Boys, blue skies

Dot writes: people who live in Ireland or Britain grimly expect rain in the holidays, or at least a mean stiff wind. However, this week we’ve had blue skies and some astonishing warmth. (Astonishing warmth = 18 degrees in Dublin. Woah.) I took Thursday off work (my mum is visiting, I’m allowed) and we had a family trip into Wicklow to climb Great Sugarloaf, eat a leisurely lunch at Mount Usher Gardens, and then tour the gardens. We’d worried it might be too early in the season for the plants, but there was a wonderful display of flowers – daffodils, bluebells and frittilaries on the ground, rhododendrons and magnolias in the trees.  Here are some pictures, mostly taken by my mum. DSC05269 DSC05283 DSC05292 DSC05295 DSC05311 DSC05317 DSC05318 DSC05336

Today I had a lot of baking to do. Mum took the boys to a playground while I shopped. Then Frank helped with the baking.

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Hugh’s second ascent

Dot writes: we’ve had a lovely day today. We needed it. Here’s a splurge of negative stuff from our week, but I promise if you wade through it you’ll get to some blue skies and cheering healthy exercise, not to mention good behaviour and delicious Avoca salad. You don’t get to eat the salad, but I can assure you I did a very good job of eating it on your behalf.

It has been an anxious week. Tib has not returned. Ken and the boys have leafleted everyone in our road and everyone in the road that backs on to ours and whose gardens Tibby may have run into. I have put up adverts on lostandfoundpets.ie and pets.ie and contacted the DSPCA and some local vets. But there has been no news and no sightings. I keep expecting him to turn up at the back door, but the days go by and he just doesn’t.

At the same time we have been dealing with another rather stressful situation. A bit over a week ago, Ken was offered a job – which is good – but in Bristol, which is rather less good, since it means him being away during the week; but it’s a great chance to get experience, and pleasing confirmation of the fact that he is a Good Thing, and we agreed he should take it. They seemed to want him to start very soon, and I signed up to AuPairWorld and began dealing with the flood of applications from eager young Spaniards (there are a LOT of Spanish girls who want to be au pairs). But despite the initial message of hurry hurry, Ken’s new employers don’t seem to be getting their act together. The guy who recruited him wanted him to come over to the UK for training and told him to arrange dates with the current brewer, but the current brewer told him to arrange dates with the other guy and seemed rather hostile if anything; neither of them has been back in touch, and now we are beginning to wonder whether this job will actually happen after all. I narrowed my au pair search down to three girls and then had to tell all of them that I’m no longer sure we’ll need them.

Also, Ken ran the marathon on Monday and has been a bit sore in the knees, and I’ve had a rotten cold. (The marathon deserves a post to itself. The cold doesn’t, but it was very snotty and repulsive.)

All those things on the minus side. But on the plus side, this:

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Last time we climbed Great Sugarloaf Hugh was a little baby carried on Ken’s chest. This time both boys did it on their own legs with remarkable vigour and enthusiasm; it seems the secret of a walk without whinging is to make it as steep, rocky and pointy as possible. The wind was brisk but the sky clear, and from the top we could see all the way to the Mournes. Then we came down and had lunch at the Avoca outlet in Kilmacanogue (so that’s the tasty salad part I mentioned – for me and Ken only; the boys were being good, but not salad good – their lunch was rather less vitamin-rich); and then we went and visited our former neighbour, who has poor health and always likes to be visited. It was nice to catch up with her but also felt like something of a good deed. Since we last saw her she has had thyroid cancer (we didn’t know about this or we’d have visited more often) and, post-treatment, ironically feels better than she has done for years.

And so home, feeling pleased with ourselves and our day.

P.S. Here are the boys in their Halloween costumes. A nasty mother would say these costumes reveal rather than disguising, but I am not a nasty mother. And really the boys have been very good today.
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The call of the hills

Dot writes: given a bank holiday Monday with rain forecast and two tiny children, which of the following options seems most sensible?:

a) staying at home and drugging them with mindless DVDs
b) going to Dundrum shopping centre, along with 98% of the population of Dublin or
c) walking up a steep, exposed hill in Wicklow.

Yes, the answer is (a). And now guess which one we did.

It wasn’t entirely awful. Well, it was quite awful. I made my accustomed exclamations about how unfit I am, but with feeling; Frank and all his gear on my back didn’t exactly make it easier for someone who hasn’t done any serious walking for several years. Ken under the weight of Hugh was glad of his walking pole. Frank started to cry as we emerged into the exposed part at the top, and both boys howled on the way down as the rain became heavier and they were imprisoned behind raincovers. Hugh repeatedly lost one boot. It was a group walk and we enjoyed the social side, and I think Hugh liked clambering around the cairn, but I suspect we won’t be trying anything similar in the future unless the weather reports promise on their honour that there will be temperate sunshine for the next month.

On the other hand…I love the hills. I’d forgotten how incredibly satisfying I find it, even in my present pathetically flabby state, to plod my way step by step up a steep slope and then look back and see how high those slow patient steps have brought me; how much I love bleak uplands and expanses of heather, even in the rain; how surprisingly good rain can feel when you are properly dressed for it and warm with exercise (though sweatiness and raincoats aren’t a good mix); how good a pork-pie tastes at the top. I want to do more of this. But not without a babysitter.

Lugnaquilla, Co. Wicklow

Ken writes:

I went walking yesterday with Michael Gallagher and Izzy Jack from UCD and Niall Connolly, Gwen Murphy and Pål Antonsen from Trinity. We climbed Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in Wicklow and the highest outside Kerry. I’ve already climbed Slieve Donard in County Down, the highest in Ulster, so with Lugnaquilla that makes the highest peaks in two of the four provinces. But none of this counting matters really. The day began extremely cold and windy but the weather improved throughout the day. The wind at the top was severe, but everyone made it down again with all five fingers and toes.

We went up via the Glen of Imaal. The route runs along the end of an Irish Army artillery range, so we had to ring ahead first to check they weren’t firing. Judging from the reputation of the other popular ascent (from Fraughen Rock Glen and Glenmalure) this is definitely the easiest way to do it (although not without some steep bits, but nothing you can’t handle if you take it slowly).

Anyway, here are some pictures

The party at the gate at the start of the walk
The party at the gate at the start of the walk

Our snow capped goal
Our snow capped goal

Michael, Gwen and Niall
Michael, Gwen and Niall

Izzy
Izzy

Another view of Lugnaquilla
Another view of Lugnaquilla

Start of the icy slog
Start of the icy slog

view south from the Lug
view south from the Lug

Blades of grass encased in icy jackets
Blades of grass encased in icy jackets

Sign in icy jacket
Sign in icy jacket

view of sign obscured by author
view of sign obscured by author

Pål Antonsen chilling out at the summit
Pål Antonsen chilling out at the summit

Ken at summit (note finger of God reaching to pat me on back –or press the button, I'm not sure)
Ken at summit (note finger of God reaching to pat me on back –or press the button, I'm not sure)

View of Wicklow from the Lug
View of Wicklow from the Lug

The descent
The descent

As we descended, the weather improved making it look...
As we descended, the weather improved making it look...

positively benign
positively benign

Hugh’s first proper walk

Ken writes:

We did a circuit around the upper lake at Glendalough today. The primary reason was that it looked like being a nice day and it is important to take one’s chances to get out of the city. I also wanted to see how long I can go carrying him in a front-fitting sling. To balance out the weight, I also carried our pack on my back and used to poles to spread the load.

The walk was a great success. Maybe Lugnaquilla is an option in the not too distant future after all. Pictures to follow when I can figure out how to upload them (wordpress has changed how it handles these things and it’s not functioning properly with either Opera (for Mac) or Safari).

view point above upper loughAt the look out above the lough

After the initial climbWalking along southern edge of the lough

tired outTired out after all that walking.

(Firefox came to the rescue. I’m still miffed with wordpress, though.)

Hugh pictures (lots!)

Here are some scenes from the recent life of Hugh (though of course all of Hugh’s life is recent).

Pictures taken by Ben, from the 8th to 11th December. Hugh was four weeks old.
sofaHugh with daddy and Auntie Meriel on the sofa.
hand of dadThe hand of Dad.
stripesStripes
argumentativeHugh presents his side of the case
chairThe new chair grabbed his attention at once.

Hugh on his playmat. 18th December.
dangly thingHugh inspects the dangly jingly thing.
batBat! Admittedly, it’s hard to be sure he meant to do this.

