My folks retired and lived for quite a few years on a canal boat; travelling around the inland waterways of England. When they became too old to navigate the rivers and canals, they moored-up, permanent, at a birth near Northampton. Mum died, the week between Christmas and New Year 2015. Later that year, with my friends Mark and Nikki, and my nephew Jake, we moved dad and the boat, Jasper, south to be near my sister.
A few years passed, dad quite enjoyed living in the marina near the centre of Hemel Hempstead, but rarely spoke of mum, or what they had, which was over fifty years together. He very rarely dwells on the past, he compartmentalises like no one else I know, or I’m sure, will ever know.
Dad’s health was not the best, and one day he fell and lay unconscious until a neighbour found him. He was taken to hospital, where he slipped and broke his hip. Lesley, my sister told me to expect the worse, he possibly wouldn’t survive the operation to fix his hip. Throughout my later life, these, dad will more than likely not survive scenarios, have been frequent, and, not only did he survive, he recovered. Unbeknown to dad, while he was in hospital, Lesley and I cleared the boat and sold it. Dad was not firm enough to continue living that style of life. Lesley gave Paddy, dad’s dog, to a friend, and also his parrot. It took two days to empty the boat, and sort dad’s stuff. Dad had moved nothing since mum had died, it was really sad going through mum’s stuff, sorting through things I’d brought them back from my expeditions.
Lesley found a place for dad in a care home near her, and dad moved in, not once asking about the boat, Paddy, or Barney the parrot. This was his lot, he accepted it and moved on.
Covid came and took many people living in care homes, but not dad; against the odds, the old bastard just kept going and smoking his roll ups!
I hadn’t seen dad in a few years because of Covid, and to be honest, he is a hard act to love, and never appears to want any love, or give any out. The relationship between dad and myself is complex. I do love him, but find it hard to travel hundreds of miles with the cost of trains or fuel, to see him, especially when he doesn’t appear that bothered to see me.
Lesley sent me a message in the autumn saying dad had had a fall, and was in hospital, and this time, he almost certainly was not coming out alive. She told me I should drive to Dunstable to see him before he died. I knew I had to see him, but I must admit, I was fretting about the cost and the time. I had been spending money, and working all year building sheds to live, and I desperately wanted to finish the work, so I could once again become a climber. To be really frank, the amount of times dad had been about to die over the last twenty years was almost as much as Boris Johnson had lied to the nation. The old bastard was indestructible, I was starting to think he would outlive me, and was almost sure he would make a recovery, but I hadn’t seen him for about three years, so one afternoon, set off on the ten-hour, return journey.
The ward dad was on had a covid outbreak, and on the door, there was a sign saying no visitors were allowed, but a friendly nurse said because I had travelled a long way, I could come in as long as I wore a mask, gown and gloves. She pointed to the bed dad was in, and left me to it. The gown was stretched over my clothes, and tying the knot behind my back was desperate. Bloody hell, I thought, I’ve tied a million knots, surely, I can tie this one behind my back! The gloves were too small, I could hardly get my fat climbers’ fingers into the fingers! Eventually, plastic wrapped, I walked down the ward and almost walked past the bed with dad. I hardly recognised the frail old man beneath the covers. He recognised me though,
“Bloody hell, it’s our youth.”
“Hey dad, how you doing?”
Dad was never big and imposing, he was always slim, but he had the tenacity of a terrier, and a forceful, opinionated presence. I was desperately trying to hold back tears; he looked so frail and vulnerable; it maybe also gave me a glimpse of my own mortality?
I sat an hour and a half, and in that time, he actually shone. He was cheeky to the nurses, several times asking for a cup a tea that hadn’t arrived. At one point he started loudly saying, “tea up.” It was pretty obvious he was going to once again escape the clutches of the grim reaper, and maybe even this hospital. Interestingly, he said he was ok, he quite liked it in the hospital. I must admit, I thought it was awful, there were sick and dying people all around, I felt myself becoming depressed. I marvelled at dad, here he was, an eighty-seven-year-old, that had gone from having a marriage and a house, to a marriage and a boat, to a boat and a dog and a parrot, to a room in a care home, to a hospital bed, and he lay there saying he was ok, not a single complaint. He made me feel guilty.
I drove back to north Wales the same day with a head full of emotion. Hell, in some ways he was miraculous, but in others, I just don’t know? What a thing to be able to shut out all that has gone before and just go with what you have been dealt?
My last expedition to the Greater Ranges was in 2018. After this, there was Covid, where I wrecked my body from running and weighted hangboarding. After the lockdowns, my knees, hip, lower back, neck and shoulders, were all on the cusp, and I made the conscious decision to stop expeditions, winter climbing and running, they all took too much of a toll on my joints, and because I was still rock climbing as well as ever, and enjoying it as much as I always had, I decided to throw myself into this, and see how I could progress without the other things eating into my time and energy. Don’t misunderstand, it’s not easy. I have not stopped because I want to, I’ve stopped out of necessity, and because I’m lucky, I still have rock climbing, something I love. I prefer to continue enjoying climbing as well as I can on the rock, than becoming bitter and twisted, while attempting to do things my body no longer wants me to do. There have also been the sheds, (look back through previous posts) and I very much enjoy living where I now live.
In some way, I have taken my dad’s example, and attempted to compartmentalise. That was then, this is now, move forward, don’t live in the past. But it is difficult, especially as many people talk to me about what is happening, and ask me when I’m going to Scotland, or on the next big trip. I want to scream, ‘leave me alone, I don’t want to know’, but of course, this isn’t acceptable, so I generally say something like, I’ve given up, I’m too old, body hurts too much, and move the conversation along.
I have given you this preamble for a couple of reasons, one is to give you a glimpse into my life now, and some background. The other is to explain how, or why, I’ve decided to stop winter climbing and the mountains. There is actually a lot more to it than what I have written. I’ve lost many friends over the years, this has had an impact, and the way things have changed within climbing; the social media stuff and consumerism, these are also reasons I think the time is right for me to distance myself from something I love. There is also the big elephant in the room, climate change. Climate change is something I feel strongly about, even though I’ve done quite a bit in the past to make the situation worse. But I don’t see this as reason, not to try and do what little I can now.
Even though I try not to get involved with what is going on anymore, at times it’s almost impossible, given these crazy internet times we live, and the way almost everything and everybody has to advertise their wares on social media. I almost always refuse to enter debates and conversations on forums and social medial platforms, it’s pointless, because for one, you have no idea who you are talking to, and what motivates them, and even when its someone who is actually honest and knowledgeable, hardly anyone listens to what is being said. They just plough ahead with their own beliefs. But, on occasion, something happens, or is said, that I feel the need to add my thoughts, (not as they are any more, or less, pertinent that anyone else’s) and so it is at the moment.
Scottish winter climbing has always been close to my heart. There is something exceptionally unique about how people taking part, hold themselves and adhere to the long, rich and stringent ethics. The reason they do this, or a part of the reason they do this, is to maintain the ethos. For those of a certain mind-set, people in search of new climbs, there is nothing better than setting out in the dark, not-knowing what the day may hold. There is nothing better that arriving at a cliff, and seeing what it has presented you with. There are obviously times when you have an idea, you know of something that might be possible, but until you tie on and give it a go, you just don’t know. Going into the unknown on a big cliff in winter, a cliff that might be a long way from anywhere, is almost unique in these days of information overload, and the health and safety conscious, sanitised life we are led to believe we should live. Scottish winter climbing is a kick in the tatties for the government officials telling us we have to wrap ourselves in cotton wool. Under no circumstances, should we start to chip away at the ethics that make Scottish winter unique.
Scottish winter climbing is not rock climbing, it is a different beast. There are similarities obviously, but there is a world of difference between the two, people should not try to compare one, with the other. Scottish winter climbing has held on to its strong ethics of on-sight, or at least ground up, even though, on rare occasions, the odd person has come along to challenge this. Fortunately, the consensus has held on to the firm belief, for Scottish winter climbing to remain unique, almost on the world stage, (people really do travel from all over the world to climb in Scotland in winter, because of its truly adventurous nature) it has to keep those strong ethics, and when people challenge this by ignoring the ethics of the day, they should be questioned and confronted.
The cliffs in Scotland are actually quite small, and once you begin to use similar tactics as those that can be used on a summer rock climb, you bring down that challenge massively, you turn something that is very adventurous and unknown, into a known, something to be tamed. You also take away the first ascent from others that are happy and excited to take on the challenge in its truest form, the same as the pioneers from all the years before, the same as history and the ethics of the day ask you to do now.
Where Scottish winter is concerned, I have never been of the opinion for it to remain healthy, grades have to be improved. Why do grades have to be improved? The physical difficulty of a route, is a very small part of what the whole thing is about. Scottish winter climbing is not a bolted sport climb, or a bolted dry tool climb, it is not about achieving your physical limit. Climbing harder and harder is not ‘advancing’ the activity. Do we need grades to progress to make this unique thing somehow better? No. The grades of climbs mean something, of course, but if the top grades of winter climbs never go up again, it won’t make any difference to the activity as a whole, or what it means to the activists.
A week or two ago, I read on UKC about a new winter climb on Shelterstone, or to be more precise, the first winter ascent of the established rock climb, Stone Bastion. The summer grade is E4, the winter grade X/10. It took Tim Millar and Jamie Skelton several visits to complete the climb, going from bottom to top in a day. Good tenacity that! I must admit, in all my years of winter climbing in the UK, I only ever returned to a climb I had failed to on-sight, once, obviously I should have tried harder.
Having failed to climb the final, crux pitch twice, the next time Tim and Jamie walked to Shelterstone, they decided to start at the top, and take turns to abseil, and top rope the pitch that had stopped them. Then, armed with the knowledge from working the crux pitch, they returned on another day and made the full winter ascent. Here is the news item on UKC.
Writing about this specific climb, I know I’m making it a bit personal. This is the last thing I want to do as both climbers in this case are obviously really keen, talented and driven. I’m sure they are both fine people, (I’ve never met either of them, and they have not met me, so the jury is out for all of us 😉). I hope in weeks to come, or months, maybe a year, they look at the tactics they chose, and come to the conclusion, it wasn’t the best. What they chose to do damages the ethics of Scottish winter climbing by distilling it, and by doing what they have done, makes it easier for others to use similar methods, on climbs of any grade. I firmly believe if this kind of thing continues, there will be teams all over the Northern Cories top roping everything, and some of the last great winter problems will have had practice before the first ascent. Who knows, maybe they will have had some gear left in place from the practice to aim, and then clip, when the almost guaranteed first winter ascent is made. I’m not saying this was done on this occasion, but if this tactic occurs in the future, I have absolutely no doubt it will. They also took away the first on-sight, or ground-up winter ascent from others, in an activity where less of this type challenge is available. There are others out there that are capable of climbing X/10 on sight and have done. To prove my point, only a few days later, Greg Boswell and Jamie, one of the team who practiced the crux pitch of Stone Bastion before climbing it, made a ground up, first ascent, on the cliffs of Lochnagar. This climb is graded two adjective grades, and three technical grades harder than winter Stone Bastion.
My Scottish winter days are over, I’ve attempted to do a dad thing and compartmentalise, moved forward to hold on to what I’ve got before the surgeon becomes intimate with my body. I don’t want to become one of those bitter people that struggles with not being able to do what I once could. So, does anything I say matter? I suppose you could tell me to get out of here, and fair enough, it’s up to you, I’m just a rambling old man who gives a shit. But for the folk out there still doing it, and for those not yet doing it, you need to decide. Do you want grades, numbers, Instagram posts, fame and money, are these things ‘advancement’, the way forward? Or do you want to hold-on to one of the few things we have left in climbing that has real uncertainty and integrity?