Monday 26 July 2010

19. The retreat from a Nanatuk

19. The retreat from a Nanatuk

One and half hours flight north of Tromso the turboprop aircraft punches through the cloud cover to reveal a fabulous sight, A group of dark islands, with huge glaciers running into the sea. The fjords are chocked with icebergs caused by glacial seracs crashing away from the ice mass into the cold north Atlantic Ocean. Longyearbern is the Norwegian capital of the Spitzbergen archipelago, a group of ice covered coal rich islands well within the Artic Circle.

I love the arctic regions; the cold harshness has a fascinating beauty. Unforgiving and barren for the most part, however in the summer time, teaming with a short blast of procreative life. I am here filming some wildlife footage for the BBC and a small British Schools expedition.

Having spent much of my life in snow, in tents and in wild places I was lucky enough to find a nice niche whilst working in the film business. I found my self on many trips and expeditions not only performing my camera assistant duties but also trying to keep camera crews safe. I was handed the Lee Enfield 303 and two rounds of ammunition. Only two? I quizzed, yep the marine replied, “if don’t drop the polar bear with one shot, you wont have enough time to get a second shot off, then you are just a walking seal to them, and it will be pissed-off”.

After the majority of the film duties had been completed Brian the cameraman, the sound recordist and I decide to forge deeper into the inland. The rib dropped us off at the glacier snout away from the mini tidal waves being caused by the falling ice. In a few moments we had walked up the moraine to the clean glacier ice. I roped everyone up and fixed on all of our crampons. We trek up the ice threading our way between the deep crevasses that split the glacier surface. Our target is a Nunutak or ice surrounded peak, a couple of miles up the glacier. As we walk on it becomes slowly clear that our sound recordist is getting spooked by the creaking of the ice and the deep holes in the ice surface. Hill walking in the Lake District has been his limit before this little jaunt.

As we move on, the snow starts to fall wet and claggy. It begins to foul-up the undersides of Barry’s crampons. This turns them onto roller skates, further unsettling the situation. His unease is beginning to worry me to. He is a big unit and if he slips at the edge of a crevasse whilst trying to jump it, he may pull us all in. I pull the plug on the jaunt. Just in time, the summer Artic snow is covering our tracks and the solid snow bridges. The ice path down is quickly becoming obscured. As we decent the snow turns to sleet then rain. How quickly a simple walk can turn. Although I think sometimes I am inclined to turn back too early. On balance today, despite the pressure to get the shot, I feel happy with the decision.

For me there are few things more wonderful than introducing people to the mountains. But it has to be done gently and in a way that they learn to love it. Pushing people so they become scared and fearful of an outdoor activity, or using outdoor activities to break people and then how tell them this, somehow this is a valuable life or team-building experience is unforgivable. In our modern world there are so few opportunities given to people to play in the outdoors, they should be golden opportunities. If they are not, you are robbing them of the gift of exploring in nature.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Spectrum Magazine 18th July 2010

18. The selfish gene

Summer, Edinburgh 1990 or 1992…

It’s been sunny for 4 weeks and all of the high mountain crags are dry. Shelterstone Crag in the Cairngorms has finally lost the snow patch, which sat on top of it all spring causing the climbs to remain wet for day after frustrating day. I know this dryness won’t last, but my girlfriend keeps asking me ‘why can’t it wait until next weekend?’ when she is visiting her parents. After all, I have been away every weekend this month. She also points out that I have trained twice this week in the evenings, and there is a party this weekend and she wants me to come with her.

Oh fuck, a dilemma. I know the outcome even before the discussion arises; I am going climbing, come hell or high water. But she still thinks or I let her think, there is a chance I will relent. I knew it on Monday as soon as the smelly clothes from the previous weekend had been tipped out on the floor. No rain, no boyfriend in the city. The debate rages all week, right up until Thursday evening when the forecast shows rain on Monday. The conversation edges around the usual topics of… “you knew what you were letting yourself in for”, to… “Make a choice, the climbing or me”. That I am afraid is the clincher. We sleep beside each other in tension. This is an unresolved question. No one is winning here. I wish her well at the party and the door is closed.

Gordon and I are navigating in a cloud “white out”, to the climber’s path that splits Hells Lum and leads down to the base of Shelterstone Crag. The bad weather is moving in faster than forecast. Despite the cloud, the crag is still sort of dry. We rope up at the start of Needle, the classic “extreme” route of the cliff. The entire walk-in I have been totally preoccupied by the week’s bullshit. Can’t she see I won’t change? Does she not realise how important this is to me. Even when Gordon finishes the first 100-foot pitch I am still debating with my split needs. Love (or sex) or the escape to the hills. Is it possible to find a balance?

As soon as the rope comes tight at my waist, things change. I am jerked into seeking balance on the rock. The pink granite is cold to touch, hard and unforgiving. The rock is a hard mistress. It easily pushes you away. Its rewards are sometimes elusive and painfully won. Now there is no hidden agenda; total focus. I am leading over a small bulge in the rock. It’s steep and there is not much protection to keep me feeling safe. I must trust my strength, my feet and my instinct. Gordon and I move up the 1000 foot cliff, leap froging each other into the lead position. There is a fantastic tension on a big rock route; driven to climb but in awe of the position you find yourself in… natural trepidation, carefulness, the space beneath your feet. By mistake, at the top belay stance, I push a small rock from the ledge with my feet. It bounces once, 50 foot below and spins vertically 800 hundred feet down, smashing into pieces on the scree below. Suddenly on this ledge, I feel exposed, stuck between the sky and the hard rocks below. The top pitch of the route is still a puzzle to me, its secrets waiting to be unlocked. I am in a limbo state, on a journey I have not finished, I have not reached the sky, but nor am I standing on the firm ground.

Spectrum Magazine 18th July 2010

Passing of a Generation

It’s a beautiful day in Dunkeld. The rock is dry. I feel buff. It’s one of those rare shirt off six-pack (in those days) sunny rock days. Here in this little world, at “upper cave crag” today, I am king. No one at the crag is climbing as well as I am. I am lapping a hard rock route that most people can’t even get off the ground on, for training. The rope spins 25m up to the top of the cliff through a single carabiner. 10mm of steel between me and the ground, but I have no fear. I know this place, I know the gear, and I know people are watching. It’s all good.

It’s hard not to feel egotistical about this, impressed by myself, but I am conscious of trying not to let this show; too much. After all, I have put in a lot of work to get this good, it’s fun and it’s a nice day in a special place. Rab (Anderson) and I are having fun quipping with each other trying to outdo each other on the route and on the ground. This is a mix of ego and physical training. I think there is some sort of essential need to train self belief when you take part in a difficult potentially dangerous sport. It’s important to believe, too convince and then to “know” that you are invincible. It’s a game really and we do know it deep down, but confidence is sometime quite superficial. And today we are being knowingly superficial and it’s fun.

The world of elite Scottish climbing is small and whether you are king of the cliff, your climbing wall, or the country, one day the king will see the future. Lion Kings eat the young of the competitors that may grow up to threaten them. Climbers have no such luxury. There are routes, which mark stages of development or nerve, and often those barking or snapping too closely at the heels of the old pretenders are pointed at these routes. Sometimes this was malicious sometimes even dangerous (that’s another story), a slap in the face to keep the old order intact. Sandbagging it’s called; it is a fearful unpleasant aspect of a sport that claims virtuous intentions and higher morals.

Today shambling up to the cliff is a young 16-year-old kid with dread locks and shabby skate shoes. I know the name, heard the rumours, but this is my first view and encounter. You could tell by looking at his fingers that he could be strong. They are thickened at the knuckles and flat at the tips. An affect only gained by a lot of climbing. The routes in Dunkeld at the time were amongst the hardest and finest of their type and are still a real test of ones ability, if hard sport climbing is the goal.

The kid dumped his pack on the ground. Trying not to be too interested I sit down to watch the performance. A friendly but aware conversation strikes up. Helpfully, we help the youth work out some of the movements and sequences you are required know if you are to successfully climb the route. He grabs the first hold and steps off the ground. In a position that I really struggle to stay on, he stops. He takes one hand off the rock to put on hand-drying chalk. This is not for show, but a genuine unconscious move. How long can I keep up the pretence?

Up the overhanging route the kids climbs, slowly, in control, looking for each small foothold and finger placement. It’s impressive; no it’s amazing. In all sports there are small incremental progressions. Then occasionally there are Hussain Bolt like, leaps forward. Before my very eyes I am witnessing one such shift. I am looking at the future. This is not an attainable change of gear for me; this is not something I can achieve with work. This is seismic. The question is now how to respond.

I hope, in balance, I responded with graciousness, if not apologies. It is hard to face mortality sometimes. This kid was Malcolm Smith who has turned out to be one of the finest climbers in the world and one of the humblest climbers on the planet. Actions speak louder than words. God I am a slow learner.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Spectrum Magazine 25th June 2010

14.The skin I am in

Its been a full day so far, and I can’t do the bloody move. Hanging on a rope just below the handhold, nursing my index finger.

I am on a hard rock climb in Glen Ogle called “Off the beaten Track” its an 8a route put up by a friend of mine and he has thin fingers. Whilst the grade of the climb will mean nothing to most, the issue is this. Its very steep it overhangs 4m in its 18m length. When you lower from the top of the route you spin around in space unable to touch the rock. Its also very complicated, and powerful. Climbing at this level is like learning a dance routine, every movement very specific, every foot placement has to be precise to the centimetre, every hand hold has to be taken millimetre perfect. But for each climber attempting the route, the dance is slightly different the change in sequence dictated by morphology. There are 60 individual, identifiable hand and foot movement required to be performed in succession, almost perfectly.

