Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mountaineering books published in 1938

The first week of December is traditionally the time when newspapers and magazines begin to publish their round-ups of books of the year. And of course publishers capitalise on this by advertising their wares to Christmas present-buying readers - as can be seen from the following advert that appeared in the Observer on December 4 1938. Hodder & Stoughton took out a half-page advert to display reviews of their output and, in particular, the Black Jacket series of climbing and exploration books.

It's interesting to see which books are still talked about and what's been forgotten. Eric Shipton's Blank on the Map is still referred to, as well as Frank Smythe's books (including The Valley of Flowers). However, Ronald Kaulback is a name rarely mentioned these days.

(click image to enlarge)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Boardman Tasker prize

It is 30 years since Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker were last seen on Mount Everest attempting to traverse the pinnacles on the unclimbed north east ridge. To commemorate the lives of the two climbers who pioneered a series of groundbreaking ascents, as well as producing books that have acquired classic status, the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain literature was set up by family and friends in 1983. The aim was to promote mountain related literature and, three decades later, it is still going strong. The winner of the 2012 prize (from a very strong shortlist) is announced on Friday 16 November.

By coincidence, I've been working my way through the Boardman Tasker Omnibus, a collection that includes the climbers' four books - two published posthumously. I was familiar with some of Boardman's work but less so Tasker's. Apart from the well told tales of close calls and danger, what struck me about the latter's writing was his honesty about the risks and fears of life at high altitude.  As he says in Everest The Cruel Way, an account of a winter attempt on the west ridge in 1980, 'whichever way a big mountain is climbed it is rarely enjoyable'. Of course there is the physical hardship but there are also the tensions that develop between team members forced to spend weeks together in close proximity. Tasker doesn't shy away from criticising fellow climbers, but handles it in such a way that the reader understands disagreements in the context of the expedition.

Aside from this there are details that make you realise just how much has changed over the past 30 or so years. On his first Asian expedition, Tasker drives an old Ford Escort van across Europe, Iran and Afghanistan to get to Dunagiri, a 7,000 metre peak in Northern India. On the 1980 Everest trip, there is the excitement - in the pre-internet age - of receiving hand-written letters. Also, the team was filing news reports about the expedition for the Observer and in return the paper was mailing out a copy each week. Tasker describes the disorienting experience of reading news weeks after the event (including reports of John Lennon's death).

One minor disappointment with the Omnibus is the lack of photos from some of the climbs (or at least in my edition). I did come across came a Boardman Tasker feature about their 1980 K2 west ridge and Abruzzi spur expedition in the Observer though. This does include some stunning pictures. Both writers provide accounts of the climb in their respective books - one of the collection's strengths being the contrasting views of various expeditions.

The Observer, 15 February 1981
Some interesting notes by Boardman about his early climbing career, written in 1981 for a talk at Stockport Grammar School, can be read here.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Olympic medals and Everest

The debate over whether climbers and mountaineers should compete for medals in organised events has been going on for decades. In the mid-1970s there was furious opposition from British climbers to a USSR suggestion that the sport should be part of the Olympics (see end of article), but more latterly there has been some excitement that ice climbing will be a cultural event at the 2014 winter games - not to mention climbing being considered for the main Olympics in 2020.

Against this background, the Mount Everest Foundation recently organised a discussion, Race to the Top - What place does competition have in the mountains?, at the Royal Geographical Society.

The starting point for the evening was Kenton Cool's talk about his expedition to take a 1924 Olympic Gold Medal for Alpinism to the summit of Everest. Following the success 1922 assault on the mountain in which the team got to within 500 metres of the top, the International Olympic Committee decided to mark the achievement by awarding medals to all 21 members of the team. The presentation was made at the 1924 Winter Olympic Games and Edward Strutt, deputy leader of expedition, vowed to return to Everest and leave one of the medals at the summit.  However, by that time a number of the climbers were already on their way back to Tibet for another attempt at the mountain and the promise remained unfulfilled. Cool finally honoured the pledge in May 2012 by taking a medal that had belonged to Dr Arthur Wakefield, the oldest member of the group, to get to the top.

Manchester Guardian, 6 February 1924
It was an exciting and enthusiastic talk, illustrated with dramatic film footage of Cool's ascent. While a cynic might suggest the whole medal business was just an excuse to make another adventure film, set in the context of the excitement surrounding the 2012 Olympics, and the heroic story of George Mallory and the climbing pioneers of the 1920s, the whole exercise seemed to make perfect sense.

