Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Notes: The Black Cloud by I.D.S Thomson

The Scottish mountains barely feature in any list of the worlds' highest peaks, but despite this they have an undeniable seriousness as mountains which demand the utmost respect. This is especially the case in winter conditions when routes which are benign in summer become lethal when the semi-Arctic weather embraces this North-Western outpost of Europe. 

The Scottish mountains can be compellingly, indeed irresistibly, beautiful - not least when clothed in ice and snow. Some people say they feel 'close to God' when in the mountains, yet if these great hills are in any way god-like, they are the most capricious of deities; full of glory, but woe betide anyone who dares to arouse their ire. Anyone who has spent any time in The Highlands will know that the weather can change with little warning, that many hills are technically challenging, that many routes are physically exhausting and that the extreme isolation of many ascents places the climber many hours away from help in times of difficulty.

I.D.S Thomson's book "The Black Cloud; Scottish Mountain Misadventures, 1928-1966" details the cases of several notable climbers who died on Scottish Hills during the Twentieth Century. As I read these accounts, it is sobering to realise that I have walked over most of the routes described in the book, can picture the Glens where they perished, and may even have stood where these forlorn souls staggered to their hypothermic demise', and where rescuers battled through blizzards and storms end their search for signs of life with the grim discoveries of the dead.

In Thomson's accounts those who died were not novices, or ill-equipped tourists who ventured unawares beyond the safety of their tour buses and hotel rooms, but experienced mountaineers - some of whom had clocked up many successful climbs in the Alps and Himalayas. Certainly mountain equipment has come a long way since the early years of mountaineering, and no-one these days would head into the Lairig Ghru in winter wearing the kilt and without full waterproofs; likewise the skills and equipment of mountain rescue have changed out of all  recognition even since the 1960s. I was amazed to read that even in the late 1960s there was barely a telephone to be found anywhere in the Angus Glens, so mountain rescuers could not phone Braemar to discover if the five people they expected to appear through the blizzards were lost on Jock's Road, or still safely at Braemar Youth Hostel. As such some of these people may not have perished if their misadventures occurred today. It would be unwise  to assume that however, the winter of 2012-13 has been a grim one for mountain casualties in Scotland with deaths in other places I know well, such as the Chalamain Gap.

Thomson's book begins with a long technical chapter on Scotland's weather systems, general principles of mountain safety and  scientific discussion of the effect of height and wind on body temperature, and a medical  explanation of the process and effects of hypothermia. Whilst fascinating, this chapter is rather long-winded and gets the book off to a slow-start, much of this information could have been usefully compressed and the momentum of the book kept up. After that introduction, each chapter deals with a different incident, and Thomson is meticulous in his research, pulling together eyewitness reports, weather reports SMC incident logs, and detailed geographical knowledge to recount in detail the fates of mountaineers like Baird and Barrie in Glen Einich in 1928, through to the loss of Francis and Handley on An Teallach in 1966.

The best element of this book is its capturing something of the spirit of the adventurers who set out in all conditions to do battle with Scotland's great mountains, and when they fell the relentless bravery and courage of those who sought their rescue. The worst element is that sometimes the author's love of detail spills over into being pedantic, and when the evidence is inconclusive as to the precise location of a death, or the order in which people passed-away, it might have been better just to say so, rather than work through and test a multiplicity if hypothesis.

Apart from the obvious lesson to all hillwalkers never to take safety for safety for granted and to to treat the mountains with respect; reading this book has a strong emotional pull. The mountains are places which provoke strong emotions in me (see here for more), but now next time I am in Fort William and I look up at The Ben, I will imagine Colin Kirkus' attempts to save the fallen Maurice Linnel on The Castle in 1934. On Rannoch Moor, if the fog ever descends I will imagine I can see Anne Tewnion leaving all her dead male companions and limping to safety. On Jock's road I will picture the five men whose life ebbed away into the icy-darkness, and in The Cairngorms (The Monadh Ruaidh), if ever the wind blows hard in my face I will sense a glimpse of Mackenzie and Ferrier heading out from the Shelter Stone, and perishing in the face of hurricane force headwinds in 1933.

There are too many cairns left like geological graffitti all over the hills. There should be Cairns in places like Jock's Road where climbers have lost their lives. Having read these stories, the next time I pass a proper cairn like this, thanks to IDS Thomson, I will not pass by in ignorance, but with a sense of those who have passed this way before me.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

At the end of another "Marriage Course"

The DVD has finished, the guests have all gone, the candles blown out, the pens and spare manuals put away, the background music switched off, and most of the washing up and clearing away done. Another Marriage Course is complete.

Someone asked, "Can the Marriage Course change my marriage for the better?" The answer is that that is actually not a very good question! It's like asking, "Can a recipie book cook my dinner?" or "Can a Haynes Manual fix my car?" - the question contains such a major category error that it is virtually unanswerable.

