A Wainwright Gem

An excerpt from a Wainwright guide. Courtesy of Conrad Walks.

One of the things I do at the moment is tutor Latin – my Classics degree was not for naught, I tell myself!

As I was reading the famous account of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps from Livy’s History of Rome, I discovered the word proclivis, meaning ‘downhill’, in this context:

cetera plana, proclivia fore; uno aut summum altero proelio arcem et caput Italiae in manu ac potestate habituros

‘The rest of the way would be level or downhill; and with one or, at most, two battles, they would have the citadel and capital of Italy in their hands and power.’ Livy XXI, 35:8-9

Now, any readers of Wainwright will be aware of his colourful use of language when describing topography. One of his classic words is, of course, ‘proclivity’, which, thanks to Livy, can be deduced to mean ‘a steep slope’.

You could Google it, but where would be the fun in that!

Live for the Day, but Live to Fight Another One too

Two years ago today climber and mountaineer, Will Wilkinson, died in an avalanche on Ben Nevis. This is the second year I have chosen to mark the occasion, and I explained my reasons for doing so last year.

Sometimes this time of year becomes bogged down with self-reflection and analysis. I found a fellow-blogger’s take on it refreshing: ‘No analysis. No predictions. No resolutions.’ McAlisterium

However, as a father with a small family set to increase, I increasingly find myself reflecting on the consequences of danger and risk on the mountain. Also, as it is more difficult to find time to get out with more responsibility, but when I do, I really savour it. Surprisingly enough, I also find myself missing my little family fairly quickly! This is nothing new, but a healthy way to approach mountain activities.

Live for the day, but live to fight another one too.

When I was writing a recent post about Remembrance Day, I came across an article in The Guardian. An interview of children left fatherless by the First World War. One young boy, now an old man, was thrust forward to become the head of the household after his father was killed, but it left him emotionally scarred. Standing at his father’s grave in 2007, he said:

‘I’m an old man, I am supposed to be tough. I thought I was hard, but I’m not. He’s my dad. I miss him. I missed him as a boy and I miss him as an old man. It is very important that I have come back. I feel closer now than I have ever been. That time he carried me to bed was the last time and this is the next time.’

This is more a note to myself than anything. Have fun, enjoy the wide, open spaces, especially when they are wild, and your time has been hard fought. Also, stay safe and remember the ones who you leave behind. Little girls and boys need their fathers.


Will Wilkinson’s Tales from the Hills

Scottish avalanche victim named

Last year’s post

McAlisterium post

Guardian article

Who Dies if England Live?

The Vimy Ridge memorial, Northern France

This all started with Robert Fisk’s article for the Independent a month ago, so is belated, but has been at the back of my mind ever since:

Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapel know that they mock the war dead?

Fisk is clearly being provocative, but makes some important points, namely, that a poppy is not a fashion symbol, but carries a great deal of meaning and significance in human history.

Cox's who fell at Vimy Ridge

However, having been living in France for several months now, I have begun to realise the worth of physical memorials. Without a visual reminder of what has passed, it is all too easy to forget. And I was grateful for the reminder from ‘all the boys and girls of BBC World wearing their little poppies’ that it was that time of the year again to pause, reflect and be thankful for the sacrifice of others.

Of course, we can never understand the sacrifice itself, as we were never there in the trenches. And of course, we do not deserve to wear the poppy, as if to pretend we stand with the fallen, never having chosen to put our bodies on the line.

Who dies if England lives?

However, we owe it to the glorious dead to keep the memory of their sacrifice alive, and wearing a poppy is one of many ways in which we can do that. A nation which chooses corporately to wear a poppy, is one that is unconsciously united, and I am grateful for the little red reminder that I saw on the BBC in the days leading up to Armistice Day.

It helped me to remember.

No easy hope or lies
Shall bring us to our goal,
But iron sacrifice
Of body, will, and soul.
There is but one task for all—
One life for each to give.
What stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?

Rudyard Kipling, ‘For All We Have and Are’, Stanza 4

Pain and Endurance

Off the back of my previous post on Expedition Behaviour, I want to share the following video of the failed 2008 expedition by Americans Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renen Osturk on Meru Peak in the Indian Himalaya.

The video boasts some beautiful artwork, inventive camerawork and incredible scenery. However, the power of the sequences comes not from technical ingenuity, but the rawness of human emotion portrayed.

The pain and grittiness of their experience are evident, and despite the smiles and joking, the emotional toil is plain to see in their eyes and expressions. This human element running through the film is, for me, what stands it apart, and the artistic craft of Renan Osturk frames it beautifully.

The trio returned recently and successfully ascended the compelling, but technically demanding, line.

Here we go:

Expedition Behaviour

I came across the following recently while bimbling around on the internet, a bulleted essay, outling the ten most important rules of expedition behaviour.

It makes me laugh, especially rule #6 and #7. There should be another added to that – never ask what the time is. Given the proliferation of devices that tell the time these days, there is no excuse for asking the time.

A leader has better things to do than act as a time keeper!

Anyway, here it is, courtesy of Howard Tomb.

Expedition Behavior

The Finer Points

Howard Tomb

A good expedition team is like a powerful, well-oiled, finely tuned marriage. Members cook meals together, carry burdens together, face challenges together and finally go to bed together.

A bad expedition, on the other hand, is an awkward, ugly, embarrassing thing characterized by bickering, filth, frustration and crispy macaroni.

Nearly all bad expeditions have one thing in common: poor expedition behavior (EB). This is true even if team members follow the stated rules, such as Don’t Step on the Rope, Kerosene and Food, No Soap in the River, No Raccoons in the Tent, Keep your Ice Axe Out of My Eye, etc.

Unfortunately, too many rules of expedition behavior remain unspoken. Some leaders seem to assume that their team members already have strong and generous characters like their own. But judging from a few of the campers we’ve encountered, more rules ought to be spelled out. Here are ten of them.

RULE #1 Get the hell out of bed.

Suppose your tentmates get up early to fetch water and fire up the stove while you lie comatose in your sleeping bag.  As they run an extensive equipment check, coil ropes and fix your breakfast, they hear you start to snore.  Last night you were their buddy; now they’re drawing up list of things about you that make them want to spit. They will devise cruel punishments for you.  You have earned them.  The team concept is now defunct.  Had you gotten out of bed, nobody would have had to suffer.

RULE #2 Do not be cheerful before breakfast.

Some people wake up perky and happy as fluffy bunny rabbits.  They put stress on those who wake up mean as rabid wolverines.  Exhortations such as “Rise and shine, sugar!” and “Greet the dawn, pumkin!” have been known to provoke pungent expletives from rabid wolverine types.  These curses, in turn, may offend fluffy bunny types.  Indeed, they are issued with the sincere intent to offend.  Thus, the day begins with flying fur and hurt feelings.  The best early morning behavior is simple:  Be quiet.

RULE #3 Do not complain.

About anything.  Ever.  It’s ten below zero, visibility is four inches and wind driven hailstones are embedding themselves in your face like shotgun pellets. Must you mention it?  Do you think your friends haven’t noticed the weather?  Make a suggestion.  Tell a joke.  Lead a prayer.  Do NOT lodge a complaint!  Your pack weighs 87 pounds and your cheap backpack straps are – surprise!, surprise!, – cutting into your flesh.  Were you promised a personal sherpa?  Did somebody cheat you out of a mule team?  If you can’t carry your weight, get a

RULE #4 Learn to cook at least one thing right.

One expedition trick is so old that it is no longer amusing:  on the first cooking assignment, the clever cook prepares a dish that resembles, say, Burnt Socks in Toxic Waste Sauce.  The cook hopes to be relieved permanently from cooking duties.  This is the childish approach to a problem that’s been with us since people first started throwing dead lizards on the fire.  Tricks are not a part of a team spirit.  If you don’t like to cook, say so.  Offer to wash dishes and prepare the one thing you do know how to cook.  Even if it’s only tea.  Remember that talented camp cooks sometimes get invited to join major expeditions in Nepal, all expenses paid.

RULE #5 Either A) Shampoo, or B) Do not remove your hat for any reason.

After a week or so on the trail, without shampooing, hair forms angry little clumps and wads.  These leave the person beneath looking like an escapee from a mental ward.  Such and appearance could shake a team’s confidence in your judgment.  If you can’t shampoo, pull a wool hat down over your ears and leave it there, night and day, for the entire expedition.

RULE #6 Do not ask if anybody’s seen your stuff.

Experienced adventures have systems for organizing their gear.  They very rarely leave it strewn around camp or lying back on the trail.  One of the most damning things you can do is ask your teammate if they’ve seen the tent poles you thought you packed 20 miles ago.  Even in the unlikely event you get home alive, you will not be invited on the next trip.  Should you ever leave the tent poles 20 miles away, do not ask if anybody’s seem them.  Simply announce, with a good-natured chuckle, that you are about to set off in the dark on a 40 mile hike to retrieve them, and that you are sorry.  It’s unprofessional to lose your spoon or your toothbrush.  If something like that happens, don’t mention it to anyone.

RULE #7 Never ask where you are.

If you want to know where you are, look at the map.  Try to figure it out yourself.  If you’re still confused, feel free to discuss the identity of landmarks around you and how they correspond to the cartography.  If you A) suspect that a mistake has been made; and B) have experience in interpreting topographical maps, and C) are certain that your group leader is a novice or on drugs, speak up.  Otherwise, follow the group like a sheep.

RULE #8 Always carry more than your fair share.

When the trip is over, would you rather be remembered as a rock or a sissy?  Keep in mind that a pound or two of extra weight in your pack won’t make your back hurt any more than it already does.  In any given group of flatlanders, somebody is bound to bicker about your weight.  When an argument begins, take the extra weight yourself.  Then shake your head and gaze with pity upon the slothful one.  This is the mature response to childish behavior.  On the trail that day, during a break, load the tenderfoot’s pack with 20 pounds of gravel.

RULE # 9  Do not get sunburned.

Sunburn is not only painful and unattractive, it’s also an obvious sign of inexperience.  Most green horns wait too long before applying sunscreen.  Once you’ve burned on an expedition, you may not have a chance to get out of the sun.  Then the burn gets burned, skin peels away, blisters sprout on the already swollen lips.  Anyway, you get the idea.  Wear zinc oxide.  You can see exactly where and how thickly it’s applied and it gives you just about 100% protection.  It does get on your sunglasses, all over your clothes and in your mouth.  But that’s OK.  Unlike sunshine, zinc oxide is non-toxic.

RULE #10 Do not get killed.

Suppose you make the summit of K2 solo, chain-smoking Gitanes and carrying the complete works of Hemingway in hardcover.  Pretty macho, huh? Suppose now that you take a vertical detour down a crevasse and never make it back to camp.  Would you still qualify as a hero?  And would it matter?  Nobody’s going to run any fingers through your new chest hair.  The worst thing to have on your outdoor resume is the list of the possible locations of your body.

All expedition behavior really flows from this one principle:  Think of your team, the beautiful machine, first.  You are merely a cog in that machine.  If you have something to prove, forget about joining an expedition.  Your team will never have more than one member.

Atlas Aftermath

The High Atlas is a relatively unknown and unfrequented area outside of Jebel Toubkal and a few other venues (such as Mgoun). This is remarkable given the depth of mountaineering potential in the region, but inevitable given the lack of reliable mapping, language barrier to English-speakers and fear of terrorism, to name a few.

There are a number of trekking and climbing guidebooks to the area, but we used the most recent, Mountaineering in the Moroccan High Atlas, by Des Clark (available from Cicerone). Although primarily aimed at winter mountaineering, the book was very helpful with orientation and route planning. Ideally, I would like to get hold of the classic guidebook, Le Massif du Toubkal, by Jean Dresch and Jacques de Lépiney, but it is currently out of print.

The most recent guidebook for the High Atlas

Otherwise, there are a small number of sources of information for mountaineering, but it is very much a case of turning up and winging it!

I have included a few more favourite photos from the trip.

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In Memoriam

It was a year ago today that climber and mountaineer, Will Wilkinson, died in an avalanche on Ben Nevis (see here).

Although I never met Will, I enjoyed following his exploits on his blog and was shocked to hear of his death whilst in the Lake District last year where I had been out in the fantastic conditions.

It is hard to explain why I should be so moved by someone I never knew to remember his life on an obscure blog on the internet. Perhaps it is the shock of a life lost young or the absence of a person fulfilled in his life’s passion. Whatever the reason, it seems appropriate to mark the occasion quietly, and whilst holding close memories of those lost, look forward expectantly to what lies ahead.

Enjoy your new year, whatever it might bring, and perhaps take a moment to read some of Will’s tales from the hills he so enjoyed.

Will Wilkinson’s Tales from the Hills

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