Some books make memories…

…and what I’m reading now


Reading What Makes a Mountain Beautiful?,  reminded me that my expedition diary contained an annotated list of the books I  had read.  The list reveals that among the books outside the light fiction category, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle got a rave review – though I remember nothing of it. Also, rated “good in patches”, was Gog by Andrew Sinclair and Bram Stoker’s Dracula was enjoyed. Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World didn’t fare so well getting a comment of  “interesting rubbish”! Payment Deferred by C S Forrester was recorded as “disappointing”.

Memories have been stirred and questions raised that I cannot answer. Why on earth had I kept one of the numerous Mickey Spillane novels?  How is it that I can remember the opening lines from the first Mickey Spillane novel that I read? Best read with an American accent, it went “There was this tomatoe. What was left of her was spread around the walls of the room”. After a few more sentences, I’d worked out that tomatoe = broad = woman and also deduced that I was not about to encounter a literary masterpiece.  And perhaps most puzzling – Why had the original purchaser (name withheld to avoid embarrassment) chosen to write ‘J Shade April 1971’ inside the front cover, as though this was a valuable item to be treasured?

This all led me to reflect on my subsequent reading habits. For many years I read almost nothing outside the inexhaustible supply of work-related reading material needing to be consumed. Over recent years, I’ve become an avid consumer of Scottish and Scandinavian detective fiction. Without even checking, I can tell you that what I’m currently reading for light entertainment will be some mainstream detective/thriller.  Also, depending on my mood, I’m reading Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. As described here and relevant today “This influential cultural study of postwar Britain offers pertinent truths on mass communication and the interaction between ordinary people and the elites”. Whilst already familiar with the book’s message, I felt the need to read it afresh, having started reading a more recent publication, Respectable, in which the author Lynsey Hanley points out that in some areas, little seems to have changed since Hoggart’s seminal work of 60 years ago.

Best thing I’ve read? Hard to say. I can’t shake off a desire for practical rather than literary content, so The Slate Roof Bible is among my picks! Joseph Jenkins combines interesting historic and technical detail on slating practices from different countries with useful practical information for maintaining slate roofs. An engaging insight into the political scene of the Thatcher era can be gleaned from Alan Clark – Diaries, which I found as addictive as a good novel.  The book that I’m most pleased to own, is the delightful Early Scottish Gardeners and their Plants by Forbes Robertson. Covering the period 1650 to 1750, this well-researched and exquisitely illustrated volume is an interesting read, with information on matters such as gardeners’ fraternities, pay and working arrangements.


What Makes a Mountain Beautiful?

Books are essential items for expeditions. I would like to say I remember all the books I read on the expedition but I don’t. Six books are mentioned in my diary. One, “The Poetry and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins” was lent to me by John (I think). Gerard Manley Hopkins was a nineteenth century Jesuit poet and the few verses of his that I have read are very seriously religious and uninspiring. However some of his prose interested me. “On The Origin of Beauty: a Platonic Dialogue” being one. I do not recall all the dialogue but I do remember that it began by examining whether a six-leafed chestnut tree fan was more beautiful than a seven-leafed fan. The seven-leafed fan was seen to be more handsome even though it was less symmetrical than the six-leafed. So was beauty some complex mix of symmetry and asymmetry or in more general terms regularity and irregularity? Perhaps. The subsequent long dialogue emphasized how important the composition of the object under consideration was and also stressed that the beauty of an object is related to the balancing of ‘masses’ within the object. The sense of beauty it seems involves a comparison.

We young male expedition members had oft discussed beauty but not in a Platonic dialogue! Nevertheless we were in the wilderness with little entertainment, so it is not surprising that armed with ideas gleaned from this essay, some of us entered into a dialogue on what makes a mountain beautiful. Unfortunately (some might say fortunately) my diary offers little detail on what was said. We agreed that a mountain’s beauty was not simply in the “eye of the beholder”, but what else was uttered is lost in the mist of time. This was the only time such a discussion occurred. We were more intent on challenging ourselves on the mountains than analysing why they were beautiful.

Now that we are old and retired we do have time for a long Platonic dialogue. Anyone interested?