The truth is that The Marriage Course is about equipping people with the skills needed to negotiate the changes and challenges of married life, in which marriage is seen as the life-long, joyous partnership of 'best-friends' doing life together. However, tools which remain in the tool box achieve nothing, and only fulfil their designed purpose if brought out and actually  used! Likewise, if a couple complete The Marriage Course but don't do things such prioritise time with each other, don't learn to listen effectively, don't forgive each other, or any of the other essentials taught on the course, them it will do them little good. Likewise, if despite what they have learnt they bear grudges, are rude to each other in public, allow wider-family to negatively impact the marriage, are sexually unresponsive to one another, or refuse to learn to express love in the ways most profound for their spouse; then mere attendance at the course will be of little help.

However, our experience over several years, first as participants and then of hosts of The Marriage Course has been that the course has not just equipped people with the tools required for healthy marriage-building, but also been instrumental in inspiring them to do it. In our marriage, for example, we long ago identified that our relationship was 'time-starved', but it was only when we did The Marriage Course that we actually practically addressed the issue properly and began to schedule 'marriage time' into our diaries. 

Part of the reason The Marriage Course inspires people to put these tools into action is that the DVDs are full of stories of real couples talking about the positive changes that have come into their lives as a result of applying what is being discussed. Many people seem to have given up hope that their relationships can be anything more than 'disappointing', and these stories re-awaken hope. 

Another reason is the fact that The Marriage Course mirrors the public-yet-private nature of marriage in the way that it is run. What I mean by that is that marriage is a public-relationship in that it is a relationship declared in front of family, friends and witnesses, recognised in law, and in church weddings with vows made consciously before God. Marriage is not a secret relationship. On the other hand the content of each marriage relationship is intensely private, as every marriage is different. We know that every couple on these courses comes with different life-pressures, different issues, and different perceptions. The Marriage Course, rather neatly reflects this public-yet-private nature of marriage. On one hand there is the 'all-together' element of all being in the same place at the same time to do the same thing: build better marriages, and we all watch the DVDs together. In this we get a sense that we are part of building a community around such shared values as commitment, loyalty, love, patience, forgiveness and a shared view of the value of marriage. Yet, because the discussion times are all 100% private and personal between spouses, the private and unique nature of those individual marriages is nurtured too. This is obviously and apparently important on week six when couples are asked to think through their sexual relationship, but is actually also really important when it comes to other issues such as learning to listen, and to forgive; where we have been made aware that couples have been processing very deep and serious issues in their lives.

Another reason that the course has helped to inspire people to put the tools taught into practice is because of the atmosphere that the course generates, which is of course stimulated by being part of a wider group of married couples all seeking the same end. Everything that is done is designed to try and create a 'safe-place' for searching and real conversations to take place. I remember someone telling us that in almost two decades of marriage the communication problems between him and his wife were caused by his inability to listen, and his propensity to shout, slam doors and leave the house if she said anything which he disliked. On The Marriage Course, in a house with couples talking quietly in every room this option was not available to him, and so he began to really listen to her. The more he listened the more he began to grasp her perspective and the more he understood, the less angered he was when they disagreed. This 'safe-place' for discussion was crucial for them, and is I believe, immeasurably enhanced by the fact that many people pray for the course.

All the courses we have done have been different. Different guests, different combinations of personalities, the old materials, the new DVD-set, different combinations of people from the church, and folks from outside, people of strong Christian convictions, loose connections to church, or no faith at all. This last course has been a really enjoyable one, with a really great atmosphere, and some particularly entertaining guests we've enjoyed getting to know, and chuckling through the DVDs with. I think we'll always remember this one as 'the back-pain course', as at one stage almost three-quarters of the male guests (and me!) were struggling in and out of chairs with back-ache.

The week-after a Marriage Course finishes is always a bit strange for me. There's one sense in which it is just lovely to have a week off. The amount of shopping, cleaning, clearing, tidying, cooking, washing-up and so forth is a huge (yet joyous) commitment. Next Monday, we won't have to have every room in the house clean, cosy and candle-lit, and it will certainly be more restful. However, I know that I will also really miss the sight of  these folks climbing the steps to our front door at half-past seven, of the banter over the dinner table, of food that takes more time and costs more money than our regular Monday night fare, of watching the DVDs and quietly praying for folks as they go off around the house to talk through the issues of life. Next Monday the house will be strangely quiet, and empty (and probably messy), and we'll probably at this point wish that The Marriage Course was 8 weeks long, not just 7.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Another jaunt to The Hermitage

All five of us, plus my Mum and Dad, my sister, brother-in-law and neice - celebrating my sisters 40th Birthday.

