Literary Landscapes

Researching the name of any mountain, village, forest, lake, hill or indeed virtually any other geographical landmark in the British Isles is a journey through layers of language: Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Cumbric, Gaelic, Brittonic, and the myriad other dialects of ancient tribes that remain as a residue in the fabric of the landscape. To the philologically curious, the names of the climbing routes slapped onto its rocks and crags over the last hundred-odd years, invisible except to those for whom they form the geographical reference system of their sport, are a no less fascinating part of that journey.

It’s taken as read among rock-climbing types that the first ascensionist of a climb has earned the right to name that climb. To get to weave a personal legacy into the toponymic tapestry of the natural world is seen as a great privilege among the climbing fraternity, and route-naming is something climbers take extremely seriously, sometimes putting as much effort into devising a suitable name as climbing the route itself.

Kate Lawrence, lecturer at Bangor University, suggests that the name of a climb can reveal a lot about the period when it was first ascended. In a paper presented at the Royal Geographical Society conference in 2014, analysing the names of 145 routes in Snowdonia, she writes: “The names of climbs first ascended in the 1920s and 1930s often give you an idea of how to get to them and where to go, but by the 1980s, a hedonistic culture was prevalent amongst some climbers in North Wales and the names of many climbs are clearly influenced by this”.

While the routes put up in the 1930s went by largely descriptive names, alluding to the shape of the rock or local environmental features, by the late 1950s climbs were being given poetic titles, and come the ‘80s climbers were looking to songs, films and literary works, or choosing names that spoke of the physical or psychological experience of the climb or what was going on in their head while making the ascent. All of the names, Lawrence says, give a sense of the route’s background and origins.

“One Step in the Clouds, named in 1958, describes the feeling of the climb, and you do feel you are tip-toeing across something very delicate where you have to be careful. … Curving Crack, named in 1932, describes the visual aspect and is quite down to earth, and Comes the Dervish, named in 1981, signals the spiritual state of being outside the body.” ‘Cenotaph Corner’ on Dinas Cromlech at Llanberis Pass, named in 1952, “takes on the theme of burial and death — Dinas Cromlech means burial chamber, and the massive crag does look like a tombstone.” In the nearby slate quarries there are routes with names like ‘Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘Is it a Crime?’, named after Sade songs, and one named after the Muse track ‘Supermassive Black Hole’.

As the late Charlie Fowler once said, “anybody can put up a classic route, but it takes real talent to come up with a great route name”, and kudos to the climbing community, there are some really great route names. In a lot of cases it’s probably best not to delve too deep into the process of cognitive deliberation that produced them, but at the same time it’s hard not to see a certain poetry in some of the offspring of this ‘hedonistic culture’ Lawrence talks about.

‘Don’t Touch that in front of Grandma’ (Juniper Canyon, Nevada) for example; ‘Fuzzy Undercling’ (Red River Gorge, Kentucky), ‘Chicago Nipple Slump’ (Joshua Tree, California), ‘Poultry in Motion’ (Shannon Falls, BC), or ‘Bald Women with Power Tools’ (Joshua Tree); ‘Walk We Crawl’ on Rock Creek Wall at Sierra Eastside, California; ‘I Saw a Sleaze Revisit Ed’, next to ‘Isosceles Revisited’ in Yosemite; ‘The Quack of Ducks’, above ‘the Crack of Dust’ at Mission Gorge, San Diego County; others political (‘Unimpeachable Groping’ at Red Rock Canyon; named in the ’90s — go figure), many obscene, and plenty treading the edgelands where bawdiness or black humour collide with outright poor taste.

Contributions to the literary and cultural side of things are numerous and varied. There’s a crag at Red Rock, Nevada, for example, called the Hamlet, every route name on which is an allusion to Shakespeare’s play — so, ‘Goodnight Sweet Prince’, ‘The Play’s the Thing’, ‘Rosencrantz’, ‘The Rest is Silence’, ‘When the Blood Burns’, and others. There’s ‘Summer of Our Discount Tent’ in the Bridger Mountains in Montana, and ‘Too Loose To Trek’ — “a short dirty little climb” at Joshua Tree, southern California; at Donner Summit ‘A Steep Climb Named Desire’, and ‘Climbin’ Punishment’ at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia; ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘Upon a Painted Ocean’ at Point Perpendicular in Australia, and ‘The Satanic Traverses’ on Napes Needle in Cumbria, named back in the days when Salman Rushdie was fleeing persecution from 8th century religious throwbacks (on which note there’s also the rather pleasing ‘Cretins Corner’ in Idaho — described as “loose, wet, & overhanging”). And then of course, there’s the whole Tolkien issue.

