Thursday, 18 February 2010

The BBC Archive and exploration

The BBC Archive is a collection of 12 million artefacts including 600,000 hours of television content and 350,000 hours of radio, not to mention thousands of documents and photographs, built up over 80 years of broadcasting. Now, a small part of it has been made available through BBC Archive. Collections, range from a series of programmes about the Berlin Wall, apartheid, to playing Shakespeare's Hamlet.

What about exploration? Well, there is section on the moon landings, but little else - at least for now. However, I did come across a radio feature on Chris Bonington, the mountaineer who is probably best known for leading the British 1975 Everest 'The Hard Way' expedition up the mountain's south-west face. In a programme recorded in 1988, Bonington recalls the significant expeditions and places in his life while climbing on Goat Crag in the English Lake District.

Bonington features a number of times in The Guardian Book of Mountains, including The Social Climber, an in-depth interview with him from March 1973. At the time he was promoting The Next Horizon, the second volume of his autobiography, and was well on his way to becoming a household name. His study is described as being full of all "the latest in audio-visual equipment," an indication that the former tank commander was one of the first, and probably most successful, mountaineers to use writing and lecturing to fund their sport.

What is often forgotten amidst all the tales of mountaineering exploits is that during the mid 1960s, Bonington was an adventure journalist, writing and photographing expeditions such as John Blashford-Snell's attempt to make the first ever descent of the Blue Nile, in 1968. Many of these stories later appeared in the best-selling Quest for Adventure, a very good collection that aimed, as he put it in the introduction, to explore 'The what and the why of adventure', as well as 'the how'.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Lizzie le Blond by way of Biosphere

Geir Jenssen is a musician who, under the name Biosphere, records mainly in Tromso, the northernmost town in mainland Norway. Surrounded by glaciers, mountains, and tundra, the austere 'Arctic' soundscapes he produces are gloomy yet strangely soothing. Sounds of howling wind and running water, combined with his music, evoke empty, snowy wastes.

Although usually filed under ambient, the Norwegian's compositions transcend the generic electronic noodlings of much of the genre. Take a listen to Kobresia, from the classic album Substrata.

With Jenssen's interest in the Arctic circle landscape, it wasn't a total suprise to discover he is also a skier and mountaineer. Many of the mountains he's climbed can be seen on his
Northern Playground website, which is partly about the Lyngen peninsula area. Along with a picture of each mountain, and the route taken marked in red, he also lists the first ascensionists plus interesting historical information.

As I mentioned in the Ornulf Opdahl posting a substantial number of the peaks were first climbed by 19th Century British climbers. But it is the name of Elizabeth Main that crops up more than others. Born Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, following a number of marriages, she was also known as Mrs Fred Burnaby, Mrs E Main, and Mrs Aubrey le Blond - as well as the more the more glamorous sounding Lizzie le Blond. She was one of the pioneering female alpinists and the first president of the Ladies Alpine Club. She wrote a number of books, including Mountaineering in the Land of the Midnight Sun (1908), which is all about the Lyngen area.

There are many tales about her, but a famous one saw her climb the Zinalrothorn (4221m) twice in one day - the second time to retrieve the skirt which propriety demanded she wear over her climbing breeches when off the mountain.

Geir Jenssen has also climbed Cho Oyu in Tibet. And, yes, he's produced music inspired by the expedition.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Alfred Gregory

The death of Alfred Gregory, the mountaineer and photographer who recorded the Everest expedition of 1953, has seen two fine obituaries appear in British newspapers: Jim Perrin's in the Guardian and Stephen Venables's in the Independent. Examples of his work can been here and here, plus there are more pictures and extracts from Alfred Gregory: Photographs from Everest to Africa on Penguin Books Australia's website.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Ripping to close

Ripping, the independent specialist publisher of adventure books, has announced that it's winding up operations. Ian Robertson, its founder, said on UKClimbing:

"In 2003 I started 'Ripping', republishing some classic adventure and mountaineering titles. We also published the much needed guidebook "Walks and Scrambles in Norway". However, it's now time for me to move on. Ripping didn't make any money last year: selling books to climbers in a down-turn ain't easy!"

Monday, 8 February 2010

Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia

Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia, published in 1966, was "the first really modern book about climbing in Britain." So wrote Steve Dean in a Climbers Club article celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the hugely influential guide. With spectacular pictures by John Cleare, and text provided by Tony Smythe, it went on inspire a new generation of climbers and book publishers.

Now Footless Crow has just reprinted the piece complete with a selection of Cleare's pictures. Part two appears next Friday.

A clue as to why the title made such an impact can be found in a quote by Ken Wilson when he was interviewed about the influences on Hard Rock. Wilson said: 

"What was less of an influence was Rock Climbers in Action is Snowdonia, though I do think that it is a fine book, but it is not my style. It is all about the feeling of climbing and its verve and position and very 'photographic' and the captions are poetic rather than factual. Leo Dickinson, Ray Wood, Bob Keates and John Beatty are photographers that might be said to be part of that school. I favour a more scrupulously factual (some might say boring) approach and I particularly like to see the climber in his architectural setting."

The "verve and position" point seems to complement Dean's description that "something had appeared in print that in words and pictures really managed to convey just how rock climbing felt." 

Apparently Al Alvarez was originally going to write the commentary but in the end was too busy to take on the work. However, Alvarez did write The Edge of the Impossible, a feature about 'hard' climber Peter Crew, and illustrated with Cleare's pictures, that appeared in the Observer magazine on August 22 1965. This, as Jim Perrin was to later put it (The way you climb is the way you are, The Climbing Essays), was a "wonderful and over-the-top essay," that a did good job of turning Crew "into climbing's first pop icon".

As a footnote, the following week saw some heated debate on the letters page as to just how classless climbing really was.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Peter Hodgkiss

The Independent reports the death of "Peter Hodgkiss: Mountaineer and publisher whose Ernest Press extended the scope and ambition of climbing literature." A book with the distinctive Ernest Press screw press logo on the spine was always a guarantee of a unique outdoor literature reading experience. They also produced a good set of UK mountain biking guidebooks.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Shackleton's whisky on (Antarctic) ice: part two

Following the news last November that a rare batch of whisky belonging to polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackelton had been discovered, this week saw the precious liquid recovered from the ice. Now the burning question is what does the stuff actually taste like? Probably best to turn to Whyte & Mackay's Master Blender, Richard Paterson.

Book lists of outdoor literature

Writing as someone who is always on the look out for new book suggestions, I was intrigued to come across Ron Watters's Best book lists of outdoor literature. This includes lists covering UK and US climbing as well more general outdoor books.

First in line is Tony Astill's Top 100 British Mountaineering Books. Last time I mentioned this it was still a work in progress but now seems to be fixed. More about Astill on Les Alpes Livres. Watters also includes the reading list for an Outdoor Literature Class he teaches at Idaho State Universtity. Sounds like a fine way to spend a few months.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

From Pole to pixel

Captain Scott's last three diaries have been launched online by the British Library. Using Turning the Pages software, the three-dimensional animation allows the viewer to mimic the action of turning each page on the screen. Passages can be magnified and there is also commentary about Scott's attempt to be the first to get tothe South Pole. A sample page from the BL's Virtual books collection (click to enlarge):

Meanwhile, images from the expedition can seen at the Getty Images Gallery, in London. Ponting - The Journey South, is an exhibition of pictures taken by Herbert Ponting who spent 14 months at Cape Evans from 1911-1912 and produced over 1000 images.

Amazon Adventure

Following the Colonel Percy Fawcett posting, Ben Hammott got in touch to say that he's just written Amazon Adventure, a novel about the explorer's journey to the Lost City of Z. Billed as an "exciting archaeological mystery thriller", the book story begins at Dead Horse Camp, Fawcett's last known position in 1925. From there, using old letters and diaries, Hammott's story "weaves together an exciting blend of fact and fiction linked to the legends surrounding the lost Fawcett expedition and the mysterious Amazonian Jungle."

As well as news about the book, the Fawcett Adventure website is a treasure trove of information about the man, including a list of the documents the Royal Geographical society holds about him.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Walking on the moon

President Obama's call for a halt to Constellation, the project that aims to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 has generated plenty of coverage. Samples of the news and comment can be seen here, here, and here. For a good summing up of the issues take a look at Michael Robinson's The Death of the Constellation Program.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Hunt for lost camera on Everest

The hunt for Mallory and Irvine's lost camera is becoming the Holy Grail of Mountaineering. As the Adventure Blog reports, this Spring will see yet another expedition heading to Everest in the hope of finding the Vest Pocket Kodak that may just prove that the mountain was climbed in 1924.

Just to recap, George Mallory and Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine were part of the third attempt on the 'Third Pole,' as Edward Whymper once dubbed it. On June 6 1924, the two climbers set out from their high camp at 23,100 feet to make a bid for the summit. They were last spotted on the afternoon of June 8 by Noel Odell who saw them near the Second step, a rock step at the base of the "summit pyramid."

discovery of Mallory's body in 1999 reignited the debate as to whether they were in fact the first to reach the summit, nearly three decades before Hillary and Tenzing. Evidence cited that they had indeed been successful included the fact that there was no sign of a photograph of Mallory's wife Ruth on his body suggesting that he'd placed it on the summit. However, there was no concrete proof in the form of the camera and film.

Now, Everest historian, Tom Holzel, claims to have used high resolution satellite photos to try and locate the body of Irvine. Plenty of detail can be found on the
Velocity Press site.

Meanwhile, on the Nepalese side of the Everest, a Sherpa led expedition is planning to clean up more than two tonnes of rubbish discarded in the "death zone", the area above 8,000 metres. Almost 4,000 people have climbed the mountain since 1953 and the higher slopes are littered with everything from old flags, tents, human waste and even a couple of dead bodies that have been there for years.