Rediscovering Cycling, & Remembering a Bloke Called Lionel...

I can still remember my first proper bike, a small red Raleigh RSW11, with one gear, one brake, and tiny little wheels. I can remember the stabilisers coming off it, and my Mum patiently trying to help me become stable on two wheels. I can  remember my first proper ride on it too, my Dad took me from our home in Ashford (Middx), all the way to Laleham Park. The initiated will realise that the distance involved was hardly record-breaking, but may perhaps not appreciate the extent to which reaching Laleham Park under my own steam, was a major early milestone. Laleham Park seemed unimaginably far away to me then, and it presented itself to my infant imagination as a glamorously remote place of great wide open spaces, with play-areas, hills to play on, river-banks, ice-cream vans, donkeys, and high mysterious brick walls beyond which lay; who knew?

As I grew older and gained various bigger bikes (usually ones put together by my Grandpa), I explored further and further afield, discovering that the further South or West I could pedal, the less suburban and more interesting my surroundings became. Cycling became far more serious when I was invited on one of "Lionel's Bike Rides" however. Lionel was the Dad of one of the lads in the church youth group who was a few years older than me. They had a mutual love of cycling which had propelled them over many thousands of miles of tarmac, in countless days and long weekends in the saddle. Others began to get invited on their trips, and so on some days ten or more bikes and cyclists could be found assembling in the church car park or outside Lionel's house for a meet of this informal cycling club. Places such as Prune Hill, Windsor Great Park, or Box Hill were explored by bike, then further as we discovered 100m+ days to the South Coast resorts of Littlehampton, Brighton or Bognor. Overnight youth-hostelling trips put The Cotswolds, Mendips, Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains, and Peak District within our grasp; we cycled over Snake Pass, through Edale, through Dovedale, Derby, Leicester, and saw places like Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper Slaughter, and stayed in hostels such as Capel-Y-finn, Charlbury, and Cleeve Hill. 

These were all great adventures, and fierce physical challenges, as we all pushed each other hard to achieve good times on all our routes, even when we were weighed down with luggage. The joy of sprinting down great hills like Birdlip at crazy speeds is as vivid in my memory as battling for hours into a rain-soaked headwind across the Vale of Oxford one draughty May Friday afternoon.

Two things have re-ignited these memories, the first was the news that Lionel had died a month or so ago, and the second was my recent rediscovery of cycling. My road bike is in disrepair, but I have pressed a mountain bike into service, and have been out on it again over the last few weeks, gradually building my strength, speed and stamina. Of course, spinning happily through country lanes brings memories of a well-spent youth back in great nostalgic waves. I can still hear Lionel setting off with a cry of "Come on Lads, POW!" to spur us into action. A forty mile ride last week triggered many such memories, and spurred me not just to give thanks to God for everything that Lionel gave to many of us when we were young, but also to pray for his family as they grieve his loss.
A very young me, leaving for The Cotswolds from the car park of Ashford Congregational Church (in Middx), on my first long 'Lionel bike trip'.

I doubt Lionel ever went to a seminar on inter-generational youth ministry, but he was a great practitioner of the principles now taught on such courses. He seemed to quite naturally transmit three great enthusiasms; cycling, people, & The Christian faith, in a way which made joining in quite natural. There were no formal bible-studies on Lionel bike-rides, but there were many rich and helpful conversations, and the opportunity for younger lads to observe older Christian men in fellowship together. Evenings spent in Lionel's garage learning how to build or maintain bikes, was time well spent.

The height of modern technology in the 1980s was a small device on Lionel's handlebars which counted the revolutions of his front wheel and calculated time, distance, average speed and so forth. My recent re-discovery of cycling has involved the discovery that a mobile phone app (I use MotionX GPS), can perfectly plot route,  time, ascent, top speed etc etc and e-mail the results home, or post them directly to Facebook! As a teenager, the first twenty miles or so of any major ride were spent escaping from London's clutches, until "roads" became "lanes", and we could cycle alongside each other and chat. I am fortunate enough to now live in a place within a few minutes, as opposed to a few hours, of hills and countryside. The GPS technology has given me the encouragement of knowing that I can still cover some miles, but the 'average speed' has been a sobering lesson in the tragic realities of the ageing process!

I'm hoping the rain will hold off tomorrow so that I can head out again...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

There's not been a lot of time for blogging recently...

There's not been a lot of time for blogging recently...My excuse is that I have been away on a Scripture Union Camp, where we have been looking at some of the extraordinary narratives in Daniel 1-6.

Driftwood Fire at Scoughall

On Peffer Sands, on a weekend away at Scoughall Scripture Union Camp

2013 - the best Sunset so far!

(which is crying out to be seen full-size, click on the image)