Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Mandrill Mothercorp Mafia in Search of the Secret Scotch Synthesis

“I ken nay help yee”

Ensconced in our silver wedge hybrid conveyance Team Mandrill peered outside into the dank murk at our Talisman, a Scot houndstoothed pantleg to deerstalker, puffing pipe.  The Scot was cool in his belonging, calmly comfortable inside his natural fibre wool suit from sheep that had roamed these green mountains for millennia. Impervious to the rain, too confident in his belonging to react to such obvious new worlders, he didn't quite recoil from the surge of conditioned synthetic air we emitted, but a sly mocking grin crept across his lips. He recognised us for what we were.

Our Bleeding Edge poured from the lowered window. We sported our bright, primary colour Skittles suits. Skittles, the protectively packaged sickly sweet high fructose corn syrup sugar pellets, fun in a pill. The Mothercorp adopted the colours to mimic the rumps of that most colourful of primates, the Mandrill. Key to the sexual appeal of the old world monkey, the colours were copied by the marketing minds at the Mothercorp, landing us like circus performing new world monkeys in the old world of Scotland.

Back at the factory in Vangroover the chemists of The Mandrill Mothercorp were all in a tizzy. Rumour had it a new petrochemical formulation was in the pipeline. Mad German scientists at the chemical conglomerates were working on a new formulation, Imipolex G, or IG for short. It promised to insulate hydrocarbons from water.  Endless uses could be imagined; oil spills into waterways would be rendered innocuous, pipelines under river-ways could burst asunder with nary a public comment, school aged kids would stop painting fishes on stormwater drains.. Our Skittles suits would soon be perfectly waterproof, isolating us further from our surroundings. City slickers in their trench-coats would be comfortably protected from the autumnal deluges on the wet coast.  Imipolex G: it had become the grail, the elixer vitae at the end of  the rainbow, like the magic protective suit of armour the Scot apparently possessed.  The only stumbling block; the IG remained to be found.

Boatloads of fleeing hot cash were washing ashore in Vangroover, feeding a frenzy for real assets; condos, apartment buildings, city blocks, art works, park benches, advertising spots on park benches, all being bid up mercilessly.  From the great boreal forests of the north, energy laden sands skidded their way east through the port and the pipe. The Mothercorp, through a virtuous process of recycling, dipped into the flow, headquartered as they were at the east/west nexus of the trade. If they could only find the Imipolex G the returns would make its present trade as merchants of Mandrill Skittles suits a pittance in comparison.  Our homeland replete to overflowing from the Drillers' success, we were on a mad hunt for the plastic.

 Basquiat, Morrisey, Andy and Otto peered out the window, dubious of our mission. Tasked with testing our new world mettle in this land of sheep, grass, North Atlantic gales, the Drillers' goal; send and track us on a Slothropian quest to confirm the promise of petroleum, “Plasticity's central canon; that chemists were no longer at the mercy of nature.”

As Andy said back at The Factory, “I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

The Mothercorp courted the plastic Hollywood look. Images of youth, beauty, and power were its current commodity. The Skittles look sold it, the immediately recognisable look that said,

“We have more money than you for we are Canadian at the beginning of the 21st century. We are rich in resources and we are young. We have petroleum, we are privileged, we have fish and timber and gold and diamonds, and we don't mind you knowing. We have been sent by the Drillers to produce images of youth shining through the old world murk with the brilliance of our plasticity. We have plaything-like petroleum products protecting us from your populace pleistocene political problems.”

Morrisey, our Hollywood visuals man, didn't enunciate as such but the Scot knew us none the less.

“We are seeking the bracks”, Morrisey admitted.

“Aye, Glenelg” the Scotsman assented. “ I hope you find what you are looking for”.


Uisdean had welcomed us to the lands of his ancestors, land of marauding pirates wagering island castles on drinking competitions, of faeries and magic stones, sheep farming and enclosure, ghosts, peat distilling and hostility to mercantile southerners. Uisdean had nobility of blood deep in his roots, was cool in the Farris Thompsonian sense, like Barack Obama is cool. As the comedian said, you hear the name Obama, you picture a tall warrior holding a spear. You hear the name Uisdean (U I S D E A N), you hold a mental image; hunts deer for cash, freezers full of black pudding, doesn't spare words or idly spread sea foam spray further than needed, tells jokes in calm half-sentence dry replies.

