Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The 2012 Hillary Memorial Lecture

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the 4th annual Hillary Memorial Lecture, in aid of the Himalayan Trust. Hosting the evening was Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to stand atop Everest and top of the bill was the British climber Al Hinkes, still the only Brit to have summited all 14 of the worlds 8000m plus peaks*. However, to start the evening Rupert Band, the son of George Band OBE, treated us to a reading. Rupert took the stage, and read to us an extract from his father's diary where George had written about his summit-day experience on Kanchenjunga. There then followed a short film in tribute to George, who died last year. George was the youngest member of the 1953 Everest team and went on to be the first to summit Kanchenjunga along with Joe Brown in 1955, although in deference to local beliefs they did not actually touch the summit. He also went on to be one of the driving forces of the Himalayan Trust and President of both the BMC and Alpine Club. The film was, in most part an interview of Sir Chris Bonington talking about George interspersed with old footage of the man himself. One clip in particular showed how the world of climbing has changed, there was Mr Band being interviewed following Kanchenjunga dressed, smartly, in a suit, shirt and tie without a hint of a sponsors label, bring him forward 50 years and he'd be standing there in technical clothing festooned with labels. Which would we rather I wonder? 

Then it was the turn of Mr Hinkes to take to the stage, having had some contact with Al through the twitterverse and having already formed the opinion that he is a thoroughly top chap, I was looking forward to hearing him speak. Al comes across as an affable, likeable Yorkshireman, he is, you get the impression, rather proud of his Yorkshire heritage. His speech although sometimes a little hurried is warm and funny. His lecture, he informed us, would, although taking in each of his fourteen massive achievements, revolve around his ascent of Kanchenjunga. He regards Kanch as the gold medal of high altitude mountaineering, more challenging than K2 and certainly more difficult than Everest.

The lecture took the form of a showing of a programme from ITV filmed mainly by Al himself, with a pause every few minutes for Al to give us an insight into what we had just seen. It almost felt like we had been invited in to the Hinkes' household to view the film and although my initial feeling was "Oh, right, we're just going to watch a TV programme..." the presence of, and explanations from Al, made it an enormously enjoyable, funny and informative evening. There was the obligatory gory shot of an injury, sustained in this case when Al fell from a trail and speared his leg on a branch, he told us that had he fallen just a little further to one side the branch would have speared his scrotum, prompting Al to raise the question,

"Can I say Scrotum in the RGS? Anyway imagine the trouble if it had speared my scrotum and ripped my Gonads off?”

From one whose experience of “high altitude” mountaineering stops some 18000 feet below that of Alan Hinkes achievements, I was enthralled by his story. Over 18 years he battled to achieve his goal, overcoming three major injuries – as well as the branch/nearly scrotum incident, his first attempt at Nanga Parbat ended in prolapsed disc and his first attempt on Kanchenjunga ended with a slip into a crevasse and a broken arm. He is not one for grand gestures, not one for carrying a Union Flag to each summit rather; he carries a picture of his daughter as inspiration to make it down again. He, like Ueli Steck, considers that no mountain is worth a digit, never mind a life.

Al ended his lecture with Whymper’s famous quote,

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

This sums up my overriding impression from Al Hinkes – there’s always a reason to come back. Thanks Al, a great lecture.

*Al’s 14 8000 footers -
1987 - Shishapangma
1988 - Manaslu
1990 - Cho Oyu
1991 - Broad Peak
1995 - K2
1996 - Mount Everest
1996 - Gasherbrum I
1997 - Lhotse
1998 - Nanga Parbat
1999 - Makalu
2002 - Annapurna
2004 - Dhaulagiri
2005 - Kanchenjunga

Saturday, 14 April 2012

"Runner's High Plus"

I tweeted a question earlier this week - "If runner's have their "high" then what do we climbers have?" We couldn't have "high" even if it hadn't already been taken; it's just too bloody literal. I got a variety of replies including a four tweet epic from Mr NICAS himself, Ian McKenzie, but the basic gist of all the replies was that whatever we call that combination of superhuman and battered-to-hell set of emotions we experience after a session at the crag or after completing a grade-pushing pitch it's definitely a mix of elation at the achievement, the endorphin release from the strenuous exercise and the adrenaline shot of fear. My original question came from having completed my first overhanging lead during an evening at Craggy Island. It wasnt a tough grade (only a 4) and had it been on less steep ground I'd have danced up it, but, I find overhangs deeply intimidating. They stir something visceral which just makes me want to run and hide. I've got to say it was bloody hard work, definitely not elegant and I made some glaring errors (including z clipping the second quickdraw and having to down climb to rectify) but I got to the top and I felt incredible. By the time Matt had lowered me off I was a quivering, sweaty mess. My legs and arms turned to jelly by the adrenaline and lactic, my mind singing from the endorphins and I was on top of the world. What I was feeling was akin to the "runner's high" but the extra loading of fear turned it into something far more powerful.
It started me thinking of the concept of the "sublime" as described by Robert Macfarlane in his excellent Mountains of the Mind. This concept of sublime is not the modern use of the word so beloved of Loréal and the like where Cheryl Kerl minces about telling us her hair "feels canny sublime, pet" This is the Sublime where you are elevated closer to your respective deity by proximity to the force of nature, the search for this Sublime is the force that drove respectable Victorians to swoon at the sight of a glacier and to haul cases of claret to the summit of Mont Blanc to quaff merrily in sight of their god whilst their toes (and servants) succumbed to frostbite. To my mind this is what we Climbers are experiencing, this "Runner's High Plus" we attain, is actually a little bit of The Sublime.

We know now, in the 21st Century, that this feeling is just the effect of a few molecules of hormone on our bodies and minds, but to reduce this awesome feeling to mere science doesnt, Im afraid, do it justice so Im sticking with The Sublime and I intend to keep grabbing little bits of it whenever I can.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Blaming others for your own stupidity.

Warning. This post is a rant.

I have the pleasure of being a member at Craggy Island Climbing Centre in Guildford, it is a great place to go and climb, there is a fantastic atmosphere in the centre, the staff are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable and, thankfully, there are routes that cater to all abilities. I suppose what I’m trying to say is the place has a great vibe and I love climbing there.

Then, yesterday, while taking a break from housework and admin stuff for the search team I went to the UK Climbing website and had a glance through the forums and I came across a thread about this article –

I have long been opposed to the “compensation culture”. Don’t get me wrong, the right in law to sue someone for compensation when they, through their error, have caused you harm is an important one and if I was to be injured through the action or inaction of another then I’d be all for exercising that right.
However, what I object to, and boy oh boy do I object, is blaming someone for your own damn stupidity and I’m afraid to say that Ms Pinchbeck is guilty of just that. She chose to take part in an activity that is inherently dangerous (don’t look at me like that, the adrenaline is part of why we do it) and she took a decision to jump from a wall and in doing so broke her ankle. I say again Ms Pinchbeck CHOSE to take part. She didn’t HAVE to.

There is no requirement at Craggy to leave your common sense at the door, no locker in which to pop your innate understanding that “if I fall down, I might hurt myself”. There is, of course, the BMC participation statement writ large –

The BMC recognises that climbing and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions.

A version of which you have to sign as part of the registration process before climbing, there is no addendum which states

“That is unless I hurt myself, abrogate my own personal responsibility and decide to blame someone else”

The Telegraph article states that Ms Pinchbeck was a keen runner, I ask her, if you’d slipped from the curb whilst out running and caused the same injury who would you have blamed then?

It enrages me that the judiciary appear unwilling to look at these cases rationally and say “Sorry, you were stupid, you made a mistake and now you’re trying to blame someone else, get out of my court room and stop wasting my time”.

This whole sorry episode is indicative of the blame culture, where personal responsibility appears to be a thing of the past and no one is willing to admit that they may have made a mistake or been a tad stupid. So I say lets have a return to common sense, if you climb there is a likelihood that at some point you’re going to injure yourself and it will be no one’s fault but your own, just as there is risk in any sport which involves physical activity. I recently took part in a session of laser tag, outdoors in the woods; I tripped while jumping a log and cracked some ribs, and it was nobody’s fault but mine. I’m not about to start blaming the owner of the site, or the bloke who chopped the tree down or anyone BUT ME.

The people who bring these ridiculous lawsuits because they cannot face taking responsibility for their own actions are setting a terrible and dangerous precedent. Its time Ms Pinchbeck and her ilk took a long hard look at themselves and realised the error of their ways.

I will continue to climb at Craggy, as will I continue to recommend it to anyone, and if they have to raise their prices to pay their insurance premiums, which will inevitably rise, then I’ll pay the extra because it’s a great place and I love climbing, but when I do I’ll be thinking “Thank you Ms Pinchbeck, for making the experience a little less pleasant.”

Friday, 16 March 2012

A Very Gallant Gentleman.

Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates
Born 17th March 1880
Died 16th March 1912
100 years ago today Captain Oates uttered the immortal line "I am just going outside and may be some time" and left his companions to walk to his certain death hoping that by sacrificing himself he would by some slight chance ensure the safety of Scott, Wilson and Bowers.

Captain Lawrence Edward "Titus" Oates was born on the 17th March 1880 in Putney, London. In 1898, Oates joined the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He saw military service during the Second Boer War as a junior officer in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, having joined in 1900 and been promoted to Lieutenant in 1902, then to Captain in 1906. In March 1901, during the Boer War, he suffered a gunshot wound to his thigh which left it shattered and his left leg an inch shorter than his right leg when it eventually healed.

Oates and his charges
Oates applied to join the Terra Nova Expedition and was accepted on the strength of his experience of animal husbandry gained whilst serving in the Dragoons in order to care for the ponies that Scott intended to use to haul large loads in the initial stages of the expedition, he was later chosen as one of the final five to make the attempt on the pole.

It was on the return journey that Oates began to suffer terribly, his feet became very badly damaged by frostbite and there is suggestion that the old wound to his leg was opened up as a result of scurvy. He was failing rapidly. He was aware that he was causing the team to fall behind schedule and placing the others at greater risk. On the 15th March he requested that they left him behind - they refused - but so severely weakened was Oates that they only managed another few miles before camping.

"A Very Gallant Gentleman"
Artist: James Charles Dollman
On the morning of the 16th March, Oates recognised that without him; Scott, Wilson and Bowers stood a greater chance of survival and so, forgoing the pain of putting his boots on he stated "I am just going outside and may be some time" and walked out into the blizzard. Scott wrote at the time "We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman". Although, in the end, Oates sacrifice was made for nought he was without doubt an incredibly brave man. His ultimate sacrifice a shining example of what it is to have courage. Captain Oates' body has never been found.

His famous utterance is oft used in jest but we should all remember the horrendous circumstances under which it was first said and today of all days we should raise a glass to Captain Lawrence Oates, a true hero.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Per Ardua Ad Alta: The Response...

A little over two weeks ago the Daily Mail made a concerted effort to vilify Menna Pritchard for taking her young daughter climbing - the majority of the comments left on the MailOnline website were the worst kind of hateful rubbish we have come to expect from readers of that dreadful rag.

Quite sensibly Menna kept her own counsel and has let the dust settle before writing this considered and eloquent response - Per Ardua Ad Alta: The Response...

As a parent who also takes his children climbing, Menna has my full support. Climbing is a wonderful activity for kids, it teaches self-reliance and problem solving. Possibly more importantly it gets kids outdoors and away from the TV, not to mention the opportunity to spend quality time together as a family.

Menna should not be condemned for what she is trying to do, she is encouraging parents to get outdoors and include their kids in their pastimes. She should be congratulated for her efforts.

Please visit Menna's blog and show her your support. Then grab your kids and get them outdoors.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

On the kindness of others.

A quick update:

Our two lady runners have now run the marathon, so a massive well done and a huge thank you to them, Rebecca completed her ordeal in 3:48.22 and Bryony in 4:50.29 - both incredibly impressive.

Also, we at SusSAR are very happy to announce that we have been chosen as one of the four official local charities for the 2013 Brighton Marathon - so if you're interested in running for us then get in touch through our website.

Since joining SusSAR I have become acutely aware of the effort made by its members, and the members of the many other ALSAR and MR teams to help other people. We have all joined these organisations because we want to do something for others. What is also apparent is the effect our commitment to these teams has on our loved ones and the sacrifices they in turn make – it is rare that the callout text will wake me in the middle of the night, but it always wakes Mrs. W who then gently elbows me in the ribs to bring it to my attention, this will then prompt me to try and answer the text by randomly punching buttons on the TV remote before waking fully to wonder why the TV is on and tuned to some obscure channel….all of this serves to ensure that Mrs. W doesn’t get quite the nights sleep she desires or deserves, but you know what, she doesn’t moan about it, she accepts that its going to happen now and again, and its happening for the good of others. I’m sure the rest of the team has similar experiences to tell. We, as members of the team, must remember that WE volunteered; our partners, kids, families and friends did not, but without their support we would not be able to do what we do.

Thinking about this has led me to those that support us who have little or no connection to our teams, these people range from those who drop a pound in the collecting tin as they pass, to those that “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter; to people like Gary Shipp, a former member of the team who has moved away to the West Country but once a year comes back to run our Mountain Bike training course for nothing but a warm feeling inside and a few cakes.

Another prime example of the kindness and support that our team does not expect and yet relies on was the efforts of a chap called David Lawton who last year ran the Barns Green Half Marathon in our aid. Now, lets make one thing quite clear, we didn’t ask David to do this; in fact we had no idea who David was at the time and it was only after we contacted him did we discover that he is a Scout Leader and members of SusSAR had given a talk on our work to his Scout group and this had prompted his generosity. He ran his race and raised in excess of £1000 for us, for which we are incredibly grateful.

This in turn brings me onto two brave young ladies, Bryony Olney and Rebecca Nicolson who are running this year’s Brighton Marathon for SusSAR. Neither are members of SusSAR, Bryony lives in the far north (well, Barnsley actually, but to you southerners it might as well be Oslo) and has no connection at all to the team, other than having been originally from Crowborough and therefore a Sussex girl, she responded to our appeal for runners on Twitter. Rebecca has some connection to the team as she is friends with one of our members, but again, like Bryony has no reason to choose us other than through kindness. Both have set up Just Giving pages:

Bryony Olney at Just Giving

Rebecca Nicolson at Just Giving

Please give them a visit and support them, and SusSAR by donating.

Bryony is also writing a Blog sharing her training experiences, it’s well worth a read.

If you would like to assist SusSAR then you can find us at Just Giving or contact us through the fundraising address on our website.

So there you have it, SusSAR and teams like it, could not and would not exist without support from our families, friends and the generosity of the public.

Thank you all.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Captain Robert Falcon Scott CVO

Captain Robert Falcon Scott CVO
6th June 1868 - 29th March 1912
I'm sure that many articles and blog posts will appear discussing the herculean efforts of Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans as 100 years ago today they reached the South Pole.

They will be written by those with far greater knowledge of the subject and individuals involved than I, but I would like to add my voice in tribute to these amazing, fine men. Having travelled in the Arctic and experienced a little of what they endured from the comfortable position of modern clothing, equipment and food, I find myself in awe that they achieved so much. In his excellent biography of Scott, Sir Ranulph Fiennes talks about Scott's detractors and debunks their gross slights against his character, I agree with his assertion that to comment on and criticise Scott then you must have experienced some of what he did.

Their efforts and eventual sacrifice are, without doubt, one of the greatest feats of bravery and endurance ever to happen. Their birth and death days should be celebrated as national occasions and marked on every calendar in the land as it is these men who epitomise the adventurous spirit of all mankind. It is the determination, willpower and must-do attitude of men like Scott and his companions that have taken man to the tops of the highest mountains, the depths of the seas and even to the moon.