Although hard, this route is not at the super elite level but there are still only a handful of climbers able to complete this climb so it’s a very nice prize, and to do the route in a day a true test. When you are at your limit it’s the minutia, that start to matter, the temperature of the rock, the humidity content of the air the state of you climbing shoes, and your skin.

The hold for my left hand is the size of the top an iPod Nano, (quite good, really) my left on an edge the size of a small USB stick, I lift my left foot on to a pound coin sized dimple. I have to reach up high with my right hand and stuff the tips of two fingers into a small hole in the rock, there is a sharp crystal of quartz in this hole and it hurts as it presses into the joint of your index finger. It cuts into the skin.

For 15 years I have trained to get stronger to climb on bits of rock, I have driven thousands of miles to find warm dry rock, spent a fortune on flights, gear and rope and climbed in four continents in the pursuit of this 2cm deep hole. I forgot, the other factor here is of course gravity. Gravity sucks, literally on a good day you can pull into the vertical world and you feel light, bouncy and open. On a bad day its slow, heavy and your nervous.

The fear of falling is always there, sometime its very strong and it restricts your vision, compresses your movement, sometime its just a slight background noise an inconvenience, a waste of effort. However today I have another problem, the fallibility of our biggest organ (from Latin cutis, skin). It is the wrap that holds the bag of our body together; it lets us know many things. It is the interface between our soul, mind, body and our environment. It is crucial in our understanding of our state of being. It is both tough and delicate. On my right index finger in climbing parlance, I have a large flapper, the deep wide tear in the skin is now bleeding, the strain of my body weight on the crystal edge just too much for my to take. So that’s it, game over. No more attempts on this baby. I have known many climbers scream in frustration when this happens, years of training, pent up ambition, the competitive edge bursting out, just as the skin gives way to human fallibility. 5 layers of flesh between success and failure, the nice thing is though; it grows back and is easily healed, unlike the ego.

Spectrum Magazine 19th June 2010

15.The Risk Business

“The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. (Becker, Ernest)”

So that’s it, to feel “alive” we must at times be close to death whilst our survival instincts try and protect us from risk.

If there is a thing such as acceptable risk, who are the custodians of that risk? Who decides where the limits lie and the value of risk to the individual, and society as a whole? A constant bleat from the tabloids is about the risk to the rescuers, the cost, and stupidity of those needing help. Putting aside those who patently are ill equipped, the majority needing the services of rescue teams are exercising their rights to take calculated risk given their respective abilities and experience. Rescue teams are, for the most part, volunteer enthusiasts, and in the case of the professional rescue services eg. the RAF, they have cleverly integrated pilot and crew training into the fantastic cover they provide.

The real question is, as a society, is risk for the individual acceptable or valuable for the country as a whole? We are living in an increasingly risk adverse or controlled country where the prevalent health and safety culture has seeped beyond the necessary need to protect the individual from the unscrupulous, into the realms of infringing onto personal responsibility. I feel at times that we are also drifting towards a more litigious culture where individuals having genuine accidents are encouraged to seek damages and find fault. In the USA the situation exists where Layers and insurance companies hover around every mountain accident, looking to sue the guide, the outfitters or the equipment manufacturer. Those who they think may provide the biggest post accident nest egg possible. Some time ago I broke my back and was smashed up in a climbing wall incident. I was advised to sue or at least find fault. I declined to do so. As an adult entering an adventure sport I automatically take on those genuine risks associated with the sport myself, stone fall, lighting strike, avalanche and genuine human fallibility. I don’t need to be told, like some idiot in a hamburger chain, that the cup contents are hot when there is steam pissing out of the lid.

The arguments surrounding the need for business to take risks are well understood and accepted. It is an economic argument; as those who succeed will genuinely profit the country. Personal informed risk is a little trickier, but to live in a culture where there are no explorers, no adventurers to inspire, no stories to marvel at, will be a grey and much less rich one. One where the grey suits have won, the bland conformity of game shows and celebrity gossip will be our only reference points for vicarious living. When you read “Into Thin Air”, or “Touching the Void”, you should celebrate the struggle and be thankful that someone is actually still willing to push himself or herself to the limit in order to feel fully alive.

If you are unpacking your rucksack today having surfed a monster, climbed a great route, jumped a huge kicker, you should toast yourselves. You are part of the same sprit that sent a man to the moon. Is does not need to make sense or be logical. Don’t listen to the doubters who say you are mad, and ask you why? Just be polite and quietly know that when your heart is pounding fast, the blood is coursing through your veins and you palms are sweating with fear and anticipation, that you and Neil Armstrong are brothers and sisters in adventure.