“I grew up in the Bracks of Glenelg.”

What makes one more Scot than mangering in a 2000 year old stone tower?

“We would sit on top and toss stones down on visiting tourists.”

“Aye, twas good fun.”, smiled the young celt.

“The Bracks hold a special power, maybe they hold what you are seeking”

“The oldest bracks in Scotland; undoubtedly the oldest Bracks in existence”. This last a typical example of humour that Uisdean occasionally shared.

We found the Bracks. Dark ruined turrets of stone, lichen black tubular protrusions from the oak cloaked croft fields, homes from the age of Christ. Their lumpen soaked forms reeked of discomfort, arthritis, gout. Passing a youth here required a force from before the current age. No laboratory substance could possibly fend of this weight of wetness.

Basquiat, the natural athlete, did as he was born, he climbed the Bracks, laid his hands on and tested the tone of the stone. A visual tug of war, the Skittles suit outshining the senescene colors of the oaks, but overborn by the ancient strength of the black stone.”

“I this disrespectful?” from Otto.

“How are the holds?” Andy.

“I feel the power Uisdean spoke of”. Basquiat was entranced.

“Enough of these lowland wanderings. The Corp wants us to seek the Imipolex G up high. It rises above all other substances, will be high in the towers. These bracks are much too crude for our needs. We must refine our process.” Morrisey peered from behind his black Ray-Bans. As the acquirer of the images, the commodity, he held the purse from the Mothercorp, the producer of the product. Calm, quiet, competent, and responsible, he was the sensible side of the team, with his eye on the prize. And he had his gaze firmly fixed past the image to the treasure in the hills, motivated by the mission of the Mothercorp.

Our Moveable Feast went seeking the furtive molecule in the highlands.

Hurin the Tall opened the door to the keep below the Ben. Mole on his cheek, his bulk framed the small guarded entrance behind him. His gaze quickly registered our panoply of primaries. We explained the Mandrill Corp had sent us on this Team Canada trade mission, unnecessarily as word had leaked. .

 “I don't believe in the mythical Omipolex G. I accept that I will be as my ancestors, wet as nature in the Isles has it. By moving through the mountains I remain warm. Those new fangled clothes of yours, the Mandrill mania, they only work for a few outings then wet through. It's like everything these days, planned obsolescence, works for a year then you get a new one. It's just the Samo.”

“My true love, my Paramo, my mistress, this suit has kept me dry for a decade without infidelity. Everyone wants the new look, but my baggy pants have an assuaging valence in my mind.”

“All very well,” says Morrisey,” but the semiotics of the Corp represent a new era of expressionism, it peddles the stylish cut. We want to show the clean lines of youth cutting through this old world sentimentalism.”

Andy breezed in, flattering in encounters, lubricating our entrance with easy bonhommie. He had a way of holding his cigarette low between the crotch of his two fingers and scratching his nose lightly and repeatedly with the same two, giving the impression he had been to all hours hoovering cocaine up with the film set he at the same time associated with and denigrated. He was rewarded well for his whiplash looks and had featured in front of the camera, but was more happy as a fixer, a social actor. He was a personification of the IG molecule itself, smoothly easing our admittance.  Upstarts traditionally were not welcome at these high mountain bolt holes. Generations of Scottish bloodlines previously were checked before entry was granted but the rich Mandrill crest and colours, like a club tie, opened many doors.

In every corner hung a Mandrill competitor in ersatz Skittles pigments. Humidity of a jungle, a westcoast marijuana manufacturie, or a Scotch hut jammed to capacity with cups of tea on high rotation, an ideal laboratory for testing our latest amalgams; we were practically the crude material in a fired heater, paused ready to shot up the towers.

All settled in.

An eager youngster, new to the pursuit, effused, having spotted one of the stars of the sport.

“GADD...IS your name Wyatt, the minister's son?”

"I had a down day due to weather, and was just reading a heavy tome I found in the pile of literary detritus on the shelf in the corner, along with the usual Climb and Alpine Journals. It is thick and difficult to understand, and I suppose someone did not want to carry it out. There was no cover and the title page was missing, so I don't know it's name, but somehow I thought I was having a recognition."

“No, my name is Jean Michel.”

The rest of the hut crew were cool enough to accept Basquiat by whatever name he chose to go by.

“Wow, I like your jacket. I love the Mandrill colours.”

We took her to be a starstruck philistine.

“Yeah, they set us up. But it's the same as yours...”. Jean Michel, the quiet type, more a man of action than words, was never confrontational.

She missed witnessing the next day;s performance as Jean Michel settled into his natural setting. Unhindered by team, irrespective of audience expectations he climbed into the storm straight from the keep. Jacket flapping wildly from blown zipper, shambolically traipsing through the swirling jets of vitality robbing moisture, skipping up the Ben. Veritably, he was not a suitable test subject for the Drillers' substances, studies; his numa protected him, his drive innate, anima complete from an unknowable history, the Skittles merely colours on his palette.

Moments of numinosity flowed through Jean Michel, his transgressivity revolutionary, not following the recognised rules. He was playing the organ to crash the cathedral, the bird blowing his sax, brush strokes of brilliance, his emanation powerful, his protective halo (his afro hair in wind rime) enough to repel the spectres, the puer eternus floating up and down out of the heavens, encycling the mountain at gathering speed.

Below, Morrisey masterfully captured the required images in monochrome, to be edited later to highlight the colour signifiers. Jean Michel in his Skittles suit contrasted starkly, differentiated from the grey of the old Ben, location chosen by the Mandrill minds for its severity, its harshness, its threatening unhindered brutality of climate. The uninitiated viewer would associate the colors with Basquiat's growing repute, his otherworldly performances. The Mothercorp usurped Jean Michel's morning energy; just as the art critic takes ten percent for a positive review so it cost the Drillers a small tip to the youth to claim association with him.

Paul of course knew this; he had read his Propaganda; he even prepared a sauce a la Bernays the evening before to butter up Jean Michel. He needed, but had failed, to convince Jean to tie in with Andy. There had to be a way to make Jean Michel's feats comprehensible. The Corp needed less an ascending angel, too holy and venerated, more a griot, that travelling storytelling musician of African lore. For a moment or two Jean Michel had acquiesced and partnered with Andy but the result was much too banal for him. Sensitive to his true calling he had reneged. At a moment of rapture he backslid to his solipsistic ways, addicted to the high.

Spied passingly through the cyclone, Jean Michel encoded the Corp's product; the claim of spirit, verve, youth, enthusiasm, freedom in nature, energy. The Drillers spent entire lifetimes prospecting, extracting and processing energy in the new world; they even had a term for it, they called it their “advantage”. By the suggestive dichotomies revealed through jet travel, here in the old world Jean Michel held the advantage, that he had a pure talent others idolised. He represented all that the Drillers desired.

And Jean Michel was willing.. Conscious of his critical reception he knew the path he had followed with singular righteousness was unsustainable; he needed to make the crucial commercial tie-in. He was a worldly prophet, not aloof to profit.


Through the day Jean Michel's movements were lost to the Team, like a club kid ecstatically dropping in and out of a show. Mid afternoon, a scene developed in one of the alleys high up on the west side. Andy, Otto, and Paul Morrisey were there for a performance by two Scots, a happening that attracted an eager crowd of actors, photographers, media types. Wealthier patrons were at hand, their gallerist dealer guides pointing what was what, who was who.

In slid Jean Michel down from the heights in the cloud, alighting the event. Heads turned, whispers spread.

“Is that the guy who was alone on Point Five?”

“He fourth classed that Cerro in Argentina a few years ago, that's him.”

Juxtaposition with the audience was stark; they stood soaked, shivering, damp with inaction. Clutched hoods, numbed digits, they were the Mandriller's dream consumers. Basquiat was a radiant child in comparison.

Whispered discussions within the critics.

He has an “innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward through his creative acts.” (Fred Hoffman)

"He is certainly prolific. He has already produced 7 masterpieces today alone.”

“Call it a seventh sense. Certain artists intuit they are going to die young, so they produce huge bodies of work in condensed periods of time.”...”But fast and furious by themselves are not enough ...There has to be an unexplained and original edge to this velocity and ferocity, an element that transfers desperation and desire into something new and compelling.” (Jerry Saltz)

“How does he do it by himself, without the safety of a partner?”

Yet another critic offered his answer.

“What identifies Jean Michel as a major artist is courage and full powers of transformation. That courage, meaning not to be afraid to fail, transforms paralysingly self-conscious “predicaments” ...into confident” outcomes. (Robert Farris Thompson)

Hearing the critics fueled Jean Michel further. He could not contain his energy standing around. His “vitality in motion” (RFT) required an outlet.

“Andy, what is that dark tower?”

On the far side of the alley stood a dripping dark tower, removed from the spotlight of the happening.

“They call it the Dark Lord. The German chemists might call it a schwartzgerat, a black device to separate the wheat from the chaff, the crude from the lighter elements among us. Only the highest grade reaches the top.”

“Locals say it is infamous, that under great pressure you get stuck in the chimney, like a vapor stuck in a stack. To continue upward you reach a sidecut, only the lightest fraction continues upward.”

“Are you thinking what I am?”

“They say the Imipolex comes from a dark source, that it is lighter than all other molecules. The Corp would love us if we found it.”

“Somehow I feel drawn to the ascent. Whether it is the flesh or the spirit I don't know. But if there's a treasure to be found up there they'll give us all blue ribbons.”

His internal dialogue was obvious.

“I have achieved a lot but,”

“When we reach the peak and look down at what we've come from, see mists and clouds, not the base of the mountain”(Rene Ricard) ,

“I feel I need to achieve more. I need to have the Corp behind me. If we find the Imipolex G we'll be set.”

“It is important to form the right connections; for your own protection you need to trust someone. Someone else has to have a personal commitment to your work- so that it isn't shopped like merchandise.” (RR)

Sometimes he thought of himself in the third person in his mind, using the zen mind of the observer trick when in action,

“Can I trust you Andy?”, Jean Michel asked, returning from his reverie.

Up he began, avatar in modern king's clothing, wearing his crown and carrying the torch of old and new alike, the until recently undiscovered genius of the Fraser River delta.


“Everything is covered in a carbonaceous sludge, blackened”, he called down. “Yet all the sidecuts are covered in a light white powder. I can practically touch the next level, I almost have to talk myself out of getting higher.”

This as Jean Michel made the effort to pass the channel which would separate the one heavier fraction from the others.

“Only do what you can get away with”, Andy's advice form below.


“Uh. Are you guys leaving? I could use some help here.” A faint childlike voice came from the dark gash.

Without questioning, Andy and Otto walked around to the top of the alley and dropped in on Jean Michel, picking him up along the way, saving him from the heights and his predicament.

On the way down past the dispersing, gossiping crowd he summed up the dichotomous forces pulling at his psyche. Everyone wanted to know: how did he risk so much in pursuit of his calling, why did he do it?

“You've got to realize that influence is not influence. It is simply someone's idea going through my new mind.”(Jean Michel Basquiat)

“But I don't want to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”

“I don't want to be blown off by the Drillers once they have refined out of me what they can take.”

The last word went to Andy .  "We, who have always thought of happiness as climbing or ascending would feel the emotion that almost startles when a happy thing falls."

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The "Wrong" Mountain

"Maybe it is a good thing we didn't make it onto Storm Mountain".

Alik and I agreed we had fortuitous misfortune when I got us lost at the Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes. Imagine, there are two of them.

I had jogged up the trail a few days earlier with Corinna.  Something had seemed a little different than I remembered but memory is not my strong suit. Last year at this time I approached Storm Mountain for an enjoyable alpine outing.  I shrugged off this year's faint impression of non-familiarity. With Alik we repeated the approach and began the traverse around the lake.  It got a little steeper than I remembered.

The next morning, looking closely from above the opening slush pitch I realized that indeed, we had contoured the wrong lake.  Upper Twin Lake leads right and to the north face of Storm Mountain, home to the infamous unrepeated Wallator route we were aiming for. A year earlier we had approached our first ascent Canoeing to Cuba from Upper Twin Lake. We found an easy route with some spectacular settings. It was about 100 meters to the start of the Wallator route; you'd think a year later I would be able to find my way back.

 Contour the wrong lake, the Lower Twin Lake, and you get to the base of an unastounding wall. So unastounding that the Dave Jones Rockies guidebook just calls it Unnamed 3021.

At this point I was profusely apologizing to Alik. I had finally spotted the south ridge of Storm Mountain a kilometer to our right, and realized we were faced at 6 pm with a very unappealing traverse.

"Honestly, I don't understand how we got here.  Last time we just traversed around the right side of the lake and it led right below the face."

"Twin Lakes though hey.  I guess there are two lakes.
Maybe we went around the wrong lake?"

"I've been to Upper Twin Lake and it's not below the north face, but on second thought that might have been Arnica Lake.", pondered Alik. "So many lakes!".

"Well, thanks for not losing it on me for getting us lost"

"Yeah, maybe I should be more goal oriented now that I work half the time", Alik ruminated after his recent adoption of a somewhat normal work schedule, a relatively uncommon thing for him.

"Well, should we just climb this namby pamby gully, or do you want to try to traverse over?"

"There's no way we are going to make it to the base of the wall in two hours."

The lassitude of being lost caught ahold, and we settled under our little tarp as there was snow in the forecast.

Seconds later, we were glad to be under cover. Monday night and winter was flashing its presence.

The next morning we had a leisurely 6 am start, as it was an easy snow gully we were aiming for.  I'd already dismissed a couple of much more intimidating route suggestions as too "namby pamby", a British expression my younger friend was unfamiliar with.

It is never a good idea to form the idea that a route is going to be a push-over.  How I didn't guess the ice strip would be slush I don't know.  Then again, I got the wrong lake so underestimating the difficulties of a pitch is a minor misjudgement in comparison. It was easy enough that I wasn't too worried about Alik coming up on a dubious slush based anchor I described as "probably good enough for top-roping." When three out of five pieces are in slush, the integrity of the two nuts placed in choss is essential.

 "I think it's good as long as you get a solid piece in before whipping."

"Oh, I have no plans on whipping."

Well, no one really ever plans that.  We also don't plan on drytooling around 5 meter steps of showering slush on downsloping feet with questionable cams and a "cammed" angle looking "reasonably solid".

Luckily Alik is an expert on camming angles.  Who else have you ever seen stack a leeper and an angle to make an anchor?

We were being drawn onward by a mysterious force. There was no astounding climbing, just plain snow gully slogging.  

"Take a photo. No, hold on, put your helmet back on, photos with people standing on ski terrain with their helmet in their hand just doesn't look hard core."

Near the top of the gully we spotted the black hole that had been sucking us upward. And, incredibly, an ice pillar.  

On closer inspection the pillar wasn't so climbable. We could have gone around but we figured we might as well climb something vertical.  The rock step was surprisingly fun with good hooks and pro. There's even photo proof that it was steep enough I had to drop knee.

"Time to go spelunking"

"I don't know, looks pretty tricky. Let's traverse and see what happens."

What happened was a trip to the ridge, an epic view of a storm blowing in over Storm Mountain, and an easy descent to the larch filled valley.

Spot the climber.

The story of the traverse back to the bivi spot is not documented due to darkness falling.  There was a debate over the presence of a cliff (Alik was right), its traversability (Alik found the way) and its potential lethality (high in my estimation).

By midnight we were squeezing tighter under the tarp as thich snow crowded us. By morning 4 inches had fallen and winter was on.

We had gone winter climbing, maybe not on the right mountain but in the mountains none the less.

Friday, 16 September 2016


You know when you are posing this hard at The Back of the Lake in the "weekend warrior look" that you likely are not sending any time soon.

Of course, we all want our climbing exploits to end in situations like that pictured above. Sometimes, and sometimes for an entire summer, that is not possible.

Sometimes weeks are spent like this.It's not all roses.

When all is said and done, and a summer has passed and I haven't climbed anything worthwhile, it is time for excuses. So, without further ado, and quoting widely from The Art of Climbing Down Gracefully by Tom Patey, a summary of my summer.

One great excuse is The 'Ice-Man' Ploy.
 "I'm a Snow and Ice Man myself!" is a fairly safe assertion...Show me the Englishman- Yes; show me the Englishman, I say- who can stand upright in his steps, square set to the slope, and hit home hard and true, striking from the shoulder! There must be a few of us Ice-Men left around. Ice-Manship may be a forgotten craft but it's still the Cornerstone of Mountaineering.  Never forget that! Any fool can monkey around on overhangs...

It was unmistakably not summer but the three weeks I spent in Scottish conditions last winter likely set back any summer plans immeasurably. Goggles, gore gloves, and wet pants.