For all of this we should hold these men in the highest esteem. A man needs no greater heroes than these.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Gear Review - Berghaus Men's Elite Half Zip Jacket

It became apparent during a very wet SusSAR training weekend last July that my 10-year-old Technicals (Blacks own brand) waterproof no longer qualified for the title. It had served me well; it had come with the thickest fleece Ive ever seen as a removable liner and Id used both parts in Norway as supplemental layers. The one issue Id always had with the coat was that even the shell on its own weighed a bleeding tonne (well 980g, anyway) and wasnt very packable, add in the fleece and the weight trebled and it would easily fill a daypack. Id binned the fleece a couple of years ago following a bonfire incident and now the shell was about as waterproof as a sieve. I tried reproofing it with a spray on Nikwax product but all that achieved was a bad smell, so when I finished a search exercise on the aforementioned training weekend completely soaked through I realised it was time to start looking for a replacement.

I decided on three criteria -
1. It had to be waterproof, windproof and breathable (very breathable, I sweat like a fat lass)
2. It had to be lightweight and packable; I wanted it to hide away in my pack until I needed it.
3. It had to be reasonably priced - I didnt have £400 lying around to splash out on kit.

The Berghaus Men's Elite Half Zip
I finally (after a few more soakings) got around to buying a Berghaus Elite Half Zip in Size FatBlokeoops, I mean XXL. It cost me £65 from Cotswold Outdoor, on sale from the RRP of £90. Its advertised on the Berghaus website as Fast and Light and it comes in one colour (Black with Orange zips and draw cords). If you want a different colour then you need to be a girl, as the feminine version comes in a fetching shade of brown theyve called Pumice. As the name suggests its a smock design and only has one pocket on the left sleeve. Its made from Berghaus own AQ2.5 material, which I imagine is one of the contributing factors to its low price.

My initial reaction when it arrived (very promptly a day later, well done Cotswold) was that it was incredibly light, so light I felt compelled to weigh it (yes, I know, geek) and it came in at 199g, it was also very packable - compressing down to approximately the size of a can of beer. The material feels quite soft but retains a feeling of quality and strength being ripstop. The jacket has a scooped rear hem and the hood is big enough to get a helmet under but can be reduced in volume to hug the head and move with it instead of staying put and blocking your vision when you turn. The hood has a stiffened rather than wired peak but this doesnt seem to be a disadvantage, its also permanent rather than roll away. The half zip is just that making the jacket very easy to get on and off and zips right up to the chin, when done right up with the hood down it nicely pulls the hood in and stops it flapping about. Berghaus describe it as "active fit" so even the XXL doesn't feel like a tent.

As an emergency waterproof, packed away in a work bag or in my search kit the jacket is barely noticeable, the only complaint being that it doesnt come with its own stuff sack. Ive had it for about three months now and for the first month due to the unseasonably warm dry weather thats where it stayed. Then when the mornings became chilly, I used it as an extra layer and recently when it's been both wet and windy its been of put to the test. It's passed that test with flying colours, it is both windproof and extremely waterproof, with water beading and running off. This waterproofing is maintained even at pressure points where the straps of a rucksack sit, nor is there any water ingress at either zip.  The lightness, softness and breathability of the material is such that I barely notice I'm wearing it and the drop rear hem seems to prevent it riding up under a pack.  

The Berghaus Elite Half Zip is a great jacket and incredible value even at the full RRP of £90.... now, I'm just off to do a rain dance so I've an excuse to wear it, anyone care to join me?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

2011 - A look back.

With the year ended I thought I’d have a look back at 2011 and a look forward to 2012.

The year didn’t start particularly well, quite apart from the customary hangover caused by the consumption of way too much Linie Aquavit, I was also still recovering from surgery I’d had in October 2010 and I hated my job, hate is something of an understatement, I was desperately unhappy doing it and would have quite happily walked out and not gone back, I don’t know how Mrs. W put up with my constant whinging.

