Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Different Times, Different Values

This is not really about running, but running provides a way in, if you like, to a wider subject maybe worth exploring.

I decided to take a turn up Snowdon yesterday to make the most of what looks like the last day of this spell of fine weather we've been having. It's not too far from where I live so I was off up the track from Llanberis just after 7.30am. After a mile or so I was passed by a number of people coming down, maybe a dozen in twos and threes, fairly spaced out. The usual good mornings were exchanged but their presence puzzled me at first, you don't often see people going in that direction at this hour, but the giveaway was the facial expressions, a combination of tiredness and satisfaction; they were clearly coming to the welcome ending of a "three peaks" trip.

Combining ascents of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in a continuous expedition seems to have become rather popular in recent years. I know there are some who don't like the idea, but if it gets a few more of our largely sedentary population out into the hills occasionally, then so long as they don't annoy the residents of Seathwaite and wherever else they might impact, then it's fine by me. With an average bit of fitness it's possible to complete the outing in 24 hours without breaking any speed limits, so that seems to be the normal "challenge" deal.

Now this is all fine and dandy, but then a somewhat piratical friend of mine announced that one of the West Highland Way race family had recently completed a solo trip in under 19 hours, and did anyone know of other such completions. I should have kept quiet of course but I didn't, and added to the discussion, I suspect to some incredulity, by saying that in my youth a reasonable target was felt to be 12 hours from the top of the Ben to the top of Snowdon. I should have kept quiet because you can't feasibly do this sort of thing nowadays, and what is maybe more significant is that we all know that it would be pretty irresponsible to try. But having opened this particular box, should I firmly close it again or try to explain what's inside?

It comes down to this. Do I and my generation take a more sensible attitude to driving now simply because we are older, or because the world and its values have changed? I'll leave you to work that one out, but here's a bit of background, history, and I hope not too much nostalgia.

I passed my driving test in 1965.  At that time there were no seat belts in cars, no speed cameras, no breathalyzer. The MOT test had come in a few years earlier but it covered only lights, brakes and steering and took about 5 minutes to carry out. Petrol was 25p for 4,5 litres (5 bob a gallon). Old cars were cheap. In 1967 three of us bought a Ford Popular for £15, squeaked it through the MOT and drove it to Athens and back.

But in my first 8 years of driving I was involved in three crashes in which the car I was travelling was a write-off (on 2 of these occasions I was driving, one was definitely my fault). It was sort of par for the course. In 2014 there were 36 million cars on UK roads, and collisions resulted in 1800 deaths. With barely 10 million vehicles in 1966, the death total was just short of 8000. Everyone knew these figures back in the 60's, but they had no effect on driving culture. Perhaps the best illustration of the general attitude towards speed was when the speed camera was first introduced onto UK roads, as late as 1992. The first camera was installed on a dual carriageway in Surrey which had carried a 40mph speed limit for some time. It was set to trip at 60mph because the argument at the time was "we only want to catch the worst offenders".  In 22 days of operation it recorded 23,000 drivers exceeding 65mph. I had an Italian colleague sometime in the 1990's who explained to me in all seriousness the prevailing attitude towards speed limits in Italy at the time "You have to understand" , he said, "that we view the limits not so much as laws but more as........ suggestions".  Before speed cameras were introduced, I don't think the UK could have claimed to be a whole lot better.

So by the mid seventies we had good jobs and could afford good cars, and of course for the climbing fraternity (in those days thought of much more as a lunatic fringe rather than the establishment activity it is nowadays), fast journeys from our base in the Chester area to North Wales and Scotland were possible. There was then no North Wales Coast Road (well there was but it was single carriageway and went through all the towns), no motorways north of Carlisle, no bridge at Ballachulish, but the only way you were going to get caught speeding was by being followed by a police car for the statutory three tenths of a mile  -  and if you were a competent driver that wasn't going to happen.

The following is an article I wrote for the Chester Mountaineering Club Journal in 1977. It has one or two CMC "in" jokes but I don't think that gets in the way of understanding for the general reader:

"The Transport Game

Fundamental laws tend to govern most things, and even the climbing weekend has not escaped the ravages of the scientific brain. Basically, the first law says that the sum of climbing time, sleeping time, drinking time and driving time is a constant. Since it follows that any reduction in the last of these factors increases the potential enjoyment of the others, motor transport has always been a subject dear to most climbers' hearts. Unfortunately, the second law says that during any climbing weekend driving is inevitable, while climbing is at best only probable. Consequently, the average climber has a far greater chance of finding himself out of control in the horizontal plane than in the vertical. With this in mind, we ask what are the guidelines for keeping body, mind and wallet reasonably intact?

First choose your weapon. To be fair, the ideal climber's car is not currently on the market, presenting a golden opportunity for the enterprising motor manufacturer. Basic requirements are to carry four climbers and their gear at a steady 90mph while returning 50mpg. Shape and colour are not important as most climbers modify these periodically with the aid of trees, stone walls, etc. The once ubiquitous Morris Minor van is now losing popularity because (a) they don't make them any longer, and (b) they don't stand up too well to the Friday night burn up to Scotland that the M6 has made possible.  A Morris Minor which I had once failed to get up the hill to Pen Ceunant, so I don't rate them anyway, especially as the brakes weren't too good on that particular car and I ended up reversing into the field quite quickly. Sports cars are OK for posing and quite good on pace but definitely unsuited to the style of lightweight camping to which Colin Green is accustomed. Better settle for something bigger, estates being favourite at the moment. But by far the most important point to remember when choosing a car for the weekend's climbing is to make sure that it isn't your own. You only share petrol, not depreciation, and in any case you get more sleep if you don't have to do the driving.

This means of course that you have to learn to be a relaxed passenger, otherwise you don't get any rest and the ploy becomes self-defeating. Just tell yourself that the man with glazed eyes and locked hands hurtling you across a pitch black Rannoch Moor at 80mph on two inches of damp slush knows what he's doing, even if both of you really know the truth. I was once driving another CMC member down to Wales in my trusty Spitfire when we came unstuck on an icy downhill stretch coming over the Clwyds. With awesome detachment he sat through all the excitement unflinchingly, just murmuring "fight it, fight it" to himself as we went into the third spin, and "nice one" when I finally got things sorted out. This same stalwart when being slid sideways towards the parapet of the bridge at the Ugly House on the A5 by another CMC driver was heard to remark phlegmatically "I notice you only do that when the wall's on my side". Passengers like this are worth their weight in gold.

Though driving styles in the club vary greatly (some might say dramatically), drivers with a cool party and finding good conditions have been able to complete some of the classic routes in considerably less than the guidebook times in recent years. CMC teams have done Glencoe in four and a half hours and the Llanberis Pass in under the hour, though even the driver admitted to being "quite worried at times" on the latter expedition. These times seem unremarkable however when compared with the feats of one legendary Dr Moore (see "Rockclimbers in action in Snowdonia" by Tony Smythe) who managed to average 76mph between Marble Arch and the Pen-y-Gwryd before the M1 was built. Perhaps the younger generation just doesn't have the class. Some CMC drivers, while showing little interest in the classics, have become technical experts in their local routes. One in particular is famed for his vituoso performances across Minera Moor (usually in a vehicle not his own!)

Once at the climbing ground the next challenge for the climber is to drive as near as he can to the chosen crag, eliminating as far as possible any involvement in walking. The rules of this part of the game have changed over the years, and it's unlikely whether the modern climber would get away with leaving his car by the side of Llyn Llyddau as did Menlove Edwards (see the photo in Mountain 25). Outcrops and quarries are of course relatively easy, it's possible to belay from your bumper at places like Millstone and Denham. I once drove up to Stanage High Neb in a Landrover, but one always has the suspicion that these tactics would be frowned on by the NP Warden. The same goes for places like Carreg Alltrem, which is either a roadside crag or a nasty walk depending on your moral stance and your relationships with the Forestry Commission. Some fairly high crags are still fair game for the technical driver however, Dow being a notable example. Full marks to the unknown driver who parked his Citroen Dyane above a bit of the track which we had found hard enough going on foot.

This aspect of the transport game takes on another dimension abroad, probably because the rewards (in terms of height gained) for persistent driving are so much greater. It's easy to put the smell of burning clutch to the back of your mind when you know the alternative is a 3 hour hut slog. Not that this sort of thing is without its drawbacks, for instance over half the 4500ft from the valley to the Sciora Hut in the Bregaglia can be driven, but the track then comes to a dead end with hardly any turning space. Drive up there on a Friday night and you're stuck until Sunday, like it or not, parked in by a few dozen mad German weekenders. The Dolomites in particular have more than their fair share of attractive excursions, very often extolled by the guidebook. For example, in the approach directions for the Cinque Torri Hut one reads that "it is possible to drive a long way up to the hut, but the last section will defeat many drivers, especially after rain." One CMC driver decided we couldn't possibly duck a challenge like this, so we arrived triumphantly at the hut amidst clouds of dust, flying gravel and and burning rubber, only to find a battered Fiat 500 which clearly did the trip every day parked by the door. Rather deflating, but I suppose that Italian driving in general is something rather special, so Italian climbers must have the edge over most of us, more than making up in flair what they lack in technique. They are in fact prepared to crash, with the sort of commitment which once provoked a CMC gentleman climber witnessing a more determined friend fighting a Frodsham overhang to remark "Good Lord, you're actually prepared to fall off!" I once commented to a Yugoslavian friend (another nationality not exactly noted for their consistency on the tarmac) on the recklessness of Italian drivers. "No, no" he replied gravely, "they are excellent drivers  -  they drive with courage" !

As long as our society creates jobs and mountains as far apart as at present, the driving climber will continue to impress himself and disturb other road users. So to get the most out of your weekends, remember the rules of the game. Don't ask your prospective partner whether he can lead HVS, ask him how fast his car is!"

Such a piece would be met with justified opprobrium nowadays of course, but forty years ago it fitted the mood and culture of the times. And I didn't even mention the Alpine trips where we would leave work in Chester on Friday evening and expect to be climbing in Switzerland the following morning, or the time we drove back from the Verdon Gorge in Provence to Chester at an average speed of over 60mph (including the stops for fuel and the channel ferry trip). Crazy.

I'm not a petrol-head but it's a rare bloke who doesn't retain at least some interest in cars. These days I still have a Caterham 7, but although it goes round bends with amazing agility and is able to overtake in places that sometimes surprises people, I keep pretty well to the laws of the land. Maybe it's the culture, maybe it's the policing, but I like to think that I have grown out of the irresponsibilities of those earlier times. Mea culpa. Or as the finest poet of the twentieth century once put it...

"Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now".

Postscript: In the same 1977 journal from which I took the article above, I found another one written by one of a pair of CMC members on their experience in the 1976 Fellsman. I knew the guys in question, they were good climbers but they wouldn't have done any particular training for the Fellsman trip, they wouldn't even have thought of it. They had (what seems to be normal for the event) pretty appalling weather and got round in 22 hours. Not too shabby. Different times, different values.

1 comment:

Rob said...

That was brilliant!

The piece from 1977 had me splitting my sides, with tears rolling down and exclamations of "YESS that's exactly what it was like!" and a vivid recall of my heyday in my frog-eyed Sprite.

Never mind that it wasn't about running - it was about LIFE!