and sometimes that’s all it takes – perhaps what I said earlier about incremental progress isn’t true for everyone.
After doing Strike, I had a rest and geared up for Barbarossa. With a huge rack on my harness, I was ready for the big fight. The route is steep off the deck, and I was pumped by the time I placed the high wire, which protected the crux when the old peg was gone. The new peg was just out of reach, and I had had to make fierce moves to clip it. It looked like there were a couple of options for progress – out left to reach pockets in a couple of moves, or straight up on smaller holds for longer, but potentially less scary. I committed to the direct method, gurning my way up tiny holds, and was soon pleased to find myself at some respite and gear. But my forearms were burning, and I was only a quarter of the way up. The battle starts now, I thought. A few more technical movements landed me above the overlap, and a change of angle. Surprisingly, I could get almost all of my weight on my feet, and my arms recovered. I kept going steadily, rain threatening over at South Stack, and was shocked to find my arms getting less pumped as I made upwards progress. Soon I was at the top, pleased that both Tess and I had managed to push ourselves, and we made a hasty retreat as the first big raindrops began to fall.
Unlike Me, which had been a huge fight, Barbarossa had passed fairly steadily, and immediately I felt that I could climb something much harder. Sometimes I suffer from what I call consumer climbing, the insurmountable desire for another route always gnawing at the back of my mind. During those times, an addiction to the feeling of being pumped and exposed takes precedent over the forming of valuable experiences. But this wasn’t that feeling, this came from somewhere far less muddy – I knew with clarity that it was time to try something truly testing. My motivation was coming from the right place.
I messaged Calum asking for ideas, and was happy to see a couple of things I’d already thought of on his list. A message from Luke Brooks, asking if I was free the following Saturday, seemed to line things up. We settled on Glyder Fach, a crag I’d not been to before, and soon enough we were warmed up and stood below Kaya (E7 6b). A fairly unknown route in the wider world, but with enough of a reputation amongst locals. Better climbers than me had failed.
It took a long time to find a good enough position to place the rattling half in wire, longer still to make the moves onto the front face. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit, but went up for another look, and suddenly the holds felt better. I rocked around the arête, and stared the peg in the face. Moving up tenuously, I managed to clip it with a stiff quick draw Luke had given me, and hastily clipped my rope. The moment it was clipped, the feel of the route changed completely. Many more pegs lay above, and where moments before I had been climbing with a big reserve, I now felt like I could give the route everything I had.
More hard moves gained a rest, and then I was undercutting rightwards around the steepening. The climbing became markedly more strenuous, burly moves leftwards leaving me in an awkward position, where I had hoped to find something of a rest. But there was nothing, and the timer was on. Fingertips sweating, I clipped a couple more pegs, and searched for something to pull on. My feet skating on nothing, good edges barely out of reach, I was in a state of desperation. It was clear that if I didn’t move immediately, I would peel off limp, in a mess of anticlimax. So I stepped up and slapped with everything I had, screaming my way to freedom.
I was calm again when I reached the top, pleased to have fought the good fight. It had been close, and its always better when its close. But as I retrieved the gear, I realised I wouldn’t be satisfied if Luke didn’t climb the route too. He’d abseiled down it in the past, and decided that since he already had some knowledge of the route, he might as well have a look at the bold start with a rope above his head. Shorter than me, he was glad, as he had to use a much harder and less obvious sequence. But after a quick play he decided that he was ready. Some food and water, and then Luke was at the peg. But there he had a different problem from me – whereas the route had become easier for me when I clipped the peg, he suddenly had to transition from red pointing to on sighting. He made no big fuss about it though, and soon enough Luke was screaming his way to freedom too.
Ben approaching the base of Glyder Fach. Photo: Luke Brooks
Walking down, we chattered away, talking about the possibilities. I’d broken an old boundary, and a new world had opened with it. This wasn’t consumer climbing, this was a clear desire to push myself further, to see what I was capable of. To find, as John Redhead put it, ‘the margins of the mind.’
There must be people out there who are never satisfied – who always want another route. Who want to conquer and claim and tell the world how good they are. There really was a time when climbing was a colonial activity, for the pride of the nation, for fame. Perhaps in some places it still is. But that’s never been what climbing is about for me, and I think I feel the same as most of my friends. I love climbing because it provides an arena in which I can push myself beyond limits which previously defined me, and I can do it alongside people who are doing the same thing. The memories formed in those moments are immensely rewarding, they enrich and vivify my existence, and I would be lost without them. Everything that is meaningful to me has come from finding those moments in different aspects of my life, within and outwith climbing. And still, after all this time, it feels like I’m only scratching the surface.
BLOG ENTRY 12/DEC/19
Great video showing some of the DWS areas in the vicinity of Admiralty Parkhttps://www.youtube.com/embed/0AzZ_pNtUlI?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent
BLOG ENTRY 12/NOV/19
Very sad news from Melbourne today: Andy Pollitt’s life support machine was turned off today following a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 56. I haven’t seen him in person for many years but he gave a lot of welcome input into my book The White Cliff and was in touch just last week. Here is his bio from the book:
‘During the 80s, Andy Pollitt looked like a rock star, partied like a rock star and climbed… like a different kind of rock star. “Disco leg” was definitely not part of his repertoire. On both trad and sport, from the Peak District to North Wales, he was at, or beyond, the cutting edge of standards. He was also single-handedly responsible for introducing Lycra to the sport.
After emigrating to Australia in the 90s, he famously kicked his climbing addiction on the day he finally sent Punks in the Gym. Read his superb book for descriptions of his risky and frequently risqué exploits back in the day, along with his more sobering struggles with the travails of age and mood disorder.’
BLOG ENTRY 08/NOV/19
The strange fruit on the tree in my garden comes from projecting DWS.
BLOG ENTRY 19/OCT/19
RIP Miquel Riera 1963–2019 Godfather of Psicobloc.
Obituary below by Daimon Beail from UKClimbing.
Miquel Riera, The Godfather of Psicobloc – An Obituary
Mallorcan Deep Water Soloing pioneer Miquel Riera, 56, passed away after a battle with cancer on 9th October 2019. Daimon Beail shares a tribute to him.
Miquel Riera was known as ”the godfather of psicobloc’ and was one of the key figures of the Mallorcan rock climbing scene. Miquel eventually became a household name when the words Mallorca and climbing were mentioned in the same sentence.
Born in 1963, Miquel was only 15 when he first stepped onto the climbing development scene in his experimentations with extended boulder problems over the sea at a venue called Porto Pi in Palma. It was 1978, and growing up in an era with no internet and no online communities, Miquel found it difficult to spread the word. As a result, his psicobloc developments went relatively unnoticed for twenty years, even though his discoveries were perhaps world-class and significantly ahead of their time.
It wasn’t until 2001 after an email to Tim Emmett that things stepped up a gear and Mallorcan deep water soloing was showcased worldwide in the form of Cova del Diablo (now perceived as being the world’s best deep water soloing venue), where Miquel played a key role in development. Over the years Miquel struck up many friendships with climbers from around the globe who were eager to get involved and experience Mallorca psicobloc for themselves. In particular, Chris Sharma and Miquel developed a special bond and have remained close friends ever since Chris’s first visit to the island back in 2003.
Perhaps the key moment for Miquel – and the moment his name hit the world stage – was when he showed Chris Sharma the famous arch of Es Pontas and the impressive line which eventually became the world’s hardest deep water solo in 2006. The documenting of this in the film King Lines took Mallorca to centre stage and Miquel and psicobloc became one and the same. Over time, the name psicobloc was adopted internationally, especially for competitions in the USA and Spain and it became the new word for Deep Water Soloing.
In Miquel’s passionate pursuit of the sport, he also developed his own grading system, which functioned as a simpler, more open-ended grade system and took into account the difficulty and height of the crux move. Although this did not enter the public domain, the essence of this grading system can still be seen in his 2007 guidebook Psicobloc Mallorca, in which the height of the crux still remains. Miquel’s love for climbing also included sport climbing, so much so that he later went on to produce his own guidebook to the sport climbing found on the island.
It’s safe to say that Miquel’s legacy is very much evident in Mallorca’s popularity among sport climbers and those who visit for the world class deep water soloing/psicobloc found along the island’s coastline. The rich history of the island’s development has Miquel’s influence at the heart of it.
To many, Miquel came across as a passionate and at times comical person whose passion for the sport touched and inspired many people around the world. He will always be remembered as a revolutionary and pioneering figure in the world of psicobloc.
BLOG ENTRY 16/OCT/19
Calgary-based climbers Matt Halls and Mariela Morandi visited Bermuda at the end of September to DWS. Photos by Grant Farquhar.
BLOG ENTRY 25/SEP/19
Simon Richardson’s review of Crazy Sorrow on Scottish Winter
BOOK REVIEW – CRAZY SORROW
Crazy Sorrow edited by Grant Farquhar describes the life of Alan and Mullin, one of the most influential Scottish winter climbers of all time. The cover shows a Heinz Zak photo showing Alan Mullin climbing at Rudolfshutte in Austria. The book was published by Atlantis Publishing in August and is available from Amazon.
Crazy Sorrow is a significant book. It documents the life of Alan Mullin who stands alongside Raeburn, Patey, Smith and Nisbet as one of great innovators of Scottish winter climbing. Grant Farquhar should be congratulated for not only describing the life story of this important pioneer, but also for capturing the spirit of a key period in Scottish climbing history.
Alan Mullin made an unconventional entry into the world of climbing. He joined the army at the age of 16, and spent eight years in active service before he retired due to an injured back. Without the constraint of a full time job, he was able to turn his considerable energy to Scottish winter climbing. After experimenting with some of the easier routes in the Northern Corries, he was leading difficult Grade VI within 12 months. He formed a strong partnership with Steve Paget, and in October 1998 (Alan’s third season), they made the second winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8) on the Shelter Stone.
The following year Mullin and Paget upped their game a notch further and returned to the Shelter Stone to make the first winter ascent of The Steeple (IX,9) with the Dusk till Dawn Variation. The route was climbed in a single 24-hour push by climbing continuously through the night. Two weeks later, Mullin was in the headlines again with the first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder, an E1 rock climb on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar. This was the first (and only) time a new Grade VIII had ever been soloed. It stunned the climbing world, not least because no other party made it into the corrie that day as the weather was so bad. Niall Ritchie’s long distance shot of Alan climbing the route with avalanches crashing down either side (reproduced in the book), remains one of the most iconic winter climbing photos ever taken.
The impact of these routes on the Scottish winter climbing scene was electric. It normally takes years of experience to acquire the spectrum of skills necessary to climb high standard winter routes, so how could a relative newcomer operate at the highest standards of the day? The answer partly lay in Alan’s rigorous training regime, but mainly in the total focus and unswerving determination he applied to his routes. As someone new to the Scottish winter game, Alan was unencumbered by the weight of history, and almost unknowingly smashed his way through psychological barriers. Many other climbers realised that they could also increase their performance, and over a couple of seasons in the late 1990s, average standards rose a full grade. No longer were Grade VIIs the province of the elite, but they were accessible by weekend climbers too.
