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Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Guide is Here (part 2)

I asked principal author Pete Harrison a few questions about the whole ordeal:

4 years later and the jobs done! How does it feel to have the finished product in your hand? Elation or just relief?

It feels awesome, a satisfying elixir of elation and relief! If I could synthesize the feeling into handy pill form I’d take one every day for the rest of my life.
When you took this project on did you appreciate the true scale of the task and if not when did the enormity of it sink in?
No, I didn’t appreciate the scale, and if I had I probably wouldn’t have started! I was so naïve starting out. The 1st year was all optimism, learning and excitement at seeing rudimentary topos and descriptions taking form on the pages of the InDesign software – when I look back now my early efforts look terrible. The 2nd year was still naïve optimism but by the end of this year it dawned on me how big a task this was going to be. The 3rd year was a hard grind with lots of dog-days of despair, including despair at not being able to climb due to a long-term back problem. By the 4th year I was running on fumes mentally, and I picked up lots of niggly climbing injuries whist trying to get back into climbing following an operation I’d had on my back the autumn before. I think the niggly injuries were partly a result of just being mentally exhausted from working hard to finish the book and partly a classic case of starting climbing again after a long lay-off. Things are all good now though, finally.

What were the main challenges/headaches during the process?

Well as a complete beginner to the process there were lots. Learning the finer details of InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop was tricky - I must have spent hundreds of hours reading online tutorials on how to achieve some subtle design effect which most people won’t even notice.
Trying to write and do design at the same time. I learned that for me it’s almost impossible to combine design/layout type tasks with writing – like the challenge of rotating your foot clockwise and drawing a number 6 in the air with your finger (your foot reverses to anticlockwise) - the two processes demand more than my limited ‘processor’ could handle at once.
Alan James’ domineering approach to all things guidebooks was initially a headache, which quickly turned into an advantage that spurred me on to prove that you don’t need to be rockfax to produce a visually appealing guide, whilst still remaining definitive and properly researched. Actually the BMC and others have already proved you can have your cake and eat it, and I used these as the model to aim for.

Although this was a mainly a joint effort by you and Andy how important was the local scene in checking routes/providing information/cleaning and equipping etc?

Very important, the guide is a sum of the knowledge of many local climbers. That said, it was very difficult to get feedback for a lot of out-of-the-way stuff. Other than Andy and me, three people probably did 70% of the route-checking. Almost everybody wants and appreciates a good definitive guidebook, with up-to-date, accurate and inspiring content, however - despite me preaching the merits of definitive guides - the bottom line is hardly anybody wants to do the legwork necessary to produce one. People just want to go climbing, which is understandable. In theory it should be simple to organise some fact-checking, I mean it’s only collecting fairly basic information, but it isn’t easy in practice. I think a lot of climbers are relatively conservative and, dare I say it, self-interested by nature - it’s hard to persuade people to do something different to their usual climbing routine, like check a route - any route(!) - for the sake of the ‘greater good’ of having accurate guidebook descriptions or grades. They might want to try to onsight it the future! So you need either: an ego-less bumbly who doesn’t mind abbing routes to check details; or, better: a wad with an appreciation of what’s required to produce a definitive guidebook (and the willingness to help) who can just rock up and climb most routes. I’m not ego-less, and there are quite a few routes I didn’t want to abb inspect. Luckily we had said wad - in the form of Pete Robins – who knows what it takes to produce a definitive guide. Most of the recent definitive guidebooks in N.Wales have been greatly improved by Pete’s route-checking, script writing and willingness to help. When he stops being a great climber he’ll make a great guidebook author (incentive to never stop being good then). Tim Neill also deserves special mention – so many routes climbed and so much feedback volunteered. Tim and Pete’s efforts improved immensely the quality of this guide. (you did a great job with the history btw Chris!). All the chapter contributors did a great job.
Part of a guidebook’s job is to encourage people, give them more options. I think we’ve done a good job of giving people more options to consider on NW Limestone, but I do feel like I failed to highlight a few of the more esoteric and harder routes, mostly this is down to not being able to do it all myself - I had too much to do at times, as well as being out of action for a large chunk after surgery - and sometimes it was down to other people not stepping up to the plate. Routes such as the two E6s on the Gwynt either side of Psychic didn’t even have someone ab them to check the pegs/description; I did ask! Checking’s important because most (not all) climbers go for the knowns over the unknowns – few want to quest onsight up unchecked E6s with potentially crucial but potentially untrustworthy 30-year old pegs. The continuing popularity of trad climbing, about which some people get quite zealous, relies on people wanting to repeat the routes if they aren’t to become ignored and forgotten about. Good E6s and harder that aren’t just bold are a limited resource - especially on limestone where the climbing style and rock more often suits sport climbing. So I think it’s important to do all you can to look after precious trad routes by checking and highlighting the good ones (as well as look after the sport routes by using proper equipment). It’s not rocket science why some trad climbs get attention while others slip into obscurity and never get repeats, and new routes are a very limited resource in this country.
Re-equipping work. It’s been the lifeblood which has revitalised the NW Limestone area. What can you say – 99% of climbers will never know much about it. I noticed the rubbish state of the fixed gear in the area when I got back in 2008 from 4 years spent living in Canada. Out there, climbers seem to have more of a can-do attitude – like ‘I can drive an hour into a wilderness, then hike another 1.5 hours to a cliff, develop a sick sport route and use proper equipment’. Back home in the UK, there were so many cliffs 5 minutes from the road with 2and 3 star routes which had been consigned to the scrapheap and forgotten about. It’s an attitude full of negativity, but one that’s a result of what went before. It’s a shame that so much unsustainable junk was placed by climbers on routes during the 70s, 80s and 90s that, around here, it has required a small band of local climbers to dedicate countless thousands of hours over the last 20 years to re-equip many hundreds of routes, time that could have been spent climbing instead. Sometimes it seems like clearing up someone else’s shoddy work. It isn’t black and white though, people weren’t aware in the 70s and perhaps the early 80s… but later on they were – Dave Lyon was placing stainless bolts in the early 90s which are bomber today, but very few others bothered, we know who you are! 
And re-equipping thousands of mild steel bolts is enough to turn anyone against pegs on trad routes – placing and leaving pegs is just littering routes with unsustainable junk that rapidly rusts; just so a climber could climb it with an acceptable margin of safety and claim a route. It isn’t my idea of how to play the trad game. Even when winter climbing most of us try our best to remove pegs on second and I’d say about 95% of the time succeed - of course we have the tools to do so - but so should rock climbers really if they were (or are) considering placing pegs, I can’t think of a reasonable justification for leaving rusting junk all over the cliffs, although I can think of justifications related to ego.

