Kendal Confessions 2010by Alan James - UKC and UKH Nov/2010
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In a dramatic change from 2009 where the Kendal Mountain Festival was plagued by bad weather, this year's tribal gathering of climbers and mountaineers was plagued by good weather. Mornings revealed beautiful lakeland cloud-inversions tempting everyone out on the hill but for those who resisted the temptation, what was there on offer?
I am a non-climber; I have that on good authority. In fact, the authority is so good that protest is pointless. I could produce a list of efforts which usually goes some way to impress the very general public, or bring up the epic seconding of an E1, once. But it is no use. The authority knows of these accomplishments, and they do not seem to make a shred of difference.
In spite of this confirmed non-belonging, I attended a chunk of the Kendal Mountain Film festival last week. For I may be a non-climber, but I owe a lot to climbing. Climbing got me a husband, a brother-in-law, and by lucky extension children and a nice bunch who call me auntie. Not only that, climbing takes them all away at regular intervals, bringing domestic calm and sustained marital harmony. And so far has returned them too. So a qualification is needed: I am a non-climber, who loves climbing. For odd reasons perhaps, but still.
It may well be that the Kendal Festival is a great event for members of the climbing community, for and by whom it is organized. But what does it have for those who do not belong?
I planned to find out. A borrowed jacket and a scarf seemed sufficient disguise. No one let on anyway. Then I just sat, to witness some unimagined feats of verticality.
- A certain Leo Houlding had been trying to break new ground on El Cap. Repeatedly. The resulting personal triumph was a new route, The Prophet, and a highly watchable film with the sympathetic portrayal of his right-hand man, Jason Pickles, as a subtle subplot. No results without right hands in climbing circles either, clearly.
- To think that this world contains Pou-brothers! Even non-climbers realise that Demencia Senil is a strange name for a great human achievement, inspiringly done with glasses on! The way the duo seems to pursue all their mountain aspirations together is quite touching. God forbid something happens to one of them, if only for that reason.
- In The Pinnacle, Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner helped Paul Diffley craft a very lovely film indeed. They repeated a number of classic ice routes done by Robin Smith and Jimmy Marshall on Ben Nevis, 50 years ago to the day. An intelligent, sensitive and at times funny homage with Jimmy as the star, celebrating the solid connection between the past and the present in great style.
- Los Fabulosos ¡Dos! is an altogether different beast. Filmed in Patagonia, it proves that climbing can also unite the boys with the men. Bar the use of outrageously creative editing, the film presents hardy and very grown-up young people. They throw up a smokescreen of wildness and a touch of playful irresponsibility, but this fails to hide the fact that they know what they're doing. George Ullrich and friend Pete Rhodes followed up with a talk about this and other exploits. Climbing aside, how anyone arranges contacts of their calibre is a mystery. They hitched fantastic boat rides and stayed in villages .. on Greenland!
- Timmy O'Neill's partly musical show is different, not least because of its strong antidote to the pervasive patronizing attitude to people with a physical handicap. Because of that, he is a loud and entertaining force for good. One that may benefit from a few percussion lessons though..
But as great as all this was, the truth is that I had not come because of any of it. I came to Kendal for only one man. When in May 1978 the news broke that Everest had allowed an ascent without oxygen, I lived below sea level and had never seen a mountain. Yet, neither fact stood in the way of realising the significance of this achievement. What was thought impossible, could be done. The names Habeler and Messner etched themselves in millions of minds, mine included. I never thought that I would set eyes on one of the main actors involved. But I did!
Herr Habeler turned out a lithe, handsome, well-moving man. He looked younger than his 68 years, and did not need long to prove that there is no British monopoly on self-deprecation and amusing understatements. He explained the run-up to the feat, trying to make it all seem much less heroic than it was. Achieving the opposite. His focus on lightness and speed brought home that even Ueli Steck stands anchored on shoulders of giants. And then there was the sense that he omitted far more than he included; no doubt for the benefit of several of the involved.
In later years, his work had made him meet many famous people, so he said, implying he is not one of them. The endearing example was his pride in having guided for the bishop of Innsbruck, pictures of which clearly brought back fond memories which.. he kept to himself. Too right. A hero with an unexpected hero.
Peter Habeler's talk was well rounded and entertaining, although he obviously has material for many hours more. It was a glimpse, delivered by a gracious individual with sound judgement. And seemingly without trying, he made a convincing case that he deserved to be where he was on the 8th of May 1978.
“Das freut mich sehr”, he answered, when I said I had liked the presentation, and shook my hand. Suddenly I was back in the room below sea level, listening to the radio and imagining two men on an impossible mountain. Bizarre..
What the Kendal Mountain Festival is like for climbers, I have no idea. But I know now what it is like for someone moving in the outer periphery of the climbing world. I'll hang on to that jacket and scarf. I need them next year.
With thanks to the authority and Paul and Mick, facilitators..
A good weather forecast for Kendal always generates a twinge of guilt, but it was certainly a positive step change from the drama of last year's floods. An easy Thursday journey up from Nottingham and we soon plunge into evening films; including the world premier of The Prophet, still warm from the oven of the editing suite and played to an eager, if half full, room. Alistair Lee gave the perfect warm up, full of passion about the project intent and joking that you certainly know who your friends are on Thursday night premieres. The film worked for us, less polish than the Asgard Project maybe but more climbing focussed: a fight for a new line on El Cap to be climbed in a single push with the result in doubt to the very end. Leo hadn't seen the final version before and it showed: the usual Q&A coda almost morphed into a soliloquy, with barely controlled emotions. A deserved winner of the Kendal Grand Prize.
Friday, as ever, we watch films before the crowds of the weekend. A screen was lost to Pottermania but in good spirit: no ice axes were crossed with wands. The selections were of the usual high standard, despite some quirky positioning in some of the named sets. Our favourite of the day was Asgard Jamming, an amazing Baffin ascent by some Belgian alpinists; turned into one of those perfect cinematic combinations of laughter, adrenaline and scenic eye candy. We always enjoy the shorts for their distilled essence of adventure, the Cartoon Uruca being our favourite this year. The festival should make more of these: a smorgasbord of the best, including the film workshop winner, would be delicious weekend lunchtime treat.
For the weekend events we always try and focus on the overseas leading edge climbers and rising young stars; the freshness and enthusiasm is obvious and we can never quite fathom the empty seats.
The last day dawns and we stutter out of bed. Coffee and catch-up with the hungover: some odd sleeping places and conflict over the party quality. The highlight of the day, and our favourite presentation this year, was Twid Turner with Stuart McAleese and their wry tale of a touch-and-go 21 day ascent of (and narrow escape from) a Baffin big wall. Finally a walk to Kendal College for the MEF/AC/BMC talks: three young climbers presenting the results of their part-funded expeditions; always well crafted and fun filled. They show what can be done to chase dreams and illustrate the vast climbing potential that still exists in our 'small' modern world; they also allow the audience to meet people who can explain and assist in future grant applications and are free of charge...so highly recommended to any young climbers (providing they have recovered well from the party).
The true 'Best of Kendal' is always the bits between the organised events. Some sights are unique: Niall Grimes, mid massage, whilst his boss tries to give a serious presentation, discovering soft female hands transform to those of a hardened route setter; Kenton Cool well aware of the dangers of Everest but less so of podiums lacking proper steps; the Bowmore Whisky Masterclass on how to handle a genuine drunk.... just to relate some that you can publicly mention. The art exhibitions were stunning this year: Jamie Hageman's hyper-realistic paintings of Scottish winter mountains was maybe our all-time festival favourite but Ed Luke, Alistair Lee, Susan Dobson and John Norris all had some stunning work on show. In the three festival bars we had a chance to chat about our BMC Froggatt baby and the forthcoming masterworks on Moorland and Yorkshire grit. We were chuffed that Ron Fawcett and Ed Douglas won the Boardman-Tasker; great news also for the publishing crew at Vertebrate Graphics (maybe with their new found success they will reconsider our sure-fire proposal: Great Cycle Commutes of the East Midlands).
An easy journey home where Steve muses on friends, inspiration, and how the festival could be improved; top of the list as ever: it is 'crying out' for counter-balancing fringe events that will suit a younger audience, high on potential but short on cash. Lynn long ago closed tired eyes, counted pitches from an El Cap topo and started to gently dream.
Soon after arriving at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival I was told I must visit two outstanding and fascinatingly complementary shows that were being exhibited alongside each other: John Norris's photographs (Fleurs de Montaigne) and Jamie Hageman's paintings. The former I was told were photographs that look like paintings, and the latter, paintings that look like photographs. The photographs – of mountain flowers against white backgrounds – were indeed extraordinary in that they looked at first sight like the product of some very sophisticated studio set-up combined with very clever Photoshop work that had turned them into fine art works of the utmost delicacy. How wrong one can be! For I was astonished to find out that all these alpine flowers had simply been shot in the wild, often in quite windy conditions, using pieces of white card as backgrounds, and that there had been virtually no Photoshop work involved. Better, not a single flower had been cut. This was indeed botanical photography at its purest and finest, with the implicit theme of 'nature as artist'.
And so I moved on to Jamie Hageman's exhibition of paintings next door. Although this was attracting a huge amount of attention, I almost immediately overheard someone using the term 'photographic', rather derogatively. Just how wrong they were I discovered in a matter of seconds, when I found myself looking at some of the most astonishing mountain paintings I have ever encountered, that go so far beyond the mere 'photographic' as to make any such comparison completely inept.
As with John Norris's exhibition, the overriding, unspoken theme is that of 'nature as artist', yet such is Hageman's intense oneness with his mountain landscapes that his paintings seem the happy product of the meeting of two artists: nature and himself. It's not just that he has a total mastery of his (acrylic) medium – his craftsmanship is indeed truly extraordinary – it is that he transcends the pictorial in every way. Here we are sharing the intense emotional impact that these landscapes have on him, rather than simply looking at some beautiful mountain scenes. In other words, these are paintings that come from the heart as well as the eye; and their poetic impact on the viewer cannot be exaggerated. So intense is the subjective experience that the pictures become quite hypnotic.
So I found myself sitting completely entranced in front of a snowy sunlit alpine vision of Sgurr nan Gillean in winter (made all the more pleasant by a free sample of malt whisky that was magically offered to me on a silver tray) – wondering if I had ever seen an artist rendering the penumbra on the edges of the shadows on the snow quite like that before – when I realised that there was someone else sitting next to me who appeared to be equally mesmerised.
'Amazing, isn't it?' I said.
'Yes – I've come here every night for six days running.'
'Do you work here?' I asked in astonishment.
'No, I've come for my daily shot.'
Although Hageman's work is billed as 'hyper-realism' this is a realism that verges on the surreal, the uncanny even. His pictures have an 'aura' about them that reminds me vaguely of the work of the German romantic, Caspar David Friedrich. Yet Jamie's romanticism has none of the German Romantics' mysticism, the hint of 'messages', or troubled onlookers. There are no people in his pictures, nor indeed any life of any kind. These are raw landscapes pure and simple. Well, pure and very subtle, because he clearly loves the detail in all he sees – the intricate, serpentine line of snow against an azure sky, the mysterious blue-grey shadows, the wreathing mists and the frozen streams and waterfalls. And it is all honed to perfection as a labour of love. There is nothing vague about the textures of rock and snow, and mist and cloud: all is rendered – thanks to his razor-sharp eye – with extraordinary precision. Above all, it is his mastery of the infinite nuances of light that stuns me most; indeed I cannot remember ever having seen the qualities of light on snow captured quite so accurately – as, for example, on the summit snows of Ben Nevis, or ice and frost on the misty rocks of Am Basteir – perhaps the finest picture in the exhibition for its sheer technical perfection. (This is why I am a lot less impressed by his drawings; because, for me, his genius resides in his ability to capture all the nuances of light and colour in a mountain landscape.)
The intense realism of the moment is not 'petrified', but somehow reaches out towards something beyond the moment. Everywhere there is the paradox of hard reality steeped in a kind of magic ideality, so that we find ourselves gazing at a visual paradise on earth that is at the same time utterly indifferent to our worldly cares. Yet the paradox is, as Schumann said of music, that 'the soul feels as if it were in its own homeland'. Mine did anyway.
