Monday 4 October 2010

Spectrum Magazine Sept 2010. Hair Loss

Hair Loss

Its funny how you often reference your self though exterior affectations, creating an image of yourself to feel comfortable with your place in the universe. Clothes, activities, music, and cars all make up a projected image for the outside world. These accoutrements act as a shield often protecting a soft interior from a hard world full of forces beyond your control.

For a man there are many steps you must go through on the path to peace, (if you can find it) and these are about accepting who you are and learning to live with the cards you have been dealt. Occasionally you can reshuffle the pack, chuck out the jokers and bend the corners of the aces in the pack so they can be more easily found.

One such moment is the day that you embrace or accept hair loss. I can hear you laughing as I am but hey, it’s a visual sign of ageing, or as would like to think, ‘maturity’ - whatever that is. My transition from longhaired rock god to bald coot was almost instantaneous and excruciatingly painful.

Working as a cameraman on ‘The Edge’ for Triple Echo Productions and BBC Scotland was an amazing opportunity. To make a series about Scottish mountaineering was a dream come true and unlike most productions we were filming using 16mm film. It was the real deal and not video, but on the mountain it was quite a responsibility especially when you chucked in an ice climb on Ben Nevis mid winter into the mix. We had just finished filming Dave “Cubby “ Cuthbertson on a Mega Route X, a top quality ice wall on the north face. Wrap was called and we were all exiting the hill and looking forward to a beer in the fort. I carried out the derigging so was carrying about 25kg of gear as I abseiled back down the ice wall. Descending the rope I looked down to check a foot placement, and a long length of hair wrapped itself around the rope and got pulled into my abseil device. In no time my head was pulled down into the Figure Eight through which the rope passed.

With so much weight on the icy wet ropes and with no way to let go for long enough to rig a prusik (a way to climb up a rope in an emergency) I was essentially trapped and unable to let go, unable to move up or down. Every time I shifted my weight the hair got pulled deeper into the jammed rope jack-knifing my back. Soon my forehead was touching the device in my harness. With the lock of hair well and truly stuck, I had only one option. I tried to slowly pull my head back whilst jigging up and down on the rope but it just made it worst and it was bloody sore. I took a deep breath and yanked my head back as hard as I could, and with a brain stripping yelp, ripped my head free leaving a large clump of frozen hair stuck in the rope. Relieved to be free I slowly lowered my self down the ice wall, and looking back up I could see a chuck of long hair slowly spinning around stuck to the rope above me. It was painful for sure but the greatest damage was to my carefully tailored image now that I was left with a massive - or so its seemed to me - chunk of bare, red forehead painfully heralding the loss of youth and the onset of middle age.

Everyone has to eventually embrace the ageing process, the saggy bits and/or the loss of hair. It’s a good thing. It’s a transition. The back comb, the flip over, or worse still a toupee are all cosmetic and faintly ridiculous, what matters is what is inside. No amount of cosmetic surgery, botox or decoration will hide your reality from your self. I am not appealing to you to grow older gracefully. On the contrary, grow old disgracefully, embrace the inner baldy, shave it off and get out and play.

Spectrum Magazine Sept 2010. A Bad Sign

A Bad Sign

There is an argument going on in the hill walking and mountain world at the moment that raises the hackles of many on both sides. So I thought I would stick my boot into the debate. Actually it’s not really a debate its more a polarised rant between two sides that will never meet due to extreme comprehension differences. Great, a good bun fight. Its not about something like commercial trip on Everest, or the use of fixed bolts on rock routes or even wind farms or pylons in National Parks, all of which deserve a good bit of mud slinging if you’re in the mood. Nope, its about way markers and footpath signs.

In an effort to encourage people into the hills to partake in healthy walking activity it is suggested that sign posts are placed at key points along road side, path junctions and on ridges to make navigation easier and to promote people to venture in the hills.

What a dumb idea.

Not the encouraging people to be active I mean, pretty much all of my work life is to do just that, either by trying to inspire people to think deeply about the value of an outdoors life or by designing and building climbing walls and adventure parks and of course spouting on the Adventure Show about sport, and love of mud.

Nope it’s the sign posts. Scotland is wild barren and beautiful, one of the great joys is the exploration of its landscape and its scenery is as a personal journey. Also it’s a mountain, not a duck ramble in the Lake District, there are certain skills you need to have to survive in the hills. More importantly conditions in the Scottish hills are sometimes so bad and it can change from good visibility to appalling and in a very short space of time you can not see. Nobody in there right mind would suggest that you should not carry a weatherproof Jkt in the hills even in summer, so why take away another valid safety tool, a compass.

In Fact the argument for putting sign post on mountain tops to point the way down is so ridiculous it just demonstrates how far away the realities of the hill walking and mountaineering fraternity can be from those who don,t practise there sports in the mountains.

There is no real argument here, you need to be prepared, with all of the personal skills and equipment to happily survive in a potentially uncomfortable and difficult environment. The proliferation of stone pitched footpaths unfortunately is a necessary evil needed to protect the hills from erosion. But how many times on these paths have prepared walkers and climbers come across street shod, sandwich in bag carrying families struggling up these stone staircases. On Ben Nevis which is as close to a way marked mountain in Scotland, the numbers of ill equipped punters struggling on the hill is alarming. Never shy of an opinion I am, however I do change my mind often why counter arguments are well made, or sometimes just made. But on this one I am not for moving. Hill walking is not just about walking up a hill. It’s a skill with depth and richness. If you want to play tennis you don’t ask for the court to be made wider to hold in your bad shots or to lower the net lower because you’re backhand is rubbish. Oh but I forgot playing tennis your unlikely to get into trouble and wander over a cliff. So as I think no one is advocating putting steel cables over An’ Tellach yet, learn the stuff, respect the wild landscape and enjoy the great gifts of freedom and take some responsibility for yourself. But if you do want to follow a cable or rope to the top of a mountain, Everest has one waiting for you.

Spectrum Magazine Sept 2010. The French Alps

Alpine first steps

I was brought up, or brought myself up, on a menu of Chris Bonnington, Dougal Haston and Joe Brown climbing books. As a dyslexic they had to be of interest as reading was a tough challenge for me: you should see these stories before they are edited….

When I started to climb the natural progression was from local crags to mountain crags in Scotland, then to winter climbing, the Alps, and ultimately the Himalaya. At the age of 17 I bought a rail card and headed for Chamonix the French Alpine Mecca, intending to get along the road to the Himalayas. The campsite was a hot sweaty walk from the Cham train station. In those days it was a small football pitch called Snells Field, an illegal climbers squat with a reputation for being rough and drunken. On the site was a motley crew of Glaswegians hardened in the valley of Glen Coe, a few Japanese, some laconic Yorkshire men and us. About 30 in all. We got a feel for the valley which included an aborted shoplifting attempt in the local supermarket. Incidentally I eventually paid whilst the other stuffed sausages and cheeses into the pockets and rucksacks. Not bold enough. Some creeping future guilt projected me towards the till.

On the way back to the campsite, the air bristled with electricity, and soon lightening and thunder filled the granite walled valley. The storm lasted for three days. Heavy hot air filled the forest turning the football field into a series of small tent platforms each surrounded by a moat attempting to divert the stream of under trap water.

Fun really, but soon the scene became very sober. Our Japanese tent mates had been high up on a remote route called the Walker Spur and had all died in the storm, stuck in heavy wet snow without enough protection or shelter. Their remaining friends trooped in and in silence dismantled their dead friends’ tents, and left us all of their remaining tins of food. It was a pitiful and heartbreaking sight. The Mont Blanc Massif is a beautiful, wonderful, and completely unforgiving place. Fired up by the strength of youth and with minimal experience, hundreds of young bucks like myself throw themselves into the mountains with little or no knowledge of how to survive in the high snowy Alps. More by luck then design, most survive to build up enough knowledge and instinct to manage a few routes during the hottest summer months. But experience has shown me that it’s often better to be out in the Alps during the spring or the autumn when the weather is cooler and more stable.

Two or three days after this and I find myself queuing for the Aiguille du Midi telepherique (Cable Car) with a hairy bloke from Stirling University. I have never climbed with him before but he looks the part, all Moac Tartan Shirt and full beard. And what’s more, he looked like Doug Scott, a climbing legend, and he was called Doug. What could be better?

The Frendo Spur

The Aiguille du Midi telepherique is truly a magnificent engineering achievement. In two long sections, it runs from the valley floor from 1000m to 3842m, a head spinning altitude, at break neck speed which leaves the unconditioned gasping for breath and in the first hot sweat of altitude sickness.

We get off at the mid station, below the mountain proper, and hike in the mid afternoon heat to the couloirs at the base of this classic route. A steady stream of stones are falling off the mountain thudding into the snow at the base of the climb. We wait an hour or so, and as the sun dips behind the massif we sprint under our heavy packs onto the orange granite that marks the start of the route proper. Our packs are traditionally heavy. It used to be that you would climb the first part of the route, a long rock buttress to below a long sun licked snow arête in the evening, and then rise at dawn to climb the snow arête in the frozen cool of the next morning. By pitch 3 it’s obvious to me that I am moving a little better on the climb than Doug. He is not feeling too great, maybe fatigue, maybe altitude. So I find myself pushing out in front as the sun turns from white to yellow, to orange and deep ocher blue. The Route is a magnificent 1200m long. Just as the sun decides to start illuminate some Californian surfer we reach our bed for the night, a small flat platform the size of a good-sized garden rug. We break out the primus and it splutters into life. I am pooped, and soon the tepid pasta and tea works its magic, and we drift off to sleep, the lights of Cham blinking in the valley below. The still of the night was broken occasionally by the sound of distant rock fall. These mountains are always alive.

By the light of a dimming head torch we packed our sacs and cajoled our stiff and cold bodies into action. A short pitch or two of easy rock climbing led to what could be the most perfect snow ridge I have ever seen. This time Doug is really lagging, and I lead up the snow. It’s hundreds of meters to the summit ridge and the end of the route, but I am enjoying the special place I am in. By 10am we are at the rock buttress at the top of the ridge, the last obstacle to the end of the route. This is the hardest climbing of the route and now it is rarely done, but back in the day this was the crux and the best way to finish the route. By now the Chamonix guides are on the arête below having caught the early morning cable car and are steaming up the arête to the summit rocks, their poor clients dragged along by an unforgiving leash tugging constantly at their waists. Poor clients, but the guides’ fitness is truly impressive and it signals a massive difference between the newbie and the professional. The rock buttress is a big struggle and I resort to full alpine technique, which involves forgetting style and pulling on every bit of fixed gear, slings et al. After an epic struggle with the “bitch” rucksack on my back trying to pull me off the rock backwards, I flop happily in the sun on the Ridge at the top of the route. Poor Doug is floundering below, getting slower and slower, but after much hauling and cursing we finally sit together happy and tired in the sun. 3000m below lay Chamonix all ego and testosterone. We however are spent. I have a lot to learn.

Back in the valley after a fab Alpine route above Chamonix I arrive sore footed and sun burnt back to my steamy, overheated tent in the football field that serves as the illegal campsite home for British and dosser climbers. Its kind of filthy and we sneak into the Biolay campsite adjacent for a free shower and a clandestine crap whilst trying to remain below the custodians’ radar.

The campsite is raucous tonight. All of us residents have climbed big routes during a fab week of calm, storm free weather and it’s time to celebrate. As a quieter highlander I am slightly overwhelmed by the riotous Glaswegians at the other side of the campsite. The Glasgow crews, the Todd Twins, are hard partying, hard climbing, and accompanied by Paraffin and the aptly named Harpic. My idea of fun is a six-pack and a small toke, but these boys are in full mode and have built a huge fire in the campsite. By the wee hours they are still going strong and their spirits are well lubricated by equally spiritual beverages. It is going off. I am now lying in the mouth of my tent watching the dancing and the increasing tempo of the celebrations. Some time as the night wore on the fire was being stoked by lighter fuel bottles and empty camping gas cylinders.

A new level of frenzy ensued as one of the band of brothers decided to launch a full, oversized canister of propane camping fuel onto the fire. The crowd of twenty or so scattered with shouts of “fire in the hole”. It seemed an age for the climax to happen. All of a sudden the fire exploded in a fireball, forcing shards of shrapnel into the dark sky followed by burning branches and flames. It was exciting, youthful and very funny at the time. A huge sleep alarming boom shook this part of the valley.

Having climaxed, the talking and laughing slowly subsided during the night. I admire their freedom, their sense of the abandonment of convention that I seem bound by. I love their ‘grab it by the scuff of the neck’ attitude that they display.

Sleep comes easily.

Its 8am and the smoldering embers of the bomb crater are now the only residue of the night’s antics. However something far more sinister is moving in the dawn. From my sleeping bag I hear some brisk and angry French voices, and as I open my tent door I am met by the muzzle of a machine gun and am face to face with a rather large Alsatian straining at its leash. Its handler is a member of the gendarmerie. It is a military body charged with police duties among civilian populations in France. You do not piss these guys off and they want us scum balls off this site and now. Whilst the majority of the heat is focused on the fireside camp, I pack up in silence and wonder where in hell I am now going to call home for the next couple of weeks.

Just like all refuge or squatter camps, if you move in and clear one out without actually deporting the residents, another one will soon spring up somewhere else. Deep in the woods above the telepherique station is a quiet, discreet group of plastic sheeted climbers’ summer hovels. It gains a few more residents armed with ice axes and crampons, ready to do battle in the high peaks.