Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Walter Bonatti

The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti regularly makes it on to top-ten lists of mountaineering books. A collection of the Italian climber's classic writings on everything from his epic 1955 solo route on the Petit Dru in the French Alps to controversy on the slopes of K2, the year before. Penguin have just republished a translation of the book and the sprightly 80-year-old recently spoke to the Guardian about his life.

Bonatti is one of the 20th century's greatest alpinists so, as I've been asked on a number of occasions, why he didn't make it into the Guardian Book of Mountains? The simple answer is that his exploits just weren't reported in the paper. The vagaries of the newspaper business can mean that sometimes mountain triumphs end up being relegated to little more than a small paragraph.

However, with the Guardian piece reminding me of Bonatti's many triumphs, I double-checked the Guardian's archive to see if I'd missed something. When I compiled the book, the paper hadn't been digitised so the only way to search was by way of the old card index and then trying to find the piece on microfilm. This method certainly threw up some interesting material but inevitably a number events just didn't get noted.

After scouring the digital archive, apart from a few news in briefs, I still didn't come up with much. The following item though, which did make it to the front page on August 30 1961, does capture the essence of the man:

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Ludwig Leichhardt

The Northern Territory News reports that a 'boffin' is to travel through the the north west deserts of Australia in a bid to find the final resting place of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared around 165 years ago. Central to the search for evidence is the fact that Leichhardt was know to carve the letter L into trees to mark his campsites. Dr Darrell Lewis, a National Museum of Australia research fellow, said "All the explorers marked trees everywhere ... It was really to help future people to relate to the maps." An illustration of this historical graffiti can be seen in an 1858 Sydney Morning Herald article.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt, who was German, began geological investigations in Australia in 1841. In 1848 he set out with the object of crossing the continent from east to west, but the last heard of him was from McPherson's Station, on the Cogoon River, Darling Downs, on April 3 1848. Five relief expeditions were sent out between 1851 and 1865, but no trace of the expedition was ever found. Various theories have been put forward about the disappearance including that the group was massacred by Aborigines, washed away in a flooded creek or perished of thirst and starvation in the desert. The following report about one of search parties appeared in the Manchester Guardian on January 14 1862:

Read Leichhardt's Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, here.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Itineraries of William Wey: the first Rough Guide for pilgrims

The Itineraries of William Wey is a 15th century pilgrimage account to the Holy Land that offers insights into travel, religious faith and the topography of Medieval Europe. Wey, a Devon priest was granted special dispensation by Henry VI to go on length pilgrimages. Perhaps the first known travel guide, his book has been described as the original ‘Rough Guide for Pilgrims’.

Bodleian Library Publishing has just produced the first modern translation of Wey's travels and more details can be found
The route he took can be seen on the Walking Pilgrim site.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil is a new play by John Burns about the infamous occultist, poet, chess grand master, and rather good mountaineer. It can be seen at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival from August 6-28. Hear Burns read from Crowley's Confessions, including a section on how he became a climber here. The site also features a trailer for the play, an excerpt, and a podcast on how it came to be written.

Perhaps not surprisingly, no mention of the fact that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page used to own Boleskine House, Crowley's place on the south east shore of Loch Ness. There are all kinds of stories about what 'the wickedest man in the world', and indeed Page, allegedly got up to in the house. Perhaps it did hold some dark secrets, but part of the attraction must have simply been that it's a handsome looking residence set in stunning surroundings - not to mention the mountain of Meall Fuarvounie just across the water.

For a detailed description of Boleskine read Mick Wall's So Mote it be from When Giants Walked the Earth or listen to this BBC radio documentary.

In 1902 Crowley and Oscar Eckenstein made the first attempt on K2. Eckenstein and Crowley are sitting in the middle.

Thanks to UKClimbing for pointing me in the direction of the Crowley play.

Friday, 18 June 2010

John Menlove Edwards

It was a hundred years ago today (June 18) that the writer, poet, and leading British rock climber in the inter-war period, John Menlove Edwards was born. A psychiatrist by profession, he is remembered for his great climbing routes in the Llanberis Pass, Wales, as well as his guide books and literature.

Mention must also be made of his depression, mental illness and his suicide in 1958. A homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a criminal act in Britain, Menlove Edwards was also a conscientious objector during WWII. Whatever one thinks about COs, this must have been an extremely brave act for individuals when names and addresses were published in the daily papers. This is how the Manchester Guardian reported the refusal of his application on May 14 1941:

Short biographies can be read here and here, but Jim Perrin's Menlove is the definitive account.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Because It's There

Because It's There was a one-evening exploration of what mountains represent to humanity, held at the Royal Geographical Society. A tall order, but over three hours various speakers touched on everything from why people climb, fear, women and mountaineering, the commercialisation of Everest expeditions to is true adventure still possible?

The first part of the programme consisted of four short talks. Journalist Ed Douglas began by looking at the relationship between the media and mountaineers. This has changed since the days of Arthur Hinks, then secretary of the Mount Everest Committee, who attempted to stifle all publicity relating to the Everest attempts of the 1920s, and who found that ‘All these questions of dealing with the newspapers are personally very distasteful to me'. On the 1953 British Everest expedition, Jan Morris (then James) used a pre-arranged code to ensure the Times got their Hillary/Tenzing exclusive.

Now climbers are blogging and writing on the mountain, often in real-time. One consequence of this is that media hails those that can write as the best climbers, while the true stars and innovators often go unnoticed.