Despite the inspiration Alan provided, he had an uneasy relationship with the climbing community. He claimed to respect no other climber’s achievements, but in effect, he deeply craved recognition by his peers. At first this was forthcoming, but eventually it became increasingly withheld as it was realised that the majority of his ascents were flawed. Several of his routes were climbed when not fully in condition, and others used a point or two of aid. Whilst Alan was always honest about the manner of his climbs, his enthusiasm to describe the intensity of his experience meant that he sometimes forgot to immediately relate all the details.
Alan was on a quest to find a Scottish climb that was comparable in technical difficulty to the hardest bolt protected climbs elsewhere. In November 2002 he fulfilled his dream when he made the first winter ascent of Crazy Sorrow, a difficult E3 6a on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar with Steve Lynch. The route goes through a huge roof on the second pitch with scant protection. Alan graded it X,11 and suggested it was a contender for the hardest traditional mixed climb in the world. Unfortunately the gloss was taken off this remarkable lead by allegations that he had inspected the route beforehand, and climbed it when it was out of condition. Once the photos were published it was clear that the route was in bona fide winter condition, but once again Alan’s impatience had got the better of him and he had abseiled off after the crux pitch and failed to complete the route.
Frozen Sorrow was the last of Alan’s great climbs, and he announced his retirement soon after. He was clearly disenchanted with the climbing world for not recognising his achievements on his terms, but his body was also taking the toll from his intense training regime, and he was living with a series of chronic injuries. Alan found it impossible to control the demons that had driven him so hard during his short but remarkable climbing career, and tragically, he took his own life in March 2007.
Grant Farquhar has made an important contribution to Scottish mountain history by pulling together this account of Alan Mullin’s all too short and turbulent life. Crazy Sorrow is based on Alan’s writings, contemporary accounts by other climbers and more recent interviews. Grant skilfully adds colour to the climbing narrative with accounts of Alan’s tough upbringing and brutal time in the army that sets the context for Alan’s later climbing career. Grant is a professional psychologist and is well placed to explain the internal conflicts that Alan faced at the end of his life.
Crazy Sorrow is not a comfortable read, but it documents a vibrant and important phase of Scottish climbing. The tragedy of the Alan Mullin story is that Alan never recognised his profound influence on the climbing world. If he had, his life may not have been so troubled, and perhaps he would still be with us today.
About Simon Richardson
Simon Richardson is a passionate Scottish winter climberView all posts by Simon Richardson →This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged Alan Mullin, Grant Farquhar, Niall Ritchie, Steve Lynch, Steve Paget. Bookmark the permalink.← Book Review – The Big Rounds
One Response to Book Review – Crazy Sorrow
- Helen Rennard September 25, 2019 at 1:00 pmI agree with you that it’s not a comfortable read, Simon. I found it deeply upsetting at times, even though I knew how his life ended. The image of him sitting in the snow in the dark by himself and crying after soloing Rolling Thunder is stark, especially as his main drive for soloing it seemed to be to quieten critics, probably a lot of whom had never even met him. The deterioration of his mental health is very difficult to read. I’m pleased that Grant has written this book so that Alan can be remembered.
BLOG ENTRY 4/SEP/19
Dennis Gray’s review of Crazy Sorrow on Footless Crow
Monday, 2 September 2019
‘CRAZY SORROW’. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ALAN MULLIN..REVIEWED
Original Image: Heinz Zak Crazy Sorrow. The life and death of Alan Mullin. Edited by Grant Farquhar. 264pages Paper Back. Perfect Bound. ATLANTIS PUBLISHING. £28 or £8 in e-book format. His hunger burns, he learns how to steal, and he learns how to fight’. In the Ghetto Elvis PresleyNo price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning oneself. Nietzsche I faced the thought of reading ‘Crazy Sorrow’ with some trepidation, for I already knew the Alan Mullin story climbing wise, and had read Ed Douglas’s article about his terrible death. I feared that in learning about what had led up to that, some of my own father’s mental breakdown would be in my recall, although unlike Alan Mullin my sister and I never suffered physical abuse at home. The story begins with a short Forward by his brother Kevin, three years younger than Alan who also eventually joined the army, finishing as a senior NCO. There then follows an authoritative overview ‘The discipline of Suffering’ by the historical guru of Scottish winter climbing, Simon Richardson. This is replete from the earliest ascent of Ben Nevis to collect plant specimens in 1771, to a winter climbing Grade X10 and beyond two hundred years later. All the major historical figures and their climbs are included and the story finishes around the time Alan Mullin begins his ascents. Ascending unbelievably in two years to the top of the grading system; which Richardson explains of how it developed and its workings over so many winter seasons of trial and error. Being a pendant I found only one mistake in this excellent review, on page 20, the first ascent of the North Face of the Droites in September 1955 was by P.Cornau and M. Davaille. A major part of the book is detailing where and how Alan Mullin was coming from; beginning with his early life growing up on two different housing estates near Glasgow. His father was partly deaf, earned a living as a pipe fitter, but abandoned his family when Alan was 13, leaving him to fend for himself and his younger brother, with a mother who sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism, living off benefits, which resulted in Kevin being removed into care. It is warts and all, for his father was a Protestant, and his mother a Catholic, and once his father had departed he was moved from a Protestant School to a Catholic one and he became a Celtic supporter; and on one occasion actually attended at an ‘Auld Firm Derby’, Celtic versus Rangers. This was at the latter’s ground and wearing his Celtic shirt he was lucky to get away without a beating, for having lost a friend and transport home he was accosted by older, bigger Ranger’s fans who were ready for a fight having lost the game to their Catholic Rivals. He had the sense to get his shirt off and hide it from sight. For the uninitiated the Protestant versus Catholic rivalry between these Clubs supporters has in the past being the cause of much violence. In the early Chapters there is also violence and much fighting for Mullin had to learn the hard way that he needed to toughen up, and assume the role of ‘The Hardest Kid In Our Street’. And although he was small physically he made up for this when challenged by his level of aggression. Unless you have experienced this kind of milieu yourself it may seem pointless but we are a product of our environment, and if you live in any such area throughout the UK, it is likely you too might experience such a culture. How do these sink areas develop? When I was 15 in 1951 I had met in Wales, Mick Noon of Glasgow’s Creagh Dhu Club (Mick is mentioned in Richardson’s review) and he had invited me to visit him and attend a Club meet on the Cobbler. I hitch hiked from Leeds and was met by Mick who lived in Denmark Street in The Gorbals; a sea of run down tenements and dilapidated saloon bars. It is from the redevelopment of such inner city areas out into Estates/New Towns on the peripheries of major conurbations, with many of their denizens moving there from these districts that some sink estates seem to develop? It is a National disgrace that in some of these poverty and depressed levels exist that no country should allow to-be so. But let me be clear here, there was nothing depressed about the members of the Creagh Dhu when I eventually met up with them. However as I was to find out later in the mid-sixties working for a firm in the Anderston District of Glasgow, that many of these places on the fringe of the City were just as Alan Mullin experienced when young, districts to avoid unless you were also willing to trade a Glasgow kiss or two! Mullin was determined to get himself out of his troubled environment, and as soon as he was able, at 15 years of age he joined the army. But incredibly he joined an English infantry regiment, The Green Jackets. After one year of basic training as a junior soldier, he was posted into the regiments 2nd battalion. Having expected life to be so different in the army, he quickly learned that it could be just as violent as it had been at school and on the two Council estates on which he had lived. In another life, when I was forced into National Service, before I was posted to Manchester in February 1954, I had to undertake three weeks of infantry training in Wiltshire. This educated me on how such can dehumanise anyone who is of a sensitive nature, for one of those I shared a barrack with, Rosenheim a young Jewish teenager just could not stand the constant verbal attacks on him by the NCO’s and the antagonism from bigoted fellow recruits, so he killed himself. In true army style the ranks closed and though his parents along with their MP arrived at the camp demanding answers, the true situation as to what had happened was brushed away without any real consideration by the officer corps. I think I need here to give an insight into how such training affected Mullin, by a direct quote ‘After almost a year of training, I had transformed from a scrawny young recruit into a finely tuned psycho with a thirst for violence: exactly what the army was looking for’. Over the next 8 years Mullin served first in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, then Cyprus and finally in South Georgia. Good and bad things happened to him during these years, a positive one was meeting his wife Marion whose first husband had also been in the military, but who had died in a helicopter crash. But a negative one was when nearing the end of his tour in Northern Ireland, whilst engaged in the rumble of a game of indoor football. Rifleman versus NCO’s he was rammed into a wall badly fracturing a knee. This was so serious he was flown to the Woolwich Military hospital near London, resulting in an operation and a month in bed before returning to Belfast. His final posting in South Georgia perforce because of the terrain meant a course in mountain training, including some ice climbing and this is when he became fired up by a wish to become a climber. Unfortunately whilst on another exercise carrying a heavy rucksack he suffered a slipped disc which made continuing on with this outing a physical agony. It was a big mistake to go on battling this for he was doing himself real physical damage. I also once slipped a disc and I was likewise in physical agony, but I had this dealt with in 48 hours by a Neuro surgeon. It took me a few months to recover completely, but despite moving onto light duties, Mullin’s situation became ever more serious and eventually resulted in him needing a spinal operation. And this eventually led on to him being discharged the service, a decision which he found hard to contemplate, for despite all else, he loved the army and had no wish to leave a life which he found so conducive to his own attitude in living. By the end of his story I had to agree with a view expressed by his brother Kevin; that retiring him from the army on grounds of physical disability was truly a questionable action.
On returning to civilian life he moved with his family (his wife Marion had two children via her first marriage, and they had a son together) to a village near Invergordon, and for a time they seemed settled. Although Mullin was drinking heavily, and on occasion experimenting with drugs, and getting into fights in Clubs (he acted as a bouncer for some short period); he unfortunately found that life in what they had thought could be a honeyed existence in a traditional Highland village, turned, out not to be so. Resulting in confrontation with a family of local trouble makers which ended with criminal charges in court, over which Mullin and his wife were completely exonerated. They then moved 20 miles away to another village where they did find the lifestyle that they had originally sought, with an environment for their three children to safely grow within. However his heavy drinking, drug taking, with bouts of anger and worries about where he was heading; he had been only 23 years old when he left the army, made him begin to question his mind set. And so he booked himself into a series of appointments with a psychologist and confessed that despite his apprehension about doing this, he found the meetings worthwhile and even enjoyable! He then almost by accident rediscovered what he was good at; climbing. In the 1990’s mixed winter routing was taking off and after what was, an unbelievable short apprenticeship of two years, he went from soloing at grade I to climbing at grade VIII. For Mullin, the hardships that are hand-in-hand with Scottish winter climbing seemed no worse than those he had come to expect in the army. Initially he was very much self-motivated and self-taught, but in 1997 he teamed up with Steve Paget, a highly talented but relatively unknown winter climber. Together they focussed predominantly on mixed climbs in the Cairngorms. Making full use of the equipment revolution then under away, and the new technique of dry tooling, over the next few years either partnered by Steve or climbing solo Mullin repeated many classic Cairngorm mixed climbs. Simon Richardson noted that he was rapidly moving to the forefront of Scottish winter climbing. Ascent followed ascent, a standout climb being The Needle on the Shelter Stone Crag in a 17 hour push in 1998. A ten pitch route, the first to be graded IX. They bettered this the following winter with an ascent of The Steeple also on the Shelter Stone, seen by many at that time as the ultimate last great Scottish winter problem. Again Simon Richardson opined that this ascent was ‘without question the most sustained technical winter route climbed in Scotland to date’. But others were not so complimentary, for both these climbs were made early in the season, in the case of The Needle in late October, and I know when I lived in Scotland it was rare that routes were in winter condition so early in the season, but conditions in an area like The Cairngorms change so much from year to year, and even from day to day. However not all the responses to these ascents were critical; Andy Kirkpatrick noted ‘Alan was a revolutionary in the history of Scottish climbing, a total outsider who shook a closed scene to pieces’.He further upped the ante by making an incredible on-sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar in December 1999 (V11 8). This in summer conditions is a four pitch, E1 5B and there was no doubt about the cliff being in winter condition on this occasion, for other climbers were in the area and took pictures with long lenses of the Face on which Mullin appears as a red dot in a hanging sea of white. One Chapter I really enjoyed reading was about Mullin attending the 1999 BMC International Winter Climbing meet based at Glenmore Lodge. As the person who organised the very first such BMC International Meet in Wales in 1973, it was interesting to note how much had changed. I do not remember any of the attendees then being prima donnas; although some of the 51 climbers there from 19 countries had made major first ascents in their own countries and the Himalaya. It seemed by 1999 some of those who were in attendance were such and one of them in particular did not rate high on the Mullin personal behaviour acceptance scale. However good came from this for Mullin met Kevin Thaw and Leo Holding with whom he did gel and before the meet was over he had an invitation to climb in the USA and Patagonia from Thaw. During 1999 and 2000 Mulin’s desire to widen his experience led him to the USA, the Dolomites and Patagonia. In Yosemite he climbed his first ever big wall climb and aid route The Prow. His first trip to Patagonia with Kevin Thaw, an expat Brit based in California in January/March 2000 was very successful and the pair made a free ascent of the Czech Route (V1, 5ll+) on Fitz Roy’s West Face. This was Alan’s first of three trips to Patagonia, the other two were to be attempts on infamous Maestri Egger line on Cerro Torre. The first of these attempts, climbing again with Thaw but also accompanied by Leo Holding, ended when the latter took a leader fall badly fracturing an ankle, and the second attempt was totally bombed out by the constant bad weather. At least some good came out of these last two trips for Mullin made friends with the Austrian climber Peter Janschek and visited him to do some ice climbing of which there is plenty in that country. The famous photographer a friend of Peter’s, Heinz Zak accompanied them resulting in an impressive picture in Crazy Sorrow of Alan leading an iced up route at the Rudolfshutte, winter ski and climbing area. Back in winter Scotland, the first ascents or difficult repeats continued, ‘Centurion’(VIII,8) solo on Ben Nevis, The Demon Direct (IX,9) in the Northern Corries with Steve Paget, and Crazy Sorrow (X,II) with Steve Lynch in Lochnagar. Over this latter, the first so highly graded, a storm of criticism erupted. ‘Pre-placed gear, abseil inspection, aided moves etc’ being the screams from the keyboard warriors but also some of the protectors of the Scottish winter climbing ethic, but Mullin either did not care or pretended not to. An innocent enquiry about this controversy by Simon Richardson hit a raw nerve and resulted in an unfriendly response to be followed by three abusive e-mails. And that was the last time Simon communicated with him, although he writes that despite everything he still regarded Alan as a friend, and that he was the best winter climber of his day. Interestingly Dave MacLeod who also climbed with him gives him the same high rating, but noted he was without a doubt ‘the most intense person I’ve ever spent time or climbed with’.(For those interested the name ‘Crazy Sorrow’ comes from a lyric by Bob Dylan, but it is also a book title by Susan Bowes about a deadly family feud in the Appalachian Mountains) In 2004 Mullin, abruptly announced he was giving up climbing, his injuries suffered during his army career had caught up with him. He had an operation in a private clinic in Sheffield to try to alleviate this in 2003 but he had to accept that his injured knee was ruined. He also still suffered from his spinal injury for which he had continued to take an opioid pain killer.Stopping climbing in which his star had Shone so brightly despite the fact it had been for such a brief period seemed to be as Kevin Thaw writes, ‘the beginning of a downward spiral’. Marion his wife noted ‘he became very withdrawn and we could see a dramatic change in him’. He was admitted twice in 2004 on an informal basis to the local psychiatric hospital in Inverness. He was diagnosed with ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder-manic phase, Personality Disorder and possibly drug induced problems’. He then became an outpatient but in August 2005 he failed to attend an appointment and thereafter had no contact with the hospital until his next admission in 2007.He had stopped taking the antipsychotic medications he had been described citing bad side effects. He tried to find new directions away from climbing by studying philosophy and psychology via the Open University. He was very enamoured of the writings of Nietzsche. He trained as an alcohol counsellor, but quickly gave that up, later enrolling on an anthropology course at Aberdeen University. The whole terrible story then unfolds, and no one is better qualified to give insight into its development and causes than Grant Farquhar the books editor, for he is a practising psychiatrist. I will leave the reader to follow this to what may seem an inevitable demise with first a suicide attempt by slashing his wrists and walking in front of a car on the A9 road suffering an ankle fracture, damaged ribs and multiple soft tissue injuries. He spent eleven days in Raigmore Hospital in Iverness before being admitted in the care of his wife as a voluntary inpatient at the New Craigs Psychiatric hospital.Ten days after admission the medical staff wanted him to stay but he wished to go home so on his own instigation he discharged himself ‘against medical advice’, although once again he was prescribed a suitable antipsychotic- medication. There was much more suffering for his family and Alan before the final breakdown, when he became so delusional his wife drove to the Dingwall police station to seek help. Two police officers followed her back to her house, and managed to enter but Alan told them to leave, moved himself upstairs to a bedroom warning the policeman that to come up to him would be at their own peril. Knowing he had been in the army and was a trained combatant the coppers then called for backup. 15 officers arrived at the house, five in riot gear along with negotiators and dogs! Eventually after five hours of stand-off, and Alan threatening, under orders of the area commander they removed him from the house. Instead of having him sanctioned and entered into hospital, due to multiple misunderstandings he was held in police cells and appeared the next day at Tain Sheriff Court charged with ‘a breach of the peace!’ Instead of being removed to a psychiatric hospital he was sent down to prison. And on March 9th 19 days after this, again due to a series of calamitous decisions, including the stopping of ‘special observations’ and the removal of his cellmate to attend court; when officers did check his cell they found him hanging by a radio flex. He could not be resuscitated. They discovered a number of suicide notes in his cell. There was an inquiry held into his death eighteen months later, but it appears nothing has changed and throughout Britain there have been numerous inquiries, but the sad conclusion is that the culture seems to be in many cases like Mullin’s, that suicide is inevitable. I do not think Grant Farquhar thinks this is so and there is much more to his analysis than I have written. Preventing suicide is difficult, but rates vary within different countries prison systems and real effort should be made to bring the best practice into our service.There is then a final chapter of reflections and thoughts about the subject, but for me my view is that Alan Mullin was the classical case of an Outsider. Throughout history such people have appeared, disrupted, and changed how other people think or behave about the meaning of their lives or the approach to their activities. They are often difficult to know but they usually make a positive contribution to our lives, often like Alan Mullin at great cost to themselves and those who love them.
Photograph: Ian Parnell Crazy Sorrow is well illustrated with many outstanding historic colour prints and contains contributions from many other climbers and sources. It is well produced and though highly priced is unlike any other climbing book I have ever read; think Irvine Welsh and ‘Trainspotting’ or Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’. It is a hard read, but it touches on a subject that we all need to know much more about. So my recommendation is despite the sadness at the terrible outcome do, buy and read it! Dennis Gray: 2019
BLOG ENTRY 24/08/19
Nice review of Climb de Rock on Bernews.com
August 24, 2019
These days, Dr. Grant Farquhar is a genuine Bermuda rock star.
But when the Scottish-born psychiatrist, an inveterate rock climber for decades, came to Bermuda in 2002, he was told his sport did not exist here.
“When I first arrived in Bermuda I was told that the rock was unsuitable for rock climbing and that anyone who tried was insane and going to die,” he says in the introduction to his book Climb De Rock. “This is an opinion I have come across before where there is rock but not yet rock climbing.”
Undeterred by the naysayers, Dr. Farquhar went on to blaze a vertical trail in the sport of rock climbing on the island, mainly scaling Bermuda’s waterfront sea cliffs.
Today, he is considered something of a one-man go-to resource on the subject.
He maintains a website on the Bermuda climbing routes he has identified and ascended; he has introduced numerous other local residents to the sport; and he even incorporates climbing therapy into his psychiatric practice.
And earlier this year, he published Climb de Rock, a good-humoured 208-page distillation of his can-and-must-do approach to rock climbing in Bermuda, as well as a practical field guide to the sport for local and visiting climbers.
Profusely illustrated with colour photographs and featuring maps throughout, the book details all of the routes Dr. Farquhar has determined are worth climbing in Bermuda [among his own favourite climbing spots are the sea cliffs at Admiralty Park in Pembroke and Great Head in St. David’s].
He also provides comprehensive information on route locations, access, equipment, safety precautions, and potential hazards.
Dr. Farquhar also includes historical background material on the climbing spots he has pin-pointed as well as, he says jokingly, “the low-down on topics such as sharks and après-climb locations.”
His sense of humour notwithstanding, Dr. Farquhar reiterates a very serious point throughout the book: rock climbing is not for amateurs.
“This is not a climbing gym: climb at your own risk,” he says. “Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. Even when doing nothing wrong, you can be killed or injured.”
He urges those climbers without either the experience or advanced rigging skills to avoid the more remote climbing routes included in the book.
Climb De Rock is available at the Bermuda Bookstore and on Amazon.
