Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ben Lomond - a Gaelic palette

Loch Lomond, Wednesday 28th December 2016

Mist, water and silvery light: a very Gaelic palette in midwinter between the storms, which these days all have names - we've been through Barbara's tantrums and Conor's backlash, but today was one of those steamed-up car sort of days. Warmish air from the southwest is rolling about Loch Lomond and gathering a chill as it picks up speed towards the snow-patched summit, so I take the clockwise 'wind with my back' option, steeply up the Ptarmigan ridge from Rowardennan, hearing a chuckle in the mist which is either a red grouse or the eponymous bird. Each landmark on the map is a clue to the Gaelic landscape - Tom Fhithich I think may be the raven's beak-nosed boulder or crag half up towards the knoll of Ptarmigan, which just breaks the mist, and assumes the role of target summit for the meantime as the main peak is in cloud. The small hidden tarns are full of slushy grey ice and the 'yellow bealach' is all bleached grass, sphagnum and dying moss, flattened by wind and snow at various defiles bearing the Gaelic 'gaoithe' (windy), which begins to dominate the adjectival topography above 600m.

The scramble up between the darkened wet schist of the north-west ridge leads to various false summits above the northern steepness of the Leac na Caillich (the old woman's stones/slabs), so I pick out target landmarks on the path as the mist closes in and swathes everything in oblivion. At the sudden summit trig point, a fine beacon point ('Lomainn') in summer, a few parties munch on cold turkey sandwiches, hunkering against the wind. A raven flaps and bounces about like a torn black bin-bag, tipping its wingtips and honking for leftovers.

Below us lies the snowy confines of Coire a Bhathaich, which is a shelter of a 'byre' in Gaelic (at least from prevailing south-westerlies). The long Sron Aonach (nosed ridge) descent trail leads past another north-eastern corrie, where few wish to linger, hence the name - Coire Fuar (the cold corrie). As the path and altitude descends, the colours return to the palette - Coire Odhar (the brown/orange corrie) and Breac Leac (the speckled slabs). The quartz whites, exfoliated schist greys and orange grasses all gain a little more sharper focus as the path drops down past the sounding of water bubbling in growing burns and birdsong in forestry, as though someone had turned up the volume after the tinnitus of mist and wind...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Outwith the Anthropocene

...move lightly, trace the rock like shadow, let it return 

I was struck by one sentence in Robert MacFarlane's darkly sparkling article on Generation Anthropocene in the Guardian recently, when he is pointing us to the artistic response to living in a new geological era created by our own presence and detritus:

'...salvation and self-knowledge can no longer be found in a mountain peak or stooping falcon, and categories such as the picturesque or even the beautiful congeal into kitsch.'

Romantic notions of the sublime are dead and even our so-called wildernesses, such as the Highland bleakness, are manufactured landscapes appealing to our sense of self-reflective emptiness and vistas of consciousness. They are accidents of land management, political histories of resource and exhaustion, 'wilded' by deforestatation and adjusted to our current sensitivites. Where now can the picturesque be found, in a world of plastic seas and turtles drowned in fishing nets? The natural world may no longer exist as a place for us to escape to emotionally, infected as it is with ourselves at every turn, riddled with the 'anthropocene'.

The concept is narcotic and leads to some undeniable ecological realities. This article was published on the day it was announced a killer whale was 'rediscovered' in a pod of eight whales off the west coast of Scotland, having lived into at least a fifth decade. I recalll as a child in 1977 when a killer whale swam up to the bridge over the River Foyle in Londonderry, until it finally found its way back to deep waters. It generated grainy newspaper images of a tall fin and glistening head, and garnered TV attention for a while, until it swam away and vanished from our consciousness. It was later identified in 2016 due to its distinctive white markings, still swimming amongst the 'west coast community' in Scotland. What struck me, aside from the age of the killer whale, which usually live around three decades, was that it had grown and lived as I had, absorbing the world, feeding, living, being, in a reality I was responsible for as much as anyone else. I learned that its pod, likely due to the accumulated poisons in their blubber and blood (a cocktail including PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls - and other resilient little toxins), was incapable of breeding and the pod is dimishing into local exinction slowly but surely. One female member perished on the shores of Tiree in 2015 and it is a tricky existential transference to imagine the cetacean grief and confusion at these losses and continued sterility of their family. Or perhaps their young, weaned on a poisoned diet, simply become too sick to survive long and this tragedy is played out in the contemporaneous depths of the Atlantic beyond our ken. This family of animals has lived in a poisoned world, resilent and persistent, but perhaps doomed by a reality beyond their consciousness, something for which we are responsible. This living extinction, if it is the case, is a perfect anthropocenic reality and creates a hand-wringing guilt when it comes to our ideas of wildness and the illusion of purity.

But maybe the problem with the Athropocenic argument, as MacFarlane points out, is its very self-absorption and anthopomorphism. Is it, despite the realities it presents, still just a context, an arrogant way of thinking we can't elude once we start? As James Lovelock insists, Gaia will shed us like fleas eventually, if we become even more rapaciously invasive. In the interim, we'll just have tragedy. A dark thought in a dark shade.

Though it may lead to some ineluctable conclusions, the 'Antrhopocene' and its aggressive taxonomy doesn't help much in considering how to live in a world we have poisoned and from which we are incapable of extracting our technologies. If the world has become the detritus of technology, is there an extraction from this pan-global treacle of culpability, or is there isolated behaviour, not just in the Arts, but in life-practices where behaviour might enclose an escape into purity, or is at all a zoo-dream and park-life enclosure of human meaning hurtling towards extinction itself?

There are more questions than answers so better perhaps to descibe a moment where I might interject with a lifescape: if this is a 'zoo-moment' or enclosure, I'll leave that for others to decide. The moment in case is a climbing moment, specifically a bouldering texture. Literally. The smallest sectional swirl of a schist boulder has me in thrall. I have brushed off the vegetable life from it, the patina of lichen and moss, over about six square inches, quite aware of the micro-clearances of this, but at the same time revealing a pure geological substrate that charges me and reveals the older life of the planet to my eyes: small frictional swirls of quartz and layered metamorphic rock which give to my grasping hand a primal friction as I climb the boulder (or attempt an arbitrary performance of movements between an almost fictional 'ground' and 'summit', so contained is the arena). But this feels contained and unique enough to be symptomatic of a pure moment (in an Anthorpocenic context, it would always be invasive, destructive, anthropomorphic), a moment where I live in the world, move with a brief physical being and enjoyment, as unhindered as I can be of politics and context and reference. This is the pure moment of climbing, absorbed by contact with rock, where the 'world' drops away and the phenomenology of climbing becomes itself. It is not a sublime moment of consciousness in the romantic sense, nor a sporting form of elitism and conquering -  in fact it's more of a protest act against all this. It is an attempt at enclosing an animalistic behaviour in time, outisde of the anthropocene, exhibiting a will towards some idea of purity (or perhaps reconnection) - an instinct if you will.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Legacy of Names: Craigmore Crag

Craigmore has always been a favourite haunt of mine. It's a small forested crag near Carbeth, north of Glasgow, just off the beaten track of the West Highland Way. It's been a popular top-roping and soloing spot for decades, ever since John Kerry (blog here about him) bussed out with gardening equipment to clean and garden the routes - it's a north-east facing crag and tends to gather a lot of dank moss and vegetation. John produced a guide to the climbing in the 'Glasgow Outcrops' guide by Highrange Sports (1975), describing the rock as 'macroporphyritic basalt, which looks rather like a cross between granite and gritstone'.

The habitat is rock, moss, birch, oak, rowan, hazel, apple and willow, with two Scots pines acting as crag sentinels at each end. Owls, kestrels and smaller birds ghost through the canopy and bumble bees hum through the flowers and catkins in summer like video-drones. Climbers turn up with clanking gear and occasional parties of kids are taught to abseil down Craigmore Corner from the big pine, out for the day from nearby Auchengillan. The Carbeth hutters live nearby and the field above the crag used to be a campsite in the early 20th century. The disjecta I have found below the crag includes modern day energy drinks and Irn Bru cans, old spades and gardening equipment, to an ancient Camp bottle - Camp Coffee was a Scottish chicory coffee replacement, founded in 1876 by Paterson & Sons Ltd. in a plant on Charlotte Street, Glasgow. So the crag has a long history of visitation.

The old guide produced by John Kerry named some classic sectors such as Layback Crack and Burnt Rock Amphitheatre, listing a batch of routes up to '6a' ('extremely severe'). In the 80s Craig's Wall was climbed and upped the bar of technical ascents, though it did employ an old bolt at the fingery crux (Dave MacLeod freed this to give an E7 to the crag). The boulder problems began to be unearthed, such as the superb Jamie's Overhang. I thought this had been named after Jamie Andrew, who was active in the area at the time, but he assured me it was not him and my search continues. If you know who it was, do email me >>> As regards the micro-ascents of bouldering this small bloc is a rich example of the boulderer's philosophy of focus.

Jamie's Overhang 

 Andy's Arete

 Craigmore in spring

Sketch of the blocs

Friday, March 25, 2016

Glencoe March 19th 2016

March sunshine over the Buachaille from the best-sited hut in Scotland 


Bouldering in early March in Scotland can be graced by cold sunshine and serendipitous moments. This is a nice little traverse into the frustratingly good smear work of The Plinth, a problem which got me going again after a long winter of injury and downtime. Named after two hares I spooked that set off like random fireworks, it's a starting gun for 2016.