Louise Turner talked about her long mountaineering career and how the real adventure often begins when the unexpected happens. However, she was very clear that she enjoyed living, not dying, and thus didn't take unnecessary risks.

Peter Baily then presented a meditation on what you can learn about yourself when you're in the mountains - the relationship between the the body, mind and emotions. He's as interested in the spiritual benefits of interacting with the landscape, as the physical exertion of getting to the summit. He illustrated this with a line from Walter Bonatti's The Mountains of My Life where the Italian climber states "it was solo climbing, above all, that let me enter into the spirit of the mountains and so come to recognize my own true nature". Finally, photographer Alexandre Buisse explained how the best photographs often come about in situations when you don't really want to be hanging around adjusting camera equipment.

The author and mountaineer Stephen Venables made the keynote speech. This was an inspiring romp through many of his expeditions, but he concluded that adventure doesn't always have to take place in the most inaccessible places.

The second part of the evening was the debate, Has Everest killed the true spirit of adventure? With a strong panel, it looked like being an exciting session. All agreed that climbing on the mountain had opened up new vistas, both in their climbing and non climbing lives. Kenton Cool, who has been to the Everest summit eight times, warned that you should never take it for granted. Meanwhile, Doug Scott talked about the importance of his 'apprenticeship' on the mountains of Scotland the Alps, before venturing into the higher reaches of the Himalaya. He also pointed out that there were more unclimbed than climbed mountains in Nepal - adventure for anyone who seeks it.

All of the panellists, with their anecdotes, tales and great experiences, made for exciting listening. However, the debate only occasionally came close to answering the main question. In many ways a well moderated online discussion might have revealed more. Nevertheless, it was a stimulating evening and pictures of the event can be seen here.

Finally, mention must be made of the complimentary King's Ginger that was available during the break. The drink of 'sporting gentlemen and high-spirited ladies', no doubt it was also taken on expeditions. Despite being often thought of as a winter drink, I've noticed that people have started sipping it in the warmer months (at least in South London they have). No mention in Double Measures, but this piece from the Observer's celebrated wine writer (December 17 1967) explains all:

Friday, 11 June 2010

1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition to Everest

The latest issue of Footless Crow features a first hand account by George Mallory of the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition to Everest. Despite various problems members of the team got up to 23,000 feet and saw the way up to the final ridge quite clearly.

Once back in the UK, Mallory was part of lecture series about the assault on the mountain - and the forthcoming 1922 expedition. The following review appeared in the Manchester Guardian on January 11 1922. Interestingly, though, three days later the paper also covered the lecture given at Manchester Free Trade Hall where it was noted that the speaker was "sparing in his use of maps". A later piece also revealed that Mallory stated what a pleasure it was to read the Guardian Weekly on Everest.

(click to enlarge)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Jacques Cousteau

Today sees the centenary of the birth of marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. The former French naval officer is famous for being an explorer, author, inventor of the aqualung, but is probably best remembered for the long-running television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which started in 1966.

This series was broadcast from the Calypso, a former British minesweeper. It was badly damaged in 1996, when a barge accidentally rammed into it in the port of Singapore. Now, his wife wants the French government to mark the anniversary of his birth by restoring the vessel to its former glory. "The Calypso is, in its way, the Eiffel Tower of the oceans," Francine Cousteau recently said, "I feel a duty to restore its soul... so it can be an ambassador of the environment in the years to come."

Cousteau died in 1997 and his reputation took a bit of a knock a couple of years later. Those Who Dared features an article about his 1953 book, The Silent World, and the following review of the film of the same name appeared in the Observer on December 1 1956.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Bouldering in St. Ives

It was bright blue skies and big surf in St. Ives, last week, so most of my time was spent in and around the sea. However, inspired by Bouldering in St. Ives, I did manage to drag myself away from the beach and onto some rock. This excellent guide is an introduction to the boulders that are within a few minutes walk of the town.

OK, so many are just a few metres high and it may seem a bit of a waste of time climbing on these when the majestic cliffs of Gurnard's Head, Bosigran and Sennen Cove lie just a few miles along the coast. But, apart from being great fun, I was intrigued by the history of bouldering in the area.

Victorian Alpinist Sir Leslie Stephen was climbing in West Cornwall during the 1850s, but much of the action centred around the house of Eagle's Nest at Zennor, a few miles from St Ives. In 1873 this was bought by Professor John Westlake, and, as Barnaby Carver explains in the guide's introduction:

"His nephew, Arthur Westlake Andrews is regarded by many as ‘the father of Cornish climbing’. A. W. Andrews and his sister Marion Elizabeth (‘Elsie’) Andrews, scrambled on the granite boulders surrounding the house during childhood holidays. These rocks would later provide test-pieces for visiting climbers...By 1922 Andrews was living at Tregerthen, neighbouring Eagle’s Nest which was by then owned by painter, politician and writer Will Arnold-Forster. Andrews still presided over the house and garden parties for visiting climbers. Sir Leslie Stephen’s daughter, the author Virginia Woolf, describes Cornwall’s early ‘bouldering scene’ in her diary entry of 30th March 1921: ‘Visited Arnold-Forster’s at Eagle’s Nest... Endless varieties of nice elderly men to be seen there, come for the climbing...'"

One of the most famous climbs in the area is the Commando Ridge at Bosigran, a 700ft ridge of granite, that was used in the second world war for training commandos in cliff assault. In fact it was first climbed in 1902 by AW Andrews, and was then known as Bosigran Ridge Climb.