Mallory, Everest & The Lakes

What makes you a good candidate for climbing Everest and taking on a challenge which will require spending time in the ‘Death Zone’, the top reaches of the world’s highest mountain? We’ve been thinking more about this since seeing for a second time ‘The Wildest Dream’, the film of Mallory’s and Irving’s fateful attempt on the Everest summit in 1924.

We’ve met people from Europe and the US, who’ve wondered if there is anywhere in the UK, where the altitude and mountains can really prepare you for the conditions you’re likely to meet in the Himalayas.

If you have experience of winter walking or climbing in Scotland or the Lakes, you will of course know the answer. Last year we met Jon Bennett, one of the Helvellyn climbers who daily report in the winter on conditions at the top. He described taking five hours summiting from Thirlmere through snow drifts up to five feet deep. That’s tough!

And back in the 80s we remember a fierce August night beside wild Loch Avon below Cairngorm, when we just managed to hold up our tent with our two young children beside us in the tail end of a violent Hurricane Harry. We survived, but sadly we learnt on our return that a German father had that same night lost one of his two young children through hypothermia when trying to cross the plateau from Braemar to Aviemore. He had been used to the Alps and wasn’t ready for the Scottish weather.

Yes, the conditions on our high fells, though under 1000m, can still be arctic even in summer and can prepare you for the worst. We were reminded of this when reading Graham Ratcliffe’s, ‘A day to die for’, an account of the Everest climb back in 1996, when eight people tragically lost their lives.

Ratcliffe points out there that the photographer Bentley Beetham – whose impressive photos of the 1924 expedition and of the tent, where Mallory and Irving spent their last night alive, have helped to maintain interest in the expedition – learnt his mountain skills as a young teenager in the Lake District. Not for nothing do they call Keswick the climbing and outdoor capital of England!

There is a great website of the whole of Beetham’s oeuvre in the Himalayas, which has recently been created by a new Trust in association with the University of Durham.

Farmers’ markets US style

We’ve been fans of Keswick’s Saturday market for years, so it was natural that we would want to take a look this month at the farmers’ market in Chicago’s Lincoln Park

To get the best you need to be there early as this is a popular venue for people of all ages.

Farmers’ markets have proliferated in recent years from the first one in Bath, UK established in September 1997 in response to discussions about the Local Agenda 21 Commission. There are now over 500 in the UK.

Only a mile from Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers, the Lincoln Park market stalls are full of a wide range of produce and provide a marvellous contrast of colours.

Sustainability and environmental issues are key concerns for producers and many of the farms have full organic credentials or are certified green.

Farmers’ markets are not-for-profit bodies and have been increasingly popular in the US. They are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In the last seven years they have increased from 1755 to 7175, making a 17% increase in the last year alone.

But this is not big business like the average 450 acre farms in the prairies of Illinois and Iowa, where millions of tons of field corn (or maize) are grown every year for home beef production, for the rapidly expanding Chinese market and for ethanol production.

Typically farmers’ markets are made up of small producers with orchards or perhaps a 7 acre garden farm – with intense cultivation of tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, fruits etc – or others breeding cattle and pigs with specialist production of smoked meats. Most farms are under 50 acres and have to be within a defined radius; in Chicago’s case this is 300 miles, though for other markets it is a lot less.

A campaign of the market at present is to encourage shoppers to pledge to be ‘locavores‘, only buying and eating produce from within a defined local area.

Often the vegetable producers will be supported by CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) schemes where members of the local community guarantee to take a box of vegetables every week during the growing season. While people on benefits with food vouchers can shop here, prices of the produce are on the high side and tend to attract shoppers with more disposable income, higher qualifications and an interest in environmental issues.

The same however does not apply to the farmers’ markets in rural areas where jobs are limited and wages low and unemployment, well over the national rate of 9%, is hitting communities hard.

A New York Times article “Vegetable gardens are booming in a fallow economy” (9th September 2011) describes the situation in East Kentucky in the Appalachian foothills.

Here rural residents are turning over their ground and selling the surplus from their gardens at low cost to the elderly and unemployed, who look to squeeze their budgets to make ends meet.

As Tim Woods, Professor of Agricultural Economy at Kentucky University puts it: “You won’t see certified organic products or fancy marketing here. It’s a very different world.” But the growth is similar with a doubling of markets there since 2004.

Rooftops Photo Gallery

It’s just over two years since I started our companion photo gallery of buildings in high places and remote locations. Those who love mountains and wilderness where the wind blows free and clean, will know that these are places for reflection and release, for solitude and renewal. The buildings are if you like, one key to unlocking the nature of place. In Camus’ phrase here you can feel ‘beside oneself’.

The simple building opposite was originally a shepherd’s cottage in Cumbria on the moors above Penrith. Despite its proximity to a road and bridleway to Selah Bridge, it has all the feel of a wild retreat with a stunning panorama.

All these buildings are set in magnificent landscapes. The highest at 4400m is a Civil War frontier post on the 18 km ‘Rooftop of Africa traverse’ in Ethiopia’s Simien mountains; the lowest is 300 BC Mousa Broch in the Shetlands at 6m. We have learnt as we have collected the images that there is a key ingredient. Behind each of the pictures is a human story of engagement with that landscape – a story of toil, travel, exploration, warfare, farming and so on. Who has built them and why? Who has lived here? Who has left? How does this nomadic child in Kyrgyzstan on horseback with his father on the ancient Silk Road receive his schooling at 3500m?

