Book review: The Hard Years – Joe Brown

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History has always been important to me. Knowing how countries became the places they are today, uncovering the mysteries of past lives, and realising that in most things little changes with time but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unusually however, I knew incredibly little about the history of climbing, despite being involved in the activity for over a decade. Moving in with my mountain-man of a boyfriend, I wasn’t surprised to find a whole bookcase emerge in our living room filled entirely with climbing-related books, guides, maps, and autobiographies. When it was established that I knew precious little about Britain’s mountain past, I was immediately given a pile of ‘homework’ – 6 or 7 publications that were key to unlocking the history of climbing in this country.

I’d read Jerry Moffatt’s Revelations last year of my own accord, and closed it feeling motivated and psyched to train hard and become the climber I could be. To be honest, I didn’t actually change my habits at all, but it’s important for anyone involved in a physical activity to fill your mind with people who have done it and succeeded, if only to remind you that it is worthwhile. Similarly, Lynn Hill’s Climbing Free encouraged me that it was okay to not enjoy spending weeks in freezing conditions on dangerous mountains – being interested solely in sport climbing is just as valid, and Lynn became an exceptional climber by sticking to what she enjoyed.

So upon opening Joe Brown’s The Hard Years I was looking forward to going back to where climbing began in the UK, pre- and post-war culture changing people’s mentalities but ultimately leading to the freedom to explore the mountains close to us. My first impression of the book was – and not necessarily negatively – that it was evident Joe had had little or no help in writing it, and as such the style of writing itself was incredibly simplistic. However, who says that an autobiography needs to be great ‘literature’? Particularly in the sporting world, the emphasis is on the activity not the ability to write – portraying the complexities and emotions without over complicating the sensations. Seeing as the book was also first published in 1967, I told my editorial brain to be quiet and enjoy the stories between the pages.

Joe Brown’s is a remarkable story – starting out as a young lad from Manchester, wearing hobnail boots and with nothing to guide him but a slightly bored sense adventure. It’s exciting to think that the ever-growing sport of climbing started from such humble origins, where technical products were long from being invented, and men went out with washing lines in a vague attempt at safety, mindful only of the next hidden crag and newly formed route. Reading the difficulty levels of the climbs they attempted with today’s mind set is a little odd – the routes they tried of the Severe grade would now easily be considered straight forward beginner routes. But back in the day they were at the cutting edge of what was and wasn’t possible, and present an important part of British history. Continue reading

Embracing An Extended Summer

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This year I’ve spent a large proportion of my Spring and Summer climbing down at Swanage – I got stuck into a 7a (Peppercorn Rate), enjoyed the picturesque walk-in, and of course regularly stopped at the Square & Compass for a well-earned drink. But recently I’ve returned to Portland. After the havoc the January storms played on the cliffs, it was with somewhat dainty steps that I trod the approaches, but was welcomed back with quality limestone and incredible views. And more sunburn than I would’ve expected for a British September.

Embracing the good weather this weekend, even postponing by a day to let a night-time storm break at least some of the humidity, it was time to venture back to Blacknor Central. This time, I had a few BattleOats for crag food. A relatively new company based in East Yorkshire, they boast that “snacking never tasted so awesome!” with their gluten-free, high protein, British oats bars. Generously they sent me their two flavours – Cranberry & Blueberry, and Dark Chocolate Chip – to test out, and I was very grateful to receive them in time to accompany me to the coast.

My first impression of these new bars with their exciting name was they are very chunky! In fact, part of me wondered if they might be too big. I often find that flapjacks can be stodgy, and in general I’ve stopped eating them as I just feel a bit sick and stuffed afterwards. After a walk-in that I still find a little hairy, a long belay session as the other half worked his route, and a shamefully poor performance on what should have been an incredibly easy warm-up, I thought it was time to try out one of them. I cracked open the Cranberry & Blueberry, and was surprised to find the oats to be light, with a slightly biscuit texture. The normal greasiness you get on your hands after a standard flapjack wasn’t there, and even the fruity bits weren’t overly sugared as you often find; it definitely helped to shake the disappointment of my last climb. Whether it was the extra energy from the bar (1197kJ, 9g Fibre, 15.4g Protein), or just the fact that the blazing sun was momentarily hidden by clouds, but I ended the session getting most of the way up an awesome 7b+ (Cocteau Phenomena) without finding any of the moves especially hard. Well, we’ll see if some stamina training can knock that one together soon..!

As well as trying out some new crag food, I treated myself to a rucksack in anticipation of a trip to Spain I’ve got planned in a few weeks time. I’d tried the Osprey Tempest 30 back in January and really liked its fit, lightweight frame, and handy pockets and pouches, but was put off by the fact that it was currently only being sold in fuchsia pink. I don’t think I’ve been a ‘pink’ girl since I was under 10, so was a bit sad to see no other options. However thankfully Cotswold Outdoor now stock the bag in Storm Grey, which just looks a lot cooler with sky blue accents. On first trip with it today I’m already in love with it – super comfortable, easy to adjust, and has far more space than my old Lowe Alpine 32l one (yes, I know, the Osprey is technically 2 litres smaller… but it really isn’t). So all in all, a good day with great testing success!!

Driving home – and navigating as far away from the M27/M3 junction as possible due to numerous accidents and hold ups – I tucked into the Dark Chocolate Chip BattleOats bar and was again pleased to find that it wasn’t sickly or over-processed. The chips were chunky and well dispersed, and the bar itself has a great buttery flavour. It’s been a great few weeks back at Portland, and will be only postponed by a birthday weekend at Stanage next week. There’s still lots to get stuck into whilst this weather remains glorious!

Learning the London Life

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I’ve now been commuting to London for 2 months. It’s tiring, it’s expensive, and it’s not that much fun. But this morning whilst my elbows were pinned to my sides as I slid into the middle seat, I thought about how amusing it can be too. It’s not always miserable, and you can find yourself completely lost in either your book, your music, or the subtle absurdities around you. Below are five observations I’ve made about the experience of commuting, and that these realisations, once accepted, make it just a little bit more bearable.

 

  1. You’ll be exhausted & energised.
    Getting a train, queueing, inevitably running faster than you did during your year 6 sprint on sports day. You’ll get home knackered, pretty sweaty, and dreading the next morning. But that will lead you to desperately want fresh air and proper exercise – at least, that’s what I’ve found. My desire to climb and escape to the country has only been heightened by my new daily commute. You appreciate open spaces a lot more, feel more driven to spend time with loved ones, and embrace weekends of adventure – anything to counteract the looming new week.

 

  1. A smile really does go a long way.
    It’s 8:30am, everyone’s still half asleep, and the train is crowded. A shared laugh with a fellow passenger at having to sit on the floor definitely sets the day up better. Laughing at the mutual frustration of cancellations. Realising that you’re all in the same boat… carriage… and at the end of the day, let’s fight Britishness and engage with one another. It will make you feel a lot better for it, and hopefully you’ll make someone else’s day too.

 

  1. You’ll realise you need to go the gym. And fast.
    I hate the ‘commuter run’. I much prefer to plan my day and decide what train I’m getting beforehand. But every now and then I realise that if I’m a little bit quicker, I can get the one that will see me home 15minutes earlier. So before I know it I’m bobbing and weaving through Waterloo, skidding on my non-gripping shoes, and feeling a little bit like a spy chasing down a target. However when I collapse through the doors in a red-faced heap, it’s somewhat embarrassing to see that I – a relatively slim and healthy young woman – am in no better state that the slightly more paunchy, suited businessman twice my age. Hmmm…. time to hit the treadmill!

 

  1. Rain makes it worse.
    In general, I don’t complain about the weather. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” – and that has proved correct 99% of the time. However, rain does make commuting a much more unpleasant experience. You start the day shivering on the platform, weighing up the benefits of hiding under the awning versus waiting in the wet to get that elusive seat. Then you end up squished in a carriage that has become musty and humid from all the damp bodies, and your shivering turns to a slick sheen which won’t leave you until 3pm when you finally dry off, and have just 2 hours of relative comfort before doing it all again. Not to mention umbrellas – practical outside, unwieldy, unexpected weapons in the carriage that will inevitably end up soaking your trousers and dripping into your shoes.

 

  1. People watching is the best past-time.
    I have already found my regulars. The tall guy who will place himself menacingly next to the door so you know there is no way he’ll let you get to the seat first. The rather attractive red-headed lady who spends her wait on the platform dextrously doing her nails whilst juggling at least two bags. The woman who enters the train bare-faced and sleepy, and leaves with movie-star glamour that I couldn’t achieve using paint-by-numbers, let alone on a wobbly journey. People watching is one of life’s great free attractions, and when you find yourself matching other people’s daily routines, you can’t help but begin to watch and predict to see what happens next.

The Power of the Pause

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As a theatre type I’ve been acquainted with the pause for a long time. The works of Harold Pinter are testament to the way a desperately intense 10 seconds of silence can make or break a performance. A hesitation between two “I love yous” can mean anything from an overwhelming sense of ecstasy to a sudden desire for the ground to swallow you up. The pause is definitely a powerful thing. But I’ve recently come to discover how a physical hiatus can be just as useful, constructive, and beneficial in every way – when it occurs at the right time.

I started this year with the best of intentions; to lead1 climb 7a again, and start to really live the lifestyle I’ve wanted, climbing hard, exploring and travelling, and learning more about myself. Unfortunately, part of that training saw me slip a disc back in February, and the subsequent months weren’t as ‘crush’-filled2 as I’d hoped. It was incredibly difficult to stay motivated, especially as it’d been a year since my last back injury. But I ticked on, and didn’t seem to get much worse, which at the time was the best I could hope for. However, the thing that always happens to me is my head gets in the way. As I began to climb harder and hone my technique whilst carefully easing my back, the amount of thought going into each climb saw me drifting away from my instincts and over thinking each move. Not great, when you haven’t been leading for a while and are suddenly frozen in fear on indoor routes. So it’s been a slow year of the plateau, without much to encourage any more dedication or training, and just hoping to remain uninjured once everything returned to its rightful place.

The summer was set to be a busy one – dissertation deadlines, final shows, weddings, birthdays, graduation, and my sister setting off on her travels. So I didn’t expect to get much climbing in either. I was still managing to get to the top of 7as whilst on a toprope3, and these routes weren’t feeling particularly difficult, but they weren’t feeling particularly easy either. A finger tendon scare made me even more over-cautious, and the newly taped digit didn’t exactly boost my psyche4 levels. Then July hit and life got exciting – five days after graduating I landed a full-time job. I hit the ground running, commuting 9-5 to London, working in an office, and learning the true meaning of “starting on the bottom rung”. Combine that with a family holiday, and trying to get my bearings in this new life, and a whole month went by without me barely touching plastic, let alone my beloved coastal crags. I didn’t even notice, and to shake any lethargy went to my old favourite of Davina workout DVDs in my living room after work. Continue reading

Book review: The Sea Sisters

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Often I find my everyday life affected by the books I am reading – caught up in other emotions, imagining what the characters are doing between the pages. This time, it was the other way around. My current life seemed to make the book more poignant, more intense, and nearly had me crying on the train. In a much happier way to Lucy Clarke’s The Sea Sisters, my own big sister leaves on Monday for 18 months of round the world travelling with her husband. As the weeks have led up to their departure, I’ve been torn between excitement for them, and sadness that we’ll miss such a huge chunk of each other’s lives. Having gained a full time job so quickly after graduation, I didn’t get the sister-filled summer I’d been hoping for. But I know that when they get back we’ll be closer than ever, with so much more big life to plan together…

The Sea Sisters is really two stories intertwined – 24year old Mia sets off on her own spontaneous, self-finding travels, and her big sister Katie follows her path with the aid of a journal 18 months later. The way the narratives mirror each other isn’t repetitive, but lets us into the intimate details of sisterhood, the darkness of grief, and the wild anticipation of searching the world for a place to belong. The kind of books that tackle difficult subjects and complicated relationships always have the potential to be overly sweet, a bit too fluffy, or in your face. Clarke manages to capture the essence of sibling rivalry and love, the never-ending frustration with one another, and the devastation of tragedy without belittling or over-dramatising the events. Instead, we get a human story of two people who barely know each other, yet have spent their lives together, and over the course of months, tears, and diary pages Katie learns so much more than she ever thought she could. I found myself flitting between the words on the page and my own fears, laughs, and quirks I share with my own sister – the power to make readers relate is something every author longs to achieve, and Clarke has done so with delicacy and art.

But this book isn’t just about sisterly conflict. It depicts a round the world trip that’s kicked my wanderlust into full gear and made me even more jealous of the upcoming adventures. The descriptions of countries, people, food, and of course numerous beaches made my cold train journeys disappear into sandy coves, bright sunshine seeping through my raincoat. It is with its simplicity that Clarke manages to capture the girls’ expeditions – it’s not a travel guide, but it is able to summon up sights and smells of places I’ve never been near, with the honesty of someone who understands what it’s like to be in an unknown yet beautiful country.

Perhaps I’m feeling more sentimental and nostalgic at the moment, but The Sea Sisters was an unexpected gem. It’s the kind of book I’ll now insist on buying in paperback so it can adorn my bursting shelves, and one day I’ll inevitably take it on holiday just so I can enjoy and sun-bleach its pages. But despite my over-emotional response, this is at its core solid storytelling, drawing you in and urging you to turn the page, read Mia’s journal with Katie, and discover a little more of yourself in the process.

Brits attempt the Matterhorn during awful season

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This summer has seen the worst conditions on the Matterhorn in 60 years, with storms, more snow than should ever fall in July, and all-round bad omens for hikers, climbers, and skiers alike. Last month, at the time oblivious to these ominous circumstances, British climbers Simon Chevis and Jez Wingate set out with the goal of reaching the summit in a weekend. Usually, the Hörnli Ridge Route is a relatively easy adventure, but the pair were to face some of their hardest winter conditions yet.

Clear skies ahead on the way up. © Jez Wingate

Clear skies ahead on the way up.
© Jez Wingate

On a spur of the moment booking, Simon (who represented GB in four rounds of the 2013 Ice Climbing World Cup) and Jez (a highly capable and experienced all-round climber) booked flights to Geneva with the aim of standing atop the Matterhorn. Not for any particular technical challenge, just more of a weekend adventure and to get the tick. Neither have climbed at significant altitude previously, but both are fit and healthy climbers and mountaineers, and the Hörnli Ridge was a reasonable objective. Aware that their timescale – leave on the Friday, summit, return on Saturday, and relax – wouldn’t allow for altitude, they figured it was still worth it to give it a go, and a little suffering wouldn’t do them any harm. Being a completely reversible route too, they were confident that should the worst happen, they’d be able to escape relatively easily.

The trip began well, arriving in Tasch in the early hours of Friday morning, and after a night in the car the team got the cable car to Schwartzsee for their 2 hour hike to the Hörnli Hut itself. From the off, the conditions were not ideal – relatively clear skies made for beautiful pictures, but the amount of snow underfoot was a picture of what was to come. After some time to sit and re-kit, they began their climb proper at 1pm on Friday 25th July, aiming to be at the Solvay Hut by 5pm, slightly overcompensating the guidebook ETA of 2 hours.

Thus began an epic 48 hours. The fixed ropes at the beginning of the route made route finding easy, and these pre-determined paths combined with straight forward soloing along the ridge were what was to be expected. Breathlessness and fatigue were setting in, already signs of the altitude they’d so hastily moved through, but nothing that couldn’t be handled with some camaraderie and bravado. As Simon and Jez continued to move upwards through waist-deep powder snow, the way began to increase in difficulty as belay bolts and abseils were hidden in the banks, and any goat tracks were smoothed over by white. It became apparent that the route was longer than anticipated, and their pace was slowing down – Jez was falling behind, something that was out of character for either climber, and indicated how much the altitude was taking effect. Sections they were soloing at times were up to HS/VS, showing obvious drifts off route and they tried in vain to follow crampon scratches and polish. The easier linking sections between scrambles were altogether invisible, and after many hours more than was healthy, Jez continued to deteriorate. It was clear that they should retreat, but having gone so far already, to turn back would mean another 6 hours descent in the dark. The judgement call was to continue to push for the Solvay Hut, which surely wouldn’t be too far, and once there they’d be warm, dry, and able to regroup. Continue reading

(Belated) Review: Avenue Q

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I’d heard a lot of good things about Avenue Q, and had caught a glimpse or two on various television showcases, but hadn’t yet had the chance to experience it for myself. So this year’s UK tour brought to us by the Sell-A-Door company (and directed by Cressida Carré)  was to hit very close to home at Guildford’s GLive, giving me no excuse to miss it again. And I’m very glad I didn’t let it pass me by, for it turned out to be one of the best laugh-out-loud musicals I have ever seen.

Whilst very much a Sesame Street for grownups, the premise of Avenue Q is relatively simple – new guy turns up in the neighbourhood, trying to find his way, inevitably gets led astray (not least of all by the hysterical ‘Bad Idea Bears’), and slowly but surely becomes accepted and a part of the tight-knit bunch of misfits. With a mixture of musical genius (courtesy of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) which have you singing along as you skip out of the auditorium, cleverly simplistic set by Richard Evans, and fantastic puppetry, both actors and characters are in full view of their ever-attentive audience, and use this exposure to their highest advantage.

Princeton (Tom Steedon) is fresh out of university with a BA in English (ouch!!), and finds his way from Avenues A to P before finding affordable accommodation in good old Avenue Q. The girl next door is the surprisingly furry Kate Monster, played incredibly by Lucy-Mae Sumner. The innovation behind Avenue Q is not hiding that the puppets are puppets, and having the puppeteers in full view of everyone, whilst they too go through the emotions of their felt counter-parts. And Sumner was superb in portraying the innocent yet volatile Kate, as well as the saucy, and er… bouncy, Lucy the Slut, which highlighted not just great sex-appeal, but a phenomenal voice that I’m so pleased was duly accredited. Another encounter on the avenue was Trekkie Monster; reclusive, perverse, but somehow lovable oddball on the end of the row, who Stephen Arden had down to such a tee I was desperately trying to stay focused on everyone else.

With songs like “Everyone’s a (L)Rittle bit (R)Lacist” and “The Internet is for Porn”, this is most definitely an adults-only puppet show, but one which you’ll be dying to watch again and again. Relatable, memorable, and downright deplorable, Avenue Q is without a doubt a spectacle and a cheeky treat for everyone over the age of 18. See it, love it, and don’t tell the kids… or perhaps your parents.

 

For the latest tour dates, check out the Avenue Q UK Tour website.