Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review: The Villain, by Jim Perrin

"You do know that he was an absolute bastard, don't you?"

The words of Very Famous British Climber, Joe Brown, referring to another of the same ilk, Don Whillans. These two names, forever linked, are two of the very few that the general-non-mountaineering populace of Britain have ever heard of. Along with Hilary, Bonington and only a few others, the names of Whillans and Brown cast a very long shadow over British mountaineering. In The Villain, Jim Perrin takes it upon himself to separate myth from fact and produce the definitive biography to one of climbing's greatest characters; Don Whillans.

I've never really been a fan of Jim Perrin's monthly columns in various climbing magazines. Yes, the guy has a way with words, yes he is a bit of a legend in British (and especially Welsh) climbing, but a lot of his writing is rather overly prosaic for my tastes. Over at UKC, tobyfk wittily commented recently that he had come up with a random Perrin article generator, sample output:

Large sensual hands lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, onto the ridge of Moel Llyfnant, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Sed quam tortor, resonates with ancient dignissim sagittis descending from Esgeiriau Gwynion vestibulum vitae magical landscape. Looking across to Foel Hafod Fynydd suspendisse sit amet extraordinary richness of textures .....

which is about right. I mean, the last piece I read of his was in the Guardian, where he'd written a small column about going out at night to watch badgers shagging. Each to their own, I suppose.

The point of all this is that it left me a little bit worried when I got my hands on The Villain. Wouldn't Perrin's propensity to eulogise over-dramatise such an important story? Given the reputation of the subject, this is a book that really has to be done right, if at all. Yet on the flip-side, who else is better qualified to undertake such a burden, given that there are few other people who can a) say that they are/were on first name terms with most if not all the characters in the book, and b) have several years of professional writing experience (no matter how prosaic it tends to be)?

That Don Whillans was one of Britain's greatest rock-climbers and mountaineers is beyond doubt. He blazed a trail of new routes over the entire country that are almost unanimously direct, inspiring, brutal, and hard. After several failed expeditions he finally bagged a major first ascent in the greater ranges, after he and Haston summited Annapurna via its south face, an achievement that ushered in a new era of Himalayan climbing, both capping Whillans' career and simultaneously sowing the seeds for its demise. For unfortunately Whillans was known as much for his brash persona, arrogance, fighting, drinking and womanising as he was for his climbing; traits that were increasingly difficult for his peers to gloss over as the years went by.

Fortunately, Perrin seems to be aware that this book is not the place to waffle on about badgers and the beauty of Welsh hills. He keeps his most prosaic style firmly locked up, at least until the final chapter, by which time we are happy to forgive a short burst of it. His chronological account of Whillans' life sticks to the facts, allowing the stories generated by Don and his peers to maintain the reader's interest. I was interested, and rather pleased to see that Perrin avoids painting too bad a picture of Whillans. Fundamentally, he seems to be saying, Don wasn't the monster that myth and legend would have him to be, and several passages of the book pay tribute to more positive aspects of his character. However, he never gets too carried away with the notion; every now and again a brief anecdote (usually revolving around drinking, fighting, womanising, or all three) reminds us of how unpleasant a character he could be.

The one passage that entertained me the most was the story of Whillans and Haston (again) this time within a couple of hundred feet of summiting Everest, by a new route direct up the south west face. They had managed it 9/10ths of the way up, and saw an obvious traverse line out to the (much easier) south east ridge (and thus the summit). To take this traverse would have been understandable, but a bit of a cop-out - the main challenge was to make an entirely new route, independent of others, and to take the traverse would have diluted the purity of the climb. To a mountaineer like Don, this was not good enough; the lure of summiting Everest without taking the new, independent line was just not present, so they carried on up their independent line. Too late they realised that it was much harder than they anticipated, and with worsening weather they decided to retreat, having neither succeeding to climb the entire new line, nor even reach the summit via the easier route. Their eventual return down to a lower camp, after 21 days at high altitude that ended in failure, was described by another climber, John Clears, and is quoted in the book:

"I watched Dougal [Haston] come down the fixed ropes and stagger towards us down the Cwm. He was zonked. He looked like a Belsen victim and dragged his feet through the snow. Pemba rushed out to meet him with a big kettle of hot fruit juice. Dougal flopped in the snow to drink it, and then, supported on Pemba's shoulder, he staggered into camp - shot.
Ten minutes later Don swung off the bottom of the ropes. He strode down the path towards the camp humming a tune and dribbling a snowball at his feet. Pemba ran out with the kettle and Don dismissed the friendly little sherpa with a friendly slap on his shoulder: 'Thanks, Pemba, but I'll have what's left of the real stuff'. He reached inside his down suit, pulled out what was left of a half-bottle of Glenfiddich, and knocked it back in one gulp. Then he chucked the bottle over his shoulder and strode on down to the accompaniment of a loud belch"
I thoroughly recommend reading the book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Flat hunting in Barca

I'm so chuffed that the Med has decent waves, that I'm going to show you another picture from, this one taken four days ago. 3-4 feet of solid swell, and pretty clean to boot. Sigh...

