Isolation (Part 10)

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Apr 12, 2020

Sometimes you come across a series of emails that really catch your attention. A recent thread about mountain book recommendations provided me with lots of titles - some old and some new - that are sure to help me through the weeks and months ahead. Amongst the many suggestions, "Feeding The Rat" by Al Alvarez really stood out. I've read it several times and can't recommend it highly enough. Hearing that David Hillebrandt had once met the subject of the book I couldn't resist asking him to tell us more...

"Call me boring and nerdish if you want but I have logged almost every climb and mountain day I have ever done since I was 15 years old when I started mountain walking with an organisation called Forest School Camps. They introduced me to rock climbing on the crags behind Willy’s Farm in the Ogwen Valley over the Easter of 1971. I still have an interest in their activities and only 2 years ago walked and kayaked in the Ben Alder area with them again as an elderly leader.
In 1973 I completed the Mountain Leader Certificate with the assessment course at Plas Y Brenin. I did this to enable me to get jobs as a student when at university. In those days one was issued with a thin green hardback logbook. I got exempt from the training course and was encouraged to record all my previous trips hence I got into the habit of keeping a logbook. I am now on Volume 10 of the logbooks. A lot of memories of great days, fun trips, new routes, epic failures and some harsh times.  
To answer Jeremy’s question I returned to Volume 1 of my logbooks and looked up my early Wales trips. On most of those trips we hitch hiked to the mountains but on Thursday 25th May I managed to borrow my parent’s car for a long weekend. At the London end of the M1 I picked up some hitch-hikers. One was called Ron Ronald and he was going to Scotland to climb. He was a Canadian travelling through Europe after working in a climbing shop in Calgary. I convinced him it was silly to miss a side trip to Snowdonia and again we slept in the barns at Gwern Gof Isaf (Willy’s farm). On Friday it rained but Ron had sold a lot of gear produced in Wales so we drove to the Clog works which were then near Deniolen and went on to the Snowdon Mouldings factory in a side street off the main road in Llanberis. Ron introduced himself and we were made very welcome with cups of tea and enjoyed a chance to chat and eventually left with some shiny new (reject) gear. The reject stamps ensured nobody ever stole my equipment!

"Feeding The Rat" is the biography of the well known climber, mountaineer and equipment manufacturer Mo Anthoine.

Snowdon Mouldling’s factory stank of fibreglass. They made the ubiquitous Joe Brown helmet. Of course I had one. Blue. They came in both standard and lightweight models and were the first helmet designed by a climber for climbers although there was the earlier Crompton helmet which I believe was made by a motorbike helmet manufacturer and it was even heavier. This was before any UIAA or European safety equipment standards. Mo Antoine was the factory owner and assured us the helmet design was fully tested and samples from each batch were also tested “in house”. Possibly I should not have asked how the testing was done because he then demonstrated, technically it was not actually tested “in house”. He stood outside the front door, put padding on his shoulders and donned a new helmet. Our job was to go to an upstairs window and select rocks of increasing size from his stock to drop onto his head. At the time I had no idea of Mo’s hard climbing record. Like so many climbers, who we hold on a pedestal when we are young, he was just a regular climber with total enthusiasm for the sport and lifestyle. Totally approachable. 
Ron and I did a short wet route on Little Tryfan as the rain stopped, the next day we climbed on dry rock in the Moelwyn rain shadow, Sunday was the Ordinary Route on the Idwal Slabs ascending a waterfall. I drove back to a warm home in London to dry my clothes having dropped a wet Ron on the M6 near Birmingham to continue his journey north. I wonder what happened to him?" 

To explain the title of the book here's a quote from Mo Anthoine himself...

"If you just tootle along you can think you’re a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you’re nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. That’s why I like feeding the rat. It’s a sort of annual check-up on myself. The rat is you, really. It’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that’s smashing, that is. Then the rat’s had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It’s a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute, just for your own peace of mind. And even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can’t think of anything sadder than that."

Thanks David! 

Part 11 of "Isolation" can be found here.

Please get in touch if you'd like to take part in other "Isolation" posts! 

Stay safe.

Have something to say? Comment on this post