This fear of the weather, and its concomitant usefulness as an excuse is neatly summed up as The 'Fohn Wind' and other Bad Weather Ploys

the next time I went up to a hut I determined to follow the advice of local Alpine Guides. If they don't know , who does? Thirty two Guides slept at the Couvercle Hut that night, and they all got up at 2 a.m. like a major volcanic eruption. One Guide, with an attractive female client in tow, walked out, prodded the snow with an ice-axe, sniffed the air, and without a word retired to bed. It later transpired that this was the celebrated Armand Charlet. Thirty one silent Guides looked at each other, shook their heads, and retired likewise.  We woke at 8 a.m to find brilliant sunshine. ....
The last time I saw Charlet he was headed for the valley with the attractive blonde in close attendance. It was the first day of what proved to be a ten-day record heat wave.

Returning from the immaculate rock of southern Spain I decided it was time to reassert myself on the limestone of the Bow Valley.  Fish out of water? Is this 5.8? Am I going the right way? How do I protect a second on this pitch?

There is The 'Greater Ranges' Ploy

Historians tell us that Frank Smythe only began to function properly above 20000 feet. This adds up to a pretty considerable handicap, when you consider how much of his time he spent at lower altitudes. It is all part f the mystique which surrounds The Men who are expected to Go High. 
For this ploy some previous Himalayan experience is essential... Once the aura has formed, you can hardly go wrong. You can patrol the foot of Stanage with all the invested authority of an Everester. No one expects you to climb. It is enough that you retain a soft spot for your humble origins.
"This is all very different from the South Col!" you can remark crisply, as you watch bikini-clad girls swarming over the rocks like chameleons.

As the aura never seems to die, this excuse can be used even if your last trip to altitude ended somewhat short of the summit.

On a few occasions I employed The 'Chossy Climb' Ploy

'Poxy', 'Chossy', 'Spastic' and 'Rubbish' are all terms characteristically used climbers to denigrate ..routes which they have either failed to climb or failed to find(without searching too minutely)

This is of course very useful in the Canadian Rockies.  In the photo below I am well established at a belay stance on a Yamnuska classic.  Solid.

Then we get to the crux of the matter, the 'Responsible Family Man' Ploy.

The little camp-follower who cooked the meals and darned everybody's socks is suddenly transformed into an all-demanding, insatiable virago whose grim disapproval makes strong men wilt in their kletterschuhe. Climbing weekends become less and less frequent...In many cases this is the natural end of all things, but a few diehards still put in an annual appearance- pale shrunken ghosts, who glance nervously over their shoulders before they speak.

Now, in my case it is not marriage or kids that is making me responsible, but I do have a girlfriend and a dog. I seem to go running more days than I go climbing.

Fatefully I took the decision to be responsible and move into a house.  Of course, when the basement, which is going to be a suite and make it affordable to own, ends up looking like a war zone, days climbing seem like they could be better spent.

When you get friends' daughters who are in grade two to wear masks and wield crowbars, you know it has gone too far.

And then there is the decision to forsake a life of selfish climbing and take up the noble profession of rock guiding, letting me legally share my love of the rock and rope trickery with others.  With this amount of rope-work, it is a push to fit in time in the mountains.

Finally, when I did make it through all the choss wrangling, the rope twisting, and the responsibilities of becoming an upstanding citizen, I was bowled low by the dreaded
'Weak Member on the Rope Ploy'

A Past-President of the Aberdeen University Mountaineering Club used this ploy with such remarkable success that he was never once crag-bound during his entire term in Office. "
No hard climbs for me today, Tom," he would sigh heavily. "I'm afraid I've got a weak member on the rope- can't afford to extend myself."

I had it all lined up, a big trip to the big mountains, to make up for this summer of climbing trade routes. Even announced it to my classmates in the Apprentice Rock Guide Exam class of 2016.  My one partner called in sick with a sore back.

The second decided to go climbing in 30 degree 90 percent humidity, technical slab at that.  Currently assessing whether he'll be up for the 25 km approach, we'll see.

At the least I am having fun working on The Art of Climbing Down Gracefully.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

El Botri, Spanish Travel, and Questioning What I Know.

Mad genius who did the FA of Niagara Falls and half of those other routes too? We are not in Chamonix but this definitely is El Botri.

I recently attended the Mashup exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery with Sam Eastman (thanks for the brief tour Sam!)  Let's just say this post is not about alpinism in Chamonix.

Corinna and I visited southern Spain in January for the first time.  The trip was so full of new experiences that it has taken until now to process.  Stephen King says any good writer should write 4 hours every day, so that stories do not get old and stale.  For me it has taken a month and half to order my impressions.  As memory is a subjective faculty it is not surprising that the story has become murkier along the way (a link which perhaps explains why my memory and my campusing are so poor?).

At 10 am, sat on bar stools, in the Mari Jose in Redovan, I didn't pay particular attention to the stubbled wirey Spaniard with the statuesque, made up blonde on his arm.  This was our second bar stop of the day.  We were surrounded by older men who were hand-poured various licors along with their java.  All before a brief day sport cragging at El Rut.  From many trips to Mexico, and from the literature of the greatest Latin American writer of our generation, I should have known to be aware of my surroundings in such an unassuming venue.  I didn't put two and two together when my friend Sergio said that El Botri had done half the first ascents on La Pancha.  The legend has two routes named specifically for him, La Botri 1 and La Botri 2. He used his fortune made in Spain's building boom to climb the world over when he wasn't on his local cliffs.   

 " I think of the Botri, opened in only one day during the fiesta of the patron saint and in infernal temperatures (the only time I thought I would die of dehydration).  45 celsius and only one liter of local vermouth to drink."

We headed to El Cantalar, a small seaside crag developed by Javier Cos Baviera.  Amazing that in Spain you can climb 8b and be humble as pie.  We were warned about the long downhill approach.  A half hour, at a very nonchalant stroll. The locals don't really visit too much, but for us guiris they made an exception. To the north of Murcia are Sierras, covered in forest, but the locals figured we would be more intrigued by the Med.  They weren't far wrong, what a view!

The giant bay of Cartagena is one of the most important harbours on the Med.  Now, as two thousand years ago, it really is the new new thing, as the Romans humorously named it. All we are waiting for in Canada is for our prices to deflate like the tech bubble did, and the Spanish real-estate boom has.  Then we'll be enjoying tapas and drinks at $5 a person too.

 Corinna is a champ, from recovering from death defying accidents, to putting up with lots of guys talking way too much about climbing, in Spanish, and for suggesting we come back the next day to run from Cartagena (the mid-point in the photo) to the Castillitos point.    That evening we were regaled with Javi's paella, his high bottle pouring antics with local ciders (essential to "add air" to get the full flavor), and his next climbing project.

Only in Spain:

"My next project, it is with a boat, it is 15 kilometers long, it is a deep water solo.  But it takes me 4 days, so I need a boat driver."

 "So, if you fall, you fall into water? Really, deep water solo?"

" Yes, I fall between, mmmm, 1 meter and 7 or 8 meters."

This photo shows the more familiar, garden variety type of Spanish climbing scene.  It's sport climbing, and it's what all North a'mericans think of when the think os Spanish rock. I am above Mullas and Bullas, home to lots of vineyards, at El Ferrari.  Later we would sample some fine 1.7 Euro quality vino tintos and 4 liters of the finest vermouth served up in plastic juice bottles.  Plenty of the famously unemployed Spanish youth were pulling down in shocking style. Just down the way is another crag with "a couple of" 9as.  

The diversity of climbing available in the Iberian peninsula is amazing. Pictured is a popular guidebook to climbing areas in Spain.  Each area only gets a brief few sentences to describe the overall aspect of the area.  There are 900 zonas, and it is a select guide. Sergio pointed out that all the visitors go to the crags in the latest Chris Sharma videos.   I was quite happy to have locals to show me around some of the lesser visited areas, where we rarely saw other guiris. 

One of the locals we had to show us the lesser visited treasures was Jose Luis Clavel.  Here he is on his route Eiger on the south face of Leiva.  Jose Luis is a doctor.  He works one 24 hour shift in an ambulance making house calls.

"It saves money on hospital bills" he wisely noted when I mentioned house calls don't happen in Canada.  

Then he takes 4 days off and goes climbing, and lives. I told Jose Luis about the standard 23 on 4 off patch shift in Alberta. His reaction reminded me of the footage of euros in disbelief in Michael Moore's latest movie.

We visitied the adjoining summit, saw wild sheep, and were on our way out when I thought I'd ask Jose Luis about his climbing. 

"Jose Luis, Sergio said you had done some first ascents on the face."


"Which ones?"

"Well, the one I was on, Eiger."

"Any others?"

"Well, the one you were on too."

"Any others?"


"When was that?"

"40 years ago."

It was heartening to see how well people climbed, that it is a part of the culture, and that people don't seem to need to boast about it.  Something else to learn from Jose Luis was when I asked him about bolting natural features.  He said all the routes were put up in the 60s and 70s using aid. Then in the 80s they started to free climb them, and they thought they needed to bolt them.

"But now we don't bolt them so much, we have learned we don't need to."

This is Jose Luis on the crux pitch of Rockabilly on the Tozal de Levante.  The pitch has a few bolts, but it also has in situ pitons, and slings, along with crazy huecos and steep shattered rock pillar pulling.  In the Rockies, can't imagine it.  Put up in 2012, it shows the progression of Spanish climbing, weaving an intelligent line through huge roofs at a reasonable grade.  And the Rock, if only we were so lucky!

Having done one great adventure climb Corinna and I went and climbed above Finestrat, where we narrowly avoided the British climbing scene at the Orange House.  The orange groves of Valencia glistened in the fields below, as we basked above the very strange sight of the towers of Benidorm.  Remember, 

"Only Guiris eat the oranges growing in the streets."

 Only Guiris would ever want anything to do with Benidorm, like a pustule of the worst of UK and Spanish culture exploded on a beautiful sandy coastline.  Just a touch further north, slightly downsized, and preferred by the Russian oligarchs, is Calpe, home of the impeccable  Penon de Ifach.  It was very nautical.  There were seagulls screeching, fishing boats passing.  Our route was called Pirates, and earlier I had climbed Navigantes.  All very enjoyable! 

On the summit I had one of my traveler's misunderstandings. An older Brit couple were descending, accompanied it seemed by their couple of domestic house cats.  I knew a woman in Canmore who would take her house cat ice climbing.  Stranger things have happened.

"Are those your cats?"


"Huh.  Will you take our photo?"

So that is how we have some summit shots of the Penon with cats, and some without.  

The traveler's misunderstanding was truly realized when I saw the following sight.

From decades of traveling, I have become familiar with the following scenario.  The first time one experiences something new, totally out of one's sphere of reference, the conscious mind does not know how to classify it, and one is prone to overlook it.  Then by the third or fourth experience, one's mind has begun to construct a pathway which can absorb and deal with the experience.  It is at this moment that one first becomes aware of the new experience. Only on reflection does one realize this is not the first experience with the new thing, as memory flashes back to previous unconscious memories.

When we first saw these flocks of brightly colored birds we thought a load of parrots had escaped.  My Spanish is quite good, but Sergio's explanation escaped me at first. On one of the last days in Spain I was driving along a small rural road when I spotted both a flock of bright birds and a motley collection of men of various ages, some in cars, some on scooters, others on bikes.  I raced to get my camera, but by the time i returned all trace of the sighting had disappeared.  Returning to Sergio's I heard a faint cooing over the fence.  Lo and behold, next door was the scene depicted above. 

It turns out there is a cult like sport in Murcia and Valencia.  The game seems simple.  Men get a load of male pigeons, and paint them bright colors so they can discern one from the other.  Then they scent the males on a single female, whom they release.  The human males then bet on the prospects of their male pigeon counterparts.  And whichever male first "covers" the female wins.  Like an allegory on life.

The other inexplicable sighting, the roundabouts, are a sign of that other truism of human existence, political corruption.  From the looks of things something needs some explaining.

That is the great thing about traveling.  One's mind gets expanded by trying to absorb new concepts and experiences.  The town, Al Cantarilla, which in Castillano (there is no language named "Spanish" I learned) means "the sewer" named such by the Moors as to them it meant water container.  The oldest boat in the world, to be found off the coast of Cartagena. The "nun's bush", a prickly plant which it is best to avoid touching. Rock climbers who climb 9a and above who are not known by sight, and are mere unsponsored amateurs ("lovers of", in french).  Tapas at $3 a plate, fine vino tinto at $3 also, and vermouth by the plastic jug.  55-year-olds who have been establishing routes for 40 years and now laugh at their mad bolting sprees.  

And one mad rich construction boss named El Botri who says the worst thing about climbing in Nipigon was that he had to lead everything in his duvet, but that when he climbed Niagara Falls as a lark it was only grade 4.

Amazing the things one learns when one travels somewhere new.  So much more than climbing, so much of interest.