The good news is that I confirm that the pic above, and all the rest on that sight, aren't fakes - this Saturday Djanira and I strolled down to Barceloneta and there it was, a solid 3-foot swell (unfortunately messed up by a strong cross-off breeze), and about 50 surfers enjoying it. Further up the coast at Vila Olimpica a fatter wave had about 30 longboarders on it, which tbh looked like it would work better on a westerly swell instead of the southerly that was present, but showed promise nonetheless. The swell dropped a little on Sunday but was still rideable, and by Monday it had gone.

So, wave-hunt successful, we returned to the lesser-important of our two goals for the weekend, finding somewhere to live*. Barcelona is quite a compact city, squeezed in between the mountains and the sea, and it would appear that all city architects had this on their mind while designing the apartment blocks - why have one large bedroom when you could have three tiny ones, right?!

Our number one criteria for a flat is that it has to be near the sea. After years of neglect, Barcelona has spruced up its beaches and they are really brilliant now; clean, safe, pretty, modern and easy to access. We saw a couple of flats downtown but they weren't right - they just made us realise how important being near the sea is to us. The barrio of Barceloneta appears perfect on paper (yes, that's the main surfing beach!) but unfortunately the flats there are almost exclusively only 35m2. Which, frankly, is too small. So we're looking further up the coast, specifically at Poble Nou. It's a suburb, but quite a nice one, and it should be possible to get a bigger place there. Vila Olimpica, in between the two places, has some big flats too but frankly the place is soul-less. It was build for the Olympic games as housing for the athletes, and while it's pretty enough it has all the character you might expect from an area that was effectively razed to the ground and re-built within a few months.

We didn't find anywhere ideal this weekend but we learned a lot. We plan to arrive there mid-May, and so our likely course now is to live in short-term accommodation for the first fortnight while we find the right place.

* this is a joke, Mum. Aha.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Pembrokeshire climbing

Since the late 70s, the Easter bank holiday weekend has seen vast quantities of climbers descend on the small village of Bosherston to climb on the cliffs of the Pembrokeshire coast. 'Big deal', you may say, the same happens at any number of crags all over Britain. The difference is that the Easter 'meet' at Pembroke has a bit more tradition about it - in the late 70s/early 80s, the campsite at Bosherston would swell with some of the leading climbers of the day who would all head off out to force new routes and generally explore the coastline. In those years the brilliance and sheer volume of rock climbing in Pembrokeshire was rapidly unearthed, and the Easter weekend was the unofficial 'opening weekend' of the season. These days the supply of new routes has all but dried up, with only the most difficult challenges remaining unclimbed, but Easter time at Pembroke has still retained that special vibe, where pasty climbers emerge from their indoor walls and leave their freezing gritstone problems, and enjoy a long weekend ticking a seemingly endless stream of quality rock-climbs, probably getting a healthy tan along the way. This Easter was no different.

A few months ago I started making noises to see who'd be interested in Pembroke at Easter, and thanks the efforts of Ian Lau the numbers swelled until there was a good 15-20 of us who knew each other, joining the couple of hundred climbers camping in the various fields that are opened up by the Bosherston residents. The atmosphere in the village was great as usual, loads going on, lots of smiling faces and a great buzz around the pub in the evening - which, incidently, probably took around £20K over the course of the weekend. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm but with a crisp air temperature that ensured climbing conditions never got too greasy. I climbed on alternate days with Djanira and Jo Bertalot, and managed to tick off several classics that I have had my eyes on for a while, from the uber classic Hard-Severe Bow-Shaped Slab at Flimston Bay, to seconding Jo up a the 3* E4 Body Language at St Govan's East. I led a couple of E3s, the best of which was probably Forbidden Fruits, a pumpy face-climb also at St Govan's East. My fitness is good but I still have plenty to learn - I didn't fall but spent ages faffing around with gear during the crux sequence, so making the final moves harder than they should have been. Still it was my first trad weekend since a visit to the Wye Valley last September, so I'm pretty pleased. I was also quite happy to speak as much Welsh as English this weekend - the Bertalot brothers grew up in Pwllheli, and all my climbing with Jo was done through the medium of Welsh - a first for me and very nice too.

I was particularly pleased that Djanira really enjoyed the weekend too and has refound her climbing 'mojo'. We had quite an adventure on the classic VS Blue Sky at Saddle Head, which involved a free-hanging abseil and getting drenched by a big wave on the belay ledge at the bottom. Good job it was hot and sunny, and that the climbing was so good! DJ also seconded Cathy up an E1 at St Govan's East, Calisto, so well done to both of them.

Climbing wise I have one more weekend's trad in a fortnight before it's off to Spain and the world of bolts. I have no doubt though that I'll be back in Pembroke next Easter!