Why people actually want to go up mountains was explored by Sir Chris Bonington. One of the key differences with other sports, he said, is the element of risk. Bonington gave the example of the 1977 Ogre expedition where, despite Doug Scott having to crawl down the mountain due to breaking both legs above the ankles, and suffering broken ribs himself, there was a certain exhilaration of just being where they were, high on the mountain. He also showed a rare 1970 interview with Dougal Haston and Don Whillans on Annapurna. Asked why he climbed, Whillans said it was partly to do with the fact that as a tradesman, he liked to do a job well. This 'practical' approach, he contrasted with his climbing partner's 'intellectual' approach. Haston claimed the attraction of the sport was the opportunity of being in charge of your own world. Both were valid points but Bonington admitted that climbers can be very egotistical, wanting recognition from their peers.

Graham Tiso, Peak Lenin, 1974
The danger of climbing for more than just peer recognition was explored by Doug Scott. In 1974 he was invited to take part in an International climbing camp in the Pamirs, at the invitation of the Russian Mountaineering Federations. The purpose of the gathering was in part due to the Russians' wish to promote high altitude climbing as part of the Olympic Games. Unfortunately eight women climbers from the host nation died near the summit of Peak Lenin. Apart from being badly equipped, they were under pressure to succeed which may well have led to them making the wrong decisions high up on the mountain. (A Scottish team was also invited to the camp).

If Olympic medals were indeed to be awarded for mountaineering achievement, Sandy Allan and Rick Allen would be in line for the gold. Earlier this year they conquered the Mazeno ridge on Nanga Parbat – one or the last great climbs in the Himalayas. Their story can be read in this Observer piece.

The panel discussion included the speakers plus Lindsay Griffin and Phil Bartlett, and chaired by Ed Douglas. It soon became clear that two strands of the sport were being debated: organised competitions on artificial walls, and serious ascents at high altitude. The general consensus appeared to be that it is fine to make awards after the event - such as the Piolets d'Or or indeed something like the 1924 medals - but pointless, if not impossible to operate and very dangerous if designed to get people to 'race to the top'. It was also mentioned that such awards usually come from outside the sport, not the actual practioners.

There was also agreement, or at least a tolerance in some quarters, that there is no harm in the organised climbing competition. Kenton Cool though did make a strong case, citing the fact that with 'mountaineering' being one of only four sports in the UK to show an increase in participation, it should be in the Olympics. If nothing else it would raise the profile and attract sponsorship. Apart from that though, as anyone who has ever watched such an event will know, they can be incredibly exciting, and easily on a par with many other Olympic sports. As an example, Ed Douglas urged the audience to take a look at  footage of British climber Fran Brown, Paraclimbing world champion.

The event was held to raise money for the Mount Everest Foundation and Community Action Nepal.

The Guardian, 29 October 1976:

Friday, 19 October 2012

1952: Mount Everest and the Russians

USSR stamp, 1982
Did the Soviet Union make an attempt to climb Mount Everest in the autumn of 1952? Following the failure of a Swiss expedition to climb the mountain in the spring of that year*, news reports in the west suggested that the Russians had mounted an assault in a bid to be the first nation to reach the top of the world.  I recently came across the following 1953 Manchester Guardian article which suggests that in response to the 'tragic failure' of this expedition, another attempt was being planned for the following year. Apparently the aim was to erect statues of Stalin and Lenin on the summit.

Manchester Guardian, 20 October 1953
There are a few stories online that suggest a Russian team of 35, led by Dr Pawel Datschnolian, did indeed set off for Tibet in October 1952. Certainly the country was starting to take an interest in mountaineering at the time, as noted by Mick Conefrey in Everest 1953 He writes that while Soviet newspapers had in the past dismissed the sport as a decadent, bourgeois, folly, it was now being presented as a new front in the Cold War. However, the story goes that six mountaineers, including the leader, disappeared at Camp VIII at a height of around 8,000 metres. 

This is a fascinating tale but the Russians have always denied that the expedition ever took place. Walt Unsworth mentions it in Everest: The Mountaineering History (1989), but the most thorough investigation into the mystery is Yevgeniy Gippenreiter's 1994 Alpine Journal article, Mount Everest and the Russians: 1952 and 1958. A well respected Soviet mountaineer, he could find no evidence to support the rumour. It would be interesting though to know if any new information has emerged over the past 18 years.

The proposed 1954 expedition didn't take place either, but a Soviet team made it to Everest in 1958 as part of a joint venture with the Chinese. Finally, in May 1982, Eduard Myslovsky and Vladimir Balyberdin became the first Russians to make it to the summit.

* A second Swiss attempt was made in December 1952

Saturday, 13 October 2012

1912: The year the World Discovered Antarctica

While the past year has seen a whole series of events to mark the centenary of Captain Scott's death in Antarctica, few are aware that his expedition was just one of five exploring the continent in 1912. Of course there was Roald Amundsen's Norwegian South Pole expedition but there was also a Japanese team led by Nobu Shirase, a German one led by Wilhelm Filchner and Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic enterpise.

The story of the five teams can be found in a new book, 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica, by Chris Turney. Not all were there to ‘race to the pole’, but rather their aims were to map the continent and record what they found. It is these scientific achievements that Turney champions in the book.

The first chapters are devoted to the early history of Antarctic exploration and the scene is set for 1912 with Ernest Shackleton’s expedition of 1907-09 that came close to reaching the South Pole. Naturally there is the familiar tale of the Scott and Amundsen rivalry, but Turney provides good summaries of the events, covering all perspectives.

It is the lesser know expeditions that are most fascinating though. The Japanese ‘Dash Patrol’ encountered indifference at home, hostility (at least at first) in Australia and the team had little polar experience. Their first attempt at getting to the continent had to abandoned, as the news report below (not from the book) explains.

Manchester Guardian, May 7 1911
However, they tried again the following year and this time were more successful. They found volcanic rock samples on King Edward VII Land that supported the idea of rifting in the Earth's crust, as well as charting new territory. Much important oceanographic work was carried out by Wilhelm Filcher’s German party although the expedition was marked by mutiny and discontent while the ship was trapped in sea ice for eight months.

As for the Australasian expedition, Turney writes: 'Mawson's venture gave the world its first complete scientific snapshot of the new continent’.  Their meteorological work showed how weather systems in Antarctica could have an impact on conditions in the rest of the world, while geologist Edgeworth David disproved the theory that Antarctica and New Zealand had once been connected by a land bridge, laying the groundwork for the theory of plate tectonics. But that’s not to forget  Mawson’s unbelievable feat of endurance that included having to strap the frozen soles of his feet back on each day with Lanolin, during the desperate trek back to Cape Denison after surveying King V Land.

Manchester Guardian,  February 27 1914

In the final chapter, Turney, a professor of climate change, goes into greater detail about the scientific findings of the expeditions. He also reveals that Scott’s death may partly have been the result of a food shortage - caused by the final returning party, led by Teddy Evans, his second-in-command, eating more than their fair share of food.  This may well have been the case although other polar historians have written about the desperate state of Evans’ party which could explain the need to break into the supplies.

Chris Turney strikes the right balance between telling the stories of these unique characters and writing about the science in an accessible way - while maintaining a sense of adventure throughout the book. On top of this, he enlivens the text by peppering the chapters with newspaper reports from the time, and anecdotes from his own visits to Antarctica. A fine addition to the polar exploration library.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Scott's last expedition (Part II)

Fashion designer Nigel Cabourn's latest creation is the Scott's Last Expedition Collection. It includes garments named after explorers on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910. For example, there is the Henry Robertson 'Birdie' Bowers Deck Jacket, the Oates Roll Neck Sweater, or the impressive looking Apsley Cherry-Garrard Expedition boot.

Cabourn explains the concept in an accompanying book:
The persistence and courage of the 5 explorers who perished due to extreme weather conditions has inspired me to created the Nigel Cabourn Authentic Limited Edition 2 Winter 2012 Collection. The 12 garments in this collection are inspired entirely by this fantastic expedition   and produced in the United Kingdom with British fabrics where possible.
Modelling some of the clothes is Ben Fogle who recently presented a BBC documentary on The Secrets of Scott's Hut. 
If you're into heritage clothing then these rather attractive garments are for you -  just remember that it's a limited edition with just 100 pieces of the outerwear.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Scott's last expedition

I finally made it to Scott's last expedition, the Antarctica exhibition at London's Natural History Museum. It closes on 2 September but I'll recommend it anyway. The exhibition features a wide range of personal items, photographs and some of the 40,000 scientific specimens brought back by Scott's team, as well as videos and a life-sized representation of the Cape Evans hut.

It's an impressive collection and certainly sheds light on the often overlooked scientific aspect of the Terra Nova expedition. Perhaps a little more effort could have gone into making the hut feel like the real thing but at least it showed just how cramped the base was.

Plenty of polar exploration books were on sale but Roland Huntford's titles appeared to be missing. All a bit odd, particularly as the introduction to the exhibition acknowledges the various revisions of Scott's character - and the aim to look at the expedition from all angles. Good to see though that by far the best seller (at least in terms of books left  on the shelves) was Apsley Cherry-Garrard's, The Worst Journey in the World.

The journey in question was of course the quest to secure an unhatched Emperor penguin, something that had to made in the middle of the winter. Cherry-Garrard recounts in the book reaction of the Natural History Museum when he turned up in 1913 to deliver the three eggs he had brought back from the Antarctic:

However,  as reported in the Manchester Guardian, the  museum didn't entirely agree with this version of events:

Manchester Guardian, 12 December 1922

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Climbing and base jumping

Perhaps it was because I recently saw Leo Holding's The Asgard Project, but the following story caught my eye in the Observer archive. Holding and his team scaled Mount Asgard, a 2,000-metre high tower of granite in a remote glacial region of Baffin Island in Arctic Canada, and then two of them made a wingsuit descent from the summit.

George Felbermayr's adventure wasn't quite as dramatic but it was a surprise to discover that people were making such descents after serious climbs, nearly 50 years ago. 

More about the Edge of the Impossible article mentioned in the caption.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Guardian Under Canvas: A history of camping

It used to be said that Guardian readers ate muesli, wore sandals and went on camping holidays in the English Lake District. While there’s only anecdotal  evidence to support the first points, the paper’s archive is full of articles about the joys of life under canvas.

From declaring in 1901 that camping was ‘a most wholesome occupation’, the paper has reported on everything from new tent designs, bizarre outdoor movements, the sanitary arrangements on continental campsites, fire-making, to where to find the most authentic ‘glamping’ experience.

The very best of these articles has been brought together in The Guardian Under Canvas, a new ebook that offers a unique history of camping in Britain.

The story begins in the early 20th century with the emergence of the cycle-campers, a band of mainly middle-class men led by Shropshire tailor, Thomas Hiram Holding. After the first world war,  a more diverse group began to sample the joys of the outdoor life and during the 1930s camping clubs and sites began to appear all over the country. In the decades following 1945,  the paper reflected the fact that more and more of its readers were forsaking their beloved Lake District for the more exotic France, while in the 1980s many were opting for the easier life offered by readymade campsites such as Eurocamp. The growth in recent years of outdoor music festivals, environmental concerns, combined with the appearance of very cheap tents and equipment, has led to the current boom in popularity of camping.

David Lloyd George, British chancellor of the exchequer (later PM) camping in North Wales. The Manchester Guardian, 29 August 1913
But alongside these developments, the book also examines changes in society’s attitude to the great outdoors as well as attempting to find out why the comfortably well-off are happy to pay for the privilege of spending their holidays in a muddy field with basic amenities. More than one commentator casts a jaundiced eye over the recent commercialisation of what used to be called ‘roughing it’.

This though is very much in keeping with the Manchester Guardian’s (Manchester was dropped from the title in 1959) historic interest in the great outdoors. The early growth in camping went hand in hand with a general concern for health and wellbeing, it being considered good for the nation’s health to escape the industrialised cities once in awhile.  This was very much the view of the paper, which championed the outdoor movement and the need for all members of society to enjoy a holiday. As such, the paper promoted recreational camping from the very beginning and has continued to do so ever since - whether it's discussing the relative merits of the yurt or the teepee, or urging readers to try wildcamping.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Tour de the bitter end

Having started in 1903 as a publicity stunt for an ailing French newspaper, the Tour de France is now the world's greatest sporting spectacle. Back then, cyclists raced alone through the night, sometimes at the risk of being beaten up. Today's riders pedal 3,500 km around the French countryside, cheered on by huge roadside crowds and accompanied by the mighty caravan of media, sponsors and support staff that keeps the wheels turning. But one thing hasn't changed: the Tour remains just as awe-inspiring a test of extreme mental and physical stamina as it has always been.

The Tour de the bitter end is the best of over a century of Guardian and Observer Tour reporting, with pieces about all the cycling greats - everyone from Louison Bobet, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx, Lance Armstrong to 2012 favourite, Bradley Wiggins. The book covers areas such as press reporting of the race, doping, tactics to crashes. Geoffrey Nicholson, Chris Brasher, Richard Williams and William Fotheringham, who also wrote the introduction, are just some of the top writers included.

Also available from Guardian books.