If the poetics of ‘Hillbilly Sex Farm’ (West Virginia), ‘Magical Chrome-Plated Semi-Automatic Enema Syringe’ (Lumpy Ridge, Colorado) or the inevitable ‘Mr. Hugh G. Rection’ (Pinnacles, California) seem a little, let’s say, incongruous with those of the mountain landscape, there’s a whole other genre of route names of which the opposite is true.

On Pavey Ark in Langdale, I was pleased to discover, when I started delving into it for an article I was writing a while back, there is a certain syntonicity between the personality of the crag and the names of the climbs that crisscross its surface: ‘Crescent Slabs’, ‘Arcturus’, ‘Cruel Sister’, ‘Mother Courage’, ‘Rainmaker’, ‘Fallen Angel’, ‘Impact Day’, and a long list of others that would look as comfortable on an Iron Maiden album sleeve as in the pages of any climbing logbook.

The route names directory for the Napes, on the southern flank of Great Gable, similarly, is a veritable encyclopedia of the ancient, the literary and the chthonic: climbs like ‘Eagles Nest’, ‘Arrowhead Ridge’, ‘Vikings’, ‘Supernatural’, ‘Incantations’ and ‘Lucifer Ridge’, and others that nod respectfully to English folklore (‘Little John’, ‘Longbow’, ‘The Merry Monk’…). ‘The Crowley Route’ on the Napes will always have a slightly sinister ring to it, though like many climbs it’s named innocuously enough after its first ascensionist (it just happens that in this case that was the occultist Aleister Crowley, one of the first generation of climbers to bring their then-nascent sport to the Cumbrian fells in the late 19th and early 20th century). In the United States, ‘Wall of the Early Morning Light’ (Yosemite), ‘Lucifer’s Ladder’ (Utah), and ‘The Eagle’s Gift’ (Virginia) are among the countless other such names in this tradition.

For all my metal sensibilities, as route names go there can surely be none finer than that of a climb in Upper Owens River Gorge in eastern California. Listed in the online directories as ‘Nothing but Trouble’, its full title is: ‘You Have Been Nothing But Trouble Since the First Day I Laid Eyes on You; You are Like a Thorn in My Side; I Don’t Know from One Day to the Next What Stupid Lame Brain Stunt You’re Gonna Pull; Now Get Out of Here, Get Out of My Office, Get Out of My Life, Once and For All, Get Out Out Out Out!’


Nature, language and law

I’ve spent much of my working life as an editor immersed in the world of law – legal journals, books, court judgments, law reports and the myriad other literary effusions of a world that balks at any linguistic ornamentation that might inadvertently obfuscate rather than elucidate. (This blog, incidentally, borrows its working title, The English Reports, from a collection of reports of judgments of the English Courts reported between the Middle Ages and the mid-19th Century). Many legal editors would gladly concur with 16th century English jurist William Fulbecke, who declared, in a moment of spectacular understatement, that “the books of law … are not pleasant to read, the words or terms are harsh and obscure, dull, and coldly prosaic, the style no whit delightful.”

And yet, however clinical and rationalistic it aspires to be, legal language, like any language, is steeped in images. Of the metaphors that pervade its everyday idiom, particularly any part thereof pertaining to the world of business and commerce, it is fascinating how so many seem to draw on the forces of the natural world, and perhaps above all, how many have an aquatic resonance.

We speak for instance of “keeping one’s head above water”, or being “deep in debt”; of liquidity, pools of resources, and the ebb and flow of the economic cycle. Remaining solvent requires good cash-flow and a steady flow of work. A company is floated; revenue pours in. We speak of a reservoir of capital, a buoyant market, infusions of capital, sinking funds, money being “siphoned off” or “pumped in”. A business drowns in debt, becomes insolvent, enters liquidation; wealth “trickles down”.

We speak of bailing out, going belly-up, pouring money down the drain, going under, shipwrecked companies foundering on the rocks. A firm is offered a lifeboat; a lender pulls the plug. Under a wave of debt a business files for bankruptcy, and we demand that those at the helm be held to account when a country sails into insolvency. ‘Currency’ itself (currere: to run) has a watery resonance, in its associations with currents, as do “affluent” and “flush” (fluere: to flow), both of which convey a sense of flow. Conversely, an account may be frozen, and freezing orders imposed; floating charges crystallise into fixed charges, blocked accounts impede the movement of funds. Stopping a flow is linked to the metaphor of drying out: funds dry up; revenue sources run dry.

These associations with fluidity and porosity and the images at play within them seem a long way from the clinical and rationalistic world of the legal profession. This is, after all, a world traditionally suspicious of image, metaphor, and anything else outside the Cartesian worldview, and yet the language it uses to make sense of itself is imbued with these images that convey subtle understandings, the sensate nature of its expressions enlivening our responsiveness to and understanding of the things they denote.

Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. Imagery and metaphor “govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” The psychologist James Hillman likewise considered the metaphorical image our “first unlearned language, which provides the poetic basis of mind, making possible communication between all people and all things”. The image, in other words, provides a way of understanding which is not purely conceptual, but which enables connections to be made between ideas and their archetypal roots.

The further we delve into these metaphors, the more we come to appreciate how a residual connection to our roots in the natural world manifests itself through everyday language, the prosaicism of the realm of commerce, and the laws that govern it, mirrored by the dynamism of those very forces, those very laws, devalued and rejected in mankind’s quest to assert its mastery of, and separation from the rest of nature. Through language, these forces reveal themselves in the unconscious: a primordial substrate, quietly shaping our everyday ways of thinking and being. Ironically, taking up Lakoff and Johnson’s point, this very rebellion of the archaic against the Cartesian order plays a crucial role in maintaining the strength, structure, and integrity of that order.

Three Points of Contact : A Paean to the Mountain Scramble

A walk in the mountains usually involves following some kind of path: more or less clearly defined, marked on a map, inscribed into the surface of the earth, trodden by countless thousands before us. In this most human of inventions, objectively connecting two points in space, the drive to overcome separation becomes a shaping of the world. Compacting movement into structure, like many products of our demiurgic impulse to structure our world it has the contradictory quality of simultaneously enabling and delimiting motion.

The utility of the path as an instrument of leisure comes in part from the fact that it provides a place of safe passage, allowing us to ‘tune out’; to let our surroundings wash over us: a moving vantage point from which to take in the landscape around us, as the body falls into a rhythm, compliant with the beat of pretrodden contours. When the contours cluster and the path dissolves, things become rather different.

I was taught the basics of rock-climbing in my early teens. For a few years I took to carting a pair of old rock shoes around the limestone escarpments of North Yorkshire on the off-chance of some ad hoc bouldering to enliven an evening wander, but an aversion to expensive hardware and the clannishness of the climbing world meant that, in the long term, any appetite I’d developed for hanging off the side of mountains was going to require an outlet less demanding on both scores.

When, one November afternoon in the late 90s, I found myself in the rooftops of the Cumbrian fells on a vertiginous ascent known as Jack’s Rake, clinging in a state of abject terror to the face of a spectacular precipice, two thousand feet above the valley floor, with the dark, wet mists of winter swirling around, I was sold.

Not quite rock-climbing, not quite fell-walking, scrambling inhabits a peculiar territory somewhere between the two, where the airy solitude of a mountain walk meets the adrenaline of free climbing. The discipline, if you can call it that, is broadly defined simply as anything that requires the use of the hands to traverse otherwise impassable rock terrain: three points of contact, mostly in wild, untamed landscapes, miles from civilisation. There is no ‘aim’, as such, other than to get from point A to point B, and it remains I think one of the few alpine pursuits that have managed to avoid being co-opted into a competitive sport.

Although of all mountain activities it’s the one that requires possibly the least technical expertise, it is, almost by definition, one of the most dangerous, undertaken without safety gear, open to anyone, regardless of experience, and often involving drops as high if not higher than many roped climbing ascents. Many of the UK’s ‘classic’ scrambles — Striding Edge and Swirral Edge on Helvellyn, Sharp Edge, the rocky blade slung from the roof of Blencathra in the north, the terrifying traverse of Crib Goch in Snowdonia — entail negotiation of razor-sharp arêtes with a lethal abyss of hundreds of feet either side, where an exhilarating clamber across precipitous terrain becomes a problem-solving activity conducted at altitude, in which mistakes can be costly and a wrong move can have life-changing consequences.

