Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Climbers, the 1989 novel by M. John Harrison, has just been republished with a new introduction by Robert Macfarlane (recently reprinted in the Guardian's Saturday Review).

It tells the story of a group of climbers in the north of England who escape life's mundane routines by spending their weekends seeking out the perfect route. This is as likely to be found in an old quarry - 'a gloomy hole in the hillside near Bolton', as on an imposing mountain cliff. As Macfarlane puts it:
The climbing they do is impure, tending to the tawdry. It lacks the cleanliness of winter mountaineering, or the epic scale of big-range expeditions. It is mucky, thrutchy stuff that happens from litter-strewn crag-foot terraces, within eyeshot of cities and earshot of motorways.
One of the many strengths of the novel is that Harrison, a climber, goes into painstaking detail about some of the routes. He also has a sharp ear for dialogue but it's the sense of place, particularly when describing the northern urban and rural landscape in the late 1980s, that really makes the book. It went on to win the Boardman Tasker prize in 1989.

On original publication there was only one small review in the Guardian:

Christoper Wordsworth, The Guardian, 7 September 1989

Also in the recent edition of the Guardian was a review of All That Is, James Salter's new novel. However, it is Solo Faces, one of his earlier books that is probably of most interest to climbers. Set in the 1970s, it follows the fortunes of Rand, an American climber, as he makes his name doing big routes and rescuing people on the mountains of France.

Like Harrison's Climbers, the novel is considered a climbing classic (admittedly a small field). It did though  attract some criticism because, as Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith wrote in the introduction to One Step in the Clouds, Salter was  not seen as a 'true believer' - ie he only climbed as research for the book. Also, some got caught up with whether he explained climbing equipment properly. This though is a minor point set against his fine writing and story-telling. A small review appeared in the Observer:

Anthony Thwaite, The Observer, 10 February 1980. Click on image to enlarge.
 James Salter: the forgotten hero of American literature, an interview with the writer, appeared in the Observer New Review on 12 May 2013.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rucksack fashions and fetishes

While digging around for Rucksack Club articles for a previous post, I came upon the following  piece from September 1930. Rucksack fetishists will no doubt enjoy the references to carpet bags and bad packing, but it does provide some interesting period details about outdoor equipment from the pre-war era.

The Manchester Guardian, 10 September 1930

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Rücksack Club

Sharp-eyed fans of the Guardian's country diary archive column (yes, there are a few) might have noticed that today's piece has a small news item about the Rucksack Club sitting alongside it.

The Manchester Guardian, 11 April 1913
The Rucksack Club was formed in 1902 after JE Entwistle and AE Burns, two "novices with a good walking record and a secret ambition to handle a rope and axe", wrote to the Manchester City News suggesting that a mountaineering club be formed in the city. There was a good enough response to justify a start and it is still going strong today. Read more about its history here.

There were strong links between the Manchester Guardian and the club, especially during its early years, with news of climbing activities and annual reports regularly appearing on the pages of the paper. Several members of staff joined the group including Laurence Scott, eldest son of CP Scott, the long-serving Guardian editor.

On 14 November 1903, a small news piece appeared in which an umlaut has been added to the club's name, thus turning it into the exciting looking Rücksack Club. I rather like this, but the use of the diacritic appears to have been very short-lived.

The Manchester Guardian, 14 November 1903

Read more stories like this in the Guardian Book of Mountains. Also available as an ebook.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Black Cliff

Skimming through a March 1971 issue of the Observer the other day, I came across an Al Alvarez review of Chris Bonington's Annapurna South Face. Tucked at the end of the piece though, were a few words about The Black Cliff, a history of rock climbing on Clogwyn du'r Arddu, in north Wales.  As Alvarez points out, many of the climbers on the Annapurna climb crop up in Snowdonia book - including Don Whillans. Which is the perfect excuse to post a link to a footnote from Jim Perrin's The Villain, a biography of Whillans, that neatly illustrates the point...

 Alvarez was poetry editor and a critic for the Observer from 1956 to 1966, after which he continued to review books and write the occasional climbing article for the paper. See also Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia.

The Observer, 21 March 1971 (click on image to read)

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Ice-climbing at Rjukan

Vemork power station, Rjukan
Rjukan, situated in the centre of southern Norway, is possibly the best, and certainly most sociable, place to ice-climb in Europe. There are over 150 routes and icefalls in a deep gorge, all easily accessible from the road. Climbers can scale the frozen waterfalls without having to spend hours trekking up a mountain or worrying about getting caught out in the dark. And many of the routes are single-pitch affairs, often close to each other - thus enabling friends to chat between climbs.

As well as having a stable climate that guarantees a long season and conditions that mean it is possible to climb almost everyday, another attraction of the place is its history. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, the ice-axe and crampon business takes place in the same area as the Heroes of Telemark raid, one of the most daring attacks of the second world war. Here, Norwegian saboteurs scaled the steep gorge sides before blowing up the part of the plant in which Germans were collecting 'Heavy water'  which was needed to make a nuclear bomb.
Tim Wilkinson at the start of Bakvien
The remaining building is now a very good museum that is well worth visiting. However, on a recent climbing trip to the Rjukan area, I came a little closer to understanding just what the Norwegian saboteurs achieved.  Tim, my climbing partner, and I had just finished Bakvien, a three-pitch route in the upper gorge that tops-out at the museum when we were approached by two people. It turned out that one of them was the daughter of Fredrik Kayser, a member of the Gunnerside saboteur team. We were a little dazed after spending the past hour being battered by strong winds and falling ice, but it was fascinating to hear about her father's exploits during the war.

Kayser's daughter explained that she was there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the raid. A high-profile ceremony took place at Vemork on the 28 February, but she was back at the museum to meet a group of modern-day Norwegian soldiers who were just about to finish a re-creation of the original journey over the Hardangervidda plateau. We were lucky enough to see them marching up the route of the old railway.

Along with Joachim Ronneberg (the last surviving member of the raid), Kayser's role was to place sausage-shaped explosive charges on the cylinders used in the heavy-water process. These were located in the cellar of the building, but the door was locked so the two found an entrance through a cable duct. After crawling through this, they surprised a Norwegian caretaker, whom Kayser held at gunpoint while the team began to lay their charges. Eventually the cylinders were destroyed and 3,000 pounds of heavy water, about four or five months' production, flowed towards the drain.

Vemork bridge. Photograph: Mathias Willerup

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Recreating Shackleton's journey

A group of Australian and British explorers is about to recreate Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1916 trans-Antarctic voyage, one of the greatest journeys of human survival ever made. I wrote about the expedition as part of a piece about following in the footsteps of the famous for the Guardian's Comment is free pages.

The 2013 voyage, led by British-born Tim Jarvis, aims to row the same route as Shackleton in a replica seven-metre lifeboat, navigating with a sextant and  even eating the same food as the original team. However, lack of space prevented me from mentioning that this isn't the first time someone has tried to retrace the route. Crossings were made in 1955 and 1994,  while in 1997 a crew of Irishmen had to give up their attempt after capsizing three times in 24 hours. A few years later, mountaineers Conrad Anker, Reinhold Messner and Stephen Venables trekked across the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia for the Imax film, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure. No doubt there have been other attempts.

Jarvis' venture though appears to be to a genuine attempt to recreate the entire 1916 'double' voyage from Elephant Island all the way to Stromness, on South George. It is fraught with danger and the only concessions to the use of period items will be emergency equipment on board the boat, and the presence of a support vessel, Australis in the Southern Ocean. You can of course follow the progress of the trip via twitter: @ShackletonEpic.