Tony Barley’s Wild Bouldering In Yorkshire is a slim volume which makes little impact on the guidebook shelf lineup alongside the likes of fat, shouty Yorkshire Gritstone. It doesn’t have many pictures, it’s not very shiny and I haven’t even been to that many of the crags featured in it. But it’s still one of my most treasured guides.
It’s not just a guide, it’s more than that: it’s a declaration of love for the little outcrops which escaped the notice of most others. It illustrates his secretive, exploratory nature beautifully, and records years of local adventuring.
Tony Barley died in August after a long running battle with heart disease. Reading his obituary in Climber magazine, the author refers to Barley’s bid to get on the transplant list. His age and underlying complications made him an unlikely candidate for a transplant. With his life literally hanging in the balance, he presented the doctors with two things to tip the balance in his favour: a series of technical engineering papers and a copy of Wild Bouldering in Yorkshire – with plans for the second edition. It was probably the practical importance of Barley to civil engineering that sealed the deal and a spot on the waiting list, but I like to think that it just might have been the slim, stapled guidebook that swung the needle in his favour.
Volume II will probably never be made, but despite this, with the first volume he left the Yorkshire climber with an inspiring guide to what the grit holds in the wooded valleys and remote moors, far from the exoteric.
I never met Tony Barley, but I wish I had.
Today is a good day. The latest copy of Summit magazine is out, and with it my second back page slot in less than a week. I’m super proud of this one, but not because I got the story published. I’m chuffed, granted; for a self styled ‘struggling young writer’ any byeline in a decent magazine is worth it, even if it is for free.
I think, pretty much definitely, that summer is over. The wind has an autumnal chill, the leaves are yellowing and crisping around the edges, and the air has that earthy, moist smell of decomposition that marks the start of the autumn. It’s been quite a summer of climbing, and I’ve been seeking out quality routes here there and everywhere, chasing the stars like some sort of crazed paparazzo drooling at the mouth: four star classics in Glen Etive; viciously coarse gabbro on Skye; perfect granite cracks and sinuous razor ridges in the alps; lazy roadside granite in Cornwall; and breathtaking sea cliffs on Lundy.
I’d seen the glen from the summits of the famous Glen Coe peaks, seen the pewter glint of wintry sun reflecting off the loch that curls lazily to the sea. I’d seen it and I thought it was just another valley, just another gap between hills to climb: usual trees, usual loch, usual river. But it isn’t. Along the valley floor, the muted tweed greens are picked out with the vibrant stinging pink of invading rhododendrons. From this angle, the usually iconic Buchaille is a defiantly lumpy mountain, not the shapely rock as seen from the north. And yet, it’s still rather beautiful, still an appealing target. You feel you are seeing the hidden side of the mountain. You are seeing something special beyond the calendar shots.
The road winds along, unfurling the glen in its oil painting beauty, and there, at what feels like it should be the head of the valley, but is really the sea, starts the loch. On the right, up on the hillside, are the Etive slabs – a sliding stack of granite offering routes of the highest quality with the barest mention of polish or wear and tear. To look back up the valley from the top of the slabs you are blessed with one of the best views in Scotland.
It was a stuffy, warm day when we climbed there at the start of June and we finished with a skinny dip in the Loch to wash off the grease of the day.
I do like a well turned phrase. I have been reading the Guardian Book of Mountains, an anthology charting the surprisingly frequent appearances of mountaineering in the paper’s pages, in both its current form and its previous guise as the Manchester Guardian. A series of editors and leader writers were enthusiastic and almost evangelical in their treatment of climbing and walking.
In a strange little piece entitled Meals Out Of Doors, published August 27th 1925, the mysteriously initialed AJA writes of the ‘greatest earthly joy’ of the al fresco dinner. ‘To get the full flavour’ he says, ‘one should spend a week tramping over the passes of the Dolomites, sleeping in the Alpine Club huts and enduring the spartan rigours.’
What a delicious phrase ‘spartan rigours’ is: dated, descriptive and suggestive.
The first climbing magazine I bought had Joe Brown on the front, and I bought it because it was the first climbing magazine I’d ever seen. It was a copy of High and everything I knew about the climbing scene was contained within its pages. Joe was climbing Right Unconquerable again, except this time he was coloured in. I remember looking at the black and white photos of the first ascent, and thinking ‘wow’ about the whole thing, even though I didn’t know where it was. It was important, I knew that much. In front of Joe’s face, underneath the clingy plastic wrapper, was a Power Bar. This is what I have to eat from now on, I assumed. I have tried to make it as a climber who doesn’t eat Power Bars, since that first taste and the five-minute-chew which followed.
I guess it’s worked, because about 11 years since my first purchase, I am standing in a newsagent secretly reading a copy of Climber. Reading it because I am one, I guess, and reading it secretly because I spent all my pocket money on going to the Alps. John Horscroft has been going out to lunch to write his column for longer than I’ve even been climbing, and he’s finally saying his farewells from the slot under the back jacket. And I’m going to replace him, with a short interview column. It feels weird. For the first time, it hits home that I actually might be a writer, that it isn’t just a pipe dream any more.
I put the magazine back on the shelf and buy some fruit pastilles, to show the shopkeeper I know it’s not a library.