Thursday, 30 September 2010

“To Strive, To Seek, To Find, And Not To Yield” Heroes :- The Men Of The Terra Nova Expedition – The Polar Party

Like my last hero you may not have heard of the Terra Nova expedition, but you probably have heard of Robert Falcon Scott as his name is seared into British history as one of the grate figures of heroic failure.

Scott and his companions died on their way back from the South Pole having been beaten to their goal by Roald Amundsen by a matter of weeks. When they died they had been man hauling sledges weighing up to 700lbs for five months covering a distance of about 1600 miles climbing from sea level to the Great Antarctic Plateau at a height of 9300ft via the crevassed and broken jumble of the Beardmore Glacier then thought to be the biggest in the world. Such a test of endurance against adversity is heroic in itself but this is overshadowed by the story of the events as they made their way home.

There journey back is vividly told in Scott’s posthumously recovered diaries where the set backs and disasters of the return march are confronted with a determination to keep going against adversity oven though deep down he could tell he was doomed.

The story is given added tragedy by the fact that starved, frozen, and dehydrated they died less then nine miles from a supply depot trapped in their tent for seven days by an atrocious blizzard.

There are more stories of heroism here; would you leave a man to die if in doing so you would probably save your life? The polar party was a team of five men, Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and Evans. Soon after the return journey started Evans weakened drastically; frostbitten and with an injured hand he could barely walk never mind help pull the sledge. Progress became slower and slower as they struggled down the Beardmore glacier but they refused to leave him behind even though they knew they could never get him home. Evans died at the foot of the glacier allowing the remaining man to push on with renewed speed

But there is more Oates had been walking for days on feet that were little more than lumps of ice, swollen and frostbitten, suffering in silence and refusing to shirk his part of the work. When finally he was forced to revel his injury to the others because he too could hardly walk they again refused to leave a man who was now little more than dead weight. They struggled on with Oates making much smaller distances than necessary to reach their depot’s of supplies.

One night after setting up camp, Oates realising he was dragging is friends to there doom walked out in to a blizzard with words that have gone down in history for heroic self sacrifice “I’m just going outside; I may be gone some time”. He was never seen again.

One of the things I most admire about the British Expeditions to the south is they had such a vigorous scientific programme, many of the members were scientists and although the achievement of the pole was a very important target it was only a part of the goals of the expedition. Amundson came for the Pole which he got, The Terra Nova Expedition despite the tragedy returned with volumes of survey data, meteorological and oceanographic data, and catalogues of new species, in the end only one of these achievements is of true lasting value to humanity.

When found the polar party were still carrying 30lb of geological samples from the heart of Antarctica, useless dead weight to be hauled by men who knew they had to move faster or die but who clung on to the belief that exploration is about knowledge not just the destination. This is the last reason the Terra Nova team are heroes of mine.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”

The parties epitaph the last line from Tennyson’s Ulysses carved into the memorial cross erected on Observation Hill overlooking Hut Point, McMurdo Sound Antarctica.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

People's Palaces

Do you know about the great civic buildings of the north? I don't mean a dry list of names and dates or a discourse on architectural styles, I mean the big ideas and social drivers behind their construction. No? Me neither, but the ideas behind these buildings should be a matter of pride. This has been prompted by a series on BBC 4 about the civic architecture of the great northern cities. To me it's been a bit of a revelation, the amount of amazing buildings that dot our cities and the time, effort and detail that went into building these structures.

Today's prevailing attitudes about the north especially in London centric Britain can be quite dismissive; dirt, decay and dead industries. Such attitudes however wrong and ill-informed contain a seed of truth about the north; industry. The Industrial Revolution built the cities of the north, and these cities then became the powerhouse which built the British Empire. Manchester clothed the world in cotton, Leeds in wool, Sheffield produced half of Europe's steel, Liverpool exported these goods all to the four corners of the world, and from their soot blackened wombs of steel and brick they gave us civic buildings to rival any in the country.

St Georges Hall, Liverpool,

What was most interesting about the programmes was how the attitudes of the time shaped the architecture, and it basically boils down to two key points. Firstly civic pride, these new cities grown rich on the fruits of their labour wanted to make a statement of success, this coupled with the desire to outdo their neighbours and rivals resulted in a series of spectacular town halls and public buildings.

Manchester Town Hall
Sheffield Town Hall
Leeds Town Hall

Taking years to build and lavishly decorated they were designed to provide a focal point for civic pride, venues for meetings and public events, unlike today where pride appears to relate the power of your financial district. I love the effort that went into these structures, artisans taking time to carve statues and relief's, and painters decorating the walls and ceilings with fresco's levels of detail that are unthinkable in today's time and money conscious world.

Secondly whereas today a city builds a stadium or a tall office building when they want to show off the Victorians had a much better idea. Libraries, concert halls and museums were their statements of intent. One can understand this as during this period Britain was undergoing a revolution in knowledge with science and technology advancing rapidly and the passing of the 1870 education act introducing formal education of all children to the age of 12. Thus the genesis of many of these structures lies in the Victorian idea of self help through education.

I love the way these buildings were themselves designed to be used as lessons with lessons in classics from Roman and Greek influences or the use of paintings and stained glass all to tell stories of historical events.

The money for these structures often came from the new money industrialists in philanthropic gestures that were the style of the times, men at the forefront of technology who were always pushing the boundaries of production. Men not scared of new ideas represented by these buildings or frightened of the challenges in there construction. One could argue that there is an element of hubris in all these structures and while that may be true but I still think the ideas behind them are relevant and valid but just not the whole answer.

Ryland's Library Interior
Ryland's Library Exterior
An astonishing Milton Floor in St Georges Hall
The foyer of Leeds Town Hall

Throughout the series the thing that struck me most is the detail and creativity involved in these structures, the effort taken to create something really special almost regardless of cost or time taken. Today we can, and do build some extraordinarily beautiful structures we tend to rely on clever engineering tricks and the use of light and space to inspire. There is nothing wrong with this but I feel these structures lack the permanence of there Victorian brethren.

"When we build let us think that we build forever" John Ruskin.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Dalby The Return; A Story Of Mud, Sweat, And Gears, Disapearing Brake Pads, And The Motivational Power of Chocholate Cake

A couple of months ago I went to Dalby Forest and broke my bike and almost my chin but that's another story. Anyway a rematch was in order so with Messrs Sergeant (John), and Headley (Ben) completing the dream team (not a particularly good dream you understand, more of a middle of the road one that's only half remembered upon waking) we rocked up ready to go.

Bike, check; helmet, check; sensible trousers, ahem!

The trail center was quite busy despite the rain and fog with we went through our crucial pre-ride preparations, coffee in the coffee shop and a couple of chocolate biscuits then hit the initial zig-zag's. Legs feeling good and progress was made, Dalby trails are quite open and flowing not particularly technical and usefully for today well drained.

About half way round after a particularly steep and demanding set of switch backs I notice a bit of a horrible smell emanating from my rear brakes. A quick inspection revealed that 15km of Dalby's finest had manage to ware the brand new pad down to the metal which was now doing its best to chew through the rotor leaving me with rear brakes with the same stopping power as engine oil. Being organised and prepared individuals we had no spares but I still had my front brake right?

A far to clean bike.

The Dalby red trail is long about 36km with some fantastic flowing sections but quite a lot of up and down, the odd technical rocky section and some awesome bomb holes (these are particularly fun with no rear brake). The trail at times can be quite narrow and if you pick the wrong line or take a corner too fast you will end up in a ditch (always amusing for your friends).

There is a term in cycling called bonking (trust me there is I read it in Singletrack), and unlike the other form of bonking this type is not fun. Bonking is the cycling equivalent of  what runners call the wall, apart from whereas you can run through the wall bonking usually results in complete collapse of all your muscles through a combination of exhaustion, low blood sugar and lactic acid build up.

