Friday, 8 December 2017

Ascent; a life spent climbing on the edge by Chris Bonington; read 28 November 2017


I am no climber, and never will be but have enjoyed, both vicariously and with envy, the adventures of Bonington though it is now over 30 years since I read Bonington's 'The Everest Years' that lead me to go on to read his other autobiographical works – 'I chose to Climb' and 'The Next Horizon'.  I was dubious whether a new autobiography would add much to what I had already read, other than to refresh my memory, especially as 'The Everest Years' had ended with the then 50-year-old author's summiting of Everest it was unlikely that age would bring greater adventures. How wrong I was.

Of course, there is familiarity in his re-telling the tales of the Eiger, Annapurna, K2, the Ogre and Everest adventures but not only did the author continue to climb in the Himalaya in his sixties and elsewhere – notably in Morocco - into his seventies (indeed the book opens with his climbing the Old Man of Hoy aged 80 in 2014) but this is also a more personal book than his earlier autobiographies.  There is much more here on the author's earlier life with many gaps filled in by his mother's unpublished autobiography.  The early unconventional (for the 1940s) family life is covered with honesty – his father's desertion and his mother's arguments with her own mother, her same sex relationship and attempted suicide are all here.  Also here is the story of his own long 1st marriage to Wendy and the support she gave not only to her often absent husband but also to the partners of the many climbers lost on expeditions – the roll call is long as Bonington, in reflective mood, notes that 'Four of the eight lead climbers on Annapurna's south face died in the mountains, all of them great friends. Of the four of us who climbed Kongur, I have been the only survivor for over thirty years, after Al Rouse died in 1986.'

As Bonington was a trailblazer for the professionalisation of Mountaineering in Britain – and one of the 1st to make a reasonably good living from it, not only has he been the face of Mountaineering in the British media for 50 years he has had to work to maintain that position in order to continue to earn his crust.  It was this logic that drove him to be a reporter covering the Eiger Direct climb and after a stint of photo-journalism covering Blashford-Snell's 1968 expedition that led him back to lead expeditions in the Himalayas in the 70s and early 80s.  In that time, the nature of the game changed from siege to Alpine style climbing and for most of this period Bonington was away from home and at the same time Bonington's fame, if not fortune, grew. When asked 'how I justified it when I had a wife and two sons. There is no justification; it was my thirst for adventure, undoubtedly selfish, that drove me on' Bonington is honest but I feel a little too hard on himself – after all he did need to earn his crust though undoubtedly his family paid a price.  With frank honesty he discusses that price that was paid as he chronicles his oldest surviving son's late teenage drug habit and run ins with the law.  This could be laid at the feet of an absent father but happily Joe is today himself a successful businessman in outdoor adventure so, perhaps, his father's influence has been more favourable than he credits.

The final chapters of this superb book are both poignant and inspirational.  They tell of the tragedy of the developing illness (MND) and  loss of his wife, Wendy and the intense grief that this brings but they also tell of the development of a new romance and that love is never closed no matter one's age.  This is an enthralling and inspirational book that should make anyone's Christams reading list – you don't need to be a climber , or even an outdoors person to enjoy it.  The final words I shall leave to Sir Christian Bonnington:

"What I wanted was to make every single day of my eighties mean something, get out and climb and walk, enjoy my grandchildren, keep working and make life as rich and exciting as it possibly can be."

Thursday, 9 November 2017

A Stockholm Microadventure

OK so staying in a hotel, even in an inexpensive one, hardly qualifies as a micro-adventure but what the heck I'm calling this short weekend trip just that.  With a dull autumn weekend forecast in Copenhagen I decided it was time to take the opportunity to travel further afield to explore Stockholm.  A cheap and short SAS flight could be had on a Friday night and the Arlanda express train (running every 15 mins or so) will transport you the 40-odd km from Stockholm Arlanda airport to the city centre in 20 minutes.  Booking.com found a relatively inexpensive stay at the Terminus hotel just 3 minutes' walk from the central train station. 



Arriving at 9 in the evening didn't leave a lot of time to explore on the Friday night but the centre of town is compact hence a short stroll through Gamla Stan (the original settlement at the centre of the modern city) and back to the hotel allowed me to get my bearings.  Having got my bearings I proceed to lose them a little by drinking 3 pints of local ale in the hotel bar – not realising until dealing with a Saturday morning headache that this tasty stuff was 6.5% ABV. I mention this as a warning to others.


I woke early on the Saturday as my guidebook said the Vasa museum was open from 0830.  A couple of paracetamol sorted the head whilst the hotel breakfast sorted the stomach.  My intention was to visit the Vasa Museum 1st of all so I set off at 0800 to walk to the water taxi pick up just outside the Royal Palace on Gamla Stan. Whoops it doesn't start to run until 1000 in winter months, never mind I would just walk to the Vasa Museum, OK I would miss opening time, well I thought I would, it turns out that in the winter months the museum opens at 1000 also – in fact it seems that 1000 was becoming a theme.  Never mind the walk was fine along Strandvegan with its sumptuous houses providing a fine back drop until I reached the Vasa museum – still 45 minutes too soon.  A visit to the public toilets whilst waiting cost me twice what it should whilst I waited for the museum to open as I chose not to use the 1st cubicle I had paid for given the rather awful state it was in! 



1000 and the Vasa museum opened.  A short wait in the queue was well worth the time spent as the Vasa proved even more impressive than I imagined.  The photos do not do the ship justice as it is HUGE in a way that cannot be seen though I did try to include some people in my shots to give scale.  The museum was purpose built for the ship and is 5 stories high (even though the tops of the masts were removed 300 years ago when it was still a hazard to shipping. 



The Vasa was built, ironically, of Polish Oak, by a Dutch ship builder for Sweden's war against Poland but sank just 20 minutes into its maiden voyage killing around 30 of its crew and guests (the skeletons of several of these poor souls are on display alongside their reconstructed faces).  The cause of the sinking was that the ship was top heavy (or too narrow – the effect being the same).  Within 30 years of the sinking all but 3 of the valuable bronze cannons were recovered from the ship but then the position of the ship was forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1950s and raised in 1961 – 333years after it sank.  After years of conservation it was placed into the current purpose-built hall and is 98% original – the best-preserved ship of its time by a wide margin.  The displays on show include the dioramas of the ship's construction and its recovery, a cinema where the story of the ship and its discovery is told in a 15-minute film, a reconstruction of the ship's lower gun deck and artefacts from the ship including the 3 cannons not recovered in the 1660s oh and there is a nice café.  Alongside this there are regular free guided tours in a variety of languages although being good Scandinavians it seems all Swedes speak English.


The Vasa was truly the highlight of the whole weekend.  It is stunning though as I couldn't spend the entire day there so after lunch I took the 'Red Bus' water taxi from the short pier at the back of the Vasa Museum to tour the inner water ways (in summer more extensive tours are available).  As ever on these trips headphones are provided and interesting sights are pointed out – usually just after they are past in my experience.  For the Afternoon, I decided to buy a ticket to the Royal Palace – still a functioning government building and where the King and Queen's offices, though not residence, still is. The Royal Palace is big – bigger even then Buck House.  You are not allowed all round it but access is good.  A 3 pass ticket buys access to the Palace's public areas plus the older part of the palace not burned down in the fire of 1697 – the Tre Konor; the Treasury and the Chapel where the monarchs of Sweden have traditionally been deposited when no longer in use.



For dinner, I wanted to try something typically Swedish however this wasn't going to be as easy as I had thought.  It seems that Sweden's national dish is Pizza or pasta given the look of the majority of food outlets.  Gamla Stan seemed to be the best place to escape the Italian influence and after a couple of refusals (restaurants were booked – I didn't smell or anything) I found a table at Martin Trotzig's Restaurant where I had a great 3 course meal of Grilled Scallops on Jerusalem Artichoke Puree followed by Veal in redcurrant and with Apple Strudel (OK not strictly Swedish) as a dessert – yummy!



On Sunday I had to leave for the airport by 5pm so I still had a full day near enough to look around.  As with Denmark most places are closed until 1000 but 0900 found me at Stockholm Cathedral to have a good look around before services began.  This church, the oldest building in Stockholm was originally St Nicolas Church and became Stockholm's cathedral in 1942.  Whilst the Royal Family are buried at the chapel around the corner it is here that Royal marriages take place.


The oldest parts of the brick built church date to 1306 and reached its current extent in the 1480s.  The exterior was rebuilt in 1736. An interesting feature looking up is that parts of the roof are painted and others not – I wasn't sure if this was a result of the reformation or not but I thought it worth considering.  Whilst modern Sweden is very secular, it is officially a Lutheran country so there was some understated information in the cathedral celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther's act of vandalism to the church doors in Wittenberg. For a Lutheran church, I thought the inside was rather well decorated (or is it that my experience of the bare insides of Scottish churches have taught me to expect less).  The Silver Altar (actually ebony and silver) but to its left is an even more impressive statue of St George skewering the Dragon carved of oak and consecrated in 1489 as an altar monument.  This is in remarkable condition, and is here as a symbol of Sten Sture the elder, who had conquered the forces of King Christian of Denmark (Denmark is represented in the sculpture as the Dragon and Sten Sture as the saint).


The Parhelion painting by the cathedral exit is a 1630s copy of an earlier painting depicting the Parhelion that appeared over Stockholm on 20 April 1535.  The Parhelion was, at the time, interpreted as a divine revelation of the impending collapse of worldly power which caused a rush of people to the churches.  In fact a parhelion is a common meteorological occurrence caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere acting as lenses. 

Painting of the Parhelion

Real Parhelion

 Next stop, via water taxi, was Fotografiska for a view of some excellent photographic exhibitions.  Two were worthy of note.  The 1st showed photo journalism by a local reporter with moving and vivid coverage of trouble spots from Libya to Palestine to Kenya and beyond.  The second, entitled 'Last Night in Sweden' was a middle finger to Donald Trump's now infamous (though sadly not lonely) tweet, based on a Fox news on God knows what that Sweden was in turmoil due to Islamism.  The exhibition showed what actually was happening that night across this huge liberal and very impressive country.  Fotgrafiska also has a good restaurant so a prawn smorre brod washed down by a pint of 6% IPA whilst looking out over the water at what must be one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world was a good way to finish my trip before hopping onto the water taxi again.



With just a couple of hours left I took a walk around to the Parliament, passing some men fishing for Salmon in the water that separated Gamla Stan from Normalm – a benefit of Allemansratten which is the Scandinavian right to fish or forage (as well as walk) for one's own consumption without asking the landowner –very civilised if you ask me.   From here I looked around Kastellholmen.  Here the turreted castle, a former armoury, flies the National flag daily when the country is at peace so it has been flown for over 200 years.  Walking back towards the railway station to catch the 1700 Arlanda Express, I was ambling and took time to enjoy the walk along the shore of Ostra Brobanken looking at the old time vessels that belonged to the members of the Stockholm  old ships society (or something like that).  Most of these vessels were around a 100 years old, one had taken part in D Day and one appeared to be the Royal Yacht.


Well that was my weekend up and I must say you can see a lot in just a couple of days it just whets your appetite for more.  I must return in the summer where more opportunities exist to travel the waterways and where the long nights would give extra time for looking around.


Costs for the weekend:

Return Flight – CPH to Stockholm: £141

Hotel – 2 nights B&B: £180

Food and Drinks: £134

Transport (Arlanda Express and 24 Hours Red Bus/Water Taxi): £82

Entrances to Attractions: £35

 

Total: £572

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Saturday in Northumberland

Woefully short of both walking and holidays in 2017 I took the opportunity to meet up with some very old friends at Bamburgh on 1 October for a coastal walk Southwards to Boulmer.  I had forgotten how truly beautiful this part of the world but was rewarded with fine weather (mostly), some fine beers at pubs along the way and of course excellent company.

Bamburgh






Beadnell

South of Seahouses






And on Sunday back at Edinburgh Airport a chance to see Mark Beaumont's bike (I think this is the Africa rahter than around the world one)


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Journey to Ardmore by John Ridgway; read 4 October 2017


For someone who, by his own admission, struggled to get O levels, Ridgway is a superb writer – even as early as 1971 when he wrote ‘Journey to Ardmore’.  In some ways, this is a book from a different age.  A time when a rugby centre was called a centre three quarter and a time when 2 ex paratroopers could set up and run an adventure school without formal qualifications or background checks.  All they needed was some cash to get going, hard work and actual experience in the tasks rather than tick box “competences”.   It was also a time that Ridgway could not feel comfortable in saying that he was adopted, a fact later to be acknowledged in “Floodtide” (itself still my favourite book although “Journey to Ardmore” is not a bad second).

The origin of this book lies in Ridgway’s failed attempt in the 1968 race to become the first man to sail alone non-stop round the world (see “The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst” ).  With a publisher having commissioned a book about this attempt (no doubt based upon his and Chay Blyth’s successful rowing of the Atlantic in 1966) but now without a story of the voyage to tell he decided to write this excellent autobiography telling of his early life, the finding of a croft at Ardmore in the far North West of Scotland, and the dream to settle there. 

After opening with the finding of an empty croft in Ardmore and his 1st attempt to find a way of living there. Newly married, having resigned his commission and taking a job in Kinlochbervie’s small fishing industry he found that his plans to live in the highlands were not sufficient to make ends meet.  By 1964 he was doing traffic surveys in London to avoid the dole.  Yet just a couple of years later he would be famous without being, by his own admission, a changed person. 

After this opening Ridgway goes back in time to cover his childhood, without mentioning that he was adopted – as I say above, 1971 was a different world to a modern reader. At Nautical College in Pangbourne Ridgway managed only 1 O level (History) 1st time around he would go onto get more but was clearly more interested in physical than cerebral activities -  though the quality of his writing in this book certainly belies this.  From Pangbourne a short stint in the Merchant Navy (1 trip to Capetown was enough to make him realise this was not the career for him) before joining the army as a soldier where he would apply for and gain a Regular Commission (considered easier to get than a National Service one) he would be the 1st officer to go directly to 3 Bttn the Parachute Regiment directly from Sandhurst.  His tenacity and ‘best loser’ label having been recognised whilst he was captain of boxing at RMA.  Always physical and adventurous, Ridgway led teams in the annual Devizes to Westminster canoe races (won, incidentally in 1962 by Paddy Ashdown) and tells of exciting and sometimes fraught training and racing in 2 man Kayaks.  When the regiment was slated for duty in Cyprus he and 4 others bought a yacht (English Rose 2) to sail there rather than go by RAF transport.  The journey ended in Cherbourg, scuppered not by a lack of sailing ability but by a crisis in the Middle East changing the deployment plans and by the boat turning out to be less seaworthy than expected. It was whilst flying in an RAF Transport that Ridgway fell for the Highlands and on discovering Ardmore  he would resign his commission to live permanently in the highlands.

Ridgway re-joined the Parachute Regiment in 1964 and, reunited with the Blyth who was one of the youngest Sgts in the regiment (who as a Lance Cpl Ridgway had tried to remove from the Battalion – not a great advert it turned out for Ridgway’s judgement of people).  Reading of Johnson and Hoare’s plans to row the Atlantic, the 2 set out to do the same thereby turning it into a race.  The rest is history and Sadly Johnson and Hoare died in their attempt whereas Ridgway and Blyth succeeded.  The whole story of that row is told in ‘A Fighting Chance’ but is précised very well here.  Here is told the aftermath of lecturing, on behalf of the army and the social whirl that fame brought, along with enough extra cash to fund the next adventure (and as it turned out just enough left over to make plans for the setting up of the John Ridgway adventure school at Ardmore).
In 1967 Ridgway passed selection for the SAS before I suspect trying the patience of his superiors in entering the 1968 round the world race.  Buying and fitting out English Rose IV , Ridgeway was the 1st of the competitors to set out, on 1 June 1968, but also the 1st to retire with the boat having been damaged in a collision with a Press boat at the start and with increasing loneliness and unease about is abilities to survive the Southern Ocean he would retire to Recife in Brazil.  It was at this point that he and his friend, and fellow SAS Officer Rod Liddon would workover the winter of 1968/9 to build the Adventure School, opening it in the summer of 1970 to youngsters and later to his Businessmen’s courses.


As with ‘Floodtide’ I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Ridgway is obviously a self-reliant sort though he receives huge support from his Wife Marie Christine  (a woman to whom cooking fish pie for 50 on a single stove seems to be a normal thing to do) who is willing to follow and join in with her obsessive husband’s plans.  Chay Blyth and Rod Liddon also get due credit in this book as Ridgway acknowledges the need for teamwork in success but for me there are 2 big takeaways.  Firstly that persistence is as important as talent in achieving one’s goals.  Secondly to quote Ridgway directly ‘living means NOW not tomorrow or yesterday’

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Returning from Koge on Sunday Afternoon

Route
https://www.relive.cc/view/1042797173 

As I am working in Denmark all summer on a short term contract, I have been unable to get out into the hills as I would have liked, especially as Scotland is having one of its warmest summers in living memory.  This year I had to pull out of the TGO challenge (hope to give it a go again next year) so my concept of outdoors fun has had to change to match circumstances.  

Denmark does not possess any wilderness, nevertheless it does have an excellent cycling network and culture plus plenty of history worth seeing.  So it was that on Sunday I took the Brompton down to Koge - which has Denmark's oldest house.  I was out all day stopping off for the odd ice cream and Coffee and pastry as well as replenishing my water supplies in the 25C heat.  I ended the day back in Copenhagen with a Beer in the picturesque Nyhavn

Copenhagen to Koge and Back - Photos

Nyhavn for a Beer after a long day

Woodhenge at Amager
 Crossing the Bridge en route back to Copenhagen


Approaching Ishoj

Koge Square
 Koge Museum
Arrival at Koge

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

No Place Like Home, Thank God: A 22,000 Mile Bicycle Ride Around Europe by Steven Primrose-Smith; read 19 August 2016 and some very wise words - see last paragraph

“… we're sold a lie. Work hard, save for your pension and reap your reward when you retire. You've earned it! But even if you reach retirement age – hardly a given – your body is unlikely to manage the things it could in its twenties, thirties and forties. We see advertisements for retirement plans with silver foxes and foxettes engaged in something mildly adventurous, perhaps trekking up a little hill in the Lake District and beaming radiantly at each other in pastel knitwear. Look, folks, we got there. We're having the time of our lives. Buy our plan. But the things you'd ideally do today if only you'd more time might not be possible decades down the line. One dodgy knee and any physical plans are buggered.” Writes Steven Primrose-Smith near the beginning of this wonderful book. 

After a near fatal brain haemorrhage (3 in fact), with high blood pressure and as a result of long-term hypertension with kidneys functioning at only 60%,  Steven Primrose-Smith decided that there was a better way to recovery than taking pills for the rest of his life – instead he would spend the next 3 summers cycling 22,000 miles visiting every capital city in Europe – including the ones that aren’t really capitals (Douglas IOM; Cardiff; Monaco etc).  At the same time he would do 3 OU degrees (and the OU network would be crucial in providing support on his travels) as well as in each country he visits try a food that he has never before tasted – the worst of which is very early on when in France he just about manages to hold down a ‘poo sausage’, other delicacies included instant donkey milk and even fried insects.  His primary objective is to confirm, or otherwise, that there is nowhere worse in Europe e than his home town of Blackburn.

The book is a delight to read as Stephen succeeds in his objectives (except for reaching Moscow – which he wisely decides isn’t worth dying for given the nature of Russia’s roads and the competence of her drivers).  The tales of his travels are well written and full of humour that had me laughing out loud – who for example would have known that the ‘Kunsthaus was an art gallery and not the Swiss parliament’ or that ‘Some lives seem to be defined by a single moment: Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, Einstein's imagining of special relativity, Josef Fritzl's first visit to The Ideal Home Exhibition’.  These or just 2 of the vignettes that appealed to my particular sense of humour but there is plenty here for everyone.  This is a great travel book in which the bike is important – particularly when in the final year it seems to struggle to keep spokes from breaking, but the cycling is not the story here – it is the places and the people along with Primrose-Smith’s story-telling that stand out.

The book is also something else.  At the end Primrose-Smith realises that Blackburn isn’t that bad a place after all but that it is familiarity that breeds contempt. So instead of seeing this book as a travelogue it should also be used as an inspiration to get out there and do something yourself.  Surely Primrose-Smith  is right when he says “What I planned to do was the sanest thing ever. The nutty ones are those who say they'd love to do an adventure but never get around to it”.  And to prove that his OU Maths course didn’t go to waste his final words on probability are worth repeating:

As Primrose-Smith says in his epilogue:


“The chance of your winning the jackpot of the UK lottery is extremely low, 1 in 13,983,816 to be precise (or 49!/43!6! if you want the calculation). You'd consider yourself very fortunate indeed if you won but you've already defeated much longer odds than those. You won life. For the sake of round numbers later down the line, let's assume the average woman is fertile from age nineteen to forty and has two and a half children that make it to sexual maturity. With one egg per month there's only a one in a hundred chance that… any particular egg will grow up and have children of its own. Let's also assume … the average length of a human generation, is 33 years….We can now go back to any given year and work out the odds of your being here from that date. Let's choose the year 1600. Since that time you have had about twelve ancestors, each with a one in a hundred chance of being born, meaning that, given the situation in 1600, the likelihood of your existing was one in 10012 or, … a bit less likely than winning the lottery jackpot three times in a row. If you want to calculate the odds of your being here from the year 300 AD – the year of Bruce Forsyth's birth – my scientific calculator gives up, but the odds are massive, something like one in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. And that was only 1,700 years ago. Modern humans are believed to have been around for 200,000 years and so your chance of being here since then is one in 1006000, which is one followed by 12,000 zeroes. Probability-wise that's roughly the same as winning the lottery jackpot every single Saturday from its launch in 1994 until the year 2027. But this is only a tiny fraction of the real calculation. You also have to consider all the evolution, with its random mutations, that had to occur exactly as it did over billions of years for humankind to come about in the first place, all the tectonic plate movements that isolated some populations and enabled others to be wiped out by predators, the geological make-up of the Earth and its composition as a result of condensing gases from the remnants of the early Solar System, but also the cloud from which the Solar System emerged and the earlier stars that burned their hydrogen and helium to form the heavier elements within that cloud that were eventually necessary to make you exactly as you are. The chance of your being here is so infinitesimally small as to be zero, or no chance whatsoever. You, me, any of us, shouldn't really be here at all. Make the most of it (my emphasis).

I loved this book!