So I come finally to the large canvas of Mullach an Rathain on the 'secret' north side of Liathach. Here the dualism between abstraction and reality is at its most striking, with the background snows rendered in a more abstract manner, while the middle distance is depicted with photographic precision; and then the foreground loch again reflects the background snows in a yet more abstract manner. But it is at the boundary between the two, around the frozen shoreline, that something exceptionally exciting happens, where the harsh reality of the frozen corrie gives way to the fantastic vision in the loch. It is only when one compares Jamie's picture with a photograph of the same scene in winter, from roughly the same viewpoint, that one sees just how far his painting skills have transcended his 'photographic' eye.
by Alan James
This was my fourth or fifth Kendal, I lose count, and confirmed my suspicion that, the more you see, the more you get out of it. I tend to concentrate more on the lectures than the films and this year was no different apart from making time for a couple of outstanding film premieres - The Prophet and The Pinnacle. I didn't see many others but both the jury and the people seemed to agree that this wasn't a bad choice if you only watched two films. For the full list of the Kendal Film Winners, see the UKC News item here.
The lectures are the one-offs; the personal performances, and a chance to see some amazing individuals in the flesh. In addition to the Pou brothers, Peter Habeler, George Ullrich and Pete Rhodes, I also managed to catch Stephan Siegrist early on Sunday morning - When Earth Meets Sky. This gave an interesting counterpart to a Alex Huber lecture I saw last year which covered the same trip from the Huberbaum perspective. Stephan was more understated but also more informative, covering some of the logistical nightmares organising a trip to Antartica entails - a fascinating story and very well told. For most in the audience though the abiding memory will probably be one of collective British shame as Stephan recounted the appearance of Bear Grylls and his circus of publicity-seeking idiots violating this sacred place with their pathetic, pseudo-environmental, ill-informed antics seemingly unaware that they were in the presence of three of Europe's top mountaineers.
New for Kendal 2010 was the Marmot Night dubbed 'The Slacker's Guide to Climbing'.
The format; host John Horscroft was to quiz Steve Mcclure and Lucy Creamer about their climbing, motivation and how such 'slackers' got to be so damn good at climbing.
The hitch; Lucy had to withdraw at the last minute for personal reasons.
The solution; grab Rab Carrington, current BMC President as a more-than-capable replacement.
The headache; pulling this all off with only 1 day's notice.
Well they did pull it off, and hats off to the Marmot team for their amazing last minute work. Rab fitted seamlessly into the proceedings and turned the evening from a male and female top climber event into a top climbers from past and present event. Initially the evening was a little stilted and awkward; I don't think everyone knew quite what was expected of them. John H did a good job of holding it together though and eventually they got more into the flow. We weren't given any great insights, apart from into some of Rab's butty-making habits, but it was all good fun. On the downside, I heartily objected to the gratuitous and humiliating attempts at audience participation (if I had warning then I would have prepared something funny) but that was a minor distraction. The format worked well and has lots of potential for future years.
In addition to all the films, lectures, displays mentioned above, there was the trade tent - want to see informed outdoor folk behave like the first in the queue at Harrods sale? .... then check out the voracious way Festival-goers devoured the bargain/discontinued/display rack in the PlanetFear tent! From here it was only a short trip to the free samples at the Bowmore whiskey stand to examine their outstanding bargains.
The Brewery Arts centre itself is the hub and the middle of all this and once again proved to be a brilliant venue to meet, chat and drink the fine MRT ale brewed specially for this event. With the weather being good it was possible to escape onto the hills for fresh air, or alternatively take a trip to the Kendal Wall where you could very well end up belaying next to one of the many top climbers and mountaineers that litter the event.
Thanks very much to Anna, Steve, Lynn and Gordon for their reports; to Henry Iddon (Henry's Website) for photos; to the Festival Organisers especially Clive Allen and Clare; to Mick for driving (and many other things), Paul for brilliant accommodation and Kate for building an exciting new bit on her climbing wall.