The Angry Corrie 35: Jan-Mar 98

TAC 35 Index

Not walking, but thinking

Graeme Semple

FROM THE WORD GO, TAC has been about hillwalking, and continues to thrive with its particular brand of radical and literate free-thinking. Unfortunately, the Scottish climber has no organ in which to discover what has been prescribed (or proscribed) by their bohemian gurus. Perkin Warbeck, in TAC33, referred to the unhappy co-existence of walkers and climbers, and pointed out Tom Weir as one of a rare group who have been seen to advocate both activities on TV and in print. Well, possessing neither a spherical red nodule on my coupon, nor a pathological knowledge of the Highlands, I don't demand any reverential contemplation. However, I do certainly emulate Tam in my tendency to walk and climb.

In Scotland, the identity of the climber is more closely aligned with the walker than in England. Climbing at the cutting edge down south tends to happen on crags and in quarries which are strictly lowland affairs: Malham Cove, etc. In Scotland, the tradition is much broader, with climbing having merged with the more inclusive aesthetic spirit of simply taking to the hills. The point of climbing in Scotland is to succeed on routes in a high mountain setting; this is especially true in winter, when even walkers concede to some of the climber's poncy gear. A distinction has to be made between the undernourished prepubescent waifs with haircuts out of Point Break who start indoors and graduate to roadside crags, and those heretical pre-war hard-men, romantics, nutters, artisans, and visionaries, whose climbing included mountaineering and hard Alpinism. Early Scottish climbing consistently involved breathtaking feats of bravery whilst vying with morbidly inadequate clothing and technical protection.

I knew Alex Small from the summer of 1994 until his death in early 1996 at the age of 86. He was best known for making the first ascent of Agag's Groove on the Buachaille in 1936. Alan Thomson quoted an interview with Alex in his book Glencoe, and mentioned his being resident in "darkest Crieff". Magic, I thought, a real-life pioneer of the hard stuff, living in my own Holiday Town, hopefully noising up the tourists, poking them with a modified alpenstock-cum-walking-stick, generally confounding the denizens with erudite and colourful discourse on pre-war peregrinations on the steep black rock of distant jaggy peaks. But when I made his acquaintance, it was in surprising and sad circumstances. By 1994, he was no longer enjoying the idealised retirement I'd imagined for him, but was tragically immobile in a nursing home. To see thirty people awaiting their death in physical and mental discomfort is unsettling, but there was something especially unnerving about the contrast between Alex's condition and the photos above his bed, taken when he was in the Alps in his thirties. The photos shared the wall with his watercolours of sparkling winter days all over the Highlands.

What Alex and his contemporaries did was to place climbing in their consciousness as part of a bigger philosophical picture. When climbing, they were thinking. And when not climbing, they would be thinking anyway. In his introduction to Bell's Scottish Climbs, Alex evokes the contrast between their urbanity, and the austerity of their climbing. Three gentlemen indulge their highly cultured sensibilities during an evening in Glasgow, before highbrow discussion in the "redoubtable Austin Seven" on the way to Glen Coe. What intrigues me is that so many of those who broke ground in the mountains were able to express their experiences in the most convoluted, far-reaching terms. Did the Kingshouse once ring to the sound of WHMurrayspeak? Did climbers stand with pints to muse that the Buachaille was "less clogged with the pollutions of mortality than is normally granted to an earthly form"?

There was a time in my teens when I thought I could conceivably get round to climbing all the Munros. Now I simply feel that making the journeys required over many years, just to walk, would be a criminal waste of opportunity - at the expense of not just superb scrambles, but also countless classic climbs which take perfect, soaring, well-protected lines through jaw-dropping natural architecture. There is something deeply satisfying in witnessing a day of unique climatic conditions; temperature inversions and surreal mountain light can be heightened, I believe, by the circumstances of the climb. The terrific, exposed sense of limitless air is given a sharply defined peripheral edge by the proximity of vast buttresses and ridges. Climbing within the limit of your ability obviates the need for a change of underwear, and the delicious situations can be savoured. One can relax and marvel at the perfection of the form and positioning of the most secure holds. Reach a comfortable belay stance on one of Tom Patey's routes, sense the tangible presence of the man, and salute his passage over the rock you're on by enjoying a roll-up.

Keep your E7 desperates - I'll never be into unbridled terror. Anyway, I want to carry a rucsac containing the luxuries required for a grand feast, and to toast the mastery of those who sought a priceless, transcendent insight in their spirited adventures on the pure, bare stone of Scotland's most beautiful mountains.

TAC 35 Index