How important was it to you to do justice to the more esoteric/ adventurous areas on the Ormes?

Ha well as the above suggest, very important. The remote cliffs are just as good as LPT/Pen Trwyn. It’s just that Pen Trwyn is so roadside and convenient and most people are so lazy – you have to drive right past loads of good climbing to get to the Lighthouse area on the Orme – and you can’t even see the cliffs! Also it’s a reflection of how time-pressed are a lot of people - a sign of the times - life in the UK is harsh on the poor in a way it didn’t used to be, better work hard…hmmm.
I’ve loved exploring the more remote cliffs and I made it one of my aims to try to showcase the areas away from Pen Trwyn/LPT. The afternoon/evening light on some of these cliffs is magical, as is the climbing.

How important was it to you to get the guide out in App format too?
It just made sense to me, the handheld device formats are only going to get more popular so why wouldn’t you go in that direction? Well, one good reason would be if you had to develop an App framework yourself. But luckily you don’t - there already exists a high quality App guidebook platform - Steve Golley has produced a fantastic App framework for any publisher to enter their books into: TheSend App. Most climbers probably won’t have heard much about TheSend Apps - Steve’s not the self-promoting type, but hopefully he won’t need to be in the next year or so when people see how good a product he’s built. Although, the owner of the most popular climbing discussion forum/climbing news website in the UK is determined to control the message and dominate the market, by promoting his own rockfax products and encourage online discussion about them while censoring any discussion of ‘competitors’ products from his forum on the pretext of not promoting commercial products - oh the irony!
I don’t think that’s a healthy environment, because a lot of people believe forum’s like these are an open discussion. But that’s one of the outcomes when you have discussion forums run by a business – it’s entirely justifiable, in business terms, to work the market (i.e. the users of a discussion forum that you’ve built) to your advantage, and for better or worse climbing is now seen by some as a lucrative marketplace.

The last 5 years have been frantic on North Wales lime. What have been the personal highlights for you and how much better shape would you say the area is in now?

Yeah lots of new routes to keep up with – you did pretty well for yourself! The NW lime area – away from Pen Trwyn and LPT - can now be appreciated by climbers of all abilities without the previously common experience of going to a supposedly great route, away from the honey pots (and even on LPT or PT), and finding it to be full of rusted non-stainless junk. There are so many good climbs to (re)discover.
Personal highlights? Too many to list, but I think the cover shot of the new guide sums up a personal highlight of climbing on NW lime – 30 metres up a new route you’ve created, on an adventurous cliff in a wonderful setting off the beaten path, that you’d wondered about whether it would be possible to create something on, in the golden evening glow with the sound of the sea crashing and the seagulls squawking!
Small things, like re-equipping a good route which hasn’t been climbed in twenty years – it’s almost as good as doing a new route; seeing LPT become popular again; Dyer getting his finger out and putting up the first ascents of Megalopa, The Brute and Dumpster Divers in one week; Pete repeating every hard route in the area except two (so far) and establishing his own raft of hard classics - route after route at 8b to 8c+ - has anyone matched him for volume of hard new routes in the UK in recent years? Seeing Dave Lyon and Norm Clacher getting psyched by the new guide for new-routing – what a pair of enduring leg ends!; opening up the Diamond with a novel approach and seeing it develop each season; and I’ve loved doing every new route because it always feels like an exciting creative process with a satisfying and tangible end result. A bit like creating a new book!