An International Affair - A photo essay by Alex Messenger
Keep work for the office. On BMC International Meets, on-sight is where it's at...
“What do you do for a living?” A deceptively simple question; the definitive social grading. Not to be feared if you're something grown-up: a lawyer, a doctor, a something-boring-in-IT. But what if all you can squeak is, “I, er, work for the BMC”?
It's soon established that this doesn't stand for anything money-making and the well-groomed girls' eyes glaze over as the be-gelled men stifle a yawn. British Mountaineering Council – surely nothing sounds more dorkier than that?
But what do they know? It's not geeky, it's glamorous. It's a never-ending roller coaster of modern office experiences: sitting around, forwarding emails and stealing stationery. Then, once a year, this hectic routine is interrupted, and the BMC pulls off something quite exciting...
It contacts every national climbing organisation in the world, and persuades them to round up a few of their best climbers and send them over to the UK. In an odd year they get posted north to Glenmore Lodge to experience hot aches, but in an even year it's off to Plas y Brenin, Snowdonia for sunny rock climbing.
And so, they wash up at Llandudno train station, on their own, in pairs, or even whole squads, that have somehow fixed the selection process. They've travelled by plane, train, auto mobile, thumb or just plain luck. Americans, Latvians, Slovakians, Nepalese, Spanish, Dutch, Belgians, Estonians, Finns, Norwegians and the ubiquitous Kiwi who got bundled in by mistake. All patiently waiting for the Plas y Brenin minibuses, and all no doubt wondering what on earth they've let themselves in for.
They've come to experience the oddity that is British trad: to fiddle in nuts, to get gripped at Gogarth, to marvel at Cloggy. And in return for taking this gamble with the British weather, they'll end up having one of the best week's climbing of their lives. For waiting for them when they step out of the minibus is a hapless meet organiser, whose only mission in life is to pair them up with any one of an equal number of British hosts (from VS cruisers to E9 bruisers), to show them to the best crags in Snowdonia and to generally ensure that they have A Very Good Time.
I've been that meet organiser a few times; I can't remember too much about it. It passed in a blur of chain-smoking, running around with a clipboard and persuading pale-faced North Wales locals to take the scary Russian dude to Gogarth 'just once more'. However, I could remember one golden rule; nothing happens on the first day. Everyone's taking it easy, learning how to place nuts, wondering why double ropes won't fit through their GriGris and looking for lower-offs. Yeah, this year as photographer, I could safely skip the first day.
Bursting through the pine doors of Plas y Brenin on Monday night, there was a recognisable buzz in the air; thirty different nationalities and a hundred pairs of toned biceps, all with one thing in common – psyche. In fact, the only person in the room missing a wide, sunburnt grin was film-maker Alastair Lee. I recognised his look, it was the look of a man who'd missed the action. Some dude had apparently fallen 80-feet down Dinas Cromlech, trying to on-sight Nightmayer (E8 6c). Wow, guess he figured out the double rope thing quicker than most. “Big falls sell films” sighed Alastair, inconsolable.
In the packed dining room, all manner of international characters were gobbling food like it was going out of fashion, whilst gesticulating wildly at their borrowed guidebooks. But just who would be this year's 'wads' – impoverished Russians, indestructible Norwegians, lantern-jawed Americans or suicidal Slovakians – which country would end up showing us Brits how to climb?
One country always wins this unofficial Eurovision, their climbers grinding down host after host. Norway and Slovakia are always sure bets, but this year it seemed that unassuming Belgium had delivered the goods: Nico Favresse (of falling the length of Cromlech fame) and Sean Villanueva-O'Driscoll (Belgian with a dash of Irish) were hotly tipped as the ones to watch. Tomorrow they were heading to Cloggy – news that definitely cheered Alastair up!
Nico had been wisely teamed up with Nick 'Wolfgang' Bullock – who didn't look like he'd get ground down easily – and Sean had local guidebook cover-star John Ratcliffe to show him around. The Axe (E4 6a) swiftly got the Belgian treatment, next stop was an on-sight of Authentic Desire (E7 6b), a striking arête around the corner. Striking E7 arêtes are pretty hard to lose, but Alastair was about to get that unhappy look again. It took three experimental abseil rope tosses to find Nico – just as he cranked victoriously, through the final moves. “This always happens”, Alastair groaned.
With the second scorching day coming to an end, parties of sunburnt climbers trickled back down Snowdon to the waiting minibus, but 'Team Belgium' weren't tired – and weren't finished yet. It was down a level for Nico to fiddle his way up the delicate and rather unprotected Purr-spire Direct (E6 6b) whilst Sean whooped his way up A Midsummer Night's Dream (E6 6a) in the pale evening light. Late back, their only reward was a Llanberis kebab, but they looked happy enough.
On day three, some climbers were starting to look a little ragged around the forearms, so when slate appeared on the menu, there were plenty of takers. Comes the Dervish (E3 5c), Flashdance (E5 6a), Cystitis by Proxy (E5 6a) and Rainbow of Recalcitrance (E6 6b) saw a steady parade of foreign fingers and the phrase, “God, my feet are killing me,” shouted in at least ten languages.
Thursday morning arrived too soon. With stationery to sell on Ebay, the bright lights of Manchester were calling me. I had one morning left, but where to go? Sean was off to Gogarth, Jordan Buys was off to Cloggy, the weather yet again, was perfect. Decisions, decisions. But there was only ever one thing to do – join the Nico show for the last time.
“It's all kicking off here,” exclaimed Alastair. He'd definitely perked up. Maybe it was the sun. Or maybe it was that Nico was about to try to on-sight Ron Fawcett's testpiece Strawberries (E7 6b) at Tremadog. Despite being 28 years old it's never seen an onsight, not even by local star James McHaffie. “I'm a winner either way,” murmured Alastair as he eased the lens cap off.
If this wasn't Nico's fourth day on, he'd have gone home having made a little bit of history. But Strawberries hasn't held out this long without good reason and he was off. Lowered to the belay, he quickly re-climbed it second go. In the bag, and on film – I'm sure even Alastair looked happy.
[Editors Note] As the PyB van pulled up after a day on Tremadog - a small crowd gathered to find out the news: Had Nico onsighted Strawberries? 'Second go' he said as he walked past our group. 'Unlucky - good effort' we replied with consoling faces. He walked inside and sly smiles broke out. In unison we let out a heartfelt but friendly "YES!". Strawberries has held out for another year. Who said climbers aren't competitive! Jack
The meet still had two more days to go, but us office drones were out of luck, it was time to put Capel Curig in the rear view mirror and head back to city grime. That night, squeezed around a BBQ on a tiny patio, some bloke with bi-directional hair idly tossed the dreaded question. “Er, British Mountaineering Council,” I stuttered, mouth full of half-cooked burger. “Sounds interesting,” he replied, observing my rather sunburnt head, “bet you're not stuck behind a desk.”
Only for 51 weeks of the year. But that other week? It's enough to stop anyone from working for a living.
The BMC organises International Meets each year (summer and winter in alternating years). See www.thebmc.co.uk/international for details.