Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Celebrity timepieces

Luxury watch brands spend millions getting celebrities and sporting heroes to wear their products so they no doubt get excited when the timepieces make it into the general news. Last week saw plenty of coverage of the proposed sale of Sir Edmund Hillary's Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch. This was presented to the mountaineer after he scaled Everest in 1953 but is now stoking a bitter feud between his children and second wife, June. She wants to sell the watch, along with other items, but Hillary's two children claim it belongs to them. The explorer, who subsequently became the advertising face of Rolex, wore the watch during a 1957 expedition where he led a tractor team across Antarctica to the South Pole.

Another famous timepiece to come on the market is Lieutenant Don Walsh's specially-made Rolex that went with him all the way to the deepest part of the world's oceans in January 1960. Along with Jacques Piccard, Walsh descended seven miles to Mariana Trench in the Pacific in the Trieste, a specially built bathyscaphe. The explorer, 79, is auctioning the watch and it could fetch as much as £20,000 in New York.

To return to watch manufacturers sponsoring celebrities, Rolex all but invented the concept in 1927 when they persuaded a young woman called Mercedes Gleitze to wear one of their watches during one of her attempts to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. British Pathe footage of Gleitze can be seen here.

There, plenty more coverage for Rolex (and no, I'm not sponsored by them). Stories about all the above can be found in Those Who Dared.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Albert Smith and the Ascent of Mont Blanc

The December issue of Climb features an interview with Sir Chris Boninington. There are a number of good questions to which Britain's most successful mountaineer provides, as always, some honest answers. In response to the inevitable observation that he was the first ever professional climber, Bonington replies:

"No, not all. Not many people will remember John Smith, who in the 1860s hired a theartre in London and put on a show about climbing Mont Blanc that ran for a whole month. Queen Victoria even came!"

I'm sure he means Albert Smith who in the autumn of 1851 made a guided ascent of Mont Blanc. On March 15 1852 at the Egyptian Hall, in London's Piccadilly, the former doctor produced 'The Ascent of Mont Blanc', a magic lantern show delivered in front of painted mountain scenes. Smith recounted the climb, interspersing it with humorous sketches of his fellow-travellers and topical songs. He even had St Bernard dogs carrying chocolate to the audience and employed showgirls dressed as Alpine handmaidens. Naturally the enthralled punters could purchase merchandise such as books, sheets of illustrations and even mountain-themed fans. The show was incredibly successful and was to run for a number of years. It also made Smith very wealthy. As the Manchester Guardian pointed out (below) Smith was making £6,000 a year, roughly quarter of million pounds in today's money.

Despite the razzmatazz, the Mont Blanc show gave impetus to the growing interest in mountain travel and exploration, that was to develop into the so-called Golden Age of Alpine climbing.

(Manchester Guardian, November 26 1856. Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A couple of thoughts on Jim Perrin's West

Jim Perrin's West: A Journey Through The Landscapes of Loss is part memoir and part travelogue as the climbing and landscape writer charts a journey of love and loss in the face of the deaths of his partner and son. Described as a psycho-geographical travel book on the nature of grief, Perrin explores everything from remote coastlines, forests, to the wild spaces of his beloved Wales as he attempts to understand the suicide of son, Will, and death of Jacquetta to cancer a few months later.

Throughout the book Perrin's language is rich, elegant and, as Robert Macfarlane put it, "lyrical in the proper sense of that word". West has been widely reviewed see here, here and here for a good selection.

A couple of thoughts. Despite the intense and often intimate language that thrills and challenges on almost every page it was a straightforward line that made me sit up. After exploring the coast north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, he comments "Climbers, I've long maintained, are of all groups of people among the least aware of their surroundings". It wasn't quite a Damascene moment but it did made me realise that in the urge to race up a mountain or get to the crag, I've sometimes been oblivious to the subtleties of the landscape.

Secondly, there is something incredibly satisfying about Perrin's endnotes. Whether it is a literary reference, information on a particular pub or recounting disarming a knife-wielding drunk on a train, they add another layer to the reading experience. Similarly, The Villain, his biography of Don Whillans, had copious notes which I enjoyed almost as much as the main narrative - although not all reviewers seemed to agree.

Friday, 12 November 2010

To the Himalayas on £250

With so many media outfits binning their libraries, it's always heartening to come across a company that still sees the value of holding onto their archives, and, most importantly, knowledgeable people who know their way around them.

I recently visited one such collection, the Daily Mail's picture archive which is a treasure trove of prints and negatives from roughly 1907 up until 1997. Housed in a basement near London Bridge, it may be several miles away from the main office but staff can find pictures, scan, and send them back to the picture desk within minutes. Alan Pinnock, the librarian who has worked there since the late 1960s, asked if there was anything interested in. Off the top of my head I, er, suggested mountaineering and so he pulled out a few files from the 1924 and 1933 expeditions to Everest. The latter included some fascinating aerial shots of the mountain.

Quite by chance though, Alan was updating a file on Eileen Healey, a British mountaineer who recently died, aged 89. Healey was part of the 1959 all-female expedition to Cho Oyu, the world's sixth highest peak. This was organised by French climber, Claude Kogan, and a team that included members of the British Ladies Alpine Club, the Pinnacle Club, and three Nepali women. Unfortunately the expedition ended in tragedy with the loss of four climbers, including Kogan – probably due to storm and avalanche at or above Camp 4. Another British climber Countess (Dorothea) Gravina then took over as leader.

Although only an amateur photographer Healey had been invited to use her family cine-camera to record the expedition. After the tragedy the resulting film lay in an attic until, three years ago, it was put into digital format and shown at the 2009 Kendal Mountain Film Festival.

Three years later and Gravina led another all-female expedition, this time to the Jagdula region of Western Nepal. A Daily Mail photographer accompanied them and it was perhaps inevitable that the following shot of cosmetics and a handbag amidst all the climbing paraphanalia would be taken. Judging by its battered state, the print had been used several times.

(Copyright: Daily Mail)
Back in the office a quick search about the expedition brought up an interesting piece about Jo Scarr and Barbara Sparke, two climbers from the team, which goes against the accepted wisdom that low-budget Himalayan expeditions only really started in the mid-1970s.

(Observer, March 18 1962 - Click to enlarge)
Many thanks to the Daily Mail picture library.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

On this day: A Century of Mountaineering, November 3 1957

Perhaps it was just a slow news day or maybe the news editor really did think that the publication of Century of Mountaineering was just what Observer readers wanted to read about on the front page of their paper. Whatever the reason, Arnold Lunn's book provided an excuse to print the above picture on November 3 1957. Usually regarded as the father of modern British skiing, Lunn was also an accomplished mountaineer and the book is a very enjoyable read. A sample of his Oxford Mountaineering Essays can be viewed here.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sir Francis Chichester

The Sunday Times reports* that two of its readers have saved Sir Francis Chichester's Gipsy Moth IV with a donation of £250,000. Chichester set the record for the fastest single-handed circumnavigation of the globe in 1967 but the current owners of the boat were ready to sell it overseas. The article states that the Sunday Times sponsored the record-breaking voyage and secured an aerial front-page picture of Gipsy Moth rounding Cape Horn. This is partly true but in fact the Guardian signed a contract jointly with the Sunday Times to take Chichester's copy by radio-telephone.

This method had been extremely successful in 1962 when Chichester had done a deal with the Guardian to relay daily accounts of life on his boat (Gipsy Moth III) while trying to beat his own time for single-handedly crossing the Atlantic.

JRL Anderson, who amongst many jobs was the paper's yachting editor, worked with the Marconi company to develop an experimental ship-to-shore radio system. Chichester's daily commentary - best described as an early form of blogging - covered the smallest details including the progress of a wounded pigeon that took refuge on the boat. Anderson later wrote:

Five years later and the collaboration was revived with the Guardian printing long reports of Chichester's voyage to Sydney. However, the contract only covered the outward journey and due to a financial crisis at the paper, there wasn't enough money to pay for the return leg. With its deeper pockets the Sunday Times was able to buy up exclusive rights to the voyage - a fortuitous move as this leg proved to be a lot more exciting than the outward one.

The Gipsy Moth IV buyers, who are keen sailors and live in East Anglia, were moved to step in after reading in The Sunday Times that the yacht was likely to go to an overseas buyer after being put up for sale because of crippling maintenance costs. They have negotiated a package that allows the yacht to stay with the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (UKSA), the charity that trains children and disabled people to sail. There is a pledge to cover the maintenance costs for at least five years and will also ensure that the yacht is put on public display several times a year.

*Article locked behind paywall. Access details here