November 10, 2008

Gijon is a small city that lies at the foot of the Picos de Europa range and last night I gave a talk at Gigon’s 29th Mountain Film Festival, one of the oldest film festivals in Europe, organized by the city’s mountain club.

Before the event my minder, Alberto, took me to see the club’s headquarters, I was expecting a dingy room full of old guidebooks and fading photographs, but found something quite different. A stylish and modern facility of glass and slate, with its own library, conference room, gym and woody.  The walls were lined with trophies and artwork, respecting the club’s past, yet still quite relevant. Unlike the UK clubs I’ve come across, this Spanish equivalent seemed much more dynamic, vibrant and again relevant, with even this small club having over 1,000 members of all ages.  Alberto proudly showed me a recent photo of 130 children sat smiling in the snow, the club’s ski school run each year; I tried to imagine the CC enrolling 130 children in its ranks,

Alberto told me about his club’s upcoming expedition to Aconcagua and about their trips to the Pyrenees and the Atlas.  Book after book was produced from the library, as he showed me pictures of the Picos and its mountains, Alberto explaining with great passion and pride the history of the mountains and the Cantabric people.

“You must come and climb here,” he told me “there are very few bolts - very good for an English climber.”

He told me how they have a Youth Meet in the summer, where the children are taken climbing and walking and so in some way teaching them the heritage of a mountain people and to be proud of where they live, something that’s perhaps missing amongst many of our own ‘mountain children’,

Before the slideshow I was told that there would be a press conference - I thought that maybe he’d mistaken me for Al Hinkes - and in came two TV crews and a host of photographers and journalists.

“What do you think of the guiding of 8,000m peaks?”

“Why does Britain produce great climbers when it has no mountains?”

“Do you feel too old now to climb hard mountains?”

I answer the questions like any serious British climber would - with an embarrassing joke.

I try to imagine this kind of interest in the UK and know that it would never happen, well not unless you have an agent like Isabella Bond or Bear Grylls, tourist climbers who do a great job of exploiting people’s ignorance with tales of 19,000ft crevasses and toilet woe.

One of them asks if I make lots of money out of climbing and I wonder if I should tell him I had to borrow the petrol money to get me to the airport.

“No,” I said, “you’ll never be rich as a climber in the UK,’ not unless you can build a boat and sail up Everest or the North Face of the Eiger,” an answer that was perhaps a bit too cryptic for clear translation.

Finally, it was time to talk to the people who had paid for tickets and I sat in the dark speaking more slowly than ever before, followed by Alberto doing his best to translate - a strange experience, but one that seemed effective enough.

When he thought my humour had gone too far, or my comment was in bad taste, there would just be ...silence. 

The effect though was that I wasn’t able to make fun of me and my friends, or our pointless climbs, having to stick to the basics and with a hushed audience I probably saw British Alpinism and British climbing as a whole - Grit, Scotland, sea cliffs - through the eyes of my audience.

I felt real pride that we do all these things for fun, not for fame or fortune.

The show finished with a Johnny Cash song - a CD not the man himself - and the audience clapped, agreeing that all British climbers are crazy - but in a good way.

“Now we must take you for a traditional Cantabric drink,” Alberto said, leading me into a bar where a woman was pouring cider from a great height into a glass. “You must drink it all at once, but don’t worry you will have to drink a lot to get drunk,”

Alberto was right, you did,

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