Just kidding!


Climbing in his sleep….

…or the summit of sartorial statements?

It’s strange what you remember after all these years, especially when it comes to matters of detail. This photo was taken from the summit of Croomble, a peak to the north of the col between Taserssuaq and Kangerdluk inlet.  The view is south-east, towards the Ilua fjord region. Continue reading “Climbing in his sleep….”

Going to land?

Phil recalls an earlier flight from 1965

It just didn’t seem right. Our aircraft had been losing height and was now descending in a wide sweeping spiral. No reason was given for this behaviour. What on earth was going on?  Ahead the pack ice was drifting down the east coast of Greenland and glistening in the sunlight under a startlingly blue sky. We were dropping steadily down towards a hostile sea packed with a jumbled jigsaw of broken ice floes and dotted with icebergs drifting calmly southward.

Two hours before we had taken off from an airfield at the outskirts of the largest town in Iceland. At the end of the runway our plane had locked its brakes and given its four engines a massive testing roaring warm-up and then flung itself towards the ocean. We took off with a few yards to spare, the water not far below the wheels, and climbed slowly but steadily into the sky towards a cruising height. Now as we were circling down towards the pack ice it was the time to wonder if the preliminary over-enthusiastic warm-up had any significance. Planes don’t become airborne unless everything is as it should be, do they? We shouldn’t imagine that things can go wrong. Perish the thought!

Let’s have some distracting diversions. Think about how much we had enjoyed our brief stay in Iceland. Like ascending the half-dormant volcano Hekla in thick mist. Who knew or cared if the main summit had been reached when we sat on a faint bump on the crater edge and warmed ourselves from sulphurous steam venting out smelly warmth from cracks in the lava rim. When looking for tern eggs to measure on the premise that they came in two different sizes with evolutionary consequences. the search party failed to find their eggs but discovered that their lunch bags of nourishing raisins turned our to be tiny hard dried bilberries with subsequent later startling colouring properties.

There had been nothing sophisticated about our stay in Reykjavik. Initially we had been camping down beside the harbour but on the final night before departure we had been sleeping on the ample concrete floor of the airfield hanger. The age had not come yet for the ubiquitous jet engine and there were no slender sleek planes with shiny engine pods lurking inside its generous dimensions.

It was the era when old workhorse prop planes could still usefully serve the remote places of the world. One such was inside the hanger, a revered and trusty DC-5 aircraft, a ubiquitous vintage Dakota left over from the war sleeping its years away in its shadow. Perhaps it was the same charter aircraft that had taken me to east Greenland two years before. We had landed then on a rolling tilted gravel runway close to a tiny group of houses at Kulusuk, and then crossed a jammed ice choked inlet in a landing craft, laden with our tea chests of supplies, to get access to the main settlement of Angmassalik. Thence we travelled in a cramped venerable Faroese wooden vessel towards the unclimbed mountains of the Caledonian Alps, transferring for the last stage into open boats hired at the little settlement of Kungmuit and crewed by our dog team drivers. They subsequently were to shift our gear only so far before wisely deciding to abandon us in a labyrinth of softening snow underlain with unseen lurking crevasses. Our party failed gloriously to reach anywhere near our distant objectives, but were richly rewarded as we had halted close to a welter of spiky peaks on which to besport ourselves. Abandonment with rich rewards! All were memories to dwell upon and rekindle the imagination, but don’t look out the window.

At this tremulous moment we were captive in a descending plane. Eight respectable members of a mountaineering expedition, with a little science thrown in, on our way to the Sukkertoppen area of west Greenland. It was a slow business making our way there. First sailing from Leith in Scotland to Reykjavik in Iceland in the mv Gullfoss on the regular service that sailed between the two countries in those days. However if one were very flush with money it was possible to fly from the Renfrew airport outside Glasgow that was serving then as the city airport before the present international gateway was built, and look down at the drifting volcanic dust cloud smoking out of the recently formed volcano Surtsey island off the Icelandic coast and be glad not to have endure a choppy voyage across the northern Atlantic Ocean.