BLOG ENTRY: 27/07/19
Extract from Crazy Sorrow on Footless Crow:
Saturday, 27 July 2019
Alan Mullin…Crazy Sorrow: An Extract
Alan Mullin: Image Ian Parnell This is an excerpt from Atlantis Publishing’s forthcoming book. Crazy Sorrow is a biography of Alan Mullin, the UK’s top winter climber of the turn of the 21st century. After surviving an abusive childhood, Mullin served in the British army for eight years before being invalided out. Having been introduced to ice climbing during his military service, only two years later he was making first ascents of the hardest routes in the harsh discipline of Scottish winter climbing such as Steeple (IX,9) in 1999. A complex and often controversial character, he abruptly retired from climbing, and due to mental illness committed suicide in prison at the age of 34. The editor, Grant Farquhar, has used the writings that Alan Mullin left behind and combined these with anecdotes from other climbers to create a compelling tale of Alan’s life including his childhood, army service, climbing career and final tragic days. The book is told mostly in Alan’s own words but also includes contributions from Jim Fraser, Leo Houlding, Andy Kirkpatrick, Dave MacLeod, Kevin Mullin, Neil Morrison, Simon Richardson, Niall Ritchie, Guy Robertson, Ron Walker and photos from Kevin Thaw, Ian ParnellandHeinz Zak. The excerpt below is Mullin’s tale of his incredible on sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder (VIII-8) on Lochnagar during a blizzard in December 1999. It snowed so hard during the afternoon that Parallel B and Raeburn’s Gulley avalached to either side of the Tough Brown Face. His solitary figure was captured by the lens of Niall Ritchie climbing the route while avalanches crashed down either side of him.He reached easy ground in a fierce storm, abseiled down in the dark and was back in his car, driving home by 9pm.
Alan Mullin on the first winter ascent of ‘Death by Misadventure’. Photo Niall Ritchie Death by Misadventure by Alan Mullin When I wandered alone – for what did my soul hunger in nights and labyrinthine paths? And when climbing mountains – for whom did I ever search except for you on the mountains? Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra I arrived back from the Accident and Emergency unit three hours ago and my eye is still excruciatingly painful. I should have known better than to sharpen my crampons with the angle grinder without wearing goggles. Well, I paid the price for my stupidity: a shard of steel straight into the old ocular. I don’t yet know what was more painful, the shard that was lodged in my eye or the needle that was used to remove it. I’m lying in my darkened living room looking like a character out of Treasure Island. I still intend to go climbing though, as I can use one eye to climb with – of that I’m sure. I only have one problem: no bloody partner to climb with. I had my heart set on Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar having looked at it with my binoculars the previous summer. It’s an E1 rock route and to my knowledge no one has repeated it since its first ascent in 1982. It was an ideal target for a winter ascent being very grassy, wet and foul in summer and, surprisingly, it looked to me to be quite easy from the ground. I was sure it was climbable. I called various people about doing it, but as usual I’d been let down with promises of, ‘I will call you back, honest Alan.’ As was the case on so many occasions the return phone call never materialised, and I resigned myself to another missed opportunity. The weather was looking fine –albeit a bit stormy. I guess it was the thought of on-sighting this unrepeated E1 on a cliff notorious for its few weak spots that put partners off. I believe now that had I known how tough its armour really was I wouldn’t have embarked on my appointment with fear. I don’t consciously know what made me want to solo it. I guess it just popped into my head and seemed the right thing to do, but in retrospect there were probably subconscious factors at work as well. First, I climbed Steeple a month before and I felt confident in my ability. Secondly, I’d been having a particularly bad time of late due to much criticism of my ability in the media and by other climbers. I also had more than my fair share of personal problems which had turned me into someone even my wife could not comprehend. I felt that my life was one big bloody mess. I’d suffered many setbacks such as losing my beloved job in the army, and at the same time losing some of my lower spine. This, consequently, resulted in my addiction to painkillers and alcohol sending me spiralling into depression. I’d fought so hard to overcome all these things, and more, and now this shite about me being a crap climber had really taken its toll on me. I made my mind up there and then lying in the dark alone with my thoughts — I was going to solo Rolling Thunder, and what better time than right bloody now? It’s 10pm and my eye still hurts, but as I say goodbye to my wife I can sense she is not happy with yet another one of my insane ideas. I reassure her that my eye will be fine by the morning and that if it still hurts I can always come home. I know this is a lie and even if it feels painful I will still climb. I know deep down inside that she worries intensely about me, but I am selfish at heart and always have to get my own way. Perhaps that’s why I love her so much, because I guess she understands me better than anyone else and does not hold my selfishness against me. The weather forecast is crap and the roads are almost impassable but that doesn’t deter me. I simply take the long road towards Aberdeen, but even this is quite hazardous. I’m missing out the road through Tomintoul as everything is blocked over that way. I struggle slightly with the driving as one eye is not as good as two. It’s still dark when I arrive at the Loch Muick car park. I sort myself out, and although I have not slept since the previous night, I feel OK. I see a car arrive just after me. It looks like Pete Benson, but I don’t bother to go and speak to him as I’m in a world of my own right now and don’t feel very sociable.
Alan on ‘Top Gun’ Aonach Beag: Image Simon Richardson. I have to wear my goggles for most of the walk in. With deep snow underfoot it’s tough going and the heavy sack soon starts to make my shoulders ache. I have no other thoughts in my mind except for Rolling Thunder. I can feel the wind pick up as I reach the Meikle Pap col, but I don’t worry too much as cols are often blustery places due to the channelling of the wind. I can’t quite see the Tough-Brown Face yet, as it’s shrouded by low cloud cover, but I can feel the chill in the air. This is definitely going to be a full-on winter ascent and no mistake. I carry on humping my load through the now thigh-deep snow in the corrie and am beginning to feel slightly tired, but one bonus is that my eye no longer hurts so badly, and I can now remove my goggles which have been misted over for the past three hours. I eventually reach the first aid box and can now see clearly my objective up on the right of the Tough-Brown Face. Jesus, it’s wintry alright. I witness an airborne avalanche sweep over the top of Parallel Gully B. I still have to negotiate the slopes and the deep snow that lies in the bowl formed just below the face. It’s hard work, and as I approach the foot of the route I can see other climbers over at the first aid box. I am sure they are wondering what the idiot over here is up to. I finally get the monkey off my back and have a well-earned rest. I survey my intended route above: a series of steep slabs and grooves finally ending at a big roof. I am sure I can climb this route on-sight, but I have no idea what gear I will need. I have just brought my normal soloing rack which consists of four pegs, which are all I own, along with my trusty Hexentrics, a few nuts, quick draws, and a few cams. I have come to rely heavily on my Hexentrics as they can be hammered into icy cracks where nothing else will suffice. I sort out a peg belay and anchor one end of the rope to it with the free end running through my Soloist device and am now ready. I start climbing up the initial overhanging roof that is harder than it looks. I clear the snow from the groove on the left-hand side of the roof only to be confronted with a horrible blind crack. Damn! This is quite confusing as it looks just like the cracks normally found in Cairngorm granite – in other words quite accommodating. Sadly this was not the case here, as the cracks seemed to be horrible, blind and misleading. I hope this is not normal on this cliff otherwise I could be in trouble. I manage to get a semi-hook in the groove which allows me to reach a little higher and get some turf and strenuously pull over the roof. I’m now on a nice terrace. I go right under a small roof and climb another unprotected blind groove. After ten metres climbing on reasonable ground I eventually find somewhere to place a decent hex. I thank God for this as I’m beginning to get seriously worried. I make a small traverse out left and pull up onto a half-decent ledge below what looks like a hard slab with cracks running up it. I’m sure this will certainly constitute the lower crux as it is steep, and as it leans left I can’t seem to get straight on it without doing a barn door out leftwards, which is throwing me off balance. I’ve now searched for protection, in vain, for half an hour. I finally get a small nut at the base of the slab in a very icy crack that I know is shite, but it’s better than nothing. I survey the slab above. Two crack runs up the middle of it with a smaller corner crack on the right-hand edge of the slab. I try to convince myself that they will be nice deep Cairngorm cracks. Wrong. They are bloody useless, shallow and crap. I now know that when I attempt to climb the slab I will not be able to stop and place pro’ as there is no possibility in this blind rubbish, and anyway it’s way too strenuous and looks technically awkward to boot. I eventually manage to place a lousy copperhead at the base of the corner crack. I dare not test it as it has fallen out twice already. However, it does give me the confidence to work a few moves up the slab. Jesus! It’s technical and there’s nothing much for my feet, but more worryingly there’s nothing in the way of protection at this point to stop me hitting the ground should I fall. This makes for a very hard decision. I must give it my all if I’m to commit. I focus on the moves, remembering everything I’ve ever learned about technique. I make my mind up and decide to take the gamble. OK, get psyched and go. Left tool hook in the crack and flag left foot out onto the slab. Hook the right tool in a small corner up right. I bring the right foot up for a mono in the crack. Now, high step up; left tool up above head and crap hook in the crack; right tool again in the corner. Now, quickly heel-hook with my left foot on the ledge above. Man this is bloody mad: no gear and well mental. I remove my right tool and thwack into turf and mantle on the heel-hook. I feel great. I am amazed; I did it. That took total concentration. I actually climbed in a trance; I really felt no fear – nothing but the moves coming together. I feel a sense of elation. Sorting myself out and calming down a bit, I look up at the next section: a small groove leading to a ledge. No problem, or so I think. I manage to place a decent nut at the base of the groove, but it’s choked with ice above so I know I won’t get any gear there. I get a hook for my left tool and move up, getting a thin one for the right in the ice above, but as I try to pull up into the groove my hook rips sending me flying backwards down the slab I’ve just climbed. I’m also upside down. I pull myself up and immediately check myself for movement of all limbs. Phew, I am OK. No injuries and I can now pull myself back onto the ledge. Well that will teach you to be so cocky you dickhead! This time I get a slightly better hook that allows me to pull onto the ledge above. The guidebook description, which is firmly implanted in my memory, says go out right on a grassy ramp, but I can see a better line directly above. I look up and can see that it’s a thin groove leading to another slab. I manage to get another nut at the base of this groove; it’s small but it’s better than nothing. I start up the overhung groove, and bridging out I can at least maintain balance on this one. I really wish there was some pro’ here but it’s all blind shite, only good enough for small hooks and little else. I pull onto the slab above and just as I get a decent hook my feet come off. I fall all the way back down to the ledge somersaulting in the process. I’m very lucky that the back-up knot stops on my Soloist and, unbelievably, the nut has held — just. I don’t feel scared just annoyed and even manage a deranged sort of laugh to myself. I stand up and go again as there really is no time like the present, and this time I am successful. I climb the thin groove up the slab and reach a really nice ledge above, thank God! I’m really hoping for something bomber here as I need to go down and pull my rope up. I manage to get a good thread and a half-decent cam. I sort myself out, rap’back to the base, and get ready to remove the bottom belay. I can’t believe what I’m seeing here: the bloody peg that I’ve been belayed on has fractured and as I hammer it outwards it snaps