Monday, 30 November 2009

The Night Climbers of Cambridge

Those pesky night climbers of Cambridge University have been at it again. This morning's Metro reports that someone has placed Santa hats on all four pinnacles of King's College Chapel, presumably after climbing the 45m 'routes'. Officials are not impressed and are hiring a steeplejack to retrieve the hats because the task is so dangerous.

As the Night Climbers blog points out, after dark ascents of the University's finest buildings has been part of the Cambridge subculture for over a 100 years, and probably a lot longer. Whipplesnaith's 1937 classic account of the sport was recently reprinted by Oleander Press, to great interest. A small review of the original book nearly made it into the Guardian Book of Mountains but was chopped at the final edit. Manchester Guardian, November 5 1937:

Oleander has also reprinted The Roof-Climbers Guide to Trinity (1900), by Geoffrey Winthrop Young. Often described as the father of modern climbing, there's a beautiful piece written by him about Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman in Those Who Dared.

Captain Cook and the Royal Society

It ranks as one of the greatest sailing ship voyages in the history of exploration but Captain James Cook's second voyage is also remembered for the fact that he saved his crew from scurvy.

Between 1772 and 1775, Cook's ship HMS Resolution (and a consort ship HMS Adventure), came near to discovering Antarctica, charted the Pacific Islands and completed the first west to east circumnavigation in high latitudes. Once back in England, the explorer wrote to the Royal Society to reveal how not one of his crew had died of scurvy because he had filled the ship's hold with "sweet-wort", saurkraut, lemons and vegetables. For this discovery Cook was awarded the Society's gold Copley Medal.

The letter, along with many other scientific milestones described in Letters to the Royal Society, has just been published through an online library project called Trailblazing. Set up as part of the Royal Society's 350th anniversary celebrations, it includes everything from Isaac Newton's account of how white light is a blend of primary colours in the 1670s, through to Stephen Hawking's thoughts on black holes.

For more information on the 'plague of the sea', take a look at the BBC's Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Geoffrey Moorhouse and The Fearful Void

Geoffrey Moorhouse, the author and former Guardian features writer, has died, at the age of 77. He joined the paper in 1958 and, after having produced hundreds of stories on everything from the Matterhorn to the Mormons, left in the early 1970s to concentrate on writing books.

Moorhouse was to publish over 30 titles but one his bestsellers was The Fearful Void, the tale of his epic camel-back journey across the Sahara.

The 41-year old began the 3,600 mile trek in October 1972, the main reason being to examine the roots of his fear and to explore the extremes of human experience. He explained: ''It was because I was afraid that I had decided to attempt a crossing of the great Sahara desert, from west to east, by myself and by camel. No one had ever made such a journey before...'

Despite being tormented by lice, chronic dysentery and finding the food, when there was any, revolting, Moorhouse’s biggest problems stemmed from the local labour he hired to help him on his quest. Amongst other things, they stole food, disappeared into passing tents for affairs d'amour, spilled precious water through carelessness, and broke his sextant.

The journey ended in failure with Moorhouse ill and exhausted, giving up 1,500 miles from his final destination. However, the resulting book did provide a moving record of his struggle with fear and loneliness. There’s a fine Elspeth Huxley essay about it in Those Who Dared, while an interview about the journey can seen below (The Guardian, February 27 1974.)

It must be remembered though that the expedition wouldn’t have happened without the help – however unreliable Moorhouse considered them – of indigenous people (see Hidden Histories posting). In 1987 the British desert explorer Michael Asher and his Italian wife Mariantonietta Peru became the first people to complete the journey by camel across the Sahara Desert, east to west.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mountaineering in Afghanistan

Afghanistan might not be everyone's idea of a holiday destination but adventurous climbers are starting to return to the country's mountainous Hindu Kush area. In the Winter issue of Summit, David James writes how it's packed full of unclimbed peaks, near perfect weather and is an ideal introduction to high altitude mountaineering. As for danger - as in the Taliban, rather than avalanches and rock-falls - he writes:

"the remote and and mountainous Wakhan corridor has remained entirely peaceful're more likely to see a yeti in the Wakhan than the Taliban."

James, a former news cameraman and ex-soldier, has set up Mountain Unity International, a company that aims to promote the mountaineering and trekking industries in the region. Since 2003 a small group of Afghans have undergone training as mountain guides while a series of guesthouses and campsites have been established. All profits and assets are locked into supporting the Afghan people.

From the 1960s up until the Soviet invasion of 1979, the country was an extremely popular destination for European climbers. However, no mention of the region can be made without reference to Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, his memoir of an attempt to climb a virgin peak. In a review for the Observer, John Morris commented that the tale would "horrify conventional mountain explorers and even less ambitious travellers with some sense of organisation", while concluding that it was the funniest travel book he had ever read (October 26 1958).

