by Victor Saunders
The fact that I read this book and am writing this review in less than 24 hours from it arriving should tell you a few things. Firstly, it’s a great book and highly readable. Secondly, we’re in lockdown and work isn’t possible. Thirdly, the weather’s poor otherwise I would have been on the hill.
All joking aside, this was a gripping read and if time had allowed I would have read it in one sitting. A late night read followed by this morning before breakfast saw me finish the final few chapters.
It is only fitting that Mick Fowler, his partner on many epic climbs, wrote the forward and hits the nail on the head, summing the book up as “not so much about achievements. It is about friendships, personalities, experiences and a journey through life.”
The title is inspired as is the reasoning behind it;
‘Mountains have given structure to my adult life. I suppose they have also given me purpose, though I still can’t guess what that purpose might be. And although I have glimpsed the view from the mountaintop and I still have some memory of what direction life is meant to be going in, I usually lose sight of the wood for the trees. In other words, I, like most of us, have lived a life of structured chaos.’
Vertebrate’s website gives a good description of the book;
“Structured Chaos is Victor Saunders’ follow-up to Elusive Summits (winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize in 1990), No Place to Fall and Himalaya: The Tribulations of Vic & Mick. He reflects on his early childhood in Malaya and his first experiences of climbing as a student, and describes his progression from scaling canal-side walls in Camden to expeditions in the Himalaya and Karakoram. Following climbs on K2 and Nanga Parbat, he leaves his career as an architect and moves to Chamonix to become a mountain guide. He later makes the first ascent of Chamshen in the Saser Kangri massif, and reunites with old friend Mick Fowler to climb the north face of Sersank.
Structured Chaos is a testament to the value of friendship and the things that really matter in life: being in the right place at the right time with the right people, and making the most of the view.”
“The Baltoro Blackadder” , “Age Related Forgetfulness”, a bout of boxing in a pub full of National Front supporters, there’s a lot of diversity in this book. Sure, as you’d expect there’s a climbing slant but it’s a very peoplecentric book and all the better for it. Vic might be best known for his epic climbs like the Golden Pillar of Spantik but, to my mind, this book beats his earlier expedition books because of the added human interest, the tales behind the climbs, the cameos of famous climbers, the minutiae of human life. Having survived a winter ascent of the Eigers North Face, Vic and Stevie Haston fall out big time. If you’ve ever met Stevie, or know of his reputation then the following description will strike a chord; “now all the suppressed irritations poured out…we were abrasive and abusive…two pig headed climbers, we were on the verge of coming to blows and I didn’t care. Stevie lifted me by my collar till my feet were flailing inches from the ground and I was so angry I still didn’t care. I watched fascinated as his eyes bulged and the veins on the side of his neck swelled and wriggled like caterpillars. He was turning redder and redder. I understood I was about to come to some very real harm.”
The author is obviously highly intelligent, having originally trained as an architect, and there’s a lot of clever stuff in the writing but I especially like some of the puns. Chapter 13 is called “The Sersank Redemption” and involves climbing a mountain that “looked a bit like the Orion Face on Ben Nevis, only on steroids and grown gigantic.” It’s a reunion with his old climbing partner, Mick Fowler, yet things have changed, a quantum leap from “before it was the usual boys’ blather, food and girls, now it was pensioners’ talk. It could have been heard on any golf course…arthritic limbs…failing eyesight. Fittingly the front cover is a photo of Spantik and pretty much the end of the books is the Sersank chapter. Two hard climbs, epics in their own right but separated by decades, years when Saunders and Fowler didn’t climb together.
Vic won the Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain literature with his previous book, “Elusive Summits.” Combine this with Vertebrate Publishing’s propensity to produce prize winning books and not only is “Structured Chaos” a wonderful read, a worthy addition to mountaineering literature but must surely be in with a chance for an award in 2021.
Many thanks to Lorna Hargreaves and the Vertebrate team for producing such a compulsively readable book and sending one of the first copies north to us on Skye. Much appreciated.
Link below to Vertebrates web site for book details and to pre order at discounted price with free postage;
The SMC has produced a winner with it’s fourth edition of “The Munros.” I’ve got a second edition so can only compare to that and the difference is night and day. The older SMC books, like my second edition, just didn’t inspire me, hence no update to the third edition. They were potentially useful reference books, but I didn’t find them at all inspirational, certainly not design classics or objects of beauty. Perhaps they continued SMC traditionalism but, to me, they were reminiscent of library reference books, not something to pick up and enjoy.
Enter the 4th edition and it’s all change. The new design ethos of SMC books ensures the book grabs your attention from when you open the package. A stunning cover photo (Robert Durran), fantastically simple design, nice font and the SMC logo of ice axes all combine to grab your attention.
Here’s what the SMC have to say about the new volume;
“This fully revised fourth edition of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s original and best-selling guidebook The Munros describes the best walking routes on Scotland’s 282 mountains above 3000ft.
Comprehensive descriptions in this definitive guide recommend ascent and descent routes for each of the Munros and their 226 subsidiary Tops, with maps of the peaks and principal surrounding hills to help you plan the most enjoyable journeys through Scotland’s wild landscape. The descriptions are brought to life throughout with vivid photography that illustrates the dramatic beauty of these much-loved mountains.
Whether you are an occasional walker looking for inspiration or a dedicated Munroist planning to tick off your next peak, The Munros is essential reading for any hillwalking enthusiast.”
In reality this translates to a bigger book, both dimensions and weight. 3rd edition was 282 pages (surely not a coincidence), 175 by 255mm and weighed 970g. 4th edition has 384 pages, 245 by 180mm and weighs in at 1424g.
A much bigger book and not just a visual triumph but lots of added info. Longer and better route descriptions, massively improved maps and diagrams and loads of inspirational photos. A nice addition is the inclusion of total distance/ascent/time for each trip rather than just to the summit.
The back of the book has various lists including one of the Munros grouped in sections which facilitates ticking off those big, multi Munro days. Obviously, there’s Munro’s Tables, listed by sections as mentioned but also “The Furths” and “The Munros & Tops by Height.”
Obviously, I haven’t read the entire book. I’m sure people will read it cover to cover but for me it’s a reference book but also a lovely book just to open at random, stare at a photo, plan a trip. I’m sure Munro obsessives will study it and find minor errors, contentious points to argue over but overall I’m super impressed by the 4th edition.
The Munros are grouped into geographical sections. Then each Munro is described with a relevant map and photos. The format works well and the book comes across as new and exciting not just a revamp of a dry reference tome that previous editions reminded me of.
The cost is £30 but for that you are getting a huge, lavishly produced book which should provide years of reference and planning for future trips. Do the maths and it’s only a bit over ten pence per Munro so put like that it seems awesome value. If you are just setting out on your Munro journey then there’s no better reference work whilst old hands will appreciate it for rekindling magical memories of hill days and perhaps planning another round.
The SMC books and Scottish Mountaineering Press are coming along in leaps and bounds, the new design stamp being added to increasing numbers of new books. As with all small publishers it would be great if purchases can be made direct from them rather than through faceless corporate entities on the internet. There’s the added bonus not only that you are supporting the production of future books but also that “profits from our guidebooks go to the Scottish Mountaineering Trust which is a Scottish registered charity….helps support recreation, safety and education in the Scottish mountains.”
2020: the year running records were rewritten
by Ally Beaven
Running’s not really my thing but this was a book I was looking forward to reading and reviewing. In the past, especially when living in Snowdonia, I ran a lot on the mountains and loved the solitude and exhilaration. Nowadays, I’m a bit more protective of my knees and ankles but it doesn’t hurt to dream and “Broken” is the stories of dreams realised in a very unusual year.
From Vertebrate Publishing’s website, here’s a brief description of what the book covers;
“Attempting to break long-distance running records used to be an underground endeavour, until the virus-stricken summer of 2020 came along. Only a few, such as the Bob Graham Round in the Lake District, had ever broken into mainstream consciousness. But an absence of running races thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented rise in the popularity of attempts at breaking these records.
In Broken, Ally Beaven takes an entertaining look at just why 2020 was so unusual for long-distance running. With his interest in Fastest Known Times (FKTs) piqued, Beaven immerses himself in the scene. His summer becomes one of spending hours in the hills feeding, cajoling and generally trying to keep safe the runners he is supporting, as well as following the dots of live trackers in the middle of the night and endlessly refreshing his Twitter feed as records tumble around the country.
Through the stories of John Kelly’s epic Grand Round, Beth Pascall’s record-shattering Bob Graham Round, Donnie Campbell’s mind-bending new mark for bagging all 282 Munros, Jo Meek’s new overall record for the Nigel Jenkins Dartmoor Round and many others, Beaven brings us an inside look at the incredible FKT machine.
Broken is the story of the summer of 2020, a historic time for running in the UK.”
The author is obviously a fantastic runner as well as a barman. The book is written in an engaging and witty style and one can easily imagine Ally and fellow runners enjoying a post run rehydration session, the banter flowing along with the drinks. It could easily have been a book of dry statistics and facts but the end result is a lively account of a number of record breaking runs.
Indeed the author helped support various of the runners so the book is very much written from an insider’s point of view. One of the chapters I found most interesting was “The Big 6” which describes Ally’s experiences on the Cairngorm 4000s plus Ben Avon and Beinn a Bhuird. He kicks of by putting himself in the whole scheme of things; “Deep in the bowels of Glenmore Lodge…where I pull pints for a living, decisions are being made and plans for reopening are taking shape. As part time barman, I doubt I will be high on the list of people they want back in the building as soon as possible.”
Finlay Wild features and having seen him run (and win by huge amounts) the annual Glamaig race, and as one time holder of the summer Cuillin Ridge record, it’s no surprise.( See photo of him on the summit of Glamaig, smiling, hardly out of breath and not a competitor in sight) What is a surprise and very refreshing is his attitude and style. Many of the records were micro managed and planned like a military exercise with support teams, pacers and media connectivity. In contrast, Finlay’s record breaking Ramsay Round was done solo, totally unsupported, no pacers, nothing but him versus the terrain.
When the book arrived I was looking forward to it especially Donnie Campbell’s Munro Round in 31 days but it was other lesser known runs that grabbed my attention. Typical was the Dartmoor Round. Not just familiar places from when I lived in Okehampton but full of human interest with a cast of characters with nicknames that make you think “all the south west’s ultra runners moonlight as professional darts players.” Welcome to the world of “Plodder” and “Zippy.”
Overall, Broken is a great read for runner and also for the armchair athlete and Ally should be congratulated for writing such an entertaining book.
If you are thinking of buying a Vertebrate book then please buy direct from them rather than the well known internet giants. Please support small, specialist publishers or they may well not survive.
Vertebrate have quite a stable or running books and I’m looking forward to the soon to be published “In It For The Long Run” by Damian Hall about his record breaking Pennine Way and the madness of ultra running.
Link to Vertebate’s running books including “Broken”
The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland
Compiled by Guy Robertson
Published by Scottish Mountaineering Press
Having reviewed several books for Scottish Mountaineering Press, I’d been tempted to ask for a copy of the sumptuous looking “The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland” but, firstly it had seemed cheeky and, secondly it had nothing to do with the Cuillin. However when Robert Robert Michael Lovell asked if I’d do a review it would have been churlish to refuse.
“The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland” is the second book compiled by Guy Robertson. I really enjoyed the first, “The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland” and seriously wondered if the Sea Cliffs volume could live up to it’s predecessor.
Rest assured, “The Great Sea Cliffs” exceeded my expectations and must surely rank top of the league of “coffee table” type climbing books. Looking through the book is a visual treat with stunning photos balanced by chapters some written by pioneers at the top of their game. Scottish sea cliff climbing is adventure encapsulated but the book is also a brave new venture for SMP and creates a new look, a new design, a literary metaphor heralding a new era for the SMC and it’s publications.
I’m sure this book was also an adventure for Guy Robertson, Rob Lovell and Gino Di Meo as they pushed the boundaries of design and set a high bar for future publishers. From the front cover inwards the design is refreshing, simple and bold. A stunning cover shot, a carefully selected and elegant font. The spine is the same simple font, black on white with the SMP’s logo. Spines of books are often under rated but for most books on shelves it’s the first impression that you get and thus of massive importance. A huge thumbs up to the design team.
The book is filled by pioneering tales of derring do and more recent ascents typified by Lou Reynold’s account of the Old Man of Hoy. Guy is obviously a major activist but it’s obvious too that Rob Lovell is; check out the front cover shot of SMP head honcho in action high on Clo Mor Crack. This ties in nicely with both the last chapter in the book and the very last words on the simple back dust wrapper. Both are written by adventurer extrordinaire, Mick Fowler. His chapter on Clo Mor sums up all that’s good about the book; stunning photos, excellent writing and a stirring tales of an epic arrival by boat then a new route on one of the most remote places in the UK.
Mick Fowler’s quote on the reverse cover sums things up nicely; “For anyone with the slightest interest in the history, scenery and climbs on the sea cliffs of Scotland, this fantastic book is a must. It inspires and motivates in equal measure and convinces me that, surely, there is nowhere in the world that rivals the variety and beauty of sea cliff climbing in Scotland. I can’t wait to get back.”
The writing is amazing but, to my mind, the photographs are the real stars and this book deserves a wider market than just climbers. Sure, climbers will gawp at the brightly clothed climbers high above raging seas but geologists will be amazed at the strata, the rock formations, the texture and grains. Photographers will admire the action shots but also the seascapes with many wondering just how the hell did the photographer get a particular shot.
The choice of photos is superb and, although it’s hard to choose, personal favourites include Lukasz Warzecha’s shot of Dave MacLeod on Longhope Route and Hamish Frost ’s photo of Guy Robertson on Mega Flake. Oh and Hamish also took the cover photo. Each geographical section has an opening double page spread (including some stunning seascapes by Colin Threlfall) which sets the scene, so to speak.
The book covers twenty six cliffs and is split into five areas and it seems designed to both evoke memories and inspire future trips. Distant sandstone stacks way up north are counterbalanced by the granite cliffs of Aberdeenshire, islands vie with the mainland and we get to see a real smorgasbord of rock types, climbs of varying grades, but above all, adventure unlimited. Scotland rocks and none more so than it’s sea cliffs.
The original Route on the Old Man of Hoy was one of the first really big routes that I did way back in the early 80s and the photos and words rekindled a brilliant adventure. The photos of The Screaming Geo on Lewis brought back more recent memories of a trip with my wife Bridgette whilst the Old Man of Stoer is an adventure still to come and one that she wants to achieve to celebrate a significant birthday.
For me one of the big advantages of this book was to illustrate Julian Line’s solo exploits in his biography, “Tears of the Dawn” which I’d rate as possibly some of the best climbing literature of all time. The photos in “Sea Cliffs” flesh out some of his epic exploits and it’s fitting that he go to write the introduction which ends with…..
“…..So, turn the page, enjoy and let this book be your passport to adventure, remembering that the real beauty in these adventures is that they are free, not material and will remain with you forever.”
Well done to Guy and Team SMP, all the authors, pioneering new routers and photographers for producing such a TARDIS like book. Physically it’s a big volume, but open it up and be transported across time and geography to past climbs and those yet to come.
This is going to be an unusual review in that I’m going to come straight out and simply say this is up there with the best climbing books I’ve read. There you have it, no need to read further….. if you haven’t already read it then just buy a copy.
According to the cover, “Julian Lines is Britain’s most accomplished free solo climber. His quiet demeanour and natural techniques have earned him the unofficial title of The Dark Horse in Scottish climbing circles…….Spanning more than three decades of extreme climbing, his reflections reveal the drive and determination for a human being to repeatedly gamble with his own existence and for it to become not only a way of life, but his entire raison d’etre.”
The book won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain literature in 2014. No mean achievement but look at some of the other entries that year; “8000 metres” by Alan Hinkes, Martin Boysen’s “Hanging On” then there was “Fast And Free Pete Livesey, Stories Of A Rock Climbing Legend” and Martin Moran’s “Higher Ground.” It was chosen over books by famous mountaineers and rock climbers, the dark horse pipped them at the post.
I’d long wanted a copy but was put off by the second hand prices of this out of print book. I’ve just looked on Amazon and there’s one first edition for £90. Now that I’ve read it, being a bit of a book nerd, I might well get a first edition in the future if the price is right and now I know just how good it is.
It was great to learn that SMT Publications have reprinted Tears of the Dawn. Production and design is fantastic and of a level to match the writing. Although it is a climber’s autobiography it is more than that. True there are biographical details but in a way these offer tantalising glimpses but leave more gaps than answers and perhaps demand a second volume. The book is like a fusion of a Tolkinesque landscape, herculean challenges, all written in an easy to read yet totally absorbing style.
In fact, the writing is so good, so profound and so captures the elementals of soloing that I actually rationed myself to reading two or three chapters a day. It’s pure pleasure reading and not something I wanted to rush. Some books are very compelling and I’ll read them in one fell swoop but this book deserved more.
If you’ve ever soloed a route, doesn’t matter the grade, you’ll be on the rock alongside the author, sweating, looking down, maybe fumbling for a chalk bag as you sit in your chair. I’m not sure if poetic is the right word but the writing is spot on and encapsulates the world inhabited by the author but equally it smoothly drags the reader into sharing that strange world. The descriptions are powerful and somehow seem to portray more dimensions than physics would define, certainly more than just ink on paper. Reading the book is a multi sensory experience, the mere words so well chosen and linked that you can feel the rock, smell the sweat, hear the crash of waves, the pounding of a heart beat.
Julian tell it like it is. No hype, no justification for his lifestyle choices. He climbs purely for himself. No sponsor, no hype, in fact pretty much under the radar to most people. There’s obvious connotations with Alex Honnold, Free Soloist personified. Julian might not be as well known but he’s definitely operating at the very tip of the sharpest cutting edge. One of the photos in the book shows him high on Hold Fast, Hold True, solo first ascent at a grade of E9/10 7a. To give it some context it straightens out Hold Fast, giving it a more direct finish. Dave MacLeod, no slouch, put up Hold Fast but felt the top part taken by Jules to be too on/off to risk. For all you sport climbers, the top climbing is probably 8a or 8a+.
So he’s got the climbing cred, no mistake and judging by the book, a career in writing could take off just as well. The book is geographically diverse but mainly UK based. Personally, it was great to see areas of the UK where I’ve never climbed like Northumberland. All the chapters were interesting but of special note were the Skye experiences. Whilst still at school Julian completed all the Munros (then 277) and finished on Sgurr nan Gillean. His penultimate Munro was the In Pinn and he found himself alone facing 40 mph cross winds, rain and mist. “I got organized, put some socks over my EB rock boots and went for it, clinging on for dear life, trailing a rope, not able to see the sheer drop on either side due to the mist.” Seemingly he wasn’t put off and this must have been good training for his climbing solos of the future.
After Sgurr nan Gillean, he returned to his father waiting at the base. “He seemed proud of me on that day – a first and probably a last. I think he saw my brother and I as disappointments after all of his financial input into our education. He had a bottle of champagne with him. I didn’t like it, so he drank the bottle whilst I drove us back to the Sconser Lodge Hotel for a warm bath and a hearty homemade steak and kidney pie.”
Sitting here next door to the Sconser Lodge, brings the story home as do and for any climber it will be an enjoyable journey down Memory Lane (doesn’t feature). Lots of interesting stuff in the Skye chapter and I enjoyed the Cornwall bit and recalled soloing Diocese, possibly the only route in the book I’d be happy soloing!
The chapter, “Skye Is The Limit”, is going to be of interest to lots of ATC members. Routes covered include a post A Level celebratory ascent of Integrity on Sron na Ciche and subsequent visits to solo Trophy Crack and King Cobra amongst many others. Unlike many climbing books there’s minimal mention of grades, no bigging one’s self up with big E numbers. The rough Cuillin gabbro gets a mention or two; “an array of boulders are strewn randomly, their features tempting you to climb, but for that the price to be paid is bloodied fingertips. Bouldering in the Cuillin is comparable to playing catch with angle grinders.”
Julian is obviously a very interesting character who’s been in dark places. At times there’s an element of suicide by climbing, everything staked on a roll of the dice. A lot of the book is about the mental battle within himself, the battle between conscious and unconscious mind fought out on a vertical battlefield. One solo he comes up with “an idea that would fool my subconscious into thinking there was no danger.” He cut bracken and spread it over a horrible landing then when high above he looked down to “see a lovely soft carpet of bracken” rather than fatal rocks. Mind fooled, he completed the route. “The fear had been lifted and I coolly climbed to the top, pleased with the way my conscious mind had fooled my subconscious in a dangerous game of self deceit.”
The book itself is brilliantly produced and the style reminds me of one of my favourite guide books, Nick White’s classic “South Devon and Dartmoor.” There’s a nice illustration or two near the start and it would have been nice to see more. The choice of font and the stylised gheko really compliment the writing. This book would lend itself really well to a limited edition deluxe version, perhaps with a second volume of additional tales and all in a nice slipcase….just saying!
In many ways this has been an easy review since the book is so good and a complete pleasure to read. If I was being really picky then I’d say the new monochrome cover design is less eye catching than the original colour one which I prefer.
Many thanks to Robert Michael Lovell for providing the copy for review. I’m seriously impressed by it and look forward to some of the other works in the pipeline.
Hard Rock: Great British Rock Climbs From VS To E4
In today’s world of social media and an interweb brimful of information, it’s hard to imagine the impact Ken Wilson’s Hard Rock must have had when first published in 1974. Even a decade later it opened my eyes to different areas in the UK and provided a basis for future climbing trips. Part guide book, part history book, part tick list, Hard Rock has now been totally updated for it’s fourth iteration.
It would have been all too easy for Ian Parnell and Vertebrate Publishing to have either rehashed the same old, same old in a so, so, slightly different fashion or to have started again from scratch. But the 4th edition has blended perfectly a fusion of old and new, like the sympathetic restoration project of a historic house to make it up to date and livable in. An ultra modern take on a beloved institution.
Thus we have new routes, new photos, new words but also the vast majority of the familiar old routes and the essays written by old school climbers like Royal Robbins, Chris Bonnington and Ed Drummond. These are complimented by new essays for newly included areas such as Pembroke (Emma Alsford and Paul Donnithorne), and Swanage (David Pickford).
First impressions are important and right from the initial view, Hard Rock delivers. The photography is superb, epitomized by the cover shot of Mary Birkett on Central Buttress, Scafell. Full page shots, stunning locations, great angles and colourfully clad climbers make for a sumptuous visual treat which should entice the most jaded climber to get out there and rediscover their mojo.
A couple of the original routes have been removed both in real life (rock fall) and from the book. Another two, aid routes (Kilnsey Main Overhang and The Scoop, Strone Ulladale) have been removed since they are now both free climbs. Thus the Hard Rock tick list is now more achievable than it originally was. Ken Wilson included such routes to thwart the ambitions of puerile tickers but now with the top included grade being E4 there must be a lot of climbers for whom the list is within reach.
Below are some of the newly included routes;
Vulcan Wall (Skye)
Angel Face (Ben Eighe)
Prophecy of Drowning (Pabbay)
Plane Sailing (Mowing Wold)
Rock Idol and Zeppelin (Moterh Carey’s Kitchen)
Double Diamond and Quatermass (Lundy)
Mars and Soul Sacrifice (Swanage)
These routes perhaps help to sway the undoubted previous mountain crag bias with additions of coastal climbs. I spent many hours just flicking through the book, checking the photos and reading, especially the newly included routes. The mix of old and new brought back great memories of climbs done, partners climbed with but above all the quality of the routes. Dream of White Horses, Mouse Trap, the Old Man of Hoy. Happy memories rekindled by superb photos and the old essays. Equally, the new routes like Rock Idol, Mars and Double Diamond felt like worthy additions and were reminders of great climbing days.
Cuillin lovers will read the two chapters on The Great Prow and Vulcan Wall. The Great Prow at VS is at the low end of the grades covered in the book but check out the fantastic photo by Ian Parnell of the 3rd pitch. Vulcan Wall is a worthy inclusion indeed and the accompanying essay by Kevin Howett sums things up nicely; “Vulcan Wall is a yardstick that defines national quality. It’s position high on Scotland’s Alpine spine, it’s rough, clean rock, it’s varied moods and stunning outlook cannot be bettered by many climbs in it’s grade.”
Books of lists will always be contentious but this only adds to their interest and appeal. The new version has 63 routes (57 in the original) which mainly vary between VS to E2 but with a couple in the E3-4 range. Perhaps not the type of book to be read all at once but one to delve into, to savour.
Ultimately history and the public’s purchasing power will define the success of Ian Parnell and Vertebtate’s tour de force which has dragged a nearly 50 year old book screaming into the new century. The eagle eyed might spot the odd mistake but to my mind the team deserve 100% praise for a potentially contentious job that has been performed nigh on perfectly.
Compiled by Ken Wilson
Originally published in 1978, “Classic Rock” has become one of the most enduring standard works of climbing literature. It’s publishing history spans Granada, Grafton, Diadem, Baton Wicks and now Vertebrate.
It is a long standing volume that has always been there, at least for climbers of my age. Classic Rock does exactly what it says and has always been the most achievable of the trilogy which include Hard and Extreme Rock.
Having just reviewed and been super impressed by Vertebrate’s update to Hard Rock it was only natural to check out the second edition of “Classic Rock.” In many ways the first edition was a timeless classic and although it had a couple of revisions and reprints it was essentially the same book. I’ve still got the first edition with it’s black and white photos and treasure it as a book very much of it’s era.
In fact, so much do I like the first edition that when Baton wicks produced a second edition in 2007 I didn’t show much interest. Sure, I perused it in the shops but now that I have a copy I can see it is a worthy addition to the first edition rather than a replacement.
The new edition has obviously sold well, being reprinted by Baton Wicks in 2013 and 2020 now as an imprint of Vertebrate. In many ways it is a more rounded work with contemporary photos as well as black and white photos dug from archives. Nice to see Norman Collie and Naismith featuring alongside Ashley Abraham, Haskett Smith and Harold Raeburn, to name a few.
The second edition has been totally transformed by the use of 400 colour photos both of the cliffs and climbers in action. Napes Needle, quite rightly, features large with an interesting selection of modern colour photos balanced by a classic essay by Paul Nunn and an account of the first ascent by Haskett Smith. This is a typical chapter and reflects the design of the second edition. Original tales by distinguished writers/climbers, historical photos, first ascent details and a range of photos illustrate each climb.
According to the dust wrapper blurb, “Classic Rock describes and vividly depicts eighty of the finest lower grade rock climbs in Britain…such routes retain much of their original challenge unsullied by the pitons and bolts often found on their continental equivalents. They take bold, logical lines up otherwise difficult cliffs usually cleaned and stabilised by years of use……….Britain’s traditional rock climbs, particularly the early pioneering ones, can now be seen as a great national treasure – a repository of adventure and spectacle that can provide a lifetime’s enjoyment and challenge.”
The book provides a nationwide extravaganza of some of the best lower grade climbs in the UK. It can serve as a tick list to aim for or as a memory of routes climbed, adventures enjoyed. Just flicking through brings back memories of sun drenched Cornish rock (Demo Route and Doorpost) and cream teas. Trips on the SS Oldenburg to Lundy (The Devil’s Slide). Weekends away in the Lake District (Little Chamonix, Troutdale Pinnacle and Napes Needle). Bivis out in caves at Stanage (Flying Buttress) and trips to North Wales (Milestone Direct, Hope, Grey Slab, Flying Buttress and Main Wall. I can recall epic routes on Lliewedd and weekends spent in a bunkhouse below Craig Cywarch and climbing “Will-O The Wisp.”
A significant percentage of the climbs are in Scotland and these trigger memories of the CIC Hut (Tower Ridge), Cairngorm granite (Savage Slit) and, of course the Cuillin which gets two chapters. Paul Brian writes about Cioch Direct, Arrow Route and Integrity. Perhaps the writing is of it’s time and it’s a gripping read but perhaps not the most diplomatically written. The chapter opens with, “Viewed objectively, Skye is a pretty unpleasant place. The pubs, like the people are dour and unwelcoming. The midges, irksome at the best of times, reach unbelievable levels of malevolence in July and August. Even the petrol dispensing machine in Broadford is of dubious morality and keeps the odd coin for itself. The Cuillin is a ragged chaos of broken black rocks. Nobody could call it beautiful.” Once the author gets on to the grippy quality of gabbro then his views change and the Cioch is “surely the finest luncheon spot in the country. Apart from the exhilarating situation, the place reeks of history. The flat surface seems designed for the concave bottoms of Bouvier bottles and the tapping out of Meerschaum pipes.”
Quite rightly, the Cuillin Ridge gets a chapter to itself. Ted Maden details it’s history before outlining his epic solo traverse in 1976 when he ends up benighted. “I spent the night - feet in my rucksack – head in my cagoule- bawling songs into the darkness and glimpsing occasional stars. And so this traverse, snatched from the end of the season, and pushed despite being benighted, had become an adventure and that is what climbing is about.”
The acknowledgements section sums up the book well; “Classic Rock, first published in 1978, relied on a cadre of skilled photographers, writers, wordsmiths and mountaineering experts. The original articles remain both readable and relevant.”
A classic book has received a modern make over to carry it forward into a new century. I’ve no idea if Vertebrate has any plans afoot but if I were them I’d be thinking about both a reprint and updated of “Extreme Rock” and a third edition of “Classic Rock” both done in the style of the recently published “Hard Rock.” That really would be a trilogy of classics.
This is a book, a tick list of adventures to be had and one that should be achievable by many climbers prepared to travel the length and breadth of the land. The second edition is much more user friendly with extra routes, “Other Worthwhile Climbs” and a lot of extra information. It’s well worth getting whether you are a climber just starting off or an old hand who already owns a well thumbed and treasured first edition.
The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland
Vertebrate Publishing have recently launched a new edition of Hard Rock, one of the Ken Wilson trilogy along with Classic and Extreme Rock, which set the benchmark for coffee table tick list climbing books. This trilogy set the standard with iconic photos linked to gripping tales often by well known climbers at the top of their sport.
Few authors/publishers have dared to try and meet the Ken Wilson benchmark, fewer still have succeeded but “The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland” certainly takes up the baton and gives Ken a good run for his money. This volume is more than just a “puerile ticklist” in fact it isn’t even that. The authors concentrate on the crags themselves rather than routes so it feel like a more well rounded book with a wider appeal to anyone interested in the best wild and rocky places that Scotland has to offer.
In some ways, the climbing on these fantastic mountain crags is a bit of a back water. Individual climbs may have been written up in the SMC’s journals, magazine articles or blogs but the whole genre of mountain crags deserves a greater audience and this is the book to kick start that. With amazing photos and absorbing reading, this book will appeal to both the hardcore climber with ambitions to explore and the armchair mountaineer.
As a publisher this must have been a huge and expensive project for Vertebrate. It’s a huge book, full of beautiful photos. Due to the diligence of the compilers, authors and publishers, the book explores a grand landscape and does so in a grand style. A large format, coffee table style allows space for big photos and larger than life tales, tall stories and poems.
Wheras in the Wilson trilogy, the routes are very much the stars, here the crags get top bill which is a refreshing change. On the dustwrapper it says, “This is a book for anyone with an interest in Scotland’s wild places, where the mountains and cliffs, rather than the climbs, take centre stage, transporting the reader far from towns and cities and deep into the wilderness. The crags are the tallest, steepest and most majestic in the British Isles.”
As a photographer, the quality of the images throughout the book are superb. From set piece landscapes by to adrenaline climbing shots, the photos are well chosen and stunning examples. Photos vary from shots taken during arduous climbing conditions (Pg 78 showing Rob Jarvis enveloped in spindrift), to stunning climbing shots (Pg 23 with Dave MacLeod on an E7) then there’s an amazing array of landscape photos. Top shots by top photographers including Dave Cuthbertson and Colin Threlfall.
The book is divided by geography into four sections; South West, North West Highlands, The Islands and The Cairngorms & Central Highlands. Each section is sub divided into an initial poem, an introduction to the area by a leading protagonist. Next come chapters on selected crags. Thus the Islands section has 7 crags, 3 of which are in the Cuillin. There are chapters on “The Great Prow, Bla Bheinn,” “Sgurr Mhich Choinnich North Face” and “East Buttress, Sron na Ciche.”
The whole book is linked together not just by the mountain crag theme but each section commences with a poem by Stuart B. Campbell. This was an inspired decision by the compilers who acknowledge, “Stuart B. Campbell’s rich verse provides the perfect lyrical glue for the book, and each of his four pieces draws on and adds to the text that follows.”
The SW Highland section’s poem opens with
“Failte! Welcome, to Bargain Land
where you’ll always get more
than what you reckoned for.
aye, ye’ll pay for it, alright, but
it won’t be all right; you’ll pay for it
with the small change of
frozen-stiff fingers; bivis to die in;
midge infested nostrils.
- and not just once; get this,
it’s on the never-never, this is the life
-long never ever paid off mortgage;
it’s the Faustian pact for a fantasy route.”
Each crag gets a similar treatment and is written by someone with an emotional attachment to the place. The format is the same for each crag; an introductory page with a photo and text subdivided by headings of “The Place,” “The Cliff” and “The Climbing” and “The Routers.” Choice photos fit carefully with the text and finally there is “The Story,” which might be a gripping tale of a first ascent, an historic connection with the crag. Typical is Grant Farquhar’s chapter on “The Great Prow, Bla Bheinn, Skye.” It kicks off with childhood memories of a five year old’s first visit to Skye, there follows a bit about mythology, legend and midges. “The Cliff” gets described as is “The Climbing” then three routes from HVS to E5 are described. “The Story” then follows, an account of the first ascent in 1997 of an E5 that was to be named “Finger in the Dyke.”
The writing throughout the book is all superb and it would be hard to pick any to high light. The compilers have done a fantastic effort prodding top notch climbers to write about their experiences. Thus, there are chapters by leading activists such as Nick Bulloch, Es Tressider, Simon Richardson and Blair Fyffe, to name but a few. Martin Moran and Andy Nisbet write chapters in the NW Highlands section and in a way the book encapsulates an era of high quality, exploratory climbing at the highest levels. It’s a fitting testament to these two prolific climbers who both died last year. In some ways the book encapsulates much of the ethos of Scottish climbing and serves as a counter to the dry guidebooks of days of yore when a major first ascent might just get a very brief description.
Coincidence or not but much about the same time as this book arrived, Robert sent a review copy of Julian Line’s “Tears of the Dawn.” It’s a biography and a totally different book to The Great Crags but it’s right up with there with the best climbing literature ever written. Thus, it was good to see Julian had written the chapter on “Central Gully Wall, Craig An Dubh Loch.” It really puts things into perspective having the words of a good writer alongside some quality images.
In many ways this is the perfect coffee table genre book. It fleshes out the landscape, the climbers and is a smorgasbord to be sampled at will, a book to be delved into and one that not just celebrates the crags but inspires for future adventures. It certainly lives up to the precedents set by Ken Wilson and to my mind is better for the more cragcentric rather than tick list approach. Note I haven’t seen the newly released edition of Hard Rock with new photos and stories which does look as if it combines the best bits of the original with colourful new photos.
Andy Cave wrote the Forward and I can think of no better summary than, “marvel at the images, savour the mystery of the great cliffs and dream of great days past and future.”
When I was getting into photography, Alex Nail's photos of Dartmoor, where I then lived, were an inspiration. I remember reading about famous photographers like Galen Rowell whose pictures were fantastic but always rather distant and remote to someone trapped in Okehampton. Alex’s photos of the moor were something I could directly relate to and as such he was a big influence.
Before Christmas, Alex contacted me and asked if he put an advert for his newly published book on ATC. Having heard lots of good things about the book, knowing how widely travelled Alex was (especially in Scotland) and the book’s title of “Northwest”, I rather flippantly replied, “of course, it’s bound to have some Cuillin photos in.” You know what they say about never assume anything but my take was that the book covered north west Scotland and that Alex’s reputation as a wilderness photographer meant the inclusion of Skye was a given.
In fact, Northwest refers to the north west highlands and more particularly to “a band of Lewisian Gneiss topped with Torridonian Sandstone” that runs up the west coast from Glen Carron to Cape Wrath. Being in a bit of a quandary since it obviously had no Cuillin connection, I decided that a review could be done in good faith since there are a lot of beautiful mountain photos, many were taken from high, wild camps and there’s a lot of info cross transferable to any mountain environment. More importantly for me it’s an inspirational book and I’d love to produce a similar volume about the Cuillin.
The fact that this review has appeared only days after the book arrived speaks hugely about my thoughts on it. The whole package is incredibly well designed and produced. Initial impression are good when the cardboard packaging is opened to reveal the book sealed in brown paper. No plastic in sight and all easily recycled. A nice touch was the inclusion of Alex’s business card.
Alex is known for his strong views on photography and this self published project was the perfect chance to literally put his money where his mouth is, as they say. It’s a specialist book, the production oozes quality and can’t have been cheap. It’s only too easy to produce yet another Scottish landscape photography book of hackneyed locations with over Photoshopped images to pile high in book shops.
Northwest is a personal project and as such Alex had the leeway to exactly what he wanted, things mainstream publishers may have constrained or vetoed. Thus the book is fairly localised geographically (perhaps geologically would be a better word), most photos were taken over a three year period and in essence the work is unfinished since time and weather don’t always play ball.
First impressions are crucial and the cloth binding is subtle and understated, almost a metaphor for the unadulterated photos inside. The binding seems to be optimal, allowing the book to be laid open yet magically springing back afterwards. The photos are stunning not just in content but in the print quality. Apparently the first print run was a disaster with the whole lot being scrapped due to problems with the paper. Whilst this must have been stressful for Alex, it did mean he had printed proofs of the work and the opportunity to rejig files to perfection for the reprinting. Potential disaster was transformed into a blessing in disguise and the resulting book reflects this.
There is a forward by Chris Townsend, backpacker extordinaire and the BMC’s Hillwalking Ambassador. Later in the book, Alex admits he was a photographer first, and backpacker second but now feels he is a fully fledged member of “both tribes.” The amount of physical effort put into getting the photos certainly endorses this, with many locations being visited multiple times under adverse conditions.
With it’s powerful images and text, the book acts like a TARDIS and transports the viewer/reader from their desk or living room to a vivid mountainscape. Hardships are shared as the striving for good light continues. The book is divided into 4 geographic chapters, each with a Tolkinesque map of the area.
As expected, the photos are epic but what gripped me was the compelling writing, short chapters on background to the experience. The one entitled “ A Lesson On An Teallach”, is particularly good and as the two photographers are battered by the winds in their fragile tent it is only too easy to envisage their vulnerability. Next morning, the weather looks doom and gloom but they press on and Alex gets one of the most atmospheric photos in the book. As they return to their tent which has been destroyed by the wind, it’s all too easy to see how close to the edge they’d been the previous night.
Lots of photographers are obsessed by gear and maybe Alex could have included details of his preferred gear but this might have cluttered up the focus of the book. Alex has lots of informative articles on his website about photography and wild camping and it’s well worth checking out
Northwest is pivotal book that welds together the genres of landscape photography and mountain photography but also backpacking and full blown mountaineering, into a seamless mix that does full justice to the magnificent area it covers.
Northwest costs £36 plus postage and I wish Alex well selling the first printing of books. I’m sure further volumes will follow.
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