off. Well, once again that was bloody lucky Alan, I think. The weather has now turned really bad with strong winds and a chill that’s eating away at my very bones. However, I’m more determined than ever as I know deep down inside that I’m a good climber and can deal with this. I refuse to give in despite the atrocious conditions now prevailing. I re-ascend to the belay above. I have a 60m rope so it should be enough to link the final two pitches together. This section looks hard as it’s a 20m slab, and I’m guessing that I will be getting no protection due to the totally unaccommodating bloody granite. I climb up a shallow groove and look at the ground ahead. There’s a bulging arête to my left with a shallow crack running up its right-hand side. I scrape away at the crack in the hope of finding just one deep weakness, but, predictably, it’s another useless shallow load of pants. I can see some small clumps of turf higher up on the arête, and if I could just reach them then I’m sure I can link the moves above to the ledge which is tantalisingly close now. I can just put my left foot on a sloper on the arête. As I try to stand up on it my foot comes off. I have no bloody tool placements, so I’m catapulted backwards through the air. The next thing I know I’m dangling upside down again on the slab below the ledge. Once again I’ve been stopped by my back-up knot. The Soloist does not work on upside down falls so I have to rely on my back-up knots, which can be difficult to tie or untie in extremis, but they are my only fail safe. I have one tool in my hand but cannot see the other. Is it on the ledge above, or has it gone to the bottom of the cliff? I really hope not; this is all that concerns me at this point. All I can think about is where my other tool is. Without it I will have to retreat and there is no bloody way I am giving up on this route for anything. I pull back onto the ledge only to break out in the loudest fit of insane laughter I’ve ever known. I see my tool lying on the ledge and thank God once again for his kindness. Predictably, I can’t believe my luck. What a jammy bastard Alan; not a scratch or mark in sight. I quickly regroup. Fully confident that I, at least, have a totally bomber belay. This time I stick the foothold on the arête and precariously reach up high to moss and turf which allows me to climb the arête and mantel onto the ledge above. I now arrange some rubbish runners under the slanting roof which is the junction with the route Crazy Sorrow. The guidebook says you carry on straight up, but the weather is really foul and I don’t like the look of the way ahead or what little of it I can see through this horrible blizzard. Instead, I opt for the guidebook tip of ‘possible escape out right’. Christ, it looks no better. A large roof blocks the way with yet another slab below it. I’m fed up with all this slab climbing as I find it all rather thin and more to do with good footwork than strong arms. I traverse up right to below the left-hand side of the roof and look below. Cool, there is a load of ice under the roof, but I can’t see any way of protecting it, and the ice means that there is not even the chance of a psychological runner. I manage to place a Spectre hook in the turf on the left-hand side of the roof, and now I can step down to reach the slab. It feels steep and a fall here will send me smashing down left for a bad landing. I really need to focus my attention and stay nice and calm. I traverse under the roof delicately; no room for mistakes here. Now climbing mainly on my feet, I’m grateful that they are sticking for now. Finally, after much heart-in-mouth I reach the right-hand end of the slab and can get a torque under the roof, which allows me to reach high with my right tool and get some turf and, thankfully, reach a ledge above. Phew! That felt weird but only after I climbed it – not during. Quite bizarre this climbing game. The weather has really taken a turn for the worse now and I’m now being blinded by spindrift and the wind feels fiercely strong. I carry on traversing for a while; the ground is friendlier here, and I’m getting better gear at last albeit not where I really need it. I’m forced to make a slight descent then more climbing straight up takes me to the crest of the Tough-Brown Ridge, or what I believe is the ridge anyway. Sadly, I can’t see where the hell you are supposed to abseil from. There was something in the description about a block with a sling around it, but as I can hardly see my hands in front of me, I don’t think I’m going to find it. I switch my head torch on and look again: nothing but bloody spindrift blasting in my face. I think I’m going to panic, but, wait, what about the way I have just come? I know where everything is, and I have belays that will allow me to descend. I mean, what’s the difference? Descend here – providing I find said block – which is looking more unlikely by the minute, or go back – which I will have to on the last pitch anyway – then descend. I have made my mind up, and it’s back the way I came and descent for me. I pull my way across my rope, and eventually I’m back at the roof. I’m not keen on the traverse but it’s this or, in my mind, confusion over on the ridge trying to find a lousy block in this shite. I manage to place my tools on the turf and step back down to below the roof. I know the ice is good enough so I just have to remember that. I traverse again tenuously and thinly but my feet are doing all the work and they’re sticking to the thin ice here. I seem to be willing my monopoints to stick and they’re doing it. Almost being blown off several times, it feels like the longest traverse of my life. I begin to feel sick. I can now reach the turf on the other side of the roof and pull onto the ledge. I throw up all over the ledge. The retching has made my eyes water, and my tears are freezing straight onto my cheeks. I also discover the Spectre hook has completely ripped out of the turf. I rap’ from two nuts sideways under a roof then decide I would be better rapping from the in situ thread lower down. Well I have tested the thread fully and at least I know it’s bomber. I rap’ from the thread to the ledges below. Another rappel, and I’m safely back on terra firma. But, I have problems seeing in the white out and know it’s far from over yet. I put away my frozen rope but can’t remove my harness as the webbing buckles are totally frozen stiff. I put my sack on and try to get out of this nightmare. I’m having a horrendous time descending as I can’t see my compass properly and the snow is waist deep in the corrie. I don’t know if I can carry on. My body is exhausted, and with no sleep for two days, or decent food, I’m at breaking point. I’m not even at the first aid box yet, and I’ve been floundering here for more than an hour. I sit down. Blasted by spindrift and freezing cold, I start to cry – it’s hopeless. So this is how it ends for those stupid enough to defy common sense and all that goes with it in the mountains. I drift off to sleep; somehow it no longer seems important to move. I think I’m dreaming, remembering my time in the Army – remembering how many times I’ve had feelings just like this. But when I was at my lowest ebb, tired, starved and feeling hopeless, I never ever gave up. I always managed to keep going; that was my spirit, and I needed that resolve right now. After all, I had everything to live for: a great wife, lovely kids, and an insatiable lust for life. I open my snow-encrusted eyes, get up and start moving. I’m thinking: as long as I don’t descend I will get out of here. Up and right is the way home, and that’s where I put my head. Four hours later, I eventually reach the Meikle Pap Col after what can only be described as the basic struggle for survival in the mountains when they are venting their fury. I’m weary of body and mind, but I keep moving with the enduring thought that I must get home foremost in my mind. I reach the track going towards Glen Muick and can rest. Thank God it’s finally over; with just a walk down a long track I will be there. I rest my aching body and have the strangest feeling. I start to shake uncontrollably and break down in tears. I’m filled with unknown emotions. Wait a minute, I know what they are now. They are feelings of remorse and fear. I am remorseful because I could have easily killed myself and that would have been selfish as I know my wife deserves better. That’s it. The feelings I should have been having on the route were those that I’d repressed.
AM on ‘Rudolpshutte’ Austria: Image Heinz Zak That’s why I felt a profound sense of calm after falling so many times, but now all the feelings of fear and common sense that I had ignored are suddenly filling my mind, flooding back like waves. It feels like a wake-up call. I’m suddenly intensely aware of my own selfishness, yet it feels too late. I pull myself together and carry on down the track. I get the frozen clothing off and get in the car, anxious to get back home and see my wife. I feel content and am slowly warming up. I feel a strange kind of satisfaction. I know that I no longer have to worry about what people will say about me. I can climb, of that I am now certain. ‘Death by Misadventure’ by Alan Mullin was originally published posthumously in the SMCJ, 2007.Crazy Sorrow will be available on 1 August 2019 from Amazon as paperback (£28) and ebook (£8). Grant Farquhar 2019
BLOG ENTRY: 21/07/19
Joserra Flores Fray and Toru Dodo sampling the delights of Clarence Cove. July is hot and sweaty but the water is 85 degrees and very enticing. Photo Grant Farquhar.
BLOG ENTRY: 20/07/19
Andy Kirkpatrick has, very kindly, plugged my latest book:
20 JULY 2019
It always seemed like a struggle to come up with words to describe Alan Mullin – one of climbing’s greatest disruptors – mainly because he is dead, hanging himself in a jail cell in Scotland in 2007, and because many of the words I could use were never very kind, which is not odd really, as people who hang themselves in jail cells, more often than not, don’t leave nice words behind.
Churchill once said that a great man is a difficult man, which in Alan’s case must have meant he was a very great man indeed, and from the moment I met him, standing alone in a shell suit, at an international meet, so painfully working class in a sport that is not, I knew he’d be trouble, both to me and everyone he ever met, but also to climbing, a force – a dark force – that revolutionised British mixed climbing, but most of all to himself. He was in a place he did not belong and never would. Alan would always be an outsider.
So what words for Alan? He was a bull that escaped a tiny field and could never get back, he ran amok, a danger to everything and everyone, tradition, hierarchy, the status quo. But he didn’t want to be that way, it was just his nature. What he wanted most was to be tamed, to be accepted, to be loved and respected and admired, the people he said he’d like to kill, his mortal enemies, the ones he wanted to be loved by most of all (his heroes). But if you’re born a bull, on a Glasgow housing estate, you may be able to stand and be still for a little while, be passive as a cow, but you’ll always be a bull. You can never escape what you really are.
People talk a lot about suicide and depression these days, it’s very trendy, maybe because we really misunderstand ourselves, have our settings set too high, also, many are just poseurs, weakness is strength, that to be strong and defiant in the face of such 21st-century indulgences as depression and self-murder is seen to be somehow toxic. But Alan’s suicide – I think – was the act of a man who – although difficult and great, infuriating but enriching, scary but kind, hard but soft, invincible but vulnerable – was the ending of a life that could not sustain so many contradictions.
For those interested in knowing more about Alan’s life, Grant Farquhar’s book ‘Crazy Sorrow: The Life and Death of Alan Mullin’ is released in August.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.
BLOG ENTRY: 27/06/19
More books for the Bermuda bookstore
BLOG ENTRY: 24/06/19
Very interesting Vlog from Dave MacLeod talking about the mood stabilising properties of dietary manipulations. This is something that we know about but don’t spend a lot of time promoting (as psychiatrists), partly because the field of nutritionism is plagued by quackery. Dave’s anecdote is compelling and he also provides a number of references.
Dave MacLeod on the first ascent of The Railway Trail, V8 at Admiralty Park in 2010. Photo Grant Farquhar
BLOG ENTRY: 06/05/19
Superb piece in UKClimbing by Mick Ward celebrating the life of Ed Drummond. He includes a quote from me in The White Cliff.
Ed Drummond (1945-2019) – A Retrospective
6th MayThis has been read 729 times
Mick Ward reflects on the rich and varied life of climber and writer Ed Drummond, who passed away last week after a long illness.
Ed Drummond was probably the most visionary figure in British climbing history. He left a legacy of stunning routes and superb writing. And he had a reputation for having the most complicated, mercurial character imaginable.
Where does it begin – for you, for me, for any of us? Show me a hardcore climber of a certain age and, so very often, there’s a troubled childhood. All those scary moves, all that striving for success. What’s it really all about – a desperate craving for the approval – the love – of (often long-dead) fathers?
Drummond, like Icarus, fell. A classic act of hubris – trying to impress a girl, I believe. The year was 1964. The place was Pontesbury Rocks, in Shropshire. The route was The Superdirect. Today it’s graded E1 5a. Drummond was 18, a beginner at climbing. In the 1960s, VS was the pinnacle of most climbers’ careers. Hardly anybody climbed XS. Beginners certainly didn’t. Drummond tried to solo it. He almost succeeded. And then there was a nasty landing.
Ed Ward-Drummond’s 1967 Grading system for Avon Gorge © Ed Drummond
In retrospect, The Superdirect was little more than a false start. A couple of years later, Drummond was studying Philosophy at Bristol university, living at ‘Clifton in the rain’, as Al Stewart memorably described it. Below him was the Avon Gorge. From 1966 onwards, he criss-crossed its seeming blankness with a network of routes which were often harder and scarier than any which had gone before. The Blik (‘A stern test of both mind and strength, on one of Avon’s most impressive walls.’) Last Slip. (‘A superb, bold and memorable climb.’) Krapp’s Last Tape (‘An Avon rite of passage.’) The Preter (‘An airy voyage, taking in some of the Main Wall’s best positions.’) Ffoeg’s Folly. Hell Gates (with logbook in the little cave). Limbo. The Earl of Perth. The Equator – a monster girdle of the Main Wall, with his chief partner in crime, the redoubtable Oliver Hill.
His guidebook, the aptly named ‘Extremely Severe in the Avon Gorge’, introduced the climbing world not only to the routes but to a grading system based on factor analysis. Drummond deconstructed routes in terms of factors, such as technical difficulty and protection (or lack of it), gave them weighings and thus ended up with final grades. Back then, there were no E grades. Extremely Severe (XS) covered a multitude of sins! Technical grades weren’t widely used. Undoubtedly Drummond was on the right track. Unfortunately however, his system was too cumbersome to be accepted. One thing was clear though: the climbing world was being introduced to a person who wouldn’t shy away from self-promotion or controversy. And, amid this grand intellectual enterprise, lurked the most wonderful howler. ‘Stand on the peg without using it for aid.’
Ed Drummond on Great Wall, 1967. © Ken Wilson
1967. If you wanted to test yourself against the best, there was really only one place – North Wales and one crag – Cloggy. Back then, you climbed hard, you drank hard and you partied hard. That was the deal. You didn’t try to promote yourself in print. (You let your mates do that for you.)
Drummond was already married, with a young son. Understandably he wasn’t much interested in drinking or partying. So he wasn’t one of the lads. He hadn’t got mates to do his promotion for him, so he did it himself – an unforgivable sin, in the eyes of the cognoscenti. 1960s bacchanalia versus nut crunching and date nibbling… A posh accent and a name like Edwin Ward-Drummond – well, you couldn’t really make it up.
But how did he perform on the rock? A second ascent of The Boldest, the most feared route in Wales, was made in trademark style – slowly. In all, it took him three days. What on earth did he lower off – Crew’s bolt, placed in extremis? The thought of lowering from shit 1960s gear makes me feel sick. And going back up again! Unperturbed, Drummond advertised in a climbing magazine, offering to take punters up The Boldest for £6 a pop. Brown’s caustic riposte was priceless. “£6 – not bad for three days’ climbing!”
Drummond might have done The Boldest slowly – but he still did it. The fifth ascent of Great Wall, made under the scathing gazes of Crew and Boysen, took him hours. A lesser man would have succumbed to the pressure; Drummond didn’t. He was too naïve to realise that the entourage had come up to Cloggy for the sole purpose of watching him fail. But he didn’t fail. And he wrote arguably the most iconic climbing essay ever, immortalised in ‘Hard Rock’ almost a decade later. The ending is famously poignant, timelessly elegiac. ‘Five years ago. He was still in love with that wall. Lovely boy, Crew, arrow climber. Wall without end.’
Ed Drummond on Great Wall, 1967. © Ken Wilson
Having done the two hardest routes on Cloggy, Drummond headed for the other premier venue, Gogarth. Although Crew burned him off on the first ascent of Mammoth, it was just another false start. His first ascent of The Strand was a tour de force. He graded it XS, 6b (the first attempted use of this grade in Wales?) and confidently stated that it wouldn’t see a repeat for 20 years. The fabulously talented but wayward party animal, Al Harris, did the second ascent a few weeks later, while out instructing (hope he charged £6!) Once again Drummond’s blatant self-promotion had proved his undoing. It was conveniently easy for his critics to ignore the superb quality of the route.
A year later, with Dave Pearce, Drummond climbed the undying classic of all classics, the route for which he is best remembered, A Dream of White Horses. For once, he didn’t need to do any promotion. Leo Dickinson’s stunning photograph, with the waves breaking an outrageous way up the crag, said everything. VS climbing in an XS situation guaranteed instant classic status. Interestingly this was a rare example of a Drummond route being upgraded. His original HVS went up to XS, for a time – to keep inexperienced people off the route. Don’t forget, back then, there was rubbish protection gear (no wires or cams) and there would have been loose rock. In addition, virtually no climbers carried prusik loops. Nowadays, cleaned up by the passage of innumerable feet, with prusik loops and immeasurably better gear, A Dream of White Horses can be enjoyed as a relatively easy but thrilling world classic.
Drummond continued to produce the goods on Gogarth. At the time, routes such as T Rex and Afreet Street looked ridiculous – but he still did them, albeit with some aid. In those days, routes weren’t generally cleaned from abseil and the perils of loose rock often forced first ascentionists into using aid which they otherwise wouldn’t have needed. The Moon was described by Drummond as ‘strictly space walking!’ and appeared in Mountain magazine as, ‘another crumbling horror… like an unrelenting, giant-sized Vector’.
A Dream of White Horses by Ed Drummond
Back on the social scene, success continued to elude Drummond. Risking the rigours of the Padarn on a Saturday night, he asked Leo Dickinson to introduce him to fabled Scouse hard man, Pete Minks. Fellow hard man Scousers Al Rouse and Brian Molyneux struggled to keep straight faces. “Pete, this is Ed Ward-Drummond.” “Hello, Peter, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure…” “And I don’t believe you’re going to get it,” came the crushing reply.
If you’re going to be damned anyway, well why not just go for it? Some of Drummond’s routes in Wales, such as the outrageous Great Arête on Llech Ddu, were done in impressive style (and a little aid). Conversely his first ascent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Cloggy was thus reported in Mountain:
‘There has been an attempt to put up a new route on Great Wall… Four pitons and a bolt were placed and the line was top-roped first. This event has triggered widespread disgust in climbing circles.’
Having moved from Bangor to Sheffield, Drummond announced his presence in the Peak by abseiling into the stance of High Tor’s Delicatessen to join Street and Birtles for the first ascent. Unwelcome or what? “I very much had the feeling of being watched and evaluated. But I’m born naïve, so I keep getting into these situations where I’m not quite sure what the code is and really not very interested in it.” Drummond’s contention that Birtles fell off was flatly contradicted by both Birtles and Street. The latter subsequently commented, “Drummond fell off… after he’d fallen, he said to me, ‘Actually I didn’t fall then, I slipped off!’” He’d taken about a 15-foot swing and gone crash, bang, wallop into the corner – arms and legs everywhere!”
Yet another false start… Unperturbed, Drummond beavered away at High Tor, substantially reducing the aid on Flaky Wall and Darius, renaming them Bulldog Wall and The Burning Icicle respectively. (When they were eventually completely freed, the original names were retained.) At Dovedale’s Ilam Rock, he renamed The White Edge Easter Island, after a free ascent (very) loosely based on it. Ironically Rocksport, the leading magazine for UK climbing, argued in favour of the aid route! It seems that Drummond just couldn’t win. In retrospect, it’s clear that attacking such blatant challenges – which most people could never imagine being free climbed – was a bold, brave move in the right direction.
In the late 1960s, British climbers were slowly becoming aware of the big wall climbs which were being done in Yosemite. Was there a future for big wall climbing in Europe? Doug Scott and friends made an inspired ascent of The Scoop of Sron Ulladale, one of Britain’s most impressive crags. In 1970, with his old Bristol friend, Oliver Hill, Drummond made the first ascent of the Long Hope route on Hoy. At the time, this was pretty much disregarded. Since then, it has justly achieved legendary status. For Drummond to embark upon such a big, serious route, leading up to E5, onsight, through tottering rubble, with shit protection was… something else entirely. Terror raised to the level of an art form.
It seems a little odd now but, back then, Norway’s Troll Wall was viewed as the best contender for big wall climbing in Europe, our version of El Cap. Well it was certainly big enough – but size doesn’t guarantee quality. Drummond’s first attempt in 1969 ended when his companion, Dave Pearce, was hit by stonefall not far from the top. Their second attempt, the following year, was again defeated, this time by snowfall. Drummond’s eventual 21 day ascent of the Arch Wall, with Hugh Drummond (no relation), in 1972, raised suffering to the level of an art form. His essay about their experience, ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is the finest example of obsession that I’ve ever read. Die for the route? Die for the fame? Die for the glory? Yeah… why not?
From the very big to the very small… In the first half of the 1970s, Drummond tackled some of the last great problems on grit: Flute of Hope on Higgar Tor, Guillotine, Archangel, Wuthering, Chameleon and Asp on Stanage and Linden on Curbar. Controversy continued to dog him. Archangel was top-roped first – a sensible measure, I’m sure most of us would agree. Flute of Hope had a resting sling (as did the nearby Rasp on its first ascent, by Brown). More troubling was aid on Guillotine. And, worst of all in the eyes of many, were two chipped ‘dots’ for skyhooks on Linden. In a famous letter to Mountain, Keith Myhill castigated Drummond: ‘This event must surely mark the lowest point in gritstone climbing for a very long time.’ Drummond’s riposte in a later issue of ‘Molehill’ was delicious:
‘…Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor Cenotaph ascended by Saint Joseph without a pin here and a pin there. And Quietus top-roped first. I’m still learning how to learn. Silly Myhill. It isn’t your hill. The route is there for you too. Go on – open your legs – let’s see what you can do. Balancing on those two impeccable skyhooks should keep you quiet. You might even learn to pray; and not prey.’
Ironically Myhill had used nuts for aid on two of his own first ascents on grit. Nevertheless his argument is still valid. By the early 1970s, aid on gritstone was becoming distinctly passé. And chipping is obviously wrong (although Drummond was neither the first nor the last to resort to it). As Peak Rock rightly points out, ‘In its free state, Linden is now graded E6 6b; that standard of climb simply did not exist anywhere in Britain in 1973.’ In the early 1970s standards were soaring; a few years later, Mick Fowler signalled his emergence with the first free ascent. Shortly afterwards, the supremely gifted Phil Davidson made an astonishing onsight solo – thus proving what we all know. After Pex, everywhere else (yes, even Curbar!) is a piece of piss. To me, the thought of standing in slings on wobbly skyhooks seems far worse than free climbing and, aid or not, fluffing the top wall might well have meant a crater in the ground. Drummond may have been controversial – but he was undeniably bold. And, to his credit, he repented, in an interview a decade later.
