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We are all climbing where we are and with the gear we use in no small part due to Tony Howard’s quest for adventure.

Tony Howard has touched foot in places in the world that almost nobody else has ever seen. He has contributed such a vast amount to real exploratory adventure climbing, it would be unthinkable not to have his experiences documented in full. He has taken the time to share with us the distinctive landscapes, cultures and politics he has encountered along the way, and writes modestly yet vividly of his numerous first ascents on climbs across the globe. This is an excellent read from a man who has changed the face of adventure travel.

Tony Howard

Sir Chris Bonington Tony Howard has seen and done things that most of us can’t even imagine. The book details an almost unfathomable collection of travels and achievements, and through it all Tony’s greatest qualities shine brightly: genuine technical skill and endurance, a pioneering curiosity about the world, and an inimitable humility and ability to connect with those around him. He writes evocatively, whisking us along for the ride to mountaintops and frozen tundra and desert sands. This is a remarkable and thoughtfully put together account of an even more remarkable and thoughtful life of adventure. Leon McCarron, filmmaker, adventurer and author of The Road Headed West and The Land Beyond In these days of micro and simulated adventure Tony Howard is the real deal – perhaps the last of the genuine explorers in the vein of Shipton and Tilman. As a climber, wilderness trekker and an advocate for endangered cultures, Tony Howard encapsulates all that is great and good in adventure travel. His story is simply mind-blowing in the scale of its depth and achievement. Cameron McNeish, author of There’s Always the Hills and The Munros

Tony Howard

Tony Howard grew up in the Chew Valley, at the northern tip of the Peak District. He started climbing in 1953 and became well known in climbing circles for his new routes and contributions to local guidebooks. He worked as an instructor in the early 1960s and qualified as a BMC guide in 1965, the year he and his friends famously made the first British ascent of Norway’s 1,000-metretall Troll Wall. Tony was a founding partner of Troll Climbing Equipment, designing many innovative products such as the world’s first commercial range of nuts, the first climbing sit harnesses and the first sewn slings. He has climbed all over the world, discovering new areas and making many first ascents. Tony is a regular contributor to outdoor magazines, and has authored several books, including Troll Wall, the untold story of the British first ascent of Europe’s tallest rock face. He has also written or contributed to guidebooks for the English Peak District, Norway, Oman, Morocco, Jordan and Palestine. He occasionally lives in the Chew Valley with his wife Di when they’re not off exploring yet another distant corner of the globe.

Tony Howard rose to fame in 1965 as a member of a group of young climbers from northern England who made the first British ascent of Norway’s Troll Wall; a climb described by Joe Brown as, ‘One of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers’. Tony went on to design the modern sit harness, now used worldwide by most climbers. He founded the company Troll Climbing Equipment but never stopped exploring. Quest into the Unknown is his story.

MY LIFE AS A CLIMBING NOMAD

Tony has dedicated his life to travelling the world in search of unclimbed rock faces and remote trekking adventures. The scale of his travels is vast: he has visited all of the North African countries, much of the Arab land of the Middle East, the mountainous regions of Scandinavia, Canada and the rocky spine of the Americas, the Himalaya, remote Indian provinces, South East Asia, Madagascar, South Georgia and Antarctica. This book, the last word in adventure travel, takes the reader from Tony’s youth spent developing the crags of the English Peak District, via whaling ships in the Southern Ocean, thousand-mile canoe trips in the Canadian Arctic, living amongst the Bedouin in the rocky mountains of Jordan, to the isolated opium tribes of Thailand. Tony Howard’s Quest into the Unknown is the jaw-dropping account of a life of adventure that is the very definition of true exploration.

Author photo: Di Taylor. Front cover: Our first sight of the awesome Great Siq which splits Jebel Rum’s summit plateau. Jordan, 1984. Vertebrate Publishing Sheffield www.v-publishing.co.uk

977i VP Quest into the Unknown_PB_OFC.indd 1

£14.95

31/01/2019 13:43


Tony Howard MY LIFE AS A CLIMBING NOMAD

Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield www.v-publishing.co.uk


Tony Howard

First published in 2019 by Vertebrate Publishing.

Vertebrate Publishing Omega Court, 352 Cemetery Road, Sheffield S11 8FT United Kingdom. www.v-publishing.co.uk Copyright © Tony Howard 2019. Front cover: Our first sight of the awesome Great Siq which splits Jebel Rum’s summit plateau. Jordan, 1984. Photography by Tony Howard unless otherwise credited. Tony Howard has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as author of this work. This book is a work of non-fiction based on the life of Tony Howard. The author has stated to the publishers that, except in such minor respects not affecting the substantial accuracy of the work, the contents of the book are true. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN  978-1-911342-83-0 (Paperback) ISBN  978-1-911342-84-7 (Ebook) ISBN  978-1-912560-05-9 (Audiobook) 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 All rights reserved. No part of this work covered by the copyright herein may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means – graphic, electronic, or mechanised, including photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems – without the written permission of the publisher. Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologise for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition. Design and production by Jane Beagley. www.v-publishing.co.uk Vertebrate Publishing is committed to printing on paper from sustainable sources.

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Printed and bound in the UK by T.J. International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall.


Contents Precis

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

PART ONE 1 Early Days – Part One 2 Early Days – Part Two 3 Early Days – Part Three 4 Teenage Kicks – Part One 5 Teenage Kicks – Part Two 6 The Rimmon 7 Whaling Days – South Georgia Bound 8 Whaling Days – Antarctic Adventures 9 Keep on Rockin’ 10 Winter Wanderings 11  Norway – Arctic Adventures 12  Jobs on the Rocks 13  Dolomite Days 14  Moroccan Mountains 15  Norway – The Troll Wall and other escapades 16  Life on the Ocean Wave 17  Norway – The Romsdal Years 18  The Times they are a-Changing 19  On the Road Again 20  Canada – Yukon Yarns 21  Canada – ‘The Trail of ’98’ 22  Homeward Bound 23  Back Home 24  Greenland 25  Life at Troll 26  Persian Perambulations 27  And Then There Were Two 28  Atakor Adventures 29  Meanwhile, Back at Work ... 30  Spanish Rock 31  Morocco – Here Comes the Sun 32  Alpine Adventures 33  All Change ...

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46 Exploring Egypt – Sinai and the Red Sea Mountains Dedicated to George William Murray 1885–1966 He spent forty-five years in the Desert Survey, one of a group of dedicated men who spent their best years exploring and mapping the Egyptian Deserts … when news of his return to Sinai spread from tent to tent, old friends mounted and rode, often several days journey to greet him. A tired camel’s grumbling protest would announce the arrival of a visitor and all were made welcome. Dare Me to the Desert, G.W. Murray

In 1987 Di found a book in a second-hand bookshop called Dare Me to the Desert by G.W. Murray. We were always poking around in the dusty corners of their travel shelves in the hope of finding ideas for future mountain trips. ‘You might like this,’ she said when she got home. Its title sounded mildly promising. On opening it the frontispiece had a photo of ‘The author at work’, though all he was doing was standing with a couple of Bedouin. It was a black and white photo from the 1930s. He looked rather cherubic in a neat short-sleeved shirt and baggy shorts with a Boy Scout-type hat above a chubby face, and his ankle socks were pulled up high and neatly on what looked like legs untouched by the sun. He didn’t look at all inspirational. Nevertheless, flicking through the photos there were numerous tantalising mountain scenes with captions like ‘Giant granite pinnacles on Shayib’, ‘Grim pinnacles that guard the flank of Umm Shomar’, and ‘The Qattar Range’. The more I read, the more I was fascinated by his mentions of mountains, ‘the topmost pinnacle, 5,230 feet high, stands … like a King at chess between two Bishops’, or, ‘the 2,000 foot cliff stood behind us like a wall’,

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and, ‘the bald red summit had been planed smooth as ice … we were obliged to venture in bare feet … the top of Chephren’s pyramid, still enclosed in its original casing, had not seemed to me so alarming or exposed’. Or mys­ terious Elba, the only part of Egypt touched by the monsoon and often cloud covered. It consequently has over 300 species of plants rarely found elsewhere in Egypt and almost never in Europe. To quote Murray, Elba is ‘wooded to its summit with dragon’s blood trees, acacias and weird euphor­ bias, carpeted underfoot with magic plants which heal sword-cuts and harbour the souls of the departed’. And out in the desert is ‘the great granite bell of Gebel Sila’i, “Baldpate”, a thousand feet high and as sheer and smooth and unclimbable as the Hill of Glass’, plus, above the coast, ‘the Berenice Bodkin, sharper and more vertical than the Aiguille du Géant’, which Murray ‘left alone in its austerity’. And if I may mention one more of many in this intriguing book, ‘the serrated ridge of Shayib, eight miles long, towered 5,000 feet above us’, its highest top ‘a monstrous webbed hand of seven smooth fingers, themselves unclimbable’. There are few words quite as magical as ‘unclimbable’, but I wondered if he really was a climber until I read his mention of the Aiguille du Géant and other Alpine mountains. I checked with Margaret Ecclestone, the Alpine Club’s very helpful librarian who was by now familiar with my unusual requests, and discovered he had not only been an Alpine Club member, but also the director of Egypt’s Desert Survey in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War One, ‘Joe’ as Murray was known, served in the sappers in the Palestine campaign, and won the Military Cross. He was also awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in 1936 for his Egyptian explorations and, two years later, elected a member of the Institut d’Egypte, of which he was a vice president from 1945–1947. He was elected to the Alpine Club in 1925 on an alpine qualification supported by Tom Longstaff noting that he ‘opened in 1923 in the Valais with a number of standard routes on the bigger peaks, as also in 1924. In 1925 he paid a visit to the Dolomites before going to the Valais again (Saas, Zermatt and Arolla) and in later years, in the intervals between climbing seasons in Egypt and Sinai, he returned regularly to his old alpine haunts; in 1928 he and his wife, Edith [née Cairney] were busy in the Mont Blanc range and in the Oberland, where they made the first complete ascent by the south ridge of the Lauterbrunnen Breithorn.’ Additionally Edith was ‘a noted member of the Ