Friday, January 09, 2015

New Year enfolded in Kintyre

The years fold into one another, and layers appear...

We ran away to Kintyre over New Year, to the sheltered nook that is Carradale, on the east coast of Kintyre, facing the west coast of Arran, to ride out the storms and see in the New Year, a convenient 10-yard meander from the Cruban Bar (and an old-fashioned pool table I came to know well). In the short 6 hour window of light (and the 3rd of January was spectacular in its stillness between the fronts), the plan was to find some bouldering on the east coast -  I'd never found much aside from the shark-fins at Skipness which were not that satisfying. Finding the perfect line in a remote corner of Scotland is always invigorating and you just know the fractal coast will reveal something amazing just round the next bay if you keep going.

So I took off round the headland south of Carradale, which on Google Earth looks like a giant pointed-finger cursor pointing south to the open sea. Most of the headland is a rhododendron-jungle populated by wild goats, but it is fringed with a unique schist geology - heavily banded, juggy lateral rock, folded and crimped into bizarre scalloped features, giant blocs and endless caves. It doesn't make for hard bouldering, it's too generously featured, which was good as my shoulder was wrecked, but rather provides remarkably steep roofs and prows climbed on juggy ripples of mostly-solid rock, but snappy enough in places to provide the thrill of insecurity. The best I found was just opposite the headland fort on the path down to the shore - a rising traverse up a prow not far off the tracking bank of grass, and not much more than 6a. An excellent place to explore if you like steep hauling and monkeying around footless.

The whole point of exploration I think, certainly on your own, is getting enfolded in the landscape, losing the mind for a while and coming 'back to consciousness' in a different moment. There's a lot of words written about this by many philosophers, not least Heraclitus and his idea of not stepping in the same river twice, so I'll not labour a good point badly, suffice to say Carradale is a good place to dissolve yourself for a while . . .

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Essential Fontainebleau 2nd edition - OUT NOW!

The new edition of Essential Fontainebleau is now available to order at £11.99 (plus a little PandP), we've just got copies in and it looks terrific, we think! Order it now and we'll post out first class for next day in the UK.

The full-colour guide introduces the climber to the classic bouldering in the forest of Fontainebleau. This new edition has been expanded and improved to include:

Classic circuits and highlight problems
Walk-in oriented topos to over 30 key venues
Test piece tick-lists 5+ to 8c for 320 classic problems
Photo topos for multi-problem blocs
Visual index, maps and detailed access notes
Essential information for first-time visitors
Feature bloc photography

Have a look through the preview on Issuu below:

Friday, December 05, 2014

Invisible Archaeology – Dumbarton Rock

When I first arrived at Dumbarton Rock, I never thought the dramatic geology I saw – the square-cut overhanging main faces, the giant beaked boulders, the moody facets of black and orange rock – were anything but solid and unchanging. I never thought there would be a character to the rock other than its intimidating immediacy and its industrial ‘clash and bang’ of sheer physicality and its contextual setting in the post-industrial decline of Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven 

Maybe that’s what happens on all first visits to a climbing venue  –  a kind of heightened sense of the place’s physical presence  –  but if you spend years repeating visits to a place, it becomes a more temporal or invisible thing, in fact it almost vanishes before your eyes, first impressions rubbed out, to be replaced by folded-in memories of faced-down failures and subtle successes, and countless other small details. In fact failure and success become meaningless terms and there is just a space between these two almost irrelevant ideas, there is just a long memory of ‘being there’Despite the apparent unchanging background of geology to us, the crag and boulders disappear over time and in their place I now have, after two decades visiting ‘Dumby’, a resonant space of movement, change, plasticity and memory. 

Dumbarton Rock has layers of history and generations of climbing to its name, it has what we would now confidently call a ‘sporting heritage’. Though these generations often overlap, there is often a sense of different camps, of ‘new-school’ versus ‘old-school’. So it goes with climbers. When I started climbing at Dumby in the 90s, I was aware of the legacy of the 80s generation of Cuthbertson, Latter, et al, but I was just vaguely aware of the 60s and the 70s generation, with occasional ‘remnant’ climber such as Tam McAuley turning up to scoff at my fancy new boots, but more often my shoddy technique on the treacherous basalt of Dumby. Frank Yeoman occasionally swung by and blithely repeated the highball circuit problems, while I was more wrapped up in the powerful ‘new’ problems and traverses being created by Andy Gallagher and Cameron Phair. It felt like there was a conceptual gap, but a thread of history between the generations nonetheless. My respect for previous generational visits only grows as my own sense of newness is gradually subsumed by levels of knowing, and perhaps the fossilisation that happens to all sporting endeavour. 

 Climbing is a singular visitational activity locked into a philosophy of risk and release. We arrive, we climb, we tick the route, we move on, like a raiding party of colourful leisure-locusts. This can happen in swarms, to which anyone who has been to Fontainebleau at Easter can testify. Boulderers in the US invented the term ‘rampage’ to suggest a kind of mercenary raiding of something valuable and collectible, but also maybe disposable – a spoil of war, a dismissive trinket of vertical pleasure. But has climbing finally evolved a mature language and philosophy of meaning, or at least its own canon of sporting literature (like boxing or football has its classic works of journalism), despite this apparently disposable/replaceable attitude to its substrate, or its arena?  

The problem with developing a philosophy of climbing, a sense of place and even a 'sacred ground' attitude (a unique sense of ownership in landscape, ‘dwelling’ as Ingold might name it), is the fact that it is an invisible tourism of sorts: in Britain particularly the ethic of ‘leave no trace’ has been  prevalent. The climber visits a swathe of vertical rock and can now leave practically no trace, utilising a running technology of temporary protection or ‘gear’ such as ‘friends’, ‘nuts’ and ‘sky hooks’, rather than an older technology of ‘in-situ gear’, such as ‘pegs’ and ‘tat’. Climbers come and go, they vanish, usually without trace, making their own archaeology largely an oral history. Sure, they can now leave a noisy colourful trail online via Facebook and Vimeo etc., as well as the traditional print media of magazines and guidebooks – perhaps that's our archaeology – but despite the digital/print trace, what remains of the climber at the crag or boulder? What have I left at Dumbarton to mark my heritage aside from so many hours staring blankly over the time-lapse tides of the River Leven? 

Is it possible to leave a coherent archaeology as you do it, as it is performed? Or is all this for future anthropologists of 21st century leisure – and is it really your duty as a climber to actually think about it, or just do it? We can of course ‘just do it’. This is the primal attitude of youth, the desire to better, the incentive to be unique, the performance towards the end of everything before (cue Hulk-pose and roar). The drive to perform, without necessarily understanding that history in terms of ‘dwelling’, is fine as it goes in our scale of numbers and their excession. Sport does this all the time, it’s the Olympics, it’s the 100m sprint, and youth understands this so well, it celebrates its current technology of power, its ‘body’ and the older generations accept it with grace, just as youth comes to accept it in time as they age, and its remains are ‘coached’, to another generation. This is all healthy and the natural rhythm of sport. We wouldn’t have it any other way. 

In the summer of 2104, an interdisciplinary archaeology project, with the acronym ACCORD (Archaeology Community Co-design and Co-production of Research Data), came visiting at Dumbarton Rock, curious at the recent drama of 'graffiti-gate', or basically the dilemma of climbers trying to determine if graffiti-artists were fellow 'rock-artists', or simple delinquents with nothing to add to the heritage at Dumby. It had created something of a minor stir in 2013 and the BBC even did a brief feature piece on radio and online. It was all a pickle of access issues, heritage bodies, community rights, and Health & Safety concerns, as well as the aesthetic argument over paint on rock. But what it did do was bring together concerned individuals who all valued 'The Rock' from differing perspectives. For climbers, we mostly wanted graffiti artists not to mess with the friction and aesthetic qualities of the rock, whilst Historic Scotland naturally wanted the rock to appear in its pristine state in a Commonwealth Games year. The community wanted to resurrect an old right-of-way path ('Washingstone Way') round the north of the castle mound. Some climbers suggested 'de-scheduling' the rock's north-west faces and boulders (classified as a protected or 'scheduled' monument) and allowing climbers to create their own 'climbing park', involving Dumbarton's community. There was a lot of positive talk and genuine community action. ACCORD saw this archaeology in action and stepped in with a project to scan the physical climbing arenwith 3D imagery-techniques, thus archiving the physical sporting heritage and the older layers of community involvement at Dumbarton Rock (such as the carved graffiti and painted graffiti)deliberately recording outside its more static and traditional status as an ancient castle. It was effectively trying to capture the living archaeology of Dumbarton Rock as it is experienced in the early 21st century – a 3D postcard if you like. 

To us as climbers beginning to fret about the invisibility of this heritage, and the threats against our activity (whether legal, developmental, or other), I felt a strong sense of 'Commons' ownership of this area, without wishing to fence it off to others in the slightest. I felt we had rights which needed expressed, even if the exercise of those rights happened mostly invisibly to the outside world, beyond  its concern and frame of reference. As a small community, we valued the place as 'sacred', in the sense that we'd be distraught if it was quarried away, fenced off or somehow forbidden to us. Maybe this was an over-reaction, or paranoia, but it seemed more like an opportunity, provided by the kind people at ACCORD, to express our heritage and voice our natural delight at a place most people thought post-industrial, grotty, and no more than a brown-field curiosity. To us, these perspectives fell far short of our connected feelings for the place, the landscape, as regular climbers.  

So what is our archaeology as climbers, beyond the personalClimbing has its own language, boundaries and ethics, these are all understood without the need for a rule book or dictionary. This is unusual, as most sports rely on a statute book or set of rules. Climbing does as well, but these rules are curated by a community of oral historians who hold the keys, the ‘beta’ and the ethics of an ascent. Any crime committed is apprehended through a well-developed communal conscience, though nowadays legitimised by video footage more often than not. We are a self-regulating lot, our own police, judge and jury. We do have official bodies such as the SMC and the BMC, but whilst they suggest ethical behaviour codes, these are created by climbers first and foremost and there is no equivalent of a Football Association with a rule book for outdoor climbing. Nor do they create the field for our play, this is given to us by nature, and we approach it with all the conscience we can muster to such a variable arena, so it does tend to fall outside the remit of 'regulated sport'. That is not to say climbers do not value their environment and their substrate. Far from it, they just don't want to regulate it unless entirely necessary.  

Over time, visiting a place regularly, purely for leisure reasons, like a round of golf, but in this case to climb on rocks, leads to profound and gradual changes in perception and perspectiveI have to ask myself: what is it that vanishes and what takes over, what long silent process has carved out my perspective from the sheer physical geology of the place I first saw 20 years ago or more, sounding out of the Clyde like a large bass note? For me, it has been a growing sense of community, a place of belonging, almost of habitation, (with Commons rights only, no fences please!). Nature, place, history, environment, seem to have reasserted themselves over the personal interventions we perform such as climbing. It is a good and positive thing and leaves me with a sense that, if Dumbarton Rock's familiar double-humped profile suddenly vanished from the Clyde's shores, a deep and wounded hole would open in my heart. 

ACCORD 3D image of Pongo Face >>>

Friday, November 21, 2014

Great Mountain Crags of Scotland

Ages ago, oh, well only 7 years I'd say, I recall discussing the idea of a grand book on Scottish mountain crags with Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton, a kind of regional upgrade and remix of Extreme Rock/Cold Climbs. They wanted to create something grand and poetical, giving the landscape as much presence as the climbing, and mixing the best writing with the best photography. It was a 'Big Stone Country' project and one too big for a small independent publisher. It gradually grew into a concept requiring significant resource and commitment, possibly even beyond Trustee based publishing such as the SMC.

The history of publishing Scotland's climbing has now over a century of documentation. The first SMC journal was in 1890 (the journal including a chapter on Arran bouldering in 1897!) and it has kept a diligent and accurate record ever since, as well as including fine articles and writing over the decades.

W.P. Haskett Smith produced volumes of guides in the 1890s to England, Wales and Ireland, but neglected Scotland. A. Abraham produced a Climbing in Skye guide in 1908 (and G. Abraham produced British Mountain Climbs in 1909, at a time when regional nationalisms had yet to fracture Britain's unity and consolidate boundaries again). The Scottish 'master' Harold Raeburn published books, such as Mountaineering Art (T. Fisher and Unwin, 1920), but this was for an Alpine age and Scotland, let alone Britain, was still considered a practice ground, or drilling square, for technique which was to be taken to the Alps and higher ranges of the Himalayas.

A compiled narrative of the Scottish experience of climbing wasn't produced until the resilient W.H. Murray rewrote from memory (after his first prisoner-of-war draft had been destroyed) the now classic and poetic Mountaineering in Scotland (J.M. Dent,1947). This captured the wealth of philosophies, geologies and moods to be found in the Scottish mountains whilst climbing, from the Cuillin's sticky gabbro flanks to the lonely step-cutting epics on the Ben in winter.

W. A Poucher brought out his classic hill guide to Scotland - The Scottish Peaks - in 1965 with some very suggestive photos for climbers (such as the overhanging beak of the Cobbler's north peak), but again the black and white photography seems gloomy to a modern eye, though perhaps originally it captured the imagination of black shadow and silvered, watery light that Scotland does so well.

It was Hamish MacInnes' 1971 twin volume guide Scottish Climbs: A Mountaineer's Pictorial Guide To Climbing In Scotland (republished in one volume by Constable, 1981) which was the first 'complete' compilation of Scottish mountain rock and winter routes, though its pictorial claim was dulled somewhat by poor paper stock flattening a lot of excellent (and now historical) climbing shots. Its photo-topos of the great shadowy monoliths in the hidden corries still managed to spell out a hefty dose of adventure and character.

Then came the legendary Ken Wilson 'quadrilogy' - Hard Rock 1974; Classic Rock, 1978; Cold Climbs, 1983; Extreme Rock, 1987 - which published in large format and in colour, mixing narrative with topos and photography. Despite Scotland getting a more-than-fair share of crags and dwarfing some English craglets (quite naturally due to its topology), the books rapidly became the go-to reference for keen British craggers out to 'tick the lot'. Not many did, as 'The Scoop' (Sron Ulladale) saw to almost everyone in the Hard Rock challenge! These books in the 70s and 80s have now thankfully been reprinted, though the plates were lost for Extreme Rock and its rare editions now fetch hefty prices on the second-hand market.

The laudable SMC/SMT area guides (and 'The Journal')  continued documenting Scottish climbing and the endlessly re-editioning and morphing ticklist of The Munros (first edition 1985) gave an approach-led introduction to discovering new crags, often mentioned in passing as the walker was led to the summit tick. For climbers, the mountain area guides provided the best narrative introductions to the climbing conditions and main routes on the mountain crags: North-West Highlands, Islands of Scotland Including Skye, Southern Highlands, Southern Uplands, Central Highlands, The Cairngorms, Ben Nevis - Britain's Highest Mountain (2009), whilst the pocket climbing guides to each area are renowned for their detail and accuracy and are in every climber's nearest access pocket.

Yet still a comprehensive tribute to Scottish mountaineering and cragging was missing. In the 'modern' era of decades since the 70s, ever since cams, sky-hooks and RPs, and since modern precision-designed rock shoes, new rock routes proliferated and grades jumped to E5 and above, now up to the famous E11s by Dave MacLeod. Technology, especially in winter kit (drop-head axes; front-point crampons; thinner, longer ropes; thinner clothing and gloves), allowed a surgical rather than bludgeoned approach to the rimed cliffs, and consequently the 'mixed' tradition in winter has upped the scale of technique and boldness above grade IX. 

Excellent modern guide compilations include Kevin Howett's self-illustrated (these crag drawings are now classics) Rock Climbing in Scotland (1st ed. Constable, 1990), though again the imagery was black and white and the text had to be limited to pitch descriptions rather than expansive narrative. Even at 480 pages, this was subtitled 'a selected guide', but it was the only guide that had all the classic extremes (not to mention the famous midge-rating system!).

The proliferation and popularity of climbing set in train a number of new guide-books to Scotland in the 2000s, such as the excellent SMC guides, including the full-colour selected guide: Scottish Rock Climbs, (ed. Nisbet, 2005) and Scottish Winter Climbs (2nd ed. 2008, ed. Anderson, Nisbet & Richardson). Gary Latter's Scottish Rock in 2 volumes (Pesda Press, 2008), focused on colourful photo-topos (and remarkably Mediterranean weather!) but they of course, as guidebooks, could not make room for too much narrative. Even bouldering had a look-in as a 'mountain activity', with the first Stone Country Guide to Bouldering in Scotland publishing in 2005, focusing on the stony landscape, narrative and photography of Scotland.

Still, no-one had ever really thought to collate the massive geologies of Scotland into one giant book of photography and narrative. The guidebooks were there, but the coffee table was empty of tribute. Thankfully Vertebrate Publishing has fixed this and we have, like a thunderous alpenhorn of calling: The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland (Vertebrate, 2014).

Vertebrate Publishing has stepped into Scotland with a genuine enthusiasm for the unique character of climbing here. It has brought a coffee-table commitment to the format of the book, which is laudable in a digital age when publishers are reining back from costs and large format printing. For those long years, Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton kept gathering and editing (and climbing!), as well as cajoling reticent writers and talented photographers to buy in, at their own cost, to the project.

The result is a collection of everything dear to the Scottish climber (or 'climber in Scotland', whatever you prefer, though climbing here does tend to make you a 'Scottish' climber if you stay long enough). The book is a compilation of the main mountain crags represented through the words of climbers, the eye of photographers such as Colin Threlfall and Dave Cuthbertson (amongst other talented snappers), and the clarifying lenses of poets. Perhaps climbers performing are just physical poets, at least when they get the moves right!

Each section is introduced by a stunning landscape photograph and a poem from Stuart Campbell. He sets the climbing in context to the land in each area, combining stone and ice with resonant geologies of human presence in the Highlands, and some of these really stand out, my favourite from 'The Islands' containing these echoing lines:

'Here you can look over the edge
into the half-life of the earth,
see: the spoor of the dinosaurs on the Jurassic shore.
We camped on the footprints of a croft
a man once kept at Coruisk;
little remains, everything so far removed ...
pinnacles, geos, ridges ... Crimps, smears ...
You give everything; to risk it,
not the falling, but that exaltation ...'

Some of the photography is the best yet published. Dave Cuthbertson's shot of Dave MacLeod on Dalriada on The Cobbler, in MacLeods's 'apprenticeship' piece on the venue, with the black sea of nothingness behind him as he crimps up a bottomless wall, ropes telegraphing commitment beneath him, is beautiful to behold in print. Colin Threlfall's broad panoramas of the Cuillin, and crag shots such as the remote winter cliffs of Mainreachan Buttress, as well as his frontispiece spreads for the sections, are some of the best landscape photographs out there. The individual 'action' shots from belay partners are remarkably good and often unposed, due to the nifty digital cameras available today: Tony Stone on Sron Ulladale's The Scoop is at once both inviting and terrifying.

Highlights in the writing include:

  • Mark McGowan's candid account of soloing Shibboleth (E2) on Slime Wall, the photographs make me shiver with disbelief every time
  • Guy Robertson's account of a winter ascent of centurion on The Ben - thrilling and elemental stuff leading to a summit experience more akin to the Himalayas
  • Ian Taylor's baffled account of finding Church Door Buttress apparently dry and having to climb its classic extremes...
  • Jason Currie's puzzlement at a marginal guidebook scribble leading to a technical and physical resolution on Beinn Eighe
  • Roger Webb's tale of the fickle Quinag and new-routing in winter
  • Kevin Howett's historical entertainment of competitive tradding on Arran
  • Grant Farquhar on climbing and nostalgia and the Great Prow of Bla Bheinn

Possibly my only criticism would be that there were no female writers in the collection, despite a number having contributed to Scottish climbing over the years (Cynthia Grindley, Jo George etc.). The ratio of male to female is certainly not to zero. Perhaps in future the gender imbalance on the extreme routes will not be so obvious as climbing abilities between the sexes narrow, due to the opportunity to train and the precedence of a few notably talented and active female traditional climbers raising the expectations, such as Tess Fryer.

The selection of crags and venues in the book is well balanced between rock and winter, and of course it is a selection, as many major cliffs remain almost devoid of routes for their size, such as the mighty Sgurr on Eigg, though it has a few modern classic extremes and seemed a glaring omission from this collection. Then again, there are plenty of large crags that didn't 'make it' and Scotland is a massively folded, 3D landscape with many hidden and remote crags, so this is hardly a criticism, and the book is really meant to be inspirational rather than completist. It couldn't be, considering the territory and the history of climbing we have.

This is an essential book to own if you are a climber. It is truly inspirational. And the thing about this book is its dual end-product: its archival worth and its visual and literary inspiration. As an archive, it is a document of a community's soul, each climber's experiences adding to the spirit of the Scottish mountains, despite it all being necessarily personal and individual at the crux moments! And inspiration, because a book like this shows that the climbers in this book are channeling something much bigger than themselves - an energy of challenge and adventure which will send an electric charge through every reader, youthful and experienced alike.

Amazon are selling the book at discount here >>>