‘I erred and was willing to err. If you are creating something, to a degree you have a right to define the way in which to create and I was willing to chip holds… I was different, in that I was wilful and was prepared to change the rock to suit me because I was at the cutting edge and had a right to blunt it a little. I was wrong.’
Ed Drummond in 1970. © Ken Wilson
Then, like some meteor streaking across the firmament, suddenly he was gone. Emigrated to San Francisco. From 1966 to 1975 he’d blazed a trail across British climbing, left a legacy of brilliant routes, albeit ones sometimes mired in controversy. To my generation, coming of age in the 1970s, he was a mythical figure. A few of us had met him; most hadn’t. I hadn’t. I’d always been fascinated by him, wondered what he was like.
In the summer of 1982, dropping into a Sheffield pub after an evening’s cragging on grit, Ian Jones and I bumped into Simon Horrocks. When Simon casually mentioned that Drummond was back, on a fleeting visit from San Francisco and they were going out on Stanage the next day, I was enthralled. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to do an interview with him? Accordingly Ian and I turned out and, sure enough, there he was, with Simon and Martin Veale. Simon was guarding him pretty carefully and I couldn’t really barge in. But afterwards I wrote a little piece about him and T.I.M. Lewis, who’d known him in his Avon and Welsh phases, published it in Mountain (‘Molehill’). I felt, very strongly indeed, that Drummond had got a shit deal from the climbing establishment. Yes he’d transgressed – but surely he’d been treated much more harshly than others? Wasn’t his real crime not knowing the codes, not fitting in? What feedback I received (no internet, back then) suggested that, with the passing of time, attitudes were mellowing and people were more prepared to give him a chance. Certainly, from then on, he seemed to become more accepted. So, if my little piece was a catalyst, then great. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here it is.
Drummond on Censor
Coming up from the car park, we could discern a trio of people centred on Tippler Direct. Simon at the bottom, Martin on top. And a green figure slowly lumbering through the bulges.
We met them as they came down. A heavy, bear-like man, strangely garbed. Middle-aged, seemingly reticent. (What the hell was I expecting? Some people don’t have to appear – or even behave – controversially; they just are.)
His voice. I’d been prepared for that. ‘Like an English colonel in the days of the Raj.’
He turned to Censor. Leading, this time. A bad route to choose if you haven’t done much climbing of late.
Stepping into the initial scoop. His first runner only ten feet up. Yet still necessary. A few sharp tugs. The ropes confidently clipped. This guy’s played before…
Then moving out onto the undercut. Curiously old-fashioned technique. Slowly, with terrible patience, extracting the wrong wire, finding it doesn’t fit, fumbling slightly to replace it. Again and again. One brown paw locked on a tiny fingerhold. Not an ounce of uncertainty. Or energy wasted.
“RPs – how interesting. And these gear-loops. Who makes them? Wild Country??”
Back in the scoop. A day sunny but windy. Cold, very cold. Jiggling his hands about in marsupial pockets. A quick, disparaging grin. “It’s all right – I’m not having a wank!”
Intermittent chatter with the lads. “An old route? ’67? ’68?? Impressive for its time…” (Doesn’t he realise that it exists courtesy of perhaps his most formidable detractor? Does he care? Does he??)
Then going for it. One brown paw after another. The merest hesitation an indulgence. Up and out, onto the beak, nimbly hopping astride it, up and over, back into the vertical. Where he stops, precariously balances. His runners miles away.
Tentative probes. And he changes position. The moves coming with fluent ease. Yet still alert, cautious. No more runners. Emphasising the second’s redundancy.
He pulls over the top. A high, barked laugh. “Come on, Simon, it’s your turn now!” At once cajoling and teasing.
We left, to give the man some privacy, chose a route much farther along the escarpment, at times, later in the afternoon, saw his green figure moving slowly among the rocks. And then no more…
Heroes die easily (usually on first acquaintance), the heroic arises sporadically in a man and as suddenly vanishes. There was never much doubt in my mind that Drummond was of truly heroic stature – nor is there now. Just why this should be, I don’t honestly know.
It’s also my contention that Drummond got a poor deal, a shabby deal from the mandarins of his time, whose petty egos he so loved to irritate. With the benefit of hindsight, is there really that much difference between his ethics and those of, say, Livesey… or even Crew?
Drummond is unique in that he was impeached both for using aid and for cutting it. Certainly, that day on Censor, he used no aid. Just hands and feet and heart. And a unique presence, a charisma which lesser mortals might only emulate. Someone who would stand out in any crowd. For whatever reason.
You can’t judge the man by his performance on one route. It’s ridiculous. And yet how else can you judge him?
Ed Drummond in 1968. © Ken WIlson
Back in 1968, fresh from his successes at Avon and in Wales, Drummond had arrived in Yosemite. He badly wanted to do the North America Wall, then perhaps the most challenging route on El Cap. But he couldn’t find anyone with whom to do it. Royal Robbins and Don Lauria had planned a two man approach and they weren’t going to change their setup for anyone. In 1971, he tried for the first solo ascent but had to bail. In retrospect, his comments seemed prophetic. “I just think it’s too hard for me… It would be too long and too slow and there would therefore be too many uncertainties involved. I just don’t feel good about it at all.”
A decade later, he returned to the NA wall, once again for the first solo ascent. After 14 days, only three pitches from the summit, he was trapped in a storm. Couldn’t go up. Couldn’t go down. Knew, from radio contact, that there were other climbers also trapped. Knew it was likely that YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) would go for them, not him – easier access, more lives to save.
In the event, Werner Braun, for me one of the most impressive people on the planet, was lowered hundreds of feet down El Cap, in dire weather conditions, to reach him. Drummond was saved. Afterwards he wrote an open letter to the Parks Department, remarkable in its honesty. It was as though finally the bubble of bombast had been pierced. Drummond knew he should have died. He knew that his saving had nothing to do with him. When this happens to a person (it’s also happened to me), it’s impossible not to be deeply aware of it for evermore.
Drummond was always about far more than conventional climbing. In 1978, with Colin Rowe, he staged an ascent of Nelson’s Column to protest against Barclay Bank’s involvement with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Their subsequent trial was at the Old Bailey. Drummond and Rowe were ably defended by John Mortimer and the establishment looked thoroughly ridiculous. It was a re-run of the famous Release trial of a decade previously, where Caroline Coon had faced down a high court judge. When the pair were acquitted of criminal damage to the lightning conductor (yes, it was that silly), Drummond suggested to Rowe that they sing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow!” to the judge. This they did. Their performance was much admired by both judge and jury. And the pair were duly fined for contempt of court.
Over the next few years, Drummond made further protest climbs on buildings in San Francisco and on the Statue of Liberty in New York. Having thus used climbing as a vehicle for protest (a precursor of the Newbury protestors of the 1990s), Drummond moved on to using it as performance art. (Maybe he always viewed it as performance art?) He clambered around, barefoot, declaiming poetry, on a 22 foot high tripod. No pads back then! Climbing audiences were bemused but nevertheless applauded his chutzpah. With his jaunty beret, Drummond played the part of the (award-winning) bohemian poet, par excellence. With climbing as performance art, he was also perhaps a precursor to Antoine le Menéstrel.
Ed Drummond and Colin Rowe, en route to Bow Street magistrates, 1978
Drummond’s old photographer and critic, Ken Wilson, published a collection of his climbing poems and essays, ‘A Dream of White Horses: Recollections of a Life on the Rocks’. Reviews were fulsome: ‘The most challenging, disturbing and provocative piece of climbing literature I’ve ever read – the consistent brilliance of the writing is astounding.’ (Stuart Pregnall, Climbing magazine). ‘An intoxicating mixture: Drummond takes risks as big as he did on his climbs and has the courage to use climbing as a metaphor for wider truths.’ (Dave Cook, Mountain magazine.) ‘The best climbing book I’ve ever read.’ (Lito Tejada-Flores, High magazine). Controversially it failed to win the Boardman-Tasker award. Shockingly it didn’t even make the short-list.
In 1985 our very own Chris Craggs bumped into Drummond at Stanage and suggested that climbing the other side of the Archangel arête might be fun. A few days later, Don appeared. It seems to have been Drummond’s last important new route in the UK. And it was an affectionate tribute to the then recently deceased Don Whillans, who’d allegedly top-roped Archangel au cheval, with a rubber inner tube between his legs, back in the 1950s! (How, one wondered, had Drummond and Whillans got on? The younger Whillans would surely have gone for a Minks style put-down – if not worse. The older, much more mellow Whillans… who knows?)
Hardcore climber turned psychiatrist (what some of us need?) Grant Farquhar wrote this about Drummond and Don.
His climbs are arguably best viewed as conceptual performance art. For example, Don laybacks the arête of Archangel, facing left, rather than right. This could be described as a post-modern climb, in that it forces one to contemplate what is the definition of a route. After all, it uses the same [hand] holds, just in a different way. If art should provoke, then by that criterion he definitely succeeded.
Ed Drummond practising his art.
In the 1990s, Drummond attempted a ‘Climb for the World’ initiative, seemingly based upon the success of ‘Live Aid’. Typically he gave it his all. Nevertheless it failed to find the requisite funding. Probably climbing was insufficiently mainstream to attract enough publicity. Very often, highly charismatic figures such as Drummond are slapdash with strategy and hopeless with logistics, although whether this was the case, I simply don’t know. Certainly an attempt on Makalu had run into problems. But, then again, many expeditions run into problems.
Perhaps unwisely, Drummond allowed climber and film-maker Simon Beaufoy to make a television documentary about the ‘Climb for the World’ struggle. It’s claimed that no great man is a hero to his valet. Beaufoy’s film, the appropriately entitled ‘Shattered Dream’ proved excruciating watching, contrasting Drummond’s undoubted idealism with his troubled family life. Years before, he had made the crucial insight that the ability to focus intensely and selectively during hard climbs (i.e. live in the bubble, exclude thoughts of injury or death) might be exactly what wasn’t needed in emotional relationships. Now it was as though his words were coming back to mock him. The implicit soundbite was ‘obsessive idealism versus family responsibility’. ‘Shattered Dream’ was perhaps a precursor of reality television.
I remember talking with companions on the crag at that time, about ‘Shattered Dream’. We all viewed it as car-crash television. We readily agreed that Drummond could be maddeningly irritating. But, far more importantly, all of us felt immense sympathy for him, in such difficult circumstances.
Drummond first went to live in San Francisco in 1975 and became involved in the poetry world. It’s always seemed to me that, in this country, we’ve always been suspicious of poetry. Certainly, over the last forty years, it’s become almost invisible as an art form. But poetry, for me ‘the music of words’, is a supremely demanding discipline. It’s the literary equivalent of bouldering. To excel at poetry demands a much higher technical ability than any other form of writing. Each word must be exquisitely crafted to meld with every other word. Sometimes the finished product may seem deceptively simple, almost artless. The harsh reality is that creating good poetry is immensely difficult. Even the most talented are unlikely to achieve more than a few great poems and a smattering of really good ones in their lifetimes.
