Sunday, 16 May 2010

Spectrum Magazine 16th May 2010

Wonder world and the dread of not knowing

A short parable to start with…

Two years ago I had the fine experience to find my self in Kalymonos Greece on a climbing trip. It’s a limestone festooned island with black volcanic ash beaches. It not over developed, not tacky and kind of rustic, run down and nice. We were climbing in a small group of people who all new each other but not that well. After a late start, as we were waiting for the sun to leave the cliff so we could climb in the cool I reached the top of my first warm up climb. It was a 30m route sitting on a big cliff 100m off the sea on a raised beach. The last two moves of the route involved climbing through an exposed layer of fossils embedded in the limestone matrix; quite beautiful.

As my partner lowered me to the ground, I just happened to comment that I thought that it was amazing that we were playing and taking pleasure from a structure that a billion years ago had been at the bottom of the sea. A shell, which was once alive, had found itself as crucial hold on a rock climb. My partner then said that this was not true, and that the world was only 7000 years old and that all fossils were put there by God as a test of true faith. I was flabbergasted! ‘Evolution is an unproven theory’, he continued. Well the latter point may be worth debating whilst stoned in a tent somewhere in the high mountains to pass the time in a storm. The fossil “test” assertion, however, was absolutely impossible to argue against. The cold logical conclusion that every thing was a test of faith is clinically final; end of argument.

From my earliest excursions in the North West of Scotland, I have wondered at the rocks. The beauty of 1000ml year old Torridonian sandstone, which already prehistoric, contain even more ancient river wash pebbles. The huge folds in the Lewisian Gniess in the cliffs above Kinlochewe, signal ancient forces pushing the crust of the earth with unfathomable pressure, 2500ml years before any thing walked in the tropical forests and deserts of Scotland, when our ancient mountains were high mountain ranges.

To the struggling climber they are just an inconvenient change in friction. But to me they are an unimaginable mystery in time. Imagine the next time you walk on Sullivan that this beautiful form is just the crumbling stub of a once great mountain, which could have been tens of thousands of feet high.

The pebble beaches of Tiree are strewn with hundreds of different rock types all rounded off into fist size pebbles all from different eras. They are some of the oldest rocks in the world, there for you to touch. Sitting on top of this West Coast Mountain at the junction between the ancient sandstone and the Gniess, to me is truly a spiritual experience. It does not have a text laid out in front it, to try and make sense of the vastness of creation. It has no pacifying psalms, torahs, verses or chants to try and explain the wonder. It leaves me open, with no answers, no creed, no tribe, rules or dogma. I do not need an answer. Touching this land, these rocks, walking in this fantastic landscape fills me with a wondrous joy. I know that I am part of this universe and that the material that made me, the crystals of the rock, the fingers of the wind and the waves on the beach, are all from the same source.

We live in an ancient and incredible land. The mountains lochs and beaches, all tell a tale of an incomprehensible time line. From where it comes from I do not know, where it is going; only time will tell. But here, just now on this mountain watching this sunset, its beauty makes me cry with wonder. The next time you have the chance, pause on your walk, climb, ride or run, put your hands on the earth and thank whatever creation you believe in, that you have the gift of consciousness.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Spectrum Magazine 9th May 2010

What is Extreme Sport

ex·treme adj

1. highest in intensity or degree -

2. going far beyond what is reasonable or normal, drastic or unreasonable measures

3. denoting an activity in which participants actively seek out dangerous or even life-threatening experiences

Since the adoption of the word “extreme” by sport marketers in the mid nineties, every naff product wishing to be associated with mountain and street sports has become “extreme”. Every thing from poisonous “energy” drinks to razor blades, have ridden on the back of images nicked for my/your sports.

In the USA and now I hope Europe, here there is solid backlash from Mountain and street sports practitioners against the “Rad”icalization of the activities they hold dear. The mainstream media is full of these types of images. Insurance companies and banks, using mountaineering and climbing images to sell their financial services, beauty and male grooming products and car companies trying to sell flatbed trucks they may think will appeal to the young trendy lifestyle people, whoever they are.

Almost weekly I get asked, what is the most extreme thing I have done, wow you’re an extreme sports person, I really hope not. Dave Macleod a Scot, is arguably the best all round climber in the world at the moment, he is far from extreme, on his most difficult and dangerous routes, he is never working at the “Highest” level of intensity, he does not take unreasonable measures “for him” and he does not seek out life threatening experiences, Dave would describe them as, life enhancing. Dave and people on the cutting edge of mountain sport do not seek out death. They are cool, calculated and very, very measured.