Hang on...its my birthday, why do I have to carry everything...?
Very soon January and February were gone and I was approaching my 35th birthday in March. I recall sitting the night before with Mrs. W in one of our local boozers (The Cage), she having convinced me that she had nothing planned for the next day - even going so far as to plan a quiet walk on the South Downs after a lazy breakfast. So it came as a great shock when she woke me at 0430 the following morning, shoved me into the car and drove to the Brecons for a quick once up Pen Y Fan via Cefn Cwm Llwch as a birthday surprise. I hadn’t noticed that the night before Mrs W had been unusually abstemious while letting me quaff intemperately for fear of raising my suspicions as to her nefarious plans. Consequently the first few uphill (very uphill) miles were done under something of a green cloud. However the rest of the hike was splendid. For those that haven’t done it, the last 10 or so metres to the summit from the north are a bit of a scramble and so it amused me greatly to ascend in hands and knees fashion onto the plateau to the incredulous gazes of those who’d pushed their prams from The Storey Arms. Across we went to Corn Du and back down to the car passing the heart-breakingly sad Tommy Jones’ Obelisk before getting home in time for tea with the Watsons Minor who had spent the day with their grandparents. A great birthday.
Later in March I attended a Lowland Search Technician Course run by UKLSI and achieved my goal of becoming an operational member of SusSAR. Typically, however, I received my first callout the day after the course and couldn’t attend due to work.

"Dad, can we use the handrail?" "No son, we're British..."
April brought with it a much needed break in the form of a trip to Phoenix to visit Mrs. W’s sister. We spent 10 days being complete tourists around Phoenix and Tucson, eating too much, drinking too much and shopping too much. We climbed Camelback Mountain (thoroughly recommended), we visited Tombstone (don’t bother) and Karchner Caverns (brilliant). We went to the brilliant Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just outside Tucson and stayed for two nights at the Cat Mountain Lodge. We took the kids to watch the Arizona D’backs stuff the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field and I got a tweet on the Jumbotron (#GoDbacks). We even managed to fit in some wall time at AZ on the Rocks and all of it was done in a hired Dodge Charger which fed my inner petrol head.

April also brought a stupid injury when over the course of two weekends climbing and generally buggerring about I managed to ruin my groin putting me out of action climbingwise for 6 weeks. Luckily I managed to push my recovery so by the time we went for our annual week in North Devon at the end of May I was able to get some surfing and hiking in. We were joined by some friends for the first few days of the week, they’d never camped so sleeping in a caravan awning was a new experience for them especially when the wind, shall we say, “Got up…” but they seemed to enjoy it, we got them into wetsuits and into the water and they may even join us again this year.

June brought election to the SusSAR committee and an increased commitment to the team and July brought my first proper search managing to attend after a late shift at work, great fun and successful as the misper was found alive and well. I also engineered a change in role making huge difference to my mental state at work. At the end of August my son managed to break both the bones in his left forearm just after he’d bought himself a climbing harness and just before the first week of Rugby training. Consequently the poor little bugger hasn’t climbed, played rugby or been allowed out at breaktime in school since.
In September and October my daughter made me proud buy choosing to join a climbing club and being annoyingly good at it. I also started to push my grade more and managed my first 6a while making progress with both technique and fear control. I also became an Assistant Beaver (stop sniggering) Leader.
November brought much of the same, more climbing and the SusSAR MTB course. The eleventh month also saw the launch by some friends from the north of PROBalm, a great skin repair product and they’re working on a lipbalm as a follow up product. Good luck to Craig and the guys.

I appear to have worked what seems like the entire month of December including Christmas and New Year, it feels very strange not to have spent the whole time with the family, although I did manage to take the whole family climbing at Craggy Island on the 29th where the kids climbed solidly for four hours, I have high hopes (pun intended) for both of them. It was the first time the Son had climbed since his broken arm and he managed a couple of 5’s, the Daughter seems to improve with every visit to the wall and is learning to have confidence in her ability. The wonderful Mrs. W is happy to belay although I am trying to persuade her that she belongs on the wall rather than just standing at the bottom of it.

What’s to come in 2012? I posted a tweet on the 1st saying that this year I will write more, run more and climb more. I want to write more because I enjoy it and thanks to feedback from you chaps out there apparently I’m not too bad at it. I need to run more as I really need to up my fitness level in the run up to February 2013 when I will be trekking in Norway again, this time in aid of SusSAR (more details later) and I need to climb more because its like crack - great highs and terrible withdrawal……
It’s also Mrs. W’s 40th this year so I suppose I need to do something about that…..any ideas…..anyone……?