As climbers, we’ve tended to regard Drummond’s poetry as simply another whimsical quirk of his psychological makeup – or perhaps an element of a quasi-hipster image. But I can see why Drummond would have devoted some four decades to poetry. As Chaucer cogently noted, ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’
Ed Drummond with daughters Areanna and Fiume.© Ed Drummond
Another aspect of the American period is that it’s a big part of his life about which most of us (certainly me) barely know anything. Drummond’s immense contribution to British climbing essentially occurred during the years from 1966 to 1975. He seems to have had the enviable ability to climb hard, poorly protected stuff for decades afterwards, whether he was in shape or not. For instance I think he’d done relatively little climbing in the couple of years immediately before that faraway day on Censor.
So this retrospective is tentative, partial. And it’s Anglocentric. My guess is that Drummond did a considerable amount of hard climbing in America which we don’t know about. And I’d love to know how he was received in the poetry milieu. From my experience, it can be every bit as fractious as the climbing world.
In the 2000s, Drummond was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, bowel cancer and dementia. You think of the ridiculous boldness of leading E5, ground-up, through tottering rubble, with shit protection, on the Long Hope route in 1970. You think of the man who survived 21 days on the Troll Wall. The man who survived 14 days on the North America Wall. How could any of this happen to such a seemingly invincible figure? Yet all of it did. The cruel reality is that, even for the strongest of us, life is often a far more tenuous affair than we care to acknowledge.
Years of suffering followed. I shudder to think what it must have been like for him and his carers. He seems to have borne it with an equanimity we could all strive to emulate.
When he returned to Hoy, the scene of perhaps his greatest triumph, for the filming of the Long Hope route, it was poignant, elegiac, heartbreaking.
Ed Drummond back on Hoy.© Paul Diffley/Hot Aches Productions
So how can we do it? How can we possibly sum up such a life of Shakespearean triumph and tragedy? We can’t.
Back in 1982 I wrote, ‘There was never much doubt in my mind that Drummond was of truly heroic stature – nor is there now. Just why this should be, I don’t honestly know.’
Drummond did what all truly great people do: he gave more of himself that the rest of us – far more. He gave more of himself that was sensible, more than was wise. He gave it everything. He didn’t know when or where to stop. As he said himself, ‘I’m born naïve, so I keep getting into these situations where I’m not quite sure what the code is and really not very interested in it.’
Not knowing the code made him different, probably from very early on in life. It led to social awkwardness, estrangement. It also led to staggering levels of achievement. On so many of his groundbreaking routes, Drummond literally went where nobody had ever dared to go before.
Why did he do it? Climbing is many things to many people. Sure, there are fun-filled days on the rock. But there also those drawn to face the darkness in their souls. For them there can be no compromise. They must seek out their deepest fears and either triumph or perish.
Ed Drummond gave it his all. He couldn’t have done any more. Finally he is at peace.
Mick Ward’s Erratum on UkClimbing:
Many thanks to people for their kind comments. I suppose I’ve been fascinated by Ed Drummond for so long that I’ve failed to realise so many others are equally fascinated. In an age of characters, a remarkable one.
Jim Perrin, who has a memory like an elephant (far better than mine) pointed out that Joe Brown’s actual comment re guiding someone up The Boldest was, “Not bad value, two quid a day!” If Drummond ever found out what Jim got for guiding David Nott up Great Wall, some five years later, he’d have gritted his teeth in despair.
More importantly (and I completely forgot this) Jim was taking a mate up Peapod when Drummond was, ahem ‘working’ on Linden and it was a lot more than dots for skyhooks. Having said that, he did later agree he was wrong. He seems to have been an almost tactlessly honest person most of the time (e.g. Boje’s interview tale) but maybe got into denial sometimes where climbing was concerned (e.g. the slip/fall on High Tor). My feeling is that when climbing crosses the line between determination and obsession, normal perspective just goes right out the window.
I’m grateful to Rob Parsons for pointing out that ‘Climb for the World’ went ahead, at least in some form. Bridwell and Silvia Fitzpatrick on the Eiger – a pretty determined pair.
Am also grateful to Colin Rowe for explaining about the trial/lightening conductor. I could never understand the trial supposedly being at the Old Bailey (thought it was for proper bad ‘uns). Interesting to compare the French reaction with Mike Robertson soloing the Eiffel Tower. “What’d you do that for?” “Protest about human rights abuses in Burma. Just felt I had to do something.” (Some hours later.) “Fair enough then, off you go.” Surely a much more mature response?
Re Drumond not getting a place on the 1968 team on the second ascent of the North America Wall, Ian Parsons pointed out that Royal Robbins had already done it (FA!!) He was trying to get Drummond onto a team with Don Lauria and Dennis Hennek but they weren’t having it. Ian also pointed out that Drummond’s version of Flaky Wall, with five skyhooks for aid (he liked his skyhooks) was called Hook Crook Wall (geddit?) When Pete Livesey completely freed it, he renamed it Bulldog Wall (geddit?) People power seems to have restored it to Flaky Wall (phew!)
Am grateful to Ian Jones for taking the photograph of Drummond on Censor, that day. It somehow got credited to Ian P Smith in Mountain. I always thought it was Ian Smith, who did take the great photo of Drummond up his tripod. But he says not. So who’s got your £10, mate? That’s a couple of pints I owe you.
Fascinating account by Boje of actually seeing Drummond do Great Wall. How I’d love to have been there. His essay is a thing of timeless beauty.
One could argue about Drummond’s character forever – but there’s probably no point. Most of us get things wrong when we’re young and spend the rest of our lives trying to do better. Mark Warwicker and others have pointed out that the later Drummond was a compassionate, sensitive and caring man. One way or another, his life was a very hard journey.
BLOG ENTRY: 01/05/19
El Capitan. Photo Grant Farquhar.
The Royal Gazette ran a story today about Alex Honnold and I snuck in a plug for Climb de Rock. The photos are mine and did not appear in the article.
Scaling the heights with solo rock star
Grant Farquhar on the initial section of Freerider, the route Alex climbed in Free Solo. Photo Grant Farquhar.
A Bermuda rock climber talked yesterday about his experience of an ascent with a top free soloist and star of an Oscar-winning documentary to be shown today.
The Bermuda International Film Festival is to feature Free Solo, the story of Alex Honnold, who climbs alone and without ropes and his attempt to become the first climber to solo climb the 3,200ft El Capitán cliff face in Yosemite, California.
Grant Farquhar, author of Climb de Rock, a climber’s guide to Bermuda, said Mr Honnold was “like a monk” and totally focused on his work.
Dr Farquhar, a psychiatrist, said: “Alex does not drink or smoke, just climbs.
“I will definitely be watching that documentary at some point. There’s also a great book about it called The Impossible Climb.”
Dr Farquhar is originally from Scotland and has climbed since childhood. He climbed with Mr Honnold at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset in Britain six years ago, along with friend Hazel Findlay.
He said: “El Capitán is one of the most impressive climbs on the planet. It’s one of the biggest monoliths in the world.
“So Cheddar Gorge was not the most inspiring thing for Alex, coming from sun-drenched California.”
The daredevil climber’s story has been brought to the island as part of Biff’s series of art house, foreign, documentary and independent films, shown on the first Wednesday of each month.
The film, which premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival, shows the planning and execution of Mr Honnold’s hair-raising ascent.
Two months ago, Dr Farquhar published his own guide to Bermuda’s climbing scene, which is on sale at the Bermuda Bookstore in Hamilton.
He climbs several times a week and said Admiralty House, Pembroke is his summer favourite, with Great Head in St David’s — Bermuda’s biggest cliff — the choice in winter.
Dr Farquhar said: “Bermuda’s unique for climbing. There’s nowhere else like it, especially when you’re climbing above crystal-clear water.”
The story of Mr Honnold’s ascent of the granite monolith El Capitán, a Mecca for climbers, is scheduled to screen at 6.30pm in the Speciality Cinema in Hamilton.
Tickets to Free Solo are available at ptix.bm, as well as in advance as the cinema’s box office, and tonight.
BLOG ENTRY: 28/04/19
The water is now above 70 degrees and conditions are great for DWS.
BLOG ENTRY: 06/04/19
Last weekend, Sam Mir made the fifth ascent of Bogeyman (5.12c). Photos below courtesy of Sam from an earlier attempt.
BLOG ENTRY: 19/03/19
Article on Climbing magazine website about DWS safety with pics of Jazmyne Watson on Xavier, 5.12c. Photo Andrew Burr.
BLOG ENTRY: 19/01/19
The cliffs in Bermuda tend to be very steep so its usually easier to equip the sports climbs from below. I have spent quite a lot of time, on aid, rope soloing the routes in order to place the in situ gear: threads and bolts. What I haven’t spent a lot of time doing is something that I did today: taking a leader fall while rope soloing.
Behind the stalactite curtain at Tsunami Wall. Photo Grant Farquhar.
As you can see from the photo above, today was a beautiful high pressure winter day in Bermuda. I decided to head to Tsunami Wall to start a new project and also to replace the last expansion bolts with titanium glue-ins.
The route in question, Third Degree Burns Night, was put up in 2009 and so the fixe stainless steel expansion bolts have been in situ on the cliff for 10 years. It’s not a great route so I hadn’t gotten around to replacing the bolts before now.
I established a ground anchor on a large thread and then set off, clipping two manky old in situ threads. Some damp crimps above the second thread allowed me to clip the first bolt. As I began pulling up on the quickdraw, without warning, the bolt exploded and I was briefly airborne.
The base of Tsunami Wall. The rusty remains of the bolt that sheared is at the top of the picture, just right of centre. Photo Grant Farquhar.
The ten-year-old manky old 9mm dynamic climbing rope thread held the fall without complaint. I had tied a back up knot to prevent me from hitting the deck should the Grigri slip, but it locked immediately. Taking falls, like this, so close to the ground is extremely dangerous as any slack in the system will likely result in a ground fall.
The hanger from the sheared bolt. Photo Grant Farquhar.
This exemplifies the dangers of expansion bolts on sea cliffs. I had surmised that the route was not safe to climb using the exisiting bolts, but I was surprised that this bolt would not even hold body weight. The hanger showed ‘tea staining’ but was otherwise intact. The expansion bolt, however, is under tensile stress and therefore vulnerable to stainless steel corrosion cracking.
The vast majority of in situ bolts in Bermuda are now glue-in titanium which are the best for this, highly corrosive, environment. There are some stainless steel glue-ins which are OK so far but may need to be replaced with titanium eventually.
BLOG ENTRY: 12/01/19
The rock climber’s guide to Bermuda is now available on Amazon Kindle via Atlantis Publishing.