The cutting edge big mountain boarder Xavier de Le Rue from France, boards regularly on the steepest faces Chamonix has to offer, Glen Plake the inventor of modern big mountain skiing equally tests, conditions, hones his skills, watches the weather and the temperatures fastidiously. They do exceptional things, inspiring things, but they do not take unreasonable risks. Even the word adventure in the sense of risk is over used. Yvon Chounaird the founder of Patagonia Equipment and 1% for the Planet Foundation said “its only adventure when things go wrong”

My point is that words like extreme and rad have lost their value; they have been adopted by the marketing mainstream to sell products using images of sports and activities that they do not understand. Whilst this may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things, there is another contributing factor. For years companies have used/taken the styles and images from these sports and given nothing back. Its for the most part, take. These images of death deifying risk, also act as barriers to participation, images of untouchable “radical” elitism serve to push people away from outdoor activities and this is a great mistake.

We live in a country with a predicted obesity rate of 60% for all UK adults in 10 years. With an increasing level of sedentary behaviour In a more litigious and risk adverse society, we don’t need multinationals just taking imagery to sell stuff. We need investment. We need more outdoor education in schools, more skate parks, mountain bike tracks and facilities generally. We need more and better-funded programs to encourage our youth into these activities, which once adopted remain key life enhancers for many years.

I am not against marketing companies and brands associating with outdoor and street sports, in fact the opposite. But we the consumer have a job to educate the companies who take, and do not invest in the qualities they purport to promote, through using “lifestyle” images groomed from our activities.

How do we do this, quite simply, don’t by the products. If you know a company who is investing in competitions, grass routes activities and/or supporting the athletes, buy the phone, used the face cream and drink the drink; If not boycott them.

You may think this is extreme, I don’t think so, after all, if the predictions are right, soon the western world is going to be so unfit, that only images of active people you might be left with will be of me. And you don,t want that.

Spectrum Magazine 2nd May 2010

Lyrca and Cake

Holy smoke! Despite all of my best efforts, all of the promises that I was not going to loose the fitness I had last autumn; losing weight, avoiding cakes and exercising throughout the winter, the computerised bathrooms scales say NO. I am a good solid 4kg overweight. There are always plenty of excuses. The bouldering room was too cold through the winter, the nearest climbing wall a 45 minutes drive away, the gym too expensive for just a 4 month membership and I could not get onto the ski slopes as much as normal. The plain truth of it is, just not enough discipline; too much Vacqueyras and too many good meals and cakes. I sometimes feel that hidden just below the surface of this vaguely sporty body is a huge ice cream, chocolate, fast-food bloater, waiting to explode.

I am lucky enough to live near big hills and within a population that understands cyclists. They give you a wide berth and understand the efforts you are putting in. Apart from a brief period in the late eighties when climbers wore very loud lyrca, I don’t do it. However slim a man you may be, the VPL, the meat and two vedge look, only works in certain New York clubs. It’s not great in public.

However, today and for the next 2 months I will make an exception. Despite the humiliation of walking about like a duck in stiff shoes, despite the inevitable butt pain, the stupid macho drivers, who think it is funny to honk and cut you up, it’s time to embrace the torture of the road bike. Standing there in my all black cold weather lyrca skin tight suit, l look, to all the world like some tall, nerdy super hero with a small pot belly.

Having spent almost all of my sporting life on natural terrain, road biking still feels a little alien, somehow too urban, to serious, to sporty. After all, its an Olympic sport with teams and god forbid, rules! However it’s one of those activities that since discovering it 3 to 4 years ago, keeps suckering me in.

The best bike training advice I was ever given was cadence. Try to stick at between 80 and 110 revolutions per minute. It efficiently helps the heart pump around the blood and means you are never grinding to hard or spinning so fast that you bounce up and down on the saddle. One of my favourite rides is from Roy Bridge to Newtonmore on the A86. The climb out of the town towards Moy Lodge is just enough to keep you honest and is not too off-putting for an early season ride. The early descents along the loch side towards the climber’s car park at Craig Meagaigh are fast open and fun. The lack of caravans wobbling past, or slowing you down on the single track is a blessing at this time of year.

After the first 20 minutes, I rediscover why secretly, I actually really like road biking. The feeling of travelling at speed under you own steam, the pacing, the time to look at the mountains, smell the land, it all comes back quickly.

Conveniently enough for the faint hearted, just when I begin to feel the need, along comes the WolfTrax MTB centre, and its chance for me to put back in some of those calories I have just burnt off, I take it. Carrot cake.

Hey I deserve it; just making the initial effort to get out on the road is cause for celebration. The problem now is that I am hooked again, that constant straining of the endorphin drug, pulling me out of the house into the superhero suit. So beware, on a road somewhere is a thinning bald man with a fat man inside, waiting to pop out and grab the nearest passing cake.