UKC

Ian Parnell on Hard Rock Interview

© Mark Lee

The launch of Hard Rock's 4th Edition has been hard to miss on UKC, but it would appear from the response that this isn't without good reason - it is a book with both a dedicated and passionate following. Last week we published Hard Rock - Shared Stories, which enables users to contribute their own experiences of climbing routes within the book (and so far the response has been outstanding). However, we wanted to hear a little more from the man behind the most recent edition - Ian Parnell...

4th Edition  © Baton Wicks
For those that haven't heard of Ian he is as talented as he is understated, having climbed to a high standard in a variety of disciplines all across the world. Whether it's chossmongering on the cheese at Dover or climbing something more conventional, Ian is a man who is at home having fun on any adventurous medium. As a writer he has contributed articles to such august establishments as Alpinist and spent several years working alongside Dave Pickford as Editor of Climb Magazine. As if this weren't enough he's handy with a camera too (when he remembers it - read on for more...), which has led to some particularly wonderful images in Hard Rock - some of which are featured in this interview.

Ben Wilkinson, Jamie and Sandy Ogilvie on the Great Prow Blaven  © Ian Parnell
Ben Wilkinson, Jamie and Sandy Ogilvie on the Great Prow Blaven
© Ian Parnell

How did it feel taking on the mantle of Hard Rock?

When Jon Barton at Vertebrate Publishing first asked me to take on the project, I'd actually gone to him with the idea of a new version of Extreme Rock. I was initially thrown for a few blinks of the eye, then I jumped at the chance.

The challenge of course was whether a book produced in 1974 could still be relevant today. I was pretty certain it could be. My reasoning was that there is obviously a new generation of climbers who have been introduced through climbing walls, but many of them aren't heading out to the classic crags. I think this is partly because other forms have climbing have been very good at promoting themselves – competition climbing and the Olympics for example, or the mass of attractive bouldering videos across YouTube and Instagram. I also felt if you met a keen young climber who'd been going to the wall for a year or two and they, interested in getting into traditional climbing, asked you for some recommended routes to aspire to – you couldn't do better than hand them a copy of Hard Rock. 95% of the routes Ken Wilson selected are still 46 years later coveted climbs. My job was to keep the essence of the original book but translate it into something that would catch the interest of that wall climber in 2020.

At the time it didn't really dawn on me how strongly so many climbers felt about the original book. I knew I wasn't alone in loving it, but Hard Rock was much more than just a book for many people; it was a keystone to many people's development as climbers. Early on I recall seeing a comment on UKC about a new edition being a mere "tarting up" of a classic and that we should just reprint the original. I felt really strongly about that. Ken was a man of big ideas and action, and his belief was that books are very powerful things that can be more than just snapshots of history. They can be things that change the way people think and behave. Ken had already done a full colour and amended version of Classic Rock and he had begun to start work on the 4th edition of Hard Rock before he became too ill to carry on working. So I knew I was on the same wavelength. Throughout in fact, I tried to "think like Ken".

What has been nice to see is that people have often expressed doubt when they've first heard about a new edition, but once they've got their hands on a book they've been really positive.

Old Man of Hoy climbers Alan Mullin, Odd Roar Wilk, Kevin Thaw, John Winter  © Ian Parnell
Old Man of Hoy climbers Alan Mullin, Odd Roar Wilk, Kevin Thaw, John Winter
© Ian Parnell

Did you ever meet the 'great man' himself (Ken Wilson, the man behind the original); if so, what are your thoughts and impressions?

I met Ken lots of times. Sometimes you felt lucky to meet Ken, sometimes unlucky! But it always made an impression. My first meeting with him was most the memorable. I'd just started work for the BMC as their first ever South West area officer, a completely new type of post directly funded by the Sport Council. Ken was always volunteering his advice to the BMC, and a new appointment was something he immediately felt a need to vet, particularly due to the direct government funding of my post – was I a state implant in the climbing world? Was I a "proper" climber? What's this Parnell-guy made of? So in my first induction week up at the Manchester office I was whisked off by Ken for a day. Half the time I spent being grilled, half the time enthused. He was very generous with his time, whisking me off to Sheffield to inspect a new outdoor artificial boulder, taking me to his home office and then finishing with an evening out cragging with his mates at Hobson Moor Quarry.

I was never close friends with Ken though, his modus operandi of confrontation, as a direct path to truth and action, is not really my style. I didn't agree with him on everything either – I remember one Kendal Festival having an exchange of views over why my generation weren't getting on, as Ken saw it, "the real big Himalayan objectives like Bonington and Scott"…. But I did admire him. Just the stand he made on Cerro Torre's 'first ascent' controversy, would have been enough. But you add in the energy and passion he had for climbing, and the level of effort and finesse he put into Mountain magazine, Hard Rock and all the other publications. The bar he set was so high for mountain journalism and publishing. It is is a phenomenal legacy.

When did you first come across Hard Rock and what impression did it make on you at the time?

I started climbing a year or so before I went to art college, but it was just me, my sister Clare and my mate John Banbrook, and we were making it up as we had no real contact with other climbers. Things really took off when I went to Exeter and despite being at the art college the university climbing club let me join. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people as mad about climbing as me. Hard Rock was like a bible for our little group of believers, and would get passed round at mid week pub nights. To start with I wasn't skilled enough to do any of the routes in the book, but club elders were ticking their way through many of them, with club trips often targeted to crags that had Hard Rock routes. So almost by default Hard Rock routes were the climbs I aspired to do during the crucial formative period in my climbing. The book and the experiences with that club shaped the way I viewed climbing.

Ian Parnell and Jon Hunt on Valkyrie during an Exeter University Climbing Club trip in the late 80s  © Mark Lee
Ian Parnell and Jon Hunt on Valkyrie during an Exeter University Climbing Club trip in the late 80s
© Mark Lee

What is the most memorable route you've climbed in Hard Rock and why?

Following on from the previous answer. By the end of my first academic year I was beginning to get my teeth into VSs and I think the first Hard Rock route I did was that summer back home when I was able to show off my new climbing skills to my mate John on Great-Bow combination at Cloggy. It was memorable for lots of reasons – it was my first trip to Cloggy, and every time I've been has been a really powerful experience. The route itself is gorgeous. Also, I think it's where I first began to take some decent climbing shots. I remember capturing a view looking back down the 'bow' of the crux pitch with Cloggy's West wing sweeping away to the llyn and screes below, and I felt it captured the scale and impact of the place (unfortunately I can't find the negatives anymore).

How did you go about deciding the new routes that were to be added into the 4th Edition, was it an individual effort or did you canvas opinion from others?

I had a good idea what areas I felt were missing from the original list to give a better reflection of British climbing, but the individual route choice was very much a collaborative effort. People like Emma Alsford, Simon Cardy, Paul Donnithorne, Paul Harrison, Kev Howett and Dave Pickford, amongst others were really helpful – they've got huge experience of climbing all over the UK, but also a real expertise in certain areas.

Obviously a book like this is collaborative on many levels. I'm really thankful for all the climbers who gave up precious climbing days and volunteered to climb the routes for me to photograph. John Coefield put in a monumental job as an editor, and designer Jane Beagley brilliantly interpreted my basic layout into something of real class and quality.

Paul Boggis and Gilly McArthur on The Crack credit Ian Parnell  © Ian Parnell
Paul Boggis and Gilly McArthur on The Crack credit Ian Parnell
© Ian Parnell

Ken famously said that he regretted leaving out Right Angle from Classic Rock. Which routes didn't make the cut for the current edition of Hard Rock?

Oh, there were lots. Very few of my personal faves made it through. For example I love Exposure Explosion at Ogmore, and I fought for that one for a while but it didn't get through. Other ones I considered included Forked Lightning Crack, Aviation at Hay Tor, Finale Groove at Swanage, Pleasure Dome and Swordfish at Pembroke, etc, etc. Every one of the new selections had alternatives, in the case of Lundy, Pembroke and Swanage – multiple possibilities.

It was decided not to include Ireland within the new edition, what was the reason behind this?

I know Ken was interested in including Spillikin Ridge at Glendalough in a new edition. For me there was no point including just one token route. If you were going to go down that road you'd have to be looking at a dozen or so routes. If Cloggy has five routes in the book, then how many should be in there from Fairhead? Keeping the number of new routes to just over a handful was part of the balancing act of keeping the heart of the original book whilst still bringing it alive again for the present. Also the book is a beast in size as it is.

Do you think there will ever be a 5th Edition, or are there other books that need writing?

Haha, good luck to whoever does that one. I do think there are other interesting projects for someone to get stuck into. I've heard that someone not too far away might be looking at a new version or variation of Extreme Rock, which is a big challenge, because I think, bizarrely, it's the most dated of the trilogy. I wish them all the best, if they bring it to fruition it could be really good. What I think would be amazing is a Hard Bloc book – really getting into the quality, culture and soul of the UK's finest bouldering.

The 4th Edition is a slight break from convention, insofar as its cover features a route that is actually within its pages. Was there a reason for this change and did you consider any other alternatives there weren't featured within the book?

Yes that was a regret. At one point I had John Dunne on Forked Lightning Crack on a mocked up cover. We also had a Pembroke one, which we put to the vote with Central Buttress, on Vertebrate's Instagram. In the end Mary on Central Buttress just ticked all the key boxes so well we had to use it. Watching Paul Diffley's brilliant film interviewing Ken about Hard Rock, I had a little frisson of recognition, when Ken talks about the nature of trad climbing "the architecture of the crag, the situation…by it's nature is intrinsically adventurous. It's just the sort of situation you'd find yourself in on a misty day…" he then gestures towards the cover of the first edition of Hard Rock. But I feel if I'd slipped our fourth edition into his hand, he wouldn't have batted an eyelid and we'd be on the same wavelength.

One of the ones that got away. Forked Lightning Crack, climber John Dunne  © Ian Parnell
One of the ones that got away. Forked Lightning Crack, climber John Dunne
© Ian Parnell

You must have got around the country whilst taking photographs for the 4th Edition. Was there anywhere, or any routes in particular that stood out?

For most of the routes, I didn't get to climb, rather I was hanging on a rope or running up a hillside to get into position, so I'm talking from a photographer's rather than a climber's point of view. The best was probably The Great Prow on Blaven. It was one of those seize the moment trips, taking a punt on the forecast in April and driving up on my own from Sheffield. My great friends Ben Wilkinson and Sandy Ogilvie live on Skye, and Sandy's son Jamie was visiting, so all three climbed it, whilst I dashed from one side of the coire to the other and peered over from the cliff top. It's such a photogenic feature with the rock jutting out high above the broad sweep of Choire a' Caise and Loch na Sguabaidh and Loch Slapin in the distance. I think the current guide gives the route a single star, but the guys were raving about the route's qualities.

The day that we went to take photos of Alcasan you - if I recall correctly - forgot your harness. Was this mishap an isolated event or was there any further mishaps along the way?

No, there were many. I think the most mishap-filled shoot was on Great Bow combination at Cloggy. I'd persuaded Ellie Fuller to climb it with me and picked her up pretty early in the morning from Sheffield in my electric car. It's got a range of 80 miles so I'd planned on a couple of charging stops in the round trip that were just manageable and whilst they meant the journey would be a little lengthy, it was all still pretty reasonable. Unfortunately I missed the turning to the A55, as I was probably waffling away, and it took a while to turn round heading north on the M6. This threw all my charging calculations out and required more delaying charging stops.

When we finally got to the base of the route I found that I'd left one of my climbing shoes in the car, and the route was soaking wet. Ellie did a brilliant job though leading through. The crux traverse seemed about 6a in those conditions. Finally on the way home, one of my planned charging points had shut down even though my app was saying it was open. We had about 5 miles of range left and ended up eventually finding a very slow standard mains charger in deepest Bangor. We finally got home about 1:30 in the morning. I still feel embarrassed for putting Ellie through that.

Another was soloing up the gully at the back of the Nose of the Mot to photograph Diagonal. Again it was soaking wet and slimey and felt like soloing an extreme graded route with all my camera gear.

But the worst was on The Grooves. Arriving at the foot of the cliff I discovered I'd brought my lenses but not my camera body. Luckily I had my phone, so decided to risk using that to take the photos, as we didn't have time for me to run back to the car. I got shots of Gaz Davies on the first pitch and then ran round to the top and abbed down to get more shots of him on pitch 2. I'd had to do quite a bit of guessing where to abseil from and used up my rope protectors on relatively slabby terrain at the top. This left me feeling a bit exposed as I dropped over the prow to photograph Naomi Havercroft on pitch 3. The position of Naomi was so impressive that I stopped worrying about my rope running over sharp edges for a while. But then suddenly, as I was dangling free-hanging out from the rock, I had a sudden wave of paranoia and felt a need to get off the rope. I managed to grab the prow, which is climbed at that point by an E4 called Edge of the World. I part climbed, part crawled up the rope round the lip of the prow to find my static rope half cut through, white fluffy core sprinkled over the rock.

Naomi Havercroft on The Grooves Mobile phone shot on an incident filled day  © Ian Parnell
Naomi Havercroft on The Grooves Mobile phone shot on an incident filled day
© Ian Parnell

When it came to Raven Gully - undoubtedly the wettest of the Hard Rock routes - you clearly had to take the law into your own hands and do it yourself.

Well I have a confession to make. I didn't climb the whole thing, in fact I didn't climb that far. I'd been trying for ages to find someone with up to date action shots of the route, but to no avail. So on the way up to Skye to shoot The Great Prow I called in on my own to get shots. There was still a fair amount of snow around, and just getting to the start of the route was really worrying. I then had to balance the camera in the lip of the gully and skitter across the snow in the gully bed and then climb with wet feet into position before the self-timer ran out. I promise it's the only posed shot in the book, all the other routes were fully climbed. It was one of three times during the making of the book where I felt I was pushing things close to the edge just to get a shot.

A more recent Hard Rock ascent - Alcasan climbed left to right by starting up Dies Irae climbed with Dave Turnbull   © Dave Turnbull
A more recent Hard Rock ascent - Alcasan climbed left to right by starting up Dies Irae climbed with Dave Turnbull
© Dave Turnbull

Now that the 4th Edition has been published is there any route in particular you would like to climb from its pages, which you haven't already done?

I love the Scottish Islands, so Prophesy of Drowning on Pabbay and South Ridge Direct on Arran are the two I plan on doing first – ideally as soon as we get released from our lockdown!


If you're after more on Hard Rock here's a link to a podcast produced by Vertebrate Publishing featuring Ian Parnell and Martin Boysen reading Ed Drummond's Great Wall Essay.



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16 Apr, 2020

Good stuff!

I know it's not the thing to take from this article...but.....I like the sound of a 'Hard Bloc' book, if anyone could get that done!

16 Apr, 2020

I wonder if it might lead to too much wear on a few lines.

16 Apr, 2020

Maybe. There's already too much wear on a few lines around here though (I'm 'part of the problem', obviously)

Interesting question, and one that I've thought about several times before, but Michael's answer is ultimately the reason I've refrained from actioning it.

Funnily enough the actual idea I had was to run a series similar to the 'Five Best' one we did for each of the Trad grades, only with Font grades; however, I do think there'd be sustainability issues as a result of this - particularly on softer rock such as sandstone or gritstone. Whilst with trad climbs people tend to give them a single go, bottom to top, with boulder problems people tend to have multiple attempts - hence they receive much higher wear.

It'd be devastating knowing that an article I'd written about an amazing set of problems resulted in the destruction or demise of those problems.

That said, I still wonder about one for sport climbing...

17 Apr, 2020

Well, as you will know, that happens to all popular climbs, slowly but surely the holds change with use and features sometimes disappear totally. Sandstone incredibly so - in Wadi Rum, the most popular scrambles (if I can call them that) that had only been climbed by Bedouin on hunting trips were pristine back in the mid-eighties, now what were holds on routes like the way to the Burdah Rock Bridge have become deeply worn grooves. With the surface patina gone, it can only get worse. to a lesser extent, it happens on grit, Wimberry Boulders being an example. Such is life, as climbing gets ever more popular, especially bouldering, we will inevitably damage the rock.

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