Friday 9 October 2009

Ben Nevis - History brought to life

About 14 years ago, I got a book out of the library that chronicled the history of climbing on Ben Nevis. It was an epic story of the challenges, hardships, adventures and joyous moments of seemingly every famous climber on the planet. I found it absolutely riveting. Never yet having been to Ben Nevis, it illuminated why this mountain was so important in world mountaineering, despite lacking the scale of the greater ranges. It was abundantly clear from Ken Crocket’s labour of love on the book that this was a special place.

But that was just from reading it. I also pored over the photography. Fascinated by the old black and white stills of the earliest climbers, the great snows of pre-warming winters (and summers) and the countless facets, gullies and elegant buttresses of rock on the north face.

The adventure for me had already begun. Just from those photos I began for the very first time to compare photos of the cliffs to the recorded routes and question why this line or that didn’t seem to have been climbed. The specific areas that caught my eye for this reason were the upper grooves and lower barrier of The Comb, and the great dark mass of Echo Wall. They simmered in my mind until I climbed them many years later.

So sitting in my bedroom at home reading Ken’s original edition, did, in part, awake an interest in new routing and in Ben Nevis that shaped the next part of my life. And so yesterday, the new edition dropped through my letterbox.

23 years after the first edition, Ken, with Simon Richardson have laboured to update, expand and enrich the chronicle and bring it up to date, starting with the earliest map makers of highland Scotland in 1585 and ending with my ascent of Echo Wall last July. The new edition benefits hugely from the exponentially expanding archive of photography and colour printing with many more photographs both from the distant past from valuable Scottish archives like Am Baile. But also professional climbing photographers like Cubby and Ian Parnell and the many who’ve made their own high quality images findable through the connectedness of digital media.

So there are photographs on nearly every page - the many parts of the mountain are brought to life. As are the climbers, with fascinating portrait shots of the many famous names I’d only read about and never been able to put a face to - Con Higgins, Murray Hamilton, Kenny Spence, Pete Whillance, Arthur Paul, Alan Rouse, Mick Geddes, Ian Fulton to name just a few. There are also many early colour photos I’d never come across of the likes of Robin Smith, Marshall and Haston that have been secured for the new edition.

Other new additions were a series of forewords which were inspiring from Jimmy Marshall (written in 2008) and a great summary from Ian Parnell as to why the Ben is among the best mountains for climbing in the world. I could easily sit at home and spend hours and hours poring through this book, so many interesting stories and photos. Even the earlier parts of the history that were covered in Ken’s original edition have been extensively revised and updated and I really felt like I’d read a new chapter on the little talked about but unbelievable Brian Kellett and his enigmatic life and death soloing new routes on the north face.

For anyone with any interest in The Ben, either as a general interest in the stories of climbers, or from first hand connection with the mountain, as far as I’m concerned it’s the most essential book to own since extreme rock. It’s also a lovely book as an entity in itself, presented to the highest standard as you might expect from the SMC writing about our most important Scottish mountain.

As soon as I could I ordered a load of copies for my own webshop to help distribute this work to a new generation of climbers who I’m certain will be inspired by it. You can get it here. I even decided to make a bit of a promotion with a special priced bundle with my own appreciative work on Ben Nevis; Echo Wall.

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