By Rob Collister
Bâton Wicks £12.99 149pp
Rob Collister’s chosen subtitle is “Adventures and reflections of a mountain guide” and although there is plenty of adventure, it is the reflections that set this book apart. As Stephen Venables suggests in his Introduction, this is no chest-beating account of desperate struggles against the odds, rather a set of quiet personal observations from a man who is totally at home in the mountains. The Welsh have a word for it, “cynefin” and as is so often the case there is no real Anglo-Saxon equivalent for a Celtic word that contains emotional and spiritual undertones. In its workaday use it describes the habit of sheep living and bringing up their young on a particular stretch of the mountain side. More emotively, the Welsh use it in the sense of belonging, of being at one with the land and society you inhabit.
Although not of Welsh descent, Collister has an instinctive understanding of the word and in the first of three sections entitled “Home Ground: Wales” demonstrates an intimate knowledge of and feeling for the land where he now lives. Whether he is sitting patiently waiting for a glimpse of a wood warbler or walking the length of the Arans before cycling back to the start, the reader is taken into a beautifully written world of careful observation and erudite understanding. What is initially surprising about the first section is how little description of difficult climbing actually occurs. An early chapter describes an ascent of Amphitheatre Buttress (little more than a scramble by today’s "Olympian" standards) and a somewhat indeterminate snow climb on the back of the Carneddau, then, towards the end of the section, a panegyric on the pleasures of climbing on Snowdon in winter. But we quickly realise the locations and time of year are the clue. Collister delights in peaceful solitude that allows him to move through the land with the minimum of fuss. The disgorging of tourists on the top of Snowdon is as sacrilegious to him as the desecration of any Temple.
The second section “Further Afield” more than makes up for any climbing shortfall. It contains accounts of a variety of climbing and skiing expeditions ranging across the world from Lebanon to the Himalaya. The attendant trials and tribulations, successes and failures, that are the very stuff of mountaineering, are treated in equal measure. Achievements are understated, failures cheerfully admitted with self-deprecating humour. As you would expect from a reading of earlier chapters, Collister tends to avoid the well-trodden and seeks out areas which, at the time, British climbers rarely visited. His approach to high mountains is best summed up during his visit to Zanskar in north-west India, “I remember being excited rather than disturbed by the prospect of being so totally out on a limb. Should anything go wrong we would be very much on our own.”
The last chapter of “Further Afield” is paradoxically very much at home. Fond recollections of roof-climbing on Trinity and long coach trips to Derbyshire’s gritstone edges seem very parochial, but, of course they were the springboard for what was to happen further afield and, as he says, his early experiences at Cambridge gave him “a profession, a spouse and some lifelong friends. What more could one ask of a university education?”
The final section “Issues” allows the author to examine some long-standing grievances. There is no doubt he is annoyed by the modern habit of fencing the Welsh uplands to control livestock. He yearns for the day when one man and his dog controlled the sheep on the hill but now the “factory”, that farming has become, has dispensed with such luxuries and erected barbed wire to take advantage of any land management subsidies on offer. Farmers may argue it’s their land and they can do with it as they want. But as Collister points out it’s the taxpayer who foots the bill and he who pays the piper should have some say in the choice of tune.
His most serious concern, however, is the pollution of the planet and the rise of a self-indulgent carelessness that threatens not only the peace of his beloved mountains but the world as a whole. His particular bugbear is heli-skiing which not only creates unnecessary pollution but also allows an apparently unending wave after wave of skiers to whoop their way down the slopes without thought for others. It has to be accepted there is an elitist element in his criticism, but he will not be alone in his despair. Whether it is jets screaming down the Ogwen Valley or school trips just screaming, there is no doubt the reason why man first sought the solitude of the hills has been seriously undermined. If we are to restrict global warming and its associate indulgencies, perhaps we should all take a step back and limit ourselves to simpler forms of transport and less ambitious overseas trips. Perhaps the Welsh are right and we should keep more to our own patch and more fully appreciate its wonders close at hand.
Collister’s book has been shortlisted for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Award which is a recommendation in itself. Other books on the list may well be more dramatic but I would be surprised if there is one as thoughtful and thought provoking as “Days to Remember.