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Extreme Rock: Great British Rock Climbs

Extreme Rock: Great British Rock Climbs. Ken Wilson and Bernard Newman. Diadem Books, London, 1987. 296 pages, color photographs, line drawings, bibliography. £27.95.

This colorful and exciting book gives us an insider’s view of the contemporary British rock-climbing scene. But more than that, because rock climbing today is so international, with the best climbers visiting the hot crags wherever they may be, it is a look at the sport in general. The format is similar to that employed in Ken Wilson’s other books in the series such as Hard Rock: a region-by-region approach with different authors writing about their experience on one or more routes. This approach naturally leads to a considerable variety of writing skills. Some of the articles are excellent, conveying a sense of being there with the author on the crag, and setting the climbs in an historical perspective, while others are more pedestrian in nature. Nonetheless a very good picture of the top players and their motives emerges.

While the writing may be uneven, the pictures are generally excellent. Drawn from many sources, here are surely some of the finest action pictures of contemporary rock climbers. It is apparent that the photographers were not just present by chance, but took great pains to position themselves for the really telling shot. With these photographs we can almost feel the effort involved in getting to grips with this intimidating terrain.

Almost two-thirds of the photographs are in color, and this sets up the interesting thought that the balance of black and whites are from an earlier era. An inspection reveals that a few of the black and whites are indeed older, but in general they appear to be conversions from color. The result is that while the color pictures are crisp and dramatic, the black and whites are often washed out, lacking in detail, and thus appear dated. This perception brings to mind a talk by the producer of a documentary film of the Kennedy years. Taken for the most part from the news footage, the resulting color film caused people to question its authenticity and suggest it had been re-enacted. Viewers recalled the TV news of that era in black and white, as most people then still had black and white TVs. In order for the film to be accepted the makers had to convert it to black and white!

This disturbing contrast in the feel of the pictures in Extreme Rock took me back to two earlier books, John Cleare’s Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia (1966) and Ken Wilson’s Hard Rock (1974). Spaced about a decade apart, the three books reveal a fascinating change in the sport. In Cleare’s book those two sixties pioneers Peter Crew and Barry Ingle are very much the stars. We see the first primitive nut protection, real machine nuts threaded onto the laid-nylon rope slings of the day; waist tie-ins; piton hammers and a couple of pitons dangling from the leader; knickers or long pants and heavy sweaters; and routes that by today’s standards seem generously supplied with holds. The crags themselves appear cold and dark; the prevailing mood is somber.

By the mid seventies the field of play covered in Hard Rock has expanded to include all manner of outcrops and sea cliffs, but the mountain crags of Snowdonia and the Lake District still look just as dank and the climbers are still bundled up against the elements. Hard hats are now pretty much in vogue; the protection nuts are the early custom-made stoppers and the hex’s; climbing harnesses are beginning to appear; piton hammers are still seen; some of the pictures show other parties on adjacent routes; and the walls are steeper and the holds are smaller.

As revealed in Extreme Rock, today’s clothing runs to tights and shorts; hard hats and piton hammers have pretty much been gone; protection devices such as Friends are far more sophisticated; the crags are getting crowded; and the routes look steep and difficult. All these changes are quite understandable. More puzzling is the apparent change in the weather; what do these climbers in shorts and muscle shirts know that the earlier generations did not? The contrast is strikingly made in Extreme Rock by the wonderful picture of Peter Crew and Al Harris in 1964, bundled up in parkas and festooned with ropes, and the pictures on the very next pages of bare-chested athletes powering their way up the very same crag. And, mirabile dictu, the sun now seems to be shining in Snowdonia. What accounts for the apparent change in Britain’s notorious weather? In part the different appearance of crag and climber may be due to the fact that the climbers of yesteryear were off in the Alps or someplace else during Britain’s brief summer and so not available to be photographed; today’s top performers cannot afford, in Joe Brown’s words, to go “traipsing about with a bloody ice axe.” The competition is too intense.

Another reason has to do with the self-perception of the participants. The sixties climbers still looked to the Alps and saw themselves in the mountaineer mold. By the eighties we have more specialists, whose self-perception is not as an alpinist but as an athlete and rock jock. Serious athletes cannot perform in cast-off clothing. The sport has evolved from an eccentric activity for oddballs, to a mainstream activity for athletes: no wonder that the standards of difficulty are shooting up.

But there is disquiet in the land. The book ends with a timely observation about “the French style of pre-placing fixed protection and practising hard routes exhaustively on top ropes before attempting an elegant free lead,” and goes on to say “If seductive continental styles of unrestricted bolt protection become the norm, all existing poorly protected routes would eventually be threatened, and the whole adventurous and ethical edifice built up over the years would be critically weakened, in favor of a safer, clinical and no doubt gymnastically superior activity.” If that happens, Ken Wilson’s next book on difficult British rock climbing will have yet another interesting story to tell.

Christopher Jones