review

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

East of the Himalaya, Mountain Peak Maps: Alps of Tibet and Beyond

The first of 2 parish notices today.

I have left my copy of the Japanese Alpine Club publication by Tom Nakamura with the Scottish Mountaineering Trust archive based in Strathclyde University Library in Glasgow, with the hope that it will help those with the requisite skills and ambitions unlock some FA's in Chinese held Tibet in the future. It's a fairly rare volume and as lovely as it is, I didn't want it to fester on my bookshelf. Those who know what it is will know... and now you know where to find a copy too... but for everyone else, here's what I wrote about it in Mountain Pro mag.

Robin of the SMT was kind enough to swap it for their Scottish Winter Climbs - more my level of aspiration.

Anyone with a serious interest in mountaineering history can access the archive on a reference basis - you don't need to be a club member, or a student. I've used it for research and it's an incredible resource. Just make a formal request to visit.

 

Stuff that works - Dirty Girl Gaiters

The second, irregular installment of long term gear reviews I promised (threatened?) - focusing on the small, the good value, the unsung and the brilliant. This time, it's trail shoe gaiters - specifically, the best ones, made by US based Dirty Girl.

Outside of winter, when I wear boots, I don't bother with full on gaiters. They are way too hot, and if you are using trail runners to hike in, then keeping riverwater off your legs and out of your footwear makes no sense. You will never, ever keep all the water out of your shoes anyway - give it up. Operating a 'wet shoe system' means faster river and burn crossings, and less chance of blisters in damp leather boots. But gaiters are useful for trail shoes, because they keep most of the grit, heather and mud from entering the footwear through that big hole in the top that your foot goes in - trail runners are low cut after all. You don't need a full on, up to the knee effort for this - a short ankle gaiter will do just fine.

The Dirty Girls are made from stretchy, breathable spandex that is lightweight and dries quickly (unless it's a Scottish summer, when humidity stays at 100% for 4 months), is tough enough to withstand the mountains and come in a huge variety of thoroughly un-British, immodest and eye watering colour (or should that be color?) schemes. The ones above are one of the most discrete (clearly upstaged by the trousers in this case, anyway). Cosmetics aside, the key thing here is the design of the fixing.

The weak point of most gaiters is the strap that runs under the foot. I've had lots of lightweight gaiters that used bungee cord to hold the gaiter onto the shoe, which would get trashed after one traverse of a bouldery hill. Mmm, some rocks are sharp - who knew? For longer than a weekend trip this meant the gaiter would become unserviceable, plus I got through metres of bungee cord.

The fastening on the Dirty Girls is two-fold - one in the usual place, at the lace end on the top of the shoe (pictured above), and one at the back (pictured below). Rather than run cord or a strap under the shoe, the gaiters come supplied with some very, very adhesive velcro. Slap this on the back of your 'runners and away you go.

The only possible disadvantage to trailshoe gaiters I can think of is that you need to remove your shoe to remove the gaiter, but that's true of all mini gaiters, not just this design.

Having tried the rest, these are the best. You'll just have to try and be less British about your sartorial choices. Who knows, if enough of you buy them, they might even start doing them in FTSE 100 tweed or something. For ages they weren't available in the UK, but now they are - maybe a little pricey, but I've had mine for about 4 years and they are only just starting to fray a little now.

(no disclaimer needed - bought with my own wonga)

 

Stuff that works - Paramo Cambia Brief

Blether about gear is a rare thing for this website, but I keep coming back to this little idea while on a longer or tougher trip. It’s also a loaner from a few other people (Roger in particular) because of course there are no original ideas except the ones you have yourself…

I review gear regularly for Outdoor Enthusiast, a fact which people seem to miss so I’ll holler about it now. I think we do OK on that front - the reviews are straight up but informed (we have thousands of quality mountain days to draw on within our small team) and we don’t only review brands that advertise with us (you might be surprised how common that is) so we have complete autonomy to thrash the kit on the hill and write what we think. Most of the brands get that (you might also be surprised how many do want an honest opinion). So far, so good.

Peak Stuff in the Age of Austerity is deeply weird, but despite the heavy irony of having several pairs of trail shoes in the house for test while others visit food banks or drown off the coast, I enjoy the magazine review process. The admin sucks, but group testing means you find out what’s fit for purpose - not just brand to brand, but design and materials.

There’s another way to find this out, though, and that’s what this irregular gear feature will be about. Heavy, long term use - something that the mags struggle to do. I also want to focus on items which aren’t necessarily ‘sexy’ but give great value as well as high functionality. So that’s the idea with this.

So, without further ado (I promise they’ll be less ado in future), I give you my starter for 10 - the Paramo Cambia Brief.

My mate Andy tipped me off about these, and they are great, especially for when you know you will be working hard, it’ll be warm, or wet, or all 3. As you can see, they are not remotely sexy, (just to be clear I never wear briefs at home, where I am a paragon of macho chic at all times) but they do an A1 job of keeping you tucked in on the hill without any excess material.

I used to be all about merino, but I’ve gone the other way now and pretty much just use synthetic undies (not including socks) on longer trips. In my experience, pure Merino pants don’t last, and don’t give enough support long term. The wool boxers I have are now full of holes in the gusset and get used for day outings only. They also take an age to dry and there's a tonne of unused fabric, which if you are sitting in a soggy packraft or slogging up your 3rd hill of the day, doesn’t serve any purpose at all other than to keep you hot and damp. Quite why you’d want to subject your nuts to excess heat when evolution has spent a good deal of time and effort keeping them at room temperature I don’t know.

The fabric in the Cambia is Parameta T+, which is, y’know, gobbledygook (but hey they have to call these things something!), but does work better than anything else I own to wick sweat away from your soft parts. It’s a polyester which pulls out the damp and then spreads out the moisture across the face fabric to speed up evaporation. You can reverse the pants for warmer and cooler conditions, although I usually just reverse them after a few days to try and keep things as fresh as possible - I can’t say I’ve noticed a big difference in performance between one side and another. Seams are flat and stay out of the way, especially between rucksack, trousers and the undies themselves. The Cambia have a little stretch to them but are fairly structured compared to a lot of other undies. They are also very durable, and my 1 pair are still as good as new after 4 years over multiple missions. It’s worth sizing up by 1 size - mine came up small.

Synthetic can mean a high pong factor, but not excessively so here - I don't make a habit of sniffing my own pants, but on the rare occasion when I have gone in for a closer inspection, it 's been manageable. Less fabric means your legs are breathing more, which means less sweat. In my experience, providing you are hydrating enough and aren't caught short in a bathroom emergency, you can wear these for 5 or 6 days if you have to. Don't tell mother, though. They dry fast, so as and when you are in a position to wash them, you can get them back on yo' ass or in your pack within a few hours.

These aren’t so much for winter, although I have worn them in the cold… but you might want to look at something a bit more coverage (I also rate Underarmour boxers) and there is a women’s version too. I've not tried the Cambia boxers (either!).