Here is Hugh at his first dinner party, with our friend Lucy and some incriminating evidence. 19th December (one day short of six weeks old).
Hugh and LucyHugh and Lucy

Hugh looks Christmassy. Knitwear by Joan Fisher. His six-weeks birthday (Thursday 20th December).
ChristmassyNo publicity, please!

Today (Saturday 22nd December) we climbed Great Sugarloaf. Last time we went to Sugarloaf Hugh had just been conceived, though we didn’t yet know it; we went up the hard way from the GAA carpark at Kilmacanogue. This time we took the cheaty route and parked on the minor road south of the summit. It’s still a decent piece of exercise for someone who can’t walk.
snackHugh readies his strength for the climb.
before SugarloafHugh and Daddy at the start of the route.
partwayPartway up. On the shoulder of the summit cone.
summit shotSummit shot.
summit with MummyHugh with Mummy at the top of Great Sugarloaf.

Dot has a thought not connected with babies

Dot writes: I’m reading Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld’s book The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine. This was published in 1986 but revised in the wake of the finding of Mallory’s body by the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Although the Holzel and Salkeld book aims to investigate what happened on Everest in 1924 when George Mallory and Sandy Irvine failed to return from their summit bid, it starts much further back in Mallory’s life and includes a fairly full account of all three 1920s British Everest attempts. What strikes me about it so far is that the authors don’t think much of Mallory. They portray him as snobbish, disorganised, an irresponsible leader, prone to contradicting himself, and superior to other climbers of his day only in ambition. Comparing him with the Australian (Swiss-educated) climber George Finch, who was regarded as socially a bit suspect and a difficult person by other British alpinists, they clearly prefer Finch. It’s as though having chosen to investigate Mallory so intensively has aroused in them an intense irritation, as of one stuck endlessly in a tent with someone who initially seemed quite charming.

Earlier this year I read a biography of Mallory (Dudley Green, Because It’s There). I finished it thinking that Mallory was a true hero, brave, good, physically outstanding, a man not only of great talent but of fine character; I enjoyed the old-fashioned thrill of unqualified admiration, which is a luxury rarely enjoyed in the world of celebs and G2. I was intrigued enough by the contrast between the two portraits of Mallory to compare the books’ accounts of the incident in 1922 when nine porters in a party led by Mallory and Somervell were killed in an avalanche. I was quite surprised to find that Holzel and Salkeld on the one hand and Green on the other tell much the same story using exactly the same sources. It is simply the editing, and the authors’ comments (Green offers little evaluation of his own), that give so different an impression. For example, both books quote a letter from Longstaff in which he criticizes the decisions that led up to the fatal accident:

To attempt such a passage in the Himalaya after new snow is idiotic. What the hell did they think they could do on Everest in such conditions even if they did get up to the North Col.

But only Holzel and Salkeld quote the previous sentence that specifically attacks Mallory (‘Mallory cannot even observe the conditions in front of him’), or Longstaff’s assessment of his character earlier in the letter:

Mallory is a very good stout hearted baby, but quite unfit to be placed in charge of anything, including himself.

This of course is only one person’s judgement of Mallory’s behaviour in the incident; but it is clear Holzel and Salkeld afford it more weight than Green does.

Storms of Silence

Dot writes: I’ve just had another little fit of climbing books: Heinrich Harrer’s classic The White Spider, about the North Face of the Eiger, and Joe Simpson’s 1996 book Storms of Silence. I’ll post another time about the former: it was excellent, in a slightly, stiff, old-fashioned way, with its glowing character portraits of athletic, brave young Teutons (Harrer doesn’t think much of Italians and is grudging in praise of the French) hurling themselves at the insanely dangerous Eigerwand. The latter was a bit disappointing. Joe spends most of it stamping around being grumpy and worrying about his complicity in human rights abuses in Tibet and (to a much lesser extent) Peru. His assorted smashed joints and a nasty chest infection mean he doesn’t actually climb anything until right at the end. The issues he raises are hugely important – the nature of human violence at individual and state level, the role of climbers and other travellers in funding corrupt and oppressive governments – but he is at his best as a writer when telling stories of adventure, and there aren’t many of those in the book. In his more sententious moments one becomes aware of an occasional crudity in his writing, a bold but slightly formulaic quality that undermines ambitions to be original or probing in his thought. For example (from the introduction, p. 3):

Could it be that without the mechanisms by which we are warned of attack we have also lost the ability to control violence? As a species we are certainly barbaric. Not far beneath the thin skin of our civilised manners lies a heart of darkness which emerges from time to time to mock our conceited assumption that we are above the realm of the animal’s bestial behaviour.