I doubt there is a climber alive who hasn’t at one time or another found themselves cragfast, hundreds of feet up, no way out of a seemingly hopeless predicament, with all apparent means of progress or escape exhausted. It’s a sickening sensation: to glance down and see the world dropping away beneath your feet; the horrifying clatter of loose scree tumbling into the void, the rush of panic welling inside – and with all this, paralysis, all the physical strength in the world as nothing against the psychological effects of exposure.

The salient issue in these circumstances is not the technical complexity of the situation, but rather how this sensory onslaught that arrives with the realisation that everything — literally, everything — pivots on a still point, is marshalled.

No matter how hopeless the situation, it may always be reasonably assumed that onward progress is possible. Calling to mind the millions who have tackled the same route and lived to climb another day, while batting off nagging thoughts of the few who didn’t, a curious mixture of analytical and intuitive skills comes into play.

The situation must be broken down into its component parts — physical and psychological — various ways of approaching and resolving them considered, and the most appropriate course of action decided on from the information available. It’s a matter of precision, strategy even, back-of-the-envelope risk assessment and projection of where the physics of a risky move might lead; carefully studying the environs for signs of polished stone that signify the success of others, testing for loose rock and dodgy holds, face pressed up close, searching for the hollow sound that belies the faux ami that could bring everything to a horrible conclusion.

Analytical aptitude, creative thinking, perseverance and the ability to keep a level head all play their part. But the machinations of the internal gyroscopy that kicks in when inner forces take control pay no regard to reason. Moving upwards, against every inbuilt survival instinct — rock to rock, hold to hold, with racing heartbeat thumping through the silence — is more, and in every sense, a question of reliance. Trusting — oneself; one’s surroundings — but also connection, or rather, re-connection: re + liance.

With the feeling of cold stone on the palms, and the rush of panic, the drama of the mountain landscape ceases to be a (mere) backdrop. We enter back ‘into’ it, re-establishing a natural, primal, long-forgotten assemblage. Trust, then, and a kind of ‘reconstitution’ — a reliance on and with forces buried deep or banished altogether in our day-to-day lives.

There is no tangible product to all this; nothing physical, at the end, to call a ‘result’ — just the memory of the experience, and of the achievement. It’s for this reason that Wordsworth and his associates believed it regressive to live out our lives in the sanctuary of what we nowadays call our ‘comfort zone’. Only by venturing outside, to experience the ‘beauty and fear’ of the natural landscape, can we be jolted out of our normal rhythms and feel things denied to us in the banality of our daily routines: these ‘spots of time’, where moments of intimacy are experienced, internalised, and worked into our sense of being.

Trust in oneself is not, after all, something that just happens. It’s something that requires a continuous therapeutic process. An inner restorative is needed, a place where memory connects us to those ‘existential peaks’, where we felt the narrative of our ‘self’ fall into place. Such peaks are almost always, in some way or another, experiences of reliance. Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’; Emerson’s ‘moments’; Maffesoli’s ‘eternal instant’; Buber’s ‘real, filled present’ — those moments lived, as T.S. Eliot put it, at “the still point of the turning world”.


“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

– Henry David Thoreau

“The dull man goes straight forward; he has so many furlongs to traverse. He observes if he meets any of his acquaintance; he enquires respecting their health and their family. He glances perhaps the shops as he passes; he admires the fashion of a buckle, and the metal of a tea-urn. If he experience any flights of fancy, they are of a short extent….

On the other hand the man of talent gives full scope to his imagination…. His whole soul is employed. He enters into nice calculations; he digests sagacious reasonings. In imagination he declaims or describes, impressed with the deepest sympathy, or elevated to the loftiest rapture…. He passes through a thousand imaginary scenes, tries his courage, tasks his ingenuity, and thus becomes gradually prepared to meet almost any of the many-coloured events of human life. ….

If he observe the passengers, he reads their countenances, conjectures their past history, and forms a superficial notion of their wisdom or folly, their virtue or vice, their satisfaction or misery. If he observe the scenes that occur, it is with the eye of a connoisseur or an artist. Every object is capable of suggesting to him a volume of reflections.”

– William Godwin

“When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.”

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau