Friday, February 3, 2023

Lapses and love of our memories

At the summit of the Serles on that first visit to Austria.

Early in the new year, my wife was describing to our friends how a house in a nearby village was being converted into a restaurant.

Interjecting, in a mansplaining sort of way, I added that it was actually the old pub, going on to confidently describe its former décor and ambience. Jane cast her eyes to the ceiling and indeed said nothing as we drove past it the following morning… When sure enough, there it was, the Ship Inn open for business and next door to a house under scaffolding.

Something similar occurred a few weeks earlier when in writing an article I described the Dresdner Hütte as my first ever alpine refuge: it literally changed my life, I said. And yet on checking my diaries, I was reminded that we’d first stayed at the Maria Waldrast hostel, climbing Mount Serles before heading down to the Stubai Valley.

This fallibility of memory is common and even used as a literary device by writers — it’s known as the unreliable narrator. Perhaps by fessing up, I’m hoping for a redemption of sorts and seeking to make a connection by sharing a failing that many will recognise, especially those greying around the temples.

But the interesting thing is that despite these lapses, I’d suggest our memories are still real and valuable in their way. My description of the Ship Inn’s interior turned out to be accurate to a tee. And while I was wrong about the chronology of my first visit to Austria, it’s true that for forty years, those recollections have shaped my life and passion for the mountains.

It seems to me that in summoning our experience, what matters most is not so much the absolute veracity as the impression it leaves and the enrichment this brings.  As my art teacher once said when I was struggling with a likeness, 'Nobody knows what Lisa del Giocondo looked like, yet the Mona Lisa is a brilliant portrait regardless'. 

Of course, there are times when accuracy matters, not least in, say, navigation. As I was reminded this week after confidently heading down a shortcut to one of the quieter lifts of the Les Gets ski resort… Half an hour and two long diversions later, we eventually arrived at our intended destination!

Oh well, at least the view – and the snow – was spectacular.

* This post is a slightly revised version of an article for The Austrian Alpine Club (UK).

Thursday, January 5, 2023

New Year Re-slow-lutions

Wide horizons for the new year

In the days when my children were toddlers, I remember railing against the limitations that little ones invariably impose. Let’s go to the beach this morning I’d say, then take a walk in the afternoon, and maybe eat out in the evening… I wanted to cram our holidays with activity; show that planning and persistence were all that was needed… It invariably ended in tears.

And I remember also, one rainy day when the kids were grizzling and my good friend pulling me quietly aside to say, ‘You know, Mark, it’s okay take a breather.’ His mantra, borne of raising two boisterous boys, was ‘do one thing well – and be happy it’s enough.’

It took me years to see the wisdom in that advice, and even longer to learn that slowing down wasn’t the same as giving in. Even now, supposedly semi-retired, I work every day and have a diary that’s too full to fit in all I’d like. There’ll always be a part of me that wants to push at the boundaries.

But I’ve learned too, that in the mountains especially, there are times when we must hold back. The temptation to press on can be lethal if taken too far, as can ignoring the signs of fatigue or over estimating the ability of others. Perhaps worst of all, is the urge to snatch at chances for fear they’ll not come again. Sadly, I’ve seen all too closely the dark side of those desires.

Which I’m aware is a rather down-beat opener to January.

But I’m conscious also (as I write this in late December) that this holiday season will see millions returning to the Alps for the first time since the pandemic. The resorts will be buzzing and the temptation to hit the slopes hard irrepressible for some—me included. My children — all adults now — will be with us at our house in France, together with partners and friends. How lucky are we to have this precious time together?

Which is why I’m planning to treasure it. And to do so by savouring ‘each’ rather than ‘every’ possible moment. The same goes for my plans this coming year. I want to walk the Tour du Mont Blanc, to climb a dozen classic routes, to get back in my kayak, run ten miles every week… but I know that I can’t.

So instead, I’m going to choose one of those and be content. Or more likely – for old habits die hard — one thing in its turn. This year, I celebrated my sixty-first birthday and am more keenly aware than ever, that despite life’s dandelion clock, there’s still abundant joy to be had in the mountains… so long as we slow down enough to enjoy it.

Wishing you a wonderful year.

This post has also been published as an editorial in the Austrian Alpine Club's monthly journal


Saturday, December 10, 2022

Back where he belongs

Four weeks ago my little whippet fractured his skull in a head-on full-speed collision that left me feeling sick with despair.  Fearful that my companion of these last three years was about to leave me, I did little more than hold him close and worry every waking hour.  If he could make it through the night (and then next...) he'd be okay I reasoned.

But what did I know?  The poor mite was in agony, confused and barely able to raise his head.  For days the swelling blooded his eyes and he'd whimper if I left the room.  What must have been going through his mind? 

I often wonder how dogs see the world. 

Pretty simply, I expect. We posit them greater intelligence than they have, anthropomorphise their behaviours and interpret their responses from our human perspective.  I laugh at owners having one-way conversations with their dogs... don't bark Winston, where're your manners ... only to do the same myself.  

Actually, I don't quite.  But if it's just me and Oscar in the house I conduct a running commentary on what I'm doing and thinking — or even writing.  He sits there impassive as I read each sentence and its intonations aloud — the only whippet to know the pause of a semi-colon!

Not that he'd understand its meaning.

But of course, what dogs do comprehend —and repay in abundance —is our companionship, our care and our trust. Perhaps it's this that bonds us so tightly. For words between us can never be more than superficial — at best, a few nouns and commands that set boundaries or shape routines. 

Trust, on the other hand, is mutual and profound.

So too the joy of co-presence; of shared experience, despite our different perceptions. To me the beach is as much sky and memory as it is sand and sea; to him, its smell and sound unfiltered — a place to romp and socialise ... or at least, that's what I sense.

Which is perhaps enough...

Yesterday, we went back to the place of his accident.  And he ran and ran... in circle after circle... chasing and returning... fully in his element... checking me in mine. In many ways, it was our most delightful walk this year.  Certainly, it drew my broadest smile — for you know what...

He's still the fastest dog on the beach. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Black Friday blues...

How many coats does one man need?

I write a column for an alpine club newsletter each month and thought I'd share my latest missive here on Views From The Bike Shed too.  

November reflections

Last week, when moving my motorbike in the garage its handlebars caught in the pocket of a jacket hanging nearby. Moments later, the sound of ripping fabric confirmed that my latest Gortex waterproof would now be sporting an extra-large vent across its front. After a few choice expletives, I put the bike on its stand and proceeded to remove all the coats from the rack.

Can you guess how many there were?

I’ll not tell you exactly, but let’s just say it was well into double figures. Which isn’t so bad, I reasoned, because, first of all, there are the seasons to consider: winter storm wear, summer showerproofs and autumn or spring mid-weights that double for trips to the pub. Then there’s that retro Scandinavian one, made of what we used to call poly-cotton but now some fancy pants equivalent. And lastly, there are a few that these days fit a bit snugly round the middle but I’m holding onto out of hope.

What's more, these are just my walking coats. There’s also the cycling kit, and the kayaking paraphernalia (a whole different world, believe me) — not to mention the ski gear or the various duvet jackets and the body warmers and the pack-a-macs and ponchos… Did I mention fleeces…? Honestly, the marketing guys must rub their hands when they see me coming!

But let me admit a little secret.

For all the kit that I own, the jacket I use the most is a twenty-five-year-old anorak that sports fraying seams, questionable grease stains and pockets full of sand. It’s much the same with footwear (another sad story, but we’ll not go there) for which, despite having every possible variation, I’ll most days opt for my handy pair of slip-on jungle mocs.

In fact, when I think about it, almost everything I reach for first is more battered than beautiful. My climbing gear is housed in a forty-year-old rucksack; my hat of choice came with me to Wales (so three decades ago) and I use the same pair of track pants that I did when I ran the Cardiff half-marathon in the Nineties.

Actually, they really could do with replacing…

But this year, as all those Black Friday offers come flooding in, I’m determined… indeed, I’m resolved, steadfast, hell-bent and adamant… that I won’t buy anything which isn’t absolutely necessary or an unmissable bargain (of course) or would boost my confidence or make me look slimmer or fill that gap between autumn and winter when the weather’s not quite one thing or the other…

Those marketing guys won’t be rubbing their hands quite so gleefully now, will they?

Have a great December.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Metal heads


In my twenties, I suffered a great deal from anxiety, caused I now realise by a sense of dislocation, a too-rapid and ill-grounded coming to terms with adulthood. That's long in the past now, but I remember my doctor back then saying, you know Mark if ever you get stressed, just go and polish your bikes.

At the time I lived in a small Northumberland village and everyone knew I cycled. His point was not that they needed cleaning - but rather, that when you're deeply upset, a physical and absorbing distraction is often the best and simplest medicine.  It's why I rock climbed so much, and why my bikes were always immaculate.

I was reminded of his advice this week when I travelled north, leaving my poor sick dog (whose accident had left me so distraught) to spend a day with Spike the Blacksmith. I've long loved the touch and form of metal objects; my house has Suffolk latches, handmade hooks for our coats, hearth irons on the fireplace...  There's a tangibility to them, and a mystery too, for I've often wondered how the curls and folds are beaten from the bars of iron.

Let's get you bashing, said Spike, twenty minutes after I arrived.

Her forge-cum-studio is in mid-wales, and I guess I expected more of a farrier feel than the gothic workshop that she'd shown me around.  I was treated first to her house of horrors Halloween room, complete with crawl through door, mock electric chair and a doll guillotine.  There was also a gallery, displaying metal and ceramic sculptures - a sort of mash-up of Damien Hurst, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois.  They're a response to love, she said.  Not everyone would get it.

But I did and we talked throughout the day about the edge between cliche and crap, about gothic horror (her thing) and artistic Romanticism (mine), about learning and making and forging — indeed, lots on forging and the process of trial and error, call and response, theme and variation; just like painting or writing.  It's a matter of feel as much as formula.

And of hammering too.  

No smwddio! Spike would demand as I tried to shape my glowing bar with more of a nudge than a straight bash. It's the colloquial Welsh word for ironing, pronounced 'smooth-e-o'. It made me laugh and kept me on point to hit the bar straight and true over the anvil that rung out - yes, it really did - as if it enjoyed its fifty thousandth strike as much as all the ones before.

Which reminded me of Oscar, and the way that every ball I throw is just as exciting as the last...  I showed Spike a photo of his head staples; they could be gothic piercings we laughed, and got quickly back to bashing... and bending our way through the morning's session.

By midday, I'd made two coat hooks and some S-shaped hangers in anticipation of the main project that afternoon. I wanted to make a fire pit tripod, I said, suspecting it might be a bit ambitious on day one, but buoyed by Spike's confidence and 'have a go' attitude.  I'd made good progress, she said, as we worked out the design using chalk and string and few 'yep, that'll dos'.

One of the attractions of blacksmithing, Spike said, is that it works on the basis of 'about right' rather than 'perfectly precise'. She's bang on (no smwdddio) the money; there's an iterative, work-it-out-as-you-go feel to the process: cutting, sanding, heating bashing, heating, bashing, heating... repeat as necessary...  

Then once you've got your points in order, bending and twisting in the jigs. It's all very manual, down to earth and matter of fact — and yet it's guided by a knowledge that's forged from the thousands of repetitive hours that make up any mastery.

No smwddio, she berates me again.

I was pleased with the tripod I made. In six hours, I'd gone from complete newbie to, might we say, novitiate? Can that word apply to a horror goth's pupil?  It could to Spike I reckon. 'I'd like to live for six hundred years,' she said, 'to acquire all the skills I need.' Learning is an all-consuming passion she claimed. 'When I'm working on my sculptures, I forget about everything else —I've been here twenty years but it's nowhere near enough.'

We finished my lessons with a polish of the pieces; a process that's rather like framing a picture — the painter's prize, they used to say.  It brings everything into sharp relief, reminds you of the intricacy and yet simplicity of it all; of the effort you'd made, and the room to improve... next time...

Talking of which, it was getting dark outside; the day had passed so swiftly that I'd barely noticed. Putting my tripod in the car I could have sworn there were bats in the courtyard, but maybe that's my imagination —or Spike's. As I drove home, I thought of poor Oscar and the metal in his head, of the metaphorical equivalent in mine - and of the two bikes in my shed, that could do with a clean sometime soon.

-----------

Spike Blackhurst is an artist-teacher and blacksmith, based at Llanbrynmair in Mid Wales. I attended a one-to-one blacksmithing course which I paid for myself and frankly, it was fab - bonkers too, but definitely fab!  https://spiketheblacksmith.co.uk/



And he's getting better...

Monday, November 14, 2022

Fractured

The thing about whippets is that almost everything is quick. Or slow depending on the clock. Oscar spends an hour at full pelt, followed by twenty-three on the sofa... watching me from the corner of his eye, hoping for food, fearing I might leave. .. 

Even for a moment.

Which is all it takes to fracture your skull when you're running at 30 kilometres an hour, towards a ball that a greyhound has spied from the opposite direction. The chase instinct in sighthounds is irrepressible, their focus fixed, and in Oscar's case, his running line so straight that nothing distracts.  It's a joy to watch.

Until bang... 

They collide at a combined speed of 50 kilometres and there's a tumble and Oscar's going head over heels, his legs buckled beneath him... 

And he's not moving anymore.  

As I run towards him he staggers to the owners of the greyhound, and my panic eases - no broken bones... Good boy, I call...  good boy, Oscar... it's alright.

Except it's not.  His head is split and there's blood —lots of it. The greyhound's owners are apologetic. I don't stop, say 'it's just dogs' and dash away, carrying him the length of the beach to the car; to the vets, to the vets...

He whimpers as I tear through the backroads, swearing at a tractor and again at an elderly driver slowing at the speed bumps.  Easy Mark, I say,  Better five minutes late in this world...

Ten more and I carry him into the arms of the nurse, who takes him away and suddenly I'm lost — as confused in my way as the poor mite being examined for what I'd hoped was merely a puncture wound.

That diagnosis was correct - only it goes all the way through his outer skull, stopping (we hope, but can't be sure) millimetres from his brain. There follows an explanation as to why X-rays aren't much use; talk of transferring him to Bristol and whether he'd manage the eight-hour trip. 

I feel sick; can't think.

Jane arrives and holds back tears. After more talking and waiting and calls and debate, they staple his wound and we take him home, hoping for the best. 

There's nothing more to be done, they say.  Just love and rest.

And all weekend it's been like a reversal.  

We sit on the sofa and watch him for any movement; willing him to eat; fearful he'll leave us. But he's a tough little thing, looking at me now with one eye open as I type.  We're seeing the vet at 11.00; praying it's just swelling. 

Funny how much you love these bundles of fur.  

We too will be fractured till he heals.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Hope

Cwm Idwal - photo by Saskia Janicki

Why would anyone climb a mountain? 

'Because it's there,' was George Malory's famous riposte when asked about attempting Everest. And to some extent he's right. But for all its pith, his answer does little to explain the subtler motivations of those of us who set our sights on lesser peaks.

I was reminded of this at the weekend when I went to North Wales with my rock climbing club. We camped under Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley, one of the most beautiful yet starkest in Snowdonia. There were ten of us in all: four novices, some accomplished leaders and me, who I guess you might class as a late returner—historically experienced, but distinctly lacking in practice! 

In truth, I was lacking in more than that. Strength for one thing diminishes with age, as does flexibility and perhaps most importantly confidence, which is impervious to bluff. Hence I was glad that my eldest son had come along to be my partner. We've climbed together a few times this summer, the roles gradually shifting from me as mentor to him as front runner on the rope.  

On Saturday we headed to Cwm Idwal, where its eponymous slabs host some of the valley's best known routes. The 'Ordinary' may be the easiest on the crag, but it's still five pitches of balance and counterpoise, requiring trust and technique to tackle it safely. Daniel was aware I'd once climbed it with his mum. What he didn't know, is that the lake below the cliff is where we'd walked hand in hand in the January rain and knew—with a certainty borne of love—that there was no going back.

Two years later we were married in a chapel at Betws y Coed, coming to the lake the day after our wedding as a sort of pilgrimage to its power. Another time, we found a red rose lodged in a crack on the slabs, and with it a note from a girl to her boyfriend who'd died in the Himalayas. All this came back as I climbed—slowly and without much elegance—on Saturday.

But there is more to our passion than speed or style. Indeed this weekend one party had a late finish, requiring a descent in the dark that will no doubt live in their memory.  And happily so, for all were safe and smiling on their return, bonded not broken by the experience. Just as all the best climbing should be.

Another member scrambled up Tryfan only to drive thirty miles south to Cadair Idris and jog to its summit. That's over 5,000 feet in a day: dismay for some; a delight for those who are able. How I wish that ever I were...  Mountains are about more than ropes and harnesses.

This weekend I saw walkers and cyclists, runners and kayakers, cake eating tourists (me among them) and families exploring the lower paths.  There was even a hot air balloon inflated at night at Capel Curig! On the way to Idwal we passed a woman with twisted hips, each step a labour of effort, leaning on her sticks every few yards.  As we went by she beamed the broadest of smiles.

And then, there are the new friendships I made, the views at dusk, the marvelling at the milky way...  the sheer bloody joy of being in such a special place. It's been said we climb mountains, not for the views from the top, but from the bottom. Those who love the hills, or know any landscape intimately, will understand what that's getting at. 

On Sunday I was tired, my son's girlfriend joined us and wanted to climb too. I was glad, for I felt in some intangible way that my part was done; that it was their turn now. They headed back to Cwm Idwal to climb a different but parallel line to the one I'd chosen the day before. It would be their memory not mine, their time and their experience together. 

The route was called Hope.