Now getting closer all the time was the cold realm of the cruel sea, sometimes with open water and nearly ice free and often laced with strung out necklaces of marshalled floes, while straight ahead was many miles of moving ice shifting on the current. On the distant horizon beyond this barrier and stabbing into the cloudless Arctic sky were the familiar hills with names like Toupidek, Trillingerne, and for my finest arctic climb, Rytterknaegten, a spectacular mountain gem perfect in line, shape and sheer quality. Our doctor, wearing snow goggles to dull the reflected sun glare, thought he made out the navigational radar dome at Kulusuk, or perhaps it was one of the distant early warning radar stations strung across the northern arctic territories to detect unfriendly nuclear devices being flown over the high polar route. Who knows?

Momentarily in our line of sight we glimpsed a couple of red-hulled ships lying stationary in wide open ice free water and halted in front of the drifting ice barrier. They had been stopped in their attempt to reach Angmagssalik as they brought in the first supplies of the season. Ah, a reason for the inexplicable spiral descent was becoming clearer. It was either to make an emergency crash landing close to some succour and support but with a slim chance of avoiding disastrous consequences, or there had been some method in the plane’s track and its mad diversions over the ocean.

We were dropping still lower and lower. We flattened out a few hundred feet above the surface. Aiming in the general direction of the ships we flew onwards and increasingly close to the sea. Flat out at about 220mph we swept regally by. Peer out in expectation. On the deck of a becalmed ship the crew fleetingly waved at us and then we were gone. Slowly we gained height into the blue beyond. Had our pilot, crazy man, been giving his captive passengers a few extra qualms plus some unexpected excitement for our pleasure?

Our thoughts stabilised and after some short cogitations we devised a rational explanation. There was nothing going haywire with our plane. It was doing what it had to do. The two ships had halted because they were unable to see a channel of open leads towards the settlement. Up high we could see clearly and could radio a possible route through the ice barrier. Our aircraft was taking on its Ice Patrol role conscientiously by observing ice conditions along the Greenland coast and if need be could help out those in a hiatus on the sea. No satellite navigation and observation observation in those days.

We flew on towards the old airfield at Narsarssuaq beyond the island’s southern tip at Cape Farewell. We turned north skirting the myriad of islands dotting the coast. Somewhere in there was a long inlet called Tasermuit leading towards the icecap. Who was to know that years later we would penetrate up into its wildness with more virgin mountains waiting for some climbers to scrabble to their summits.

Our future, as always, was unknowable. It didn’t matter. Life was good. It was time to tuck into the goodies on our lunch tray. Sometimes airline food is welcome.


The Power of Maps

…and a really famous Belgian

She didn’t even have a fancy cartouche¹. A few simple words was all it took. “Norse ruins” in the map legend got us going; the sight of “Norse church ruin” and we were done for. For she was telling us that there were items of possible interest all around, demanding to be located and investigated. Little did I know that my vulnerability to seduction-by-map would last a lifetime and that at various times it would drive me into the arms of libraries for lengthy periods of study. For I was a would-be mathematician, with little need for libraries and what they contained. How wrong I was. Continue reading “The Power of Maps”

Getting on and getting on

It was news of the death of actor Robert Vaughn, last survivor of the Magnificent Seven, that prompted me to recall the above image. Here gunslinger The Youngster, with pretend gun cocked, is confronting the Old Timer who persisted in calling him “yoongster”.  If it all looks rather tense, it is only because of the fine acting from the leading players in this youth versus age drama – for Bob was the oldest of the student body.  Continue reading “Getting on and getting on”

Even earlier tales from Tasermiut!

An account from the 1960 expedition

We are delighted to include this guest contribution from Ian Wasson and Colin Martin of the 1960 expedition, which starts with their image of Nalumasortoq.


The pack-ice was unusually bad around South Greenland that year and had caused us long delays in reaching it. Travelling by sea from Copenhagen our ship, the Disko, had been holed below the water-line, Titanic-like, off Cape Farewell. The crew managed to apply a canvas patch and we made our slow way to Narsaq with a severe list. Continue reading “Even earlier tales from Tasermiut!”