Dark Days

This was written a few weeks ago, and the pictures taken in early January over a 24hour period between Glen Coe and the Port of Appin. Given events of the last few days, it seems a pretty naive experiment now, but whatever, I'm throwing it to the wind.

To my own mind at least, we've crossed some lines... so be as kind as you can to each other out there. Don't drunk tweet, bite your tongue before trolling. There's only us left, and language matters. And if you want to even begin to understand what's happening, follow the one true god. Follow the money.


Shortly after Christmas we walked above Balquhidder on a fine cool winter’s day with deep light, shadow play on the hills, glowing green and red and a hint of snow white above us. I breathed in the life of trees deeply, cradled their presence in my neural network like the roots held the soil, fed back to each other and maybe even to me? Permission for a few hours to bend, not forced to break. A reminder of rest, safety, home. We’ve been trying to get somewhere else, buy a house. Turns out that wasn't sustainable.

The next day we went into the city. The streets slowly filled with the bored, the drunk, the rich and the poor, all buggered and beggered by it all. I watched the eyes of those who walked past the homeless, embarrassed to blankness, voided credit card hearts. My daughter moaned to see mickey fucking mouse one more time, and instead I gave her a pound to give to the old man slumped outside Schuh with a dog. Rats on a concrete ship.

I take my daughter to a ‘fun day’ held between a scrap yard full of twisted metal and a motorway. It’s run by Good People who Mean Well in a church car park. There’s not a blade of grass in sight. This is normal. But we are the lucky ones - the wrong class maybe but the right colour at least, enough money to eat well. Our homes have yet to be bombed, our friends have yet to be taken to the gulag, our bodies have not been ransacked for organs.

We try to teach our girl about about Usnea, old man’s beard - tinder, antibiotic, a lichen cure for ills from athlete’s foot to strep throat and flu. We may yet achieve escape velocity, but there’s no place deep enough in the woods that we can hide from this octopus, no place that can resist.

But in my cornered mind on the darker days, we have to prepare. She must learn to cut wood, navigate, self rescue and self defend, grow, kill, gut and cook food, write code and speak Mandarin. She may have to do more. It’s a big ask, to make plans for war. The terror of parenthood, and the burden of children. The war we waged on the world came home, didn't it.

There’s an idea that if you ignore our certain bitter end in a fart of crocodile tears, famine, dis-ease, anomie, digital atomisation and chemical rot, then you are running away, turning a blind eye, avoiding the painful and inevitable; that you are, sin of all sins, a coward. But what if all that was a distraction, fake news, a temporary aberration from another normal. What if the weather was all you needed to know? Then only a tree bending in the wind with it’s roots in the ground would be real, and all the concrete and glass in the world would be a mirage.

Rest with me a while. I need to catch my breath here, lean on this branch, before we try again.

3 by 4

Balquhidder was a family day walk shortly after christmas, and the little'un was tired so we didn't get as far as the lochan. I only had the X100T, but I like this little camera, and managed to grab a few that felt ungeneric enough to post here, and caught the feel. Just like with music - I couldn't care less about picture perfect, what I want is vibe - lens flares 'n all.

Click to make big

On new year's day, with a tiny weather window and no hangover I went out to dust off my Munro bagging habit, making for 2 between Killin and Crianlarich. After the long sit of the festive period, I think I wanted the walk and the camp more than the tops themselves to be honest. So the ticks themselves were unimportant, but nice things happened on the way to, from and inbetween Sgiath Chùil and Meall Glas.

The inconvenient truth when you split childcare is that it's all about the timing - and more so than ever in this start/stop winter season. A furtive but watchful eye, a 5am start and a whole lotta huffing and puffing through fresh meringue saw us on Meall Lighiche and Sgùrr na U-laidh just before the most recent thaw. I'm not sure our route onto the second was entirely orthodox, but I was proud of my mate Mick, who breathed through cramps on a chossy, steep and nasty slope to break through to the ridgeline vista. We really are so lucky to have these spaces. A superb winter mountain day, the second best of the season so far for me, with a few shots to show off at some point, but four for here and now.

Hope you're enjoying your time out too.

Hot Rocks, Alpine Butterflies

In february 2016 I went to southern Spain to take a short alpine skills course with Richard Hartley of Spanish Highs. I published a shorter, more technical piece about the trip in Mountain Pro, but a longer feature is now out in the February 2017 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine. That makes it time to share a few pictures here that might not have seen the light of day before.

DPS of The Great Outdoors Magazine feature

DPS of The Great Outdoors Magazine feature

This time I've focused on the location as much as the activity. I've probably done more walking in Spain than anywhere except Scotland, long before the vanities of blogs, facebook and twitter. Falling in love with the Sierra Nevada in my twenties got me into the hills back home, so it's part paean to the place, part history lesson in mountain resistance and part tribute to a genuinely fantastic teacher - Richard Hartley.

If anyone reading this is considering taking a course to further their confidence and reach in the outdoors, Richard is the real deal - a bone fide mountain man, perfect hydrid of wildebeast and meta-aware, eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head safety guru... and one of the most chilled, least egotistical pairs of hands around. Going away for this type of thing makes it into a bit of an occasion too, so you don't take it for granted and forget everything you learned when you get back. And, of course it's a beautiful place, somewhere that Richard clearly loves, which made the whole thing work in the way these things should. I'm more than happy to recommend him and his team, no strings attached. Find out more, here: http://www.spanishhighs.co.uk/

I'll leave you with a sentence from the TGO piece, which hopefully gives you a flavour of what I'm on about, and because it's my party and I'll do what I want.

A little like our hosts I think, I find it impossible to remain unaffected by the anarchic magic of this region; a spirit of independence leavened with mutual assistance that defied Franco and the Catholic Kings before him. Those are also mountain values, and they seem fully at home and at ease in both people and place here.

Click to make big:

PS - I've also got a big photo of the Cairngorms, a Wild Walk and another feature in the safety supplement of the same issue.

A personal pick of books and films during 2016

Here's a few of the book and film reviews I wrote for the outdoor press over the last year. Should you have book or film tokens from the festive period, you can't go wrong with anything here.

BOOK

In Some Lost Place - Sandy Allen

I’ll cut to the chase: In some lost place is a breathlessly told and disarmingly honest first person account that I was barely able to put down. The facts are now well known: In the summer of 2012, Sandy Allen led a team of 6 onto the Mazeno ridge, the longest unclimbed line to an 8,000m summit in the world. A fraction shorter than the Cuillin ridge at 10kms long, but all at over 7,000m, this way onto Nanga Parbat had stalled 10 expeditions before theirs. His and Rick Allen’s success and near death experience on the route, for which they subsequently won the Poilet D’or, is told simply and chronologically, but there’s much more than just suffering and adventure. Insight into Sandy’s psychological approach as a mountain guide and expedition leader, a personal reflection on the role of friends and mentors in progressing mountaineering in general and the Mazeno in particular, a frank description of beginning to lose his mind at altitude, and finally the insight into his understanding of grace in high places, which I found incredibly moving. This is a humbling account of possibly the boldest British mountaineering accomplishment in a generation.

 

Mountain Bothies: Celebrating 50 years of the MBA

This is the DIY, make do and mend response to other book about bothies published recently (The Book of the Bothy). In some ways they are complimentary. The MBA offering is not about to convince newbies of the charm of a cold stone shack. Instead, it’s a lovingly put together and wide ranging collection of reports, fables, anecdotes, histories, drawings and photographs by, for and about bothy obsessives. I love it, but not cover to cover – it’s a reference guide for me, when I want to find out more about a particular building, perhaps when seeking background to share with others once we’re on our way. Herein are hilarious tales, slightly dubious typeface and a whole lot of history about the organisation itself. The most moving chapter for me is ‘The buildings and the people’ which attempts to trace the stories of these lonely structures when they were more than temporary shelters for wandering hill bums – when they were homes. Utterly charming, and invaluable reading for hill geeks. Plus all proceeds to the MBA. What more could you want?

 

Out There: A voice from the wild by Chris Townsend

Although he’d no doubt deny it, Chris Townsend is something of a pioneer. He made a career from walking and writing long before social media and celebrity adventuring, following a desire for long distance exploration over many years and mountain ranges. Chris’ latest book is one of his most accessible, and I think possibly his most important. It’s a wide ranging selection of essays and articles from a lifetime of travels, updated for a modern audience. These range from adventures short, long and ‘ultra’ long, as well as thoughts on the significance of wild places and nature experience for humans, and the importance of wilderness for the creatures we share the planet with. Chris is a lover not a fighter, and that passion is writ large across every page. This outdoor scribe isn’t trading hyperbole or adrenaline. The tone here is enthusiastic yet calm and clear-sighted – conversational, but never cold. Despite being a record holder, our guide to the Wild remains humble: In ‘Out There’ his voice is just as full of care for a local, unassuming hill that he visits out of habit, as it is for the Rockies and Sierras. It's the voice of experience, and it’s one we should listen to.

 

After the Crash and other stories - David Pickford

Climb magazine’s David Pickford delivers a compilation of 10 finely honed fiction shorts that showcase a climber’s nimble imagination and an editor’s precision with a storyline. The stories range from a child’s woodland wander to tales of climbing, skiing and mountaineering… and the best of these are miraculous miniatures. Plot and character are pared back to an absolute minimum, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and me to wonder how such a punch was packed in so few pages. As a result, these feel like fables, or perhaps more accurately like dreams – archetypal journeys pieced together from the wreckage of memory, barely protected and half remembered from the shock of a sudden and breathless awakening. Weren’t we just teetering on the brink of an abyss? Pickford has a surgeon’s hand and a sculptor’s heart, and has figured out very precisely how to leave us wanting more. There are perhaps one or two less effective pieces in the mix, but overall this is virtuoso stuff.

