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

Tryfan postscript

Dot writes:

After we blogged about our Tryfan adventure, my sister rang up to say that she has climbed Tryfan twice, under strong protest both times, with her ex. My sister has tried and likes rock-climbing, but she isn’t keen on heights or on scrambling. The first time she and the ex went up Tryfan they lost the path and found themselves ascending a steeper and steeper line until they got to the point where she was quite stuck, unable to move up or down. I don’t think they needed a helicopter rescue; they must eventually have sorted themselves out. Anyway, it was a nasty moment. When they got to the top the ex jumped from Adam to Eve no fewer than three times. Then he decided it would be fun to do the whole thing again. I’m not sure my sister has ever forgiven him…

If our companions are the Man in Black and Fezzik does that make Ken and me Inigo Montoya and Prince Humperdinck? – not that I killed his father, of course, though I did once gravely disappoint him (Ken’s dad, that is) by not wanting to eat a hot curry. My mum always liked Prince Humperdinck, while I don’t think either of us quite convince as Buttercup.

Photos from Tryfan walk

Ken writes:
I thought I’d post a couple of the photos of our trip. First a view of our stoney adversary: Tryfan.
View of Tryfan from Ogwen Cottage on the shore of llyn Ogwen.
Next our huddled quarters below it.
And the awesome view of its aspect from our diminutive camp at the base.
Tryfan viewed from the campsite
But we did not flinch from our task
Heather Terrace
Almost there (on the saddle before the final push)
Crew on saddle ridge
We did it!
We knocked the bugger off
But then we had to get down again, and there was lots of scrambling to do.
Oh, but it was all worth it.

Leg transplant

Dot writes:

The title of the post is what I now could do with after taking a foolish amount of exercise at the weekend courtesy of our dear friends David and Zoe and a big scary Welsh mountain named Tryfan. I don’t think I’ve ever climbed such a difficult hill, not that that is saying too much given my cautious nature and very modest Munro-count of somewhere around 20. (I’d like to say my vagueness about this number shows how I rise above the score-keeping mentality, but it’s just vagueness really.) Some Scottish hills are essentially big brown lumps (BIG brown lumps, mind, not to be sneezed at, though frequently sneezed on as they are high and windswept enough to be much colder at the top). Tryfan is not like that. It is a great jagged pile of rocks. Seen at first from the road it seems to be made of a light-coloured kryptonite, so many are its columns and buttresses, so insistent its verticality. One popular route involves scrambling all the way up the north ridge (scrambling being a mode of ascent short of actual rock-climbing but which definitely means using your hands as well as your legs).  There are also numerous opportunities for actual climbing, with ropes and so forth. David was using his ascent with us partly to scope out all the wildly frightening cliffs he plans to gecko his way up on another occasion. Our route was the Heather Terrace. This is one of the easier routes because you are actually walking, if steeply, for most of it; it’s just when you get to the saddle under the twin summits that you have to start scrambling. Zoe was extremely kind and told me where to put my feet and, with the help of a light mist that tactfully concealed quite how much of that scrambling section there was, I made it to the summit. (Ken, by the way, was magnificent: he has long legs and good nerves and fairly bounded up.) At the very top there are two columns known as Adam and Eve and the traditional thing is to jump from one to the other, but not even David did this. He might have done if Zoe had let him.

Coming down the weather gradually cleared – it had only been a high cloud cover anyway, and didn’t shed the rain it seemed to threaten – and we were treated to extraordinary golden light picking out the fractured rocks and dry grasses and heathers of the cwms. We took a shallower path down so we had a bit more leisure to look around. As we descended into wetter ground Zoe noticed clusters of frog-spawn in the standing pools. It was an inspiringly beautiful and tough landscape; but not an empty or a remote one, for the A-road from the coast to Betws-y-Coed runs directly under Tryfan and the place was swarming with scramblers, climbers and walkers taking advantage of a fine and mild late March weekend.

Ken took lots of pictures of the area, our campsite and our walk: more Tryfan to follow.

First Walk of the Season

Ken and Dot atop Sugarloaf (O Cualann)Ken writes: It’s really embarrassingly late, but yesterday Dot and I went on our first walk of the season. We climbed Sugarloaf or ‘O Cualann’ just outside Dublin. The great advantage of our new digs on the southside is that it only took us twenty minutes to get to the start of the walk. The weather was supposed to be quite bad so we opted for this shorter walk than the one we planned. The wind at the top was pretty fierce, so it was probably a wise decision. We could also see the clouds dumping a bunch of rain on the hills we were going to climb.

Dot adds: For those interested, it’s possible to climb Great Sugarloaf in one short up-and-down from a handy carpark to the south of the hill, but we parked at the GAA club in Kilmacanogue and did a full circuit, which involves more climbing, more varied terrain and altogether a more satisfying walk (though also, this being a Ken and Dot walk, lots of little arguments about what exactly the instructions in the walks book meant and whether this particular patch of flattened bracken/gap in the gorse was our ordained path). Pretty early on I put my foot into a concealed hole and got a boot full of freezing muddy water. Normally this sort of thing happens to Ken and he was very good about almost not laughing.

Great Sugarloaf is only 500 metres high, but it is a thoroughly convincing peak with scree, a precipitous rocky top, a heather-clad spur to the north, a mysterious wooded cleft to the east, and all the trimmings. The triumph of scaling it is only slightly diminished by sharing your summit celebrations with a couple of five-year olds wearing their best pink tights. The five-year olds were a good thing really because we got their Dad to take our summit shot.