To expand on our pictures, we have included some photos which show the people living there and hint at their life stories. Most recently we have added photos taken on the classic Haute Route long distance walk between Chamonix and Zermatt; and from South India’s Western Ghats in Kerala where at 1600 metres, technology has made it possible for families in remote villages to watch World Cup cricket via satellite dishes.

Most poignantly we have included a triptych of images of crofts at Calgary Bay on the island of Mull. Deserted by crofters in poverty in the 19th century, they are a reminder of how families then just as now are forced to leave their homelands in search of work and a new life. Does the photo below of Calgary Bay with its rays of sun piercing a cold sea reflect that new life or the chimera that has betrayed so many migrants in the past?

The gallery has been a great cooperative venture and we hope that in reading this you will want to send us other pictures for inclusion. We now have 57 photos, of which half have been supplied by other people. We would like to express our thanks to Barney Harford, Chloe Harford, David Harrison, John Loudon, Liz Moore, Jim Richardson and lastly Mog Empson for his translation of the wording on a refuge wall (see opposite) in Tiger Leaping Gorge In China. We have been greatly encouraged by their support.

Don’t forget to click here for a look at the photos in the Gallery! If you would like a full size image (2Mb-3Mb) of one of these photos to print out or for a Christmas present just email me ( for a copy. And if you like what you see on the site, why not pass the details to your friends?

Of belvederes and ospreys

They’ve got minds of their own, we thought, but that’s not surprising for a couple who’ve come over 3,000 miles from West Africa. Like others though we’ve been keeping the change in their exact domestic arrangements quiet this year, as they are VIPs whom we would not like to see frightened away.

Yes, you’ll have guessed that we are talking about the ospreys, who returned this year to the Derwent Valley in April. Since we built the Belvedere three years ago with its wide range view across the marshes, we’ve been keeping an eye out for the ospreys. In 2008 they moved, conveniently for us, to a site in Dodd Wood which was visible from the Belvedere, though hard to see in any detail as over 1.5 miles distant.

This year they caught the RSPB, Forestry Commission and us by surprise by deciding to set up their nest in a completely new and much closer site at the top of a large dead tree on the other side of the A66. No human help this time with the construction work!

We first got wind of this in May, when we saw a descending hang glider over Thornthwaite, being examined by a circling osprey. The new nest we realised was on the marshes and less than 800 metres away. From the belvedere it’s almost directly in line with the church, Without my binoculars I was not able to check the site out.

We received news however last week from Lee Gretton who was staying at The Larches in August. He confirmed what we thought: “The osprey’s nest is easy to view from the Belvedere. I spent quite a lot of time with the binoculars watching them flying across the marshes”. The photo at the top shows the view through the binoculars of the bare tree with the nest. The site is indicated with a grey magnifying glass at bottom left of the photo.

That was indeed good news, especially for anyone staying at The Larches for the five months, April to August. But there was another nice surprise when we arrived in Chicago. “It was too difficult to send it”, said our son Barney, “but here’s a late birthday present I thought you’d like and could find room for”.

The super colour tinted photo from the turn of the century (see opposite) is of New York’s own Belvedere in Central Park. It will most likely join the Escher Belvedere print we already have in our own fine viewing point at The Larches.

A postcard from America

In the US this month visiting family, we’re spending time in multi ethnic Chicago getting to know more of its history, character and traditions.

The second biggest city in the US and centre of the Midwest, Chicago first grew to importance in the mid 19th century when the railroads and water ways enabled it to operate as the entrepôt for a huge hinterland of cattle grazing and food production.

Chicago was home to the gangster, Al Capone and blues musician, Muddy Waters. The world’s first skyscraper (138 feet tall) was built here in 1885 – to be followed by many more (see photo opposite of Trump Tower); and most recently the city has seen one of its own, Barack Obama, become the USA’s first black president.

In the neighbourhoods on the north side of the city we’ve been to the excellent Chicago History Museum and explored the buildings and architecture of the Old Town; and taken a look at the mansions of the Gold Coast, where over the years some of Chicago’s richest have lived – from Abraham Lincoln’s son in the 1860′s to Hugh Hefner with his Playboy empire in the 1960′s.

As one friend put it “Chicago is the best real city in the US, assured and vibrant – apart from the weather that is!” It’s hot and steamy in August and bitterly cold in the winter months. And yes it’s windy too but what else would you expect in a city with such a long waterfront?

Lake Michigan on which Chicago is built, is 307 miles long by 118 miles wide and together with the four other great lakes makes up 20% of the world’s fresh water resources and 95% of America’s. One threat to this priceless environmental benefit it should be noted is the Asian carp. An alien fish with an enormous appetite, this was introduced in the 1970s from China in the south and now threatens to invade the Great Lakes and upset their ecological balance.

You can easily imagine Lake Michigan is a sea as the four photos below of bikers and bathers show. No wonder Americans call this huge lake their third ocean!