Anyway by about 28km John was suffering from cramps, lactic acid build up in my legs was making the climbs a test of endurance with power levels waning, and Ben was discovering that not satisfied with eating my brakes Dalby had had his for dessert. Good god when does it end was becoming a bit of a refrain.

There are many ways to motivate; ideals, money, great speeches and leaders; we settled for chocolate cake. Back at the trail center was a big slice of soft, moist, chocolaty goodness (complete with chocolate icing) and it was ours if we could just get there. Armed with such a lofty idea we found unknown reserves of power and bravely face those final miles.

Legs burning and covered in mud we pile down the last switchbacks back to the car park big smiles on our faces, we don't do enough of this sort of thing. Oh and the chocolate cake was good.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Perilous Pebble Pulling

Bamford is a great little edge in the Peak with commanding views down onto Ladybower Reservoir and the Derwent Valley. The condition of the rock is also superb with very little ware or polish showing even on the three star classic routes. This is because until recently access to the crag was restricted for much of the year on the grounds that the area was used as a grouse moor. Now thanks to the countryside rights of way act the area is designated access land and accessible all year round.

The crag is still quite quite and got us all thinking of how amazing it must have been when the whole of the Peak was like this. These days with climbing ever increasing in popularity crags, and popular routes at places like Stanage and Burbage are slowly being eroded away as holds ware and brake. It's the same with mountain walking with footpath erosion. This is the Catch 22 of our sport, the more we love to climb the more we slowly destroy the thing we love;  the more people fall in love with the outdoors the more we cut and scar the landscape.

I feel conflicted; I really enjoy teaching people to climb and seeing them realise what a great activity it is. Some of my best memories are taking beginners out with university, yet a part of me wants to keep climbing and the mountains as my little secret, a world of whispered words and closely guarded secrets protecting these amazing place from the inevitable damage of popularity.

I had rather stupidly let slip in front of my friend George that in terms of strength and technical ability I should be onsighting E2 and it's only my complete failure in the head game that stops me doing so. George in his deeply empathetic and understanding way decided that the answer to this was to go out and make me climb E2s by not telling we what the grades were before starting and refusing to let me wuss out when on lead. 

This was clearly a recipe for one upset pram and toys scattered all over northern Derbyshire, and using my amazing logic and reasoning skills I managed to talk him down to a plan of getting comfortable VS. Very severe is a funny grade, when people ask my what grade I climb I tend to say Hard Severe, I like to think that you could drop me in front of any HS in th country and I would get up it without too much drama. Once you start to move on to VS and HVS a whole can of worms is opened. New guide books are littered with ex VS and HVS climbs that now have more E numbers than a bag of Haribo (and are considerably less enjoyable). There are still a few snakes in the grass out there!

Getting involved with Bilberry Crack VS 5a.

Stage one, Bilberry Crack a hard but safe route at VS, I did get a bit nervous but sent the route pretty well although I laced it with gear. To work on the problem that if I keep putting that much gear in I will start to require air-drop resupply halfway up most routes we decided that I should have a go at Browns Crack an HS, but with the proviso could only place four bits of gear on the route, thus forcing me to climb up above my gear.

The crack line was awesome with some really solid jams and a crux that took a long time to work out, and only four bits of gear were placed!

Booooom, solid jamming on Browns Crack

Dom had his eye on a hard slab route called The Trout graded at a rather calorific E6 6b with climbing involving pulling on holds that didn't really exist. After a couple of practice goes on top-rope Dom sent the route in good style and I got some good pictures.

Spot the holds????

The day finished with a memorable ascent of Gargoyle Flake a brilliant, but steep to overhanging route on huge holds that gives you one of the classic climbing photographs in the Peak. Brilliant day!

Top moves on Gargoyle Flake, amazing exposure!!!