Scott of the Antarctweet

The diary entries of the Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott are published on Twitter today, nearly 100 years after they were originally composed. Daily postings will be made by Cambridge University's Scott Polar Institute, which holds many of the doomed explorer's manuscripts, to mark the centenary of his final journey.

The first entry, dated November 26 1910, tells how his team boards their ship in New Zealand. The final one will be on March 29 1912, the day he and his comrades died.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

There is yet another 'Best of' list of books to read, this time being Outside Magazine's The 10 Greatest Adventure Biographies. It's a wide-ranging collection featuring such diverse characters as Ernest Shackleton, Bruce Chatwin, Henry Morton Stanley and Marco Polo. And then there is Donald Crowhurst.

Donald Crowhurst was one of nine competitors who in June 1968 set out from Falmouth, England, on the Sunday Times Golden Globe, the world's first singlehanded nonstop round-the-world sailboat race. After battling with hurricanes and damaged equipment in a boat that many thought was unsuitable, the British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston was the only person to complete the race. His feat though was overshadowed by the bizarre journey of Crowhurst, who had secretly abandoned his attempt while reporting false positions in an attempt to claim the prize money without actually circling the globe, and then committed suicide. While he had designed marine navigation devices, it turned out that the man was in fact an inexperienced sailor who had bluffed his way into the event.

I always wanted to include the Crowhurst story in Those Who Dared but there was very little material about him in either the Guardian or the Observer. I eventually came across an excellent Malcolm Muggeridge review of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. For an in depth essay about the sailor, I'd recommend Geoff Powter's We Cannot Fail: The Dark Psychology of Heroic Adventure.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Census of Marine Life

It has long been said that there are better maps of the moon than the Earth's ocean floor but the new Census of Marine Life reveals a little more about the 'twilight zone' where light barely penetrates. See a film about it here.

The census, a major international project surveying oceans, identified 17,650 species living deeper than 200 metres - the area where photosynthesis is impossible. Bizarre finds include an otopus with an elephant-like appearance, a tiny golden crustacean called a copepod (see left) and, more than 1.7 miles deep, a transparent sea cucumber filmed creeping forward on its many tentacles. Robot submersibles and sea-floor rovers, coring drills, dredges and trawling nets were used for the survey.

The news of this survey reminded me of reading about the excitement surrounding Dr William Beebe's deep sea discoveries in the 1930s - made with the help of the Bathysphere. This was a steel sphere equipped with look-out windows of fuzed quartz that made nearly twenty dives off Nonsuch Island, in the Bermudas, reaching a depth of 2,220 feet, the farthest that living man had then penetrated into the ocean.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Congo Free State

Travelling back to work after visiting the Hidden Histories exhibition, I spotted a letter in the Guardian drawing attention to the fact that "Today marks 100 years since the Archbishop of Canterbury led the great Congo demonstration that met on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall to call for justice in the Congo Free State."

The Congo Free State was a private colony set up by King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo basin in the 1880s. For nearly 25 years the country was looted for its natural resources and became notorious for the way the locals were killed or mutilated in a brutal system of slave labour. Meanwhile, Leopold amassed a huge personal fortune.

Apart from the fact that the Royal Geographical Society is just around the corner from the Albert Hall, it is worth mentioning that the exhibition doesn't shy away from the ethics of exploration and Henry Morton Stanley's involvement with the Congo.

Following his success in 'finding' David Livingstone, in 1871, Stanley, the journalist, reinvented himself as an effective explorer discovering and charting central Africa's lakes and making a horrendous journey from east to west Africa. He was then employed by Leopold to help establish the new state and while he may not have been responsible for the horrendous crimes, Stanley's association with it was to leave his reputation severely tarnished.

As an aside, what went on in the country was fictionalised in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, centred on the evil trader Mr Kurtz, although there is debate as to whether or not this was modelled on Stanley.

One of those calling for justice in the Congo was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as can be seen in this Manchester Guardian report from November 1 1909.

Hidden Histories of Exploration

The Hidden Histories of Exploration exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) highlights the role of 'local' people in many of the great expeditions of the past. As Felix Driver, one of its researchers, has said "There's something about exploration which encourages an emphasis on the lone heroic explorer. We want to change the perspective and look at who the explorers depended on."

For example, naturalists such as Alfred Russel Wallace relied on indigenous collectors to gather materials in the field, the knowledge of native inhabitants was essential when making maps, while almost every kind of expedition relied on local manpower to cart equipment across deserts, up mountains etc. Even David Livingstone, perhaps the most famous of the 'lone travellers', had support while tramping around the jungles of Central Africa.

Exhibits include images of exploration since 1800 such as paintings by Thomas Baines (1820-1875), photographs, and documentary film footage from the 1922 Everest Expedition. The latter, in particular, provides a fascinating glimpse of Tibetan life, as well as shots of the climbers pretending to enjoy their yak butter tea. To make this film though, John Noel, needed eight Sherpas to assist him.

This idea of exploration being more than just the lone European explorer was something I tried to reflect in Those Who Dared. This was easier said than done with most reports usually concentrating on British adventurers. However, I did manage to find a few pieces such as a feature on Nain Singh, the famous pundit, from 1903. Pundits were native surveyors used by the British to map areas in the Himalaya, and particular Tibet, that were out of bounds to Europeans. Often disguised as traders, they would conceal sextants in specially designed secret pockets and hide their results in Tibetan Prayer wheels, which were supposed to contains strips of paper with prayers written on them.

The exhibition runs until December 10 2009. An interview with Felix Driver can be read here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Tomaz Humar

The death of Tomaz Humar, one of the world's leading climbers, while making a solo attempt of the south face of Langtang Lirung, a 7,234m (23,700ft) mountain in northern Nepal, has been widely covered by the press. Obituaries can be read here and here. Climbing Lessons from the School of Tomaz Humar, a detailed profile of the Slovenian mountaineer that appeared in the June 2002 edition of Outside Magazine is also well worth a read.

Filthy English

Exploration of the English language is about the best reason I can give for posting this. Last night saw the official launch of Peter Silverton's Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing, at the Sir Richard Steele pub on London's Haverstock Hill. The book's a learned, yet extremely entertaining, piece of work but it's contents are just too outrageous to repeat on a family blog. I'll give one example though. Apparently Tibetan swearing invokes the family but harks back to pre-modern practices. A common and very strong insult is - i.e you ate your father. More on Peter's blog.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Ernest Shackleton's whisky on (Antarctic) ice

Two crates of Scotch whisky dumped in the Antarctic by polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton are to be recovered after a century buried in the ice.

The rare Old brand of McKinlay and Co whisky was left by Shackleton when he was forced to abandon his expedition to the South Pole in 1909. The crates were discovered under the Cape Royds hut used by the team, in 2006. Now, distiller Whyte & Mackay has asked explorers from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust to retrieve the the precious liquid – either the actual bottles or a syringe full – so that they can recreate the unique flavour.

Shackleton's 'Farthest South' expedition came to within 97 nautical miles (about 112 statute miles) of the South Pole on January 9 1909 but was forced to turn back due to a lack of food.

The picture of three of the four-man expedition (Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams), appeared in the Manchester Guardian on November 4 1909.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Alain Robert

Alain Robert, the French 'Spider-Man', who has spent the past two decades climbing more than 100 of the world's tallest buildings describes what exactly motivates him in Saturday's Guardian. Using window frames, piping and protusions for handholds, and dispensing with a rope, this free solo climbing provides him with ' blissful solitude mixed with the exhilaration of being caught in a place between life and death.'

A true original, who goes where few, if any, are willing to venture, I was keen to include something about Robert in Those Who Dared but unfortunately couldn't find the right kind of piece - most being either extended photo captions are very long features. Channel 4 recently showed The Human Spider and there's a clip of it on YouTube.

Alain Robert is speaking at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival.

Friday, 13 November 2009

2009 National Outdoor Book Awards

The winners of the American 2009 National Outdoor Book Awards have just been announced. It's an eclectic list covering everything from fiction to the scientific and instructional. Rowboat in a Hurricane sounds interesting but I was particularly taken with Kayak: The New Frontier, cartoonist William Nealy's cult manual for paddlers. More on Google books.

Fell running

The sport of fell-running rarely makes the news unless there's some sort of 'disaster' to report such as the 2008 OMM - The Original Mountain Marathon*. Joss, the recent biography of Joss Naylor, generally considered Britain's greatest fell runner, received scant attention in the mainstream press, while great endurance races such as the Fellsman (61 miles over rugged moorland in under 24 hours) are almost totally ignored.

Over the years though, there have been a number of profiles and features that give a glimpse of just what amazing feats of stamina participants of the sport perform. The most famous race, albeit against the clock, is the Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District. Named after a Keswick guest-house proprietor, on June 13 1932, Graham climbed 42 peaks, 28,500 feet of ascent and covering a distance of 74 miles, in less that 24 hours. The following picture appeared the day after:

Chris Brasher, former Observer sports editor and founder of the London Marathon, took part in an attempt in August 1977:

One of the runners accompanying Brasher was Charlie Ramsay who, in July 1978, made the first circuit of the Scottish Lochaber mountains (24 Munros - mountains over 3,000 feet) in a single day - subsequently called Ramsay's Round. Read more about this amazing feat on Charlie's site.

* For a detailed explanation of how the media had problems reporting this, see Robin Askwith's report in the Independent.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Sport climbing in Yangshuo, China

There's a brilliant picture of Tilly Parkins climbing on Moon Hill Crag, Yangshuo, China, in today's Guardian. The 2009 Yangshuo climbing festival takes place from November 13-15 to promote 'sustainable sport climbing'. Apparently this means that all money raised via festival entry fees will be donated to 'crag preservation and development projects plus those that encourage a long-term collaborative partnership between climbers and the local community.'

For a more detailed explanation of what exactly sustainability and climbing means, take a look at Dave Pickford's piece that appeared on the British Mountaieering Council (BMC) site, last year.

More information about the Yangshou area can be seen at

Monday, 9 November 2009

Lakeland climbing

A couple of news snippets about Lakeland climbing caught my eye today. Firstly, in the Guardian's Country diary Tony Greenbank reminisces about climbing a streaming wet Kern Knotts Chimney with two people who worked for K shoes of Kendal, sometime in the 1950s. All very interesting, but he also mentions that K Shoes used to be called Somervell Bros, and that a family member was Howard Somervell, of Everest fame. An experienced alpine climber and surgeon, he joined both the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, and was a close friend of George Mallory.

Following the attempts on Everest, Somervell turned his back on a prestigious surgeon’s job in London and instead worked for nearly 40 years as a missionary doctor in South India before retiring to the English Lake District. His book, After Everest: The Experiences of a Mountaineer and Medical Missionary, is well respected and the following review appeared in the Manchester Guardian on January 5 1937.

Turning to an earlier climbing generation, UKClimbing features a story about Dave Birkett making a winter ascent of Botterill's Slab, a route high on Scafell, in the Lake District. When Fred Botterill put up the climb in 1903 it was one of the first to be graded Very Severe, a grade it still maintains today. Botterill's Slab, a film by Alison Stockwell, that re-creates the original climb can be seen here.

Sadly the Manchester Guardian didn't feature this first ascent but the period did see an incredible amount of reporting of the growing sport of rock climbing, a number of which are featured in On the Roof of the World.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Aron Ralston

The tale of the climber who hacked off his own arm after it became trapped under a half-tonne boulder, is to be made into a film. According to Variety, Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, is confirming plans to base his next film, 127 Hours, on Aron Ralston’s ordeal in Utah’s Blue John canyon in April 2003.

In his 2004 book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the Indiana-born mountaineer described the moment his arm became trapped under a boulder while solo-canyoneering (called canyoning in the UK):

"The rock smashes my left hand against the south wall; my eyes register the collision, and I yank my left arm back as the rock ricochets; the boulder then crushes my right hand and ensnares my right arm at the wrist, palm in, thumb up, figures extended; the rock slides another foot down the wall with my arm in tow tearing the skin off the lateral side of my forearm. Then silence."

Ralston was then pinned against the mountainside for five days. He survived by drinking his own urine and even videotaped a farewell message for his friends and family. He eventually escaped by hacking off his arm by using a blunt knife and a pair of pliers:
"I thrash myself forward and back, side to side, up and down, down and up," he wrote. "I scream out in pure hate, shrieking as I batter my body to and fro against the canyon walls."

Some have criticised Ralston for not telling anyone where he was going and for being ill-prepared for his trip. However, the story makes it into Those Who Dared for being a true feat of endurance and determination to survive – at all costs. Self-amputation is a repellent thought but Ralston’s account provides a glimpse of the thought process that leads to such an act.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The world's most remote place

Last April, the New Scientist revealed that the world's most remote place is on the Tibetan plateau (34.7°N, 85.7°E). From here, it is a three-week trip to the cities of Lhasa or Korla - one day by car and the remaining 20 on foot.

This fascinating fact isn't the conclusion of some epic expedition but rather a new maps based on a model which calculated how long it would take to travel to the nearest city of 50,000 or more people by land or water. The model combines information on terrain and access to road, rail and river networks, as well as factors such as altitude, steepness of terrain and hold-ups like border crossings slow travel.

One of the conclusions of the study is that less than 10 per cent of the world's land is more than 48 hours of ground-based travel from the nearest city.

There is some interesting commentary about the story on the Time to Eat the Dogs blog including Michael Robinson's point that: 'Nineteenth century maps still occasionally showed regions of Terra Incognita. But twenty-first century maps have no blank spaces left. The New Scientist maps offer, in their measure of “most remote” a modern equivalent.'

Monday, 2 November 2009

A history of British mountaineering

British Mountaineering: Two Centuries of Firsts is an excellent 30-page special in this month's Trail Magazine. Featuring many of the great names - George Mallory, Eric Shipton, Chris Bonington et al, it includes some fine pictures plus a detailed timeline. This contains the infamous story of how well known Satanist, and rather good mountaineer, Aleister Crowley, pulled a gun on his fellow climbers during an attempt on K2, in 1902. There are also more book suggestions: