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.
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.
Nick Bullock’s second book had a lot to live up to after the gritty realism and success of his first volume, Echoes. Many writers seem to have one good book in them but to produce an equally good sequel is always a challenge. Echoes finished with Nick leaving prison as a free man, his life as a warder over, his mortgage paid off and thus able to devote himself to climbing.
Personally, I was eagerly anticipating the second book which takes up where Echoes left off. A similar, short and to the point title, Tides suggests exactly what the story is about; Nick’s life changes to one regulated by the time of year, the changing seasons and places, different climbing partners, everything is fluid much like the coming and going of the sea.
Tides is a very honest exposure of the life of the dirt bag climbing life style. There are great portraits of fellow climbers including some of the best on the planet; Kenton Cool, James McHaffie and Andy Houseman to name but three.
The routes climbed are world class, many verging on the serious to fatal end of the seriousness scale. Serious rock climbs like Gogarth’s The Bells! The Bells! And Denali’s Slovak Direct are amongst a host of notable climbs graphically depicted.
Tides enhances and continues Nick’s writing reputation and spans 2003-16. Split into lots of short chapters, a lot of ground is covered and this is both a strength and a weakness. It makes for compelling reading but does leave me wishing to know more about each story.
Tides is an ebbing and flowing story as Nick lives the life of a migratory climber, mimicking the journeys of the fauna (and flora) he so ably describes. In a way it’s a selfish life and he is brutally honest and sincere in his writing especially about himself and his chosen life style. His fears and phobia, hopes and dreams are all examined with introspective detail. It is very much a book of high highs and low lows, of success on remote climbs, deaths and accidents.
One small criticism is the cover design. I love the artwork by Tessa Lyons but think the book would attract a wider audience with a more climbing centred design. The art and title work superbly for those who know Nick and who and what he is but the writing definitely deserves a wider audience.
Ten out of ten for this book by a climber, for climbers but also for anyone after a gripping read from a talented athlete at the cutting edge. Also a good metaphor for living the dream and that it’s never too late to achieve what you want.
Two new photo books from Vertebrate Publishing
Craig Aitchison, Landscape Photographer
Nadir Khan, Extreme Sport Photographer
Recently Vertebrate Publishing kindly sent me two books for reviewing;
Extreme Scotland by Nadir Khan
Wild Light by Craig Aitchison
Both are large, beautifully produced volumes each with a subtitle explaining it’s content. Thus Nadir’s is “A photographic journey through Scottish adventure sports” and Craig’s gets the simple “Scotland’s Mountain landscape”.
Two stunning but very different books, the only common ground being photography and Scotland. Both volumes are long term projects that have come to fruition; Wild Light took seven years and Extreme Scotland was similarly shot over many years. One genre requires infinite patience for the right light, the other needs split second timing to capture a moment in extremity.
Nadir is a member of All Things Cuillin and has dropped in at Sconser so we have met, albeit all too briefly. His passion for photography and Scotland oozes from every pore in his body and that shines through in the book.
Scrambling and climbing are covered but also running, surfing, mountain biking and more. As Hamish MacInnes says in the forward, “all the major outdoor disciplines are here.”
Personally, this was a book I had been looking forward to reading and, as hoped, it included some of Nadir’s well known photos but also a range of new shots. Much of his work will be familiar from big name adverts. There are a lot of photos taken in the Cuillin which forms the perfect backdrop be it for gear adverts or extreme sports. The fish eye shot of Guy Steven and Lee Fleming on Sgurr Alasdair is breath taking and encompasses a vista from the Red Cuillin and Bla Bheinn, the end of the Cuillin Ridge and Coir a Ghrunnda with the sea beyond. Cloud perfectly frames the photo and light picks out the brightly clad climbers.
The book gets off to a good start with a nice forward by Hamish MacInnes and Nadir’s photos are buttressed by chapters written by big name climbers like Nick Bullock and Tom Livingstone. There are poems by Elana Bader and Nadir writes about composition and gear choice.
The format works well with most of the words by others and Nadir’s photos but I couldn’t help feeling it would have been good to have a more solid body of writing by the author. It’s probably just me being a bit picky bit I’d like to know more about what makes Nadir tick. It is a photography book and I’d like to know more about each photo. Some are covered in detail but it would be nice to know more about the rest.
The chapters of writing and poems work well and compliment Nadir’s photography. Powerful words, powerful photos.”Ice Climbing” by David Canning, to my mind, worked really well with the words next to a wide angle shot of ice climbing on the Ben.
It was a shame that “Coire’N Uaigneis” by Stuart Campbell seems to have been accompanied by the wrong photo; although titled “Sgurr a Ghreadaidh, it’s clearly a shot looking down into Coir a Ghrunnda
I know Nadir has a long history with climbing photography and this shines through in the mountaineering shots which are world class. Some of the other sports covered seem a little added on as if to justify the all encompassing term “adventure sports”. The paddlesports and biking photos don’t quite reach the same quality as the mountaineering shots.
Overall though, I love the book and think it would be a worthy addition to any collection. Not only does it showcase an adventurous landscape but details some of the many sports that make the most of Scotland’s rugged environment. The photography is brilliant and ranges from wide panoramic views to close up details such as ice screws, guide book and a single malt in the CIC Hut.
Nadir writes about, “an image has to be the vessel for an emotional message, and that message has to connect with the viewer in a heartbeat, to draw them in and engage them.” The majority of his photos certainly do this in spades and the book is a fine testament to Nadir as an adventure photographer at the very top of his profession.
Whilst all Nadir’s photos were shot on digital, I believe, the work of Craig Aitchison is totally analogue, old school film, in other words. All were shot with the Hasselblad XPan and Fujichrome Velvia film. His website is entitled “Land & Light” and this sums up his ethos and exactly what his book is about.
His work is premeditated, pre planned as much as possible. Everything is taken into consideration; time of day, time of year, prevailing and forecast weather and much more. As he says, “ultimately the success of each image is down to all these elements coming together in the right place and at the right time. To achieve this, ground work and foresight is mandatory but luck always plays an important role in the creation of every image.” Obviously the more the photographer gets out, the better their chances of getting that elusive shot but it has to be said that Craig definitely deserves what some might call luck but others would put down mostly to determination and stamina.
Whilst Nadir might have had a big team effort, organising logistics, arranging highly capable athletes, his shoots were very much subject to the vagaries of the weather. Check out the conditions for shooting Ines Papert climbing The Hurting. The inclement weather adds to the photos, enhances the image. Craig,on the other hand, might have visited destinations many times to get the light and conditions he imagined and planed and hoped for.
Both photographers put in a huge effort both in advance planning and preparation but also once on location. One might be waiting for hours for the light to come good, clouds to lift or rain to stop, the other might be dangling on a thin rope, swinging in the wind and waiting for the crux moment of a climb. Similarities and differences but both masters of their own genres.
Craig’s book is very simple, a case of less is more. Basically, an introduction, the photos and a map of the locations. The photos stand alone with few words. Craig is renowned for his panoramas and the ones chosen for the book are all first rate.
The introduction is very well written and provides an insight into Craig, his motivation, planning, thought processes and gear but like Nadir’s book it only left me wanting to know more. Unlike Nadir, Craig’s gear is very simple; Hasselblad XPan, 3 prime lenses, Fujichrome Velvia 50 and presumably a sturdy tripod. No digital wizardry and minimal scope for post processing so simple and a case of getting the shot as close to perfect as possible in camera. This I can really relate to. I love using just a couple of prime lenses and time in the field is definitely preferable to time gazing at a computer screen. The XPan allows a full frame panoramic image of 24 by 65mm captured in a single frame so no complex stitching of shots, no distortion, no need to factor in fast changing light or conditions. It allows the purest possible panoramic capture and this is reflected by the quality of the images through out the book.
Craig has photos of many popular mountains but with the bonus of having shot them from less commonly visited viewpoints. This makes for interesting new vistas that can be thought provoking and makes a change from the many photographers simply rehashing jaded shots from must visit viewpoints.
If you are looking for a superbly produced, large format photo book about the Scottish mountain landscape then this should definitely be on your shortlist. My only disappointment was that despite it’s subtitle of “Scotland’s Mountain landscape” there are no photos shot on Skye which seems a glaring omission to my (biased) mind!
(As a small after thought, I am not too sure how well the larger panoramas spread over two pages work with the page fold/join being a very obvious impediment to enjoying the photo in it’s full glory. Some publishers use a “lay flat” technology where the panorama is much less disrupted by the book design and I’d love to see a large book of Craig’s work done in this style but guess it may be prohibitively expensive)
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