Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Climbing Days

Climbing Days, by Dan Richards, is an exploration of the writing and climbing feats of his great great aunt and uncle Dorothy Pilley and IA Richards. The book borrows its title from Dorothy’s own 1935 memoir Climbing Days which chronicled the pair’s pioneering climbs during the 1920s - including the first ascent of the North Ridge of Dent Blanche.

While vaguely aware of his relations’ reputation - IAR was an influential 20th century literary figure - it wasn’t until Dan came across Pilley’s writing that he discovered the extent of their climbing achievements.

Rather than a conventional biography, the book is Dan’s attempt to understand the pair by retracing some of their steps. He travels to Wales, the Lake District, and learns to climb himself in order to make an ascent of the Dent Blanche.

This is a highly enjoyable book, full of fascinating detail, that has sent me off in search of the original. Read how reviewers greeted it back in 1935.

Manchester Guardian, 29 May 1935.

An advert for the book appeared in the Observer on 19 May 1935.

Observer, 19 May 1935.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Breca Buttermere swimrun

At the beginning of July, along with teammate Calum Hudson, I took part in Breca Buttermere, one of the most gruelling swimruns in the calendar. It comprises of around 40km of fell running and 6km of swimming across the western fells and lakes of the English Lake District. It was a long, but brilliant, day and a report can be read on the Guardian running blog.

Despite everyone telling me to travel as lightly as possible, I carried a camera round the course - if only to capture the bizarre sight of people running across mountains wearing only a wetsuit and swimming hat. 

Climbing Low Bank after swimming across Crummock Water. Picture: Richard Nelsson

Calum Hudson. Picture: Richard Nelsson

Climbing Low Bank. Picture: Richard Nelsson

Friday, 24 October 2014

The BMC - British Mountaineering Council's 70th anniversary

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has been celebrating its 70th birthday throughout 2014. The idea of an umbrella group to link disparate climbing clubs and associations was conceived by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young at the turn of the century but it wasn't until the 1940s that his idea began to receive a sympathetic hearing.

The Standing Advisory Committee on Mountaineering (SACOM) was created in 1943 and the following year Winthrop-Young, then president of The Alpine Club, was successful in bringing about a motion to create the BMC. It was formed in December 1944, in part to provide mountaineering advice to the wartime authorities.

The press - or at least the Manchester Guardian - reported the setting up of the council in August 1945.

The Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1945

One of the BMC's initial concerns was the "Collection of climbing information from 'here and abroad' and to investigate scientifically the value of new equipment and how to procure it." By 1947, as the following piece illustrates, it was becoming recognised as the agency to discuss matters such as belay technique.

The Manchester Guardian, 21 July 1947

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Swimmer: running and swimming through London

Lining up for the first plunge of the day at Highgate Men's pond
In The Swimmer, John Cheever's celebrated 1964 short story, Neddy Merrill decides to swim home via a dozen or so of his neighbours’ pools. Of course, to link this chain of water, he has to run across lawns, through woods and down busy roads.

Inspired by Neddy’s watery journey, two south Londoners, Will Watt and Jonathan Cowie, came up with the idea of The Swimmer, a relaxed half-marathon that takes in a number of London’s finest parks and open-air pools. Starting in Hampstead in north London, the route heads down through the centre, crosses the Thames and ends up “back home” at Brockwell lido, near Brixton.

Running across the Heath
After months of admiring it from afar, I finally signed up for the October Swimmer. It’s a brilliant event and I’ve written up the day – or rather early morning – for the Guardian’s running blog: The perfect joy of swimming and running through London.  

Continuing the theme of transplanting great sporting feats to the streets of London,  someone has also invented a London version of the Bob Graham Round. Heights of Madness is a run that takes in all the inner London boroughs - 41 miles, 12 summits in an amazing six hours. Now if they combined this with the Swimmer...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Sir John Franklin: From the archive

The news that one of the two lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition has been found generated plenty of comment and speculation. My own contribution was digging out  a few 19th century Manchester Guardian pieces about the 1845 Northwest Passage expedition and the various attempts to rescue the crew: Sir John Franklin: From the archive

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Ice-climbing in Rjukan, Norway

I recently wrote a piece about ice-climbing in Rjukan, Norway, for the Guardian's travel pages. Obviously I mentioned the famous World War II  heavy-water raid and it was interesting to discover that two new film versions of the story are said be in production. Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle has signed up to tell the story  in a 10-part TV mini-series called Telemark, while The Heavy Water War is a Norwegian television series featuring Anna Friel.  

The story has previously been told in The Heroes of Telemark, a 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and which has been criticised for departing from the facts.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Climbers, the 1989 novel by M. John Harrison, has just been republished with a new introduction by Robert Macfarlane (recently reprinted in the Guardian's Saturday Review).

It tells the story of a group of climbers in the north of England who escape life's mundane routines by spending their weekends seeking out the perfect route. This is as likely to be found in an old quarry - 'a gloomy hole in the hillside near Bolton', as on an imposing mountain cliff. As Macfarlane puts it:
The climbing they do is impure, tending to the tawdry. It lacks the cleanliness of winter mountaineering, or the epic scale of big-range expeditions. It is mucky, thrutchy stuff that happens from litter-strewn crag-foot terraces, within eyeshot of cities and earshot of motorways.
One of the many strengths of the novel is that Harrison, a climber, goes into painstaking detail about some of the routes. He also has a sharp ear for dialogue but it's the sense of place, particularly when describing the northern urban and rural landscape in the late 1980s, that really makes the book. It went on to win the Boardman Tasker prize in 1989.

On original publication there was only one small review in the Guardian:

Christoper Wordsworth, The Guardian, 7 September 1989

Also in the recent edition of the Guardian was a review of All That Is, James Salter's new novel. However, it is Solo Faces, one of his earlier books that is probably of most interest to climbers. Set in the 1970s, it follows the fortunes of Rand, an American climber, as he makes his name doing big routes and rescuing people on the mountains of France.

Like Harrison's Climbers, the novel is considered a climbing classic (admittedly a small field). It did though  attract some criticism because, as Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith wrote in the introduction to One Step in the Clouds, Salter was  not seen as a 'true believer' - ie he only climbed as research for the book. Also, some got caught up with whether he explained climbing equipment properly. This though is a minor point set against his fine writing and story-telling. A small review appeared in the Observer:

Anthony Thwaite, The Observer, 10 February 1980. Click on image to enlarge.
 James Salter: the forgotten hero of American literature, an interview with the writer, appeared in the Observer New Review on 12 May 2013.