Friday, 18 September 2009

Tony Barley

Tony Barley's Wild Bouldering In Yorkshire is a slim volume which makes little impact on the guidebook shelf lineup alongside the likes of fat, shouty Yorkshire Gritstone. It doesn't have many pictures, it's not very shiny and I haven't even been to that many of the crags featured in it. But it's still one of my most treasured guides.

It's not just a guide, it's more than that: it's a declaration of love for the little outcrops which escaped the notice of most others. It illustrates his secretive, exploratory nature beautifully, and records years of local adventuring.

Tony Barley died in August after a long running battle with heart disease. Reading his obituary in Climber magazine, the author refers to Barley's bid to get on the transplant list. His age and underlying complications made him an unlikely candidate for a transplant. With his life literally hanging in the balance, he presented the doctors with two things to tip the balance in his favour: a series of technical engineering papers and a copy of Wild Bouldering in Yorkshire - with plans for the second edition. It was probably the practical importance of Barley to civil engineering that sealed the deal and a spot on the waiting list, but I like to think that it just might have been the slim, stapled guidebook that swung the needle in his favour.

Volume II will probably never be made, but despite this, with the first volume he left the Yorkshire climber with an inspiring guide to what the grit holds in the wooded valleys and remote moors, far from the exoteric.

I never met Tony Barley, but I wish I had.

Smash n' Soup

Today is a good day. The latest copy of Summit magazine is out, and with it my second back page slot in less than a week.  I'm super proud of this one, but not because I got the story published. I'm chuffed, granted; for a self styled 'struggling young writer' any byeline in a decent magazine is worth it, even if it is for free.

The reason I'm proud is that I got a picture of smash and soup into a nationally published and well respected title; and that is something to write home about. Smash and soup is a true alpine delicacy - a carb loaded, stodgy wrong-un, the sort of dish you just want to crawl inside of and wrap yourself up in. I like it with chorizo, garlic and onion, and then a little wedge of camembert, which you tuck inside the warm underbelly of the dish, and then oozes out when you eat it, giving a welcome bivi surprise. In the interests of public service, I have provided the recipe...

Packet of smash (two normal servings seem to work for one person)
Chorizo (as much as you fancy)
Garlic (one clove per person)
Onion (quarter per person)
Soup (one of those big French powdered soup packets - vegetable is best)
Cheese (soft cheese works best)

Chop your chorizo, garlic and onion finely, and add to a pan on a very gentle heat to ease the fat out of the sausage. As the fat comes out you can increase the heat slightly to fry the ingredients, until soft and ready to eat. At this stage increase the heat to full whack, add the water - as much as you are supposed to need for the potato, and then some more - and bring to the boil. When the water is boiling, add the soup powder and simmer until it is all absorbed, then remove from the heat and add your potato, stirring well so there are no unwanted powder pockets. Add butter, pepper and cheese and leave for 30 seconds (crucial) before devouring.

Saturday, 5 September 2009


I think, pretty much definitely, that summer is over. The wind has an autumnal chill, the leaves are yellowing and crisping around the edges, and the air has that earthy, moist smell of decomposition that marks the start of the autumn. It's been quite a summer of climbing, and I've been seeking out quality routes here there and everywhere, chasing the stars like some sort of crazed paparazzo drooling at the mouth: four star classics in Glen Etive; viciously coarse gabbro on Skye; perfect granite cracks and sinuous razor ridges in the alps; lazy roadside granite in Cornwall; and breathtaking sea cliffs on Lundy. 

I need a break. I need some back of the guidebook obscurity. I need to feel the pithy grit of lichen under my fingernails, and the fractured thud of loose rock cratering into the ground below. I need the dry, fluffy feeling between my lips of a mouth too scared to salivate.  I need blast-shattered limestone and green-cloaked gritstone and flakey shale. I want to do routes that no one has climbed before, and never will again. I want whimsical adventure and giggly days out that other people don't understand. And I need it to stop raining so I can go out and find this all, because, as I've found out, you really can have too much of a good thing.

Glen Etive

Wow, Glen Etive is a beautiful place. Of the big Scottish valleys, Glencoe probably has the edge in jaw-dropping, crane your neck, sharp inward breath, rocky mountains, but Glen Etive is right up there in the wide-eyed, looking around, ‘why haven’t I been here before’ stakes. The road, as you follow it along the crystal, tumbling waters of the river Etive, winds and turns, each corner peeling back a layer to reveal more of the valley. Not for Glen Etive the all out flash of Glencoe, here the valley reveals itself with a progressive, teasing strip. As you slip around the back of Buchaille Etive Mor the glen tightens, narrowing its passage way as if driving through a castle entrance.

I’d seen the glen from the summits of the famous Glen Coe peaks, seen the pewter glint of wintry sun reflecting off the loch that curls lazily to the sea. I’d seen it and I thought it was just another valley, just another gap between hills to climb: usual trees, usual loch, usual river. But it isn’t. Along the valley floor, the muted tweed greens are picked out with the vibrant stinging pink of invading rhododendrons. From this angle, the usually iconic Buchaille is a defiantly lumpy mountain, not the shapely rock as seen from the north. And yet, it’s still rather beautiful, still an appealing target. You feel you are seeing the hidden side of the mountain. You are seeing something special beyond the calendar shots. 

The road winds along, unfurling the glen in its oil painting beauty, and there, at what feels like it should be the head of the valley, but is really the sea, starts the loch. On the right, up on the hillside, are the Etive slabs - a sliding stack of granite offering routes of the highest quality with the barest mention of polish or wear and tear. To look back up the valley from the top of the slabs you are blessed with one of the best views in Scotland. 

It was a stuffy, warm day when we climbed there at the start of June and we finished with a skinny dip in the Loch to wash off the grease of the day.