The idea in the first sentence here is rather interesting and speaks to debates over whether human violence is an atavistic instinctual behaviour, a symptom of how our societies have changed beyond the ability of biological evolution to keep up, and to ideas of humanity being somehow out of step with nature (a secular reflex of the myth of the Fall). I think Simpson is wrong, as it happens: humans are very sensitive to danger of attack, but largely to danger of attack by other humans in urban settings – the environment whose clues most of us read best. What really bothers me about this paragraph is the phrase ‘heart of darkness’. It sets up a clamour of associations with questions about race, oppression, colonialism, instinct and the capacity for moral degeneration – not inappropriately – but in context I am not sure the allusion to Conrad is intended. The phrase ‘heart of darkness’ here has the air of a cliche unreflectively employed. I hope I’m doing Simpson an injustice. But this does strike me as characteristic of his more opinionated passages.

Simpson’s great strengths for addressing issues such as violence are not his powers of analysis but his passion and energy and the sharp scrutiny he turns on himself. One is impressed by his honesty, his willingness to examine his own selfish, cowardly or ill-tempered moments and his readiness to tell stories against himself. He mercilessly records his bad temper on encountering a group of distressed Tibetans refugees during an expedition to Cho Oyu: it is true there is little he can do, but he recognises the root of his anger is the feeling that they are intruding ugliness and suffering on his uplifting adventure. In a lighter vein, he reminisces about practising nasty glares in the mirror as a boy. He tried them out on his sister, but if she noticed at all she just asked if he was feeling ill. The book has some very funny passages. There’s a great anecdote about losing his way in a rocky landscape with a Californian and being puzzled and exasperated when his companion repeatedly exclaims he can see ducks (it turns out a ‘duck’ is what the Californian calls a cairn). There’s also a touching, slightly dated little rant about women in gyms wearing scanty leotards:

Sure, I’m not allowed to touch. I know that. But faced with spread-eagled semi-nakedness, can’t I just leer a little? (p. 246)

Another dated and oddly insistent feature of the book is the constant reference to personal stereos. Actually, it isn’t so odd. Turning up the music is Joe’s way of enclosing himself in a separate space and shutting the world out, and it can turn out to be dangerous: as, for example, when Mal Duff has his Walkman turned up too loud to hear his wife’s warning shout and finds himself being carried down the track on the forehead of a runaway yak (pp. 96-7).

One element in Joe Simpson’s guilt feelings focuses on being so much richer than the inhabitants of the countries where he climbs, buying his slice of mountain excitement, being a ‘credit card adventurer’. This is an interesting point of contrast with The White Spider, in which many of the heroic young climbers are abjectly poor. The sixteenth ascent of the Eiger Nordwand (in August 1959) was achieved by a couple of young stonemasons, who insulated themselves against the cold by wearing extra shirts and bivouacked under the covering of an overcoat, which they then threw away, giving onlookers the impression someone had fallen off the face. Harrer writes about his own student climbing expeditions in the Dolomites, when he would walk for days to get between climbs because in Italy one had to pay for a licence in order to ride a bicycle. Harrer of course is writing about climbers in their own home continent of Europe, Simpson about westerners going to Asia and South America, but it is the case that it is somehow easier to admire a mountaineer who is poor than one who is rich (think of the vitriol visited on Sandy Hill Pittman). Overcoming poverty adds a satisfying extra dimension to the story of overcoming the odds and helps to emphasise the courage rather than the selfishness of the climber: the poor are less readily credited with responsibilities they might be neglecting by hazarding their lives in the mountains.

Back From Holiday

Ken writes:
Dot and I are just back from a four night stay at our old stomping grounds in North East Fife. It was a wonderful trip, although the weather prevented us from taking a ferry to the bird sanctuary of the Isle of May. We really enjoyed ourselves there. I managed to catch a one-day Metaethics workshop on the Saturday, and found it very useful, particularly on Mark Kalderon’s Moral Fictionalism.

Dot and I also went hill-walking, only we didn’t bag a Munro; only a Corbett.Ben VrackieA windy day in Scotland. From left James, Dot and Ken