 

East of the Himalaya: Alps of Tibet and Beyond - Tamotsu Nakamura

Published on the 100th Anniversary of the Japanese Alpine Club, This is a staggering body of work from mountaineer Tamotsu ‘Tom’ Nakamura, covering his extensive research in east Tibet and west Sichuan. Tamotsu has made over 37 expeditions in the last quarter century, and in leaving this legacy has done mountaineering a great service. Information is offered in both English and Japanese, including ridgeline mapping compiled from on the ground exploration and multiple map sources, climbing history where it applies (which is not that often!), as well as extensive photographic documentation of an area about 1500km across. The volume of work is genuinely impressive, by any standard. It’s the author’s contention that there are still around 400, 6,000m peaks left unclimbed in the region. And the majority are likely to resist first ascents for a good while: After the Lhasa Uprising in 2008, foreign travel in the TAR has become harder than ever to negotiate. Those regions outside immediate Chinese control will likely succumb first, but this book is a lifetime resource and serious temptation for very committed and experienced alpinists. Available in the UK by direct mail order email to ibd@kinokuniya.co.jp.

My copy is now with the SMT archive at Strathclyde University, and can be accessed in the reference library.

 

Let my people go surfing - Yvon Chouinard

This revised and updated edition of the classic sustainable business bible is a complicated read, but not because it’s badly written - on the contrary, Chouinard speaks plainly and simply. It’s complicated because of the world it sits in, a world of unsustainable growth for profit, a world that Patagonia the outdoor gear company both wrestles with and benefits from. The book isn’t about surfing, or climbing. It’s about the mistakes the company makes, the environmental awakening the author has, and what he decides to do with that information. The list of innovations in design, engineering, fabric science, eco footprint, HR, corporate social responsibility and business organisation is so endless that it’s difficult not to be cynical. But just as I find myself thinking ‘greenwash’, I’m disarmed: Again and again, Chouinard is matter of fact about his company’s many errors on it’s way to being one of the most ecologically sound paragons of capitalist virtue that exists… as if that isn’t an oxymoron. The author is aware of the contradictions of course, and to his credit chooses to contain them. He’s not just a benevolent entrepreneur giving away money… as he says himself, “it’s okay to be eccentric, as long as you are rich. Otherwise you’re just crazy”. The mission is bigger – make a profit and lead the way for others, both in product quality and environmental impact. He’s plainly very proud of his company, but forgive him that and Let My People Go Surfing is a fascinating, full and frank confessional about a business which leads the pack in terms of environmental credentials.

 

FILM

Tom directed by Angel Esteban and Elena Goatelli

A straight and true documentary about Tom Ballard, son of the legendary Alison Hargreaves. The filmmakers stalk Tom and father James, as Tom attempts to be the first to solo all 6 great North Faces of the Alps in a single winter season. Moodily scored, elegantly paced and subtly edited, the film marries Tom's own mountain Go Pro footage with a keen sense of direction from those behind the camera on terra firma. Clearly Tom is a product of an upbringing immersed in climbing culture and driven to the point of obsession, but the filmmakers don't overstate the psychological reasons for his ambition, and instead simply witness the action as it unfolds, allowing Tom to do his own talking when he is ready. Directors Esteban and Goatelli seem to have secured the trust of the family and access to what was obviously a very personal mountaineering project, and utterly believable footage. In a world of hammy hyperbolic advenchurn, it’s a huge relief to see something this sensitively made. 'Tom' is a quiet, honest and intense portrait of a young man on a personal journey to the heart of the mountain. Available on Steep Edge.

 

Sherpa – directed by Jennifer Peedom

A film from Universal charting the disastrous Everest season of 2014. The director aimed to get a Sherpa's point of view on climbing Everest after the famous flareup of 2013, and instead was on the ground to document the appalling loss of life and resulting Sherpa strike the following year. Footage from veteran cinematographer Renan Ozturk is beautiful and terrible in equal measure, rich with his trademark desaturated colours, textures and slo mo, but never mind the eye candy – there’s genuine substance as well as style here. Access to both Sherpa family life and the accident as it unfolds is moving and non-judgemental. Analysis is offered by a very chilly, pensive looking Ed Douglas who helps navigate the complicated politics of the mountain, and offers insight into the tacit racism of the relationships between Sherpas and foreign visitors, cloaked in over a century of imperialism. Exped leader Russell Brice comes of as the best of a guilty bunch, but even he doesn’t get away scot-free in this. The take home message is that a new breed of Sherpa is no longer subservient to the Sahib. This film will ruffle some feathers but is the most significant mountain film you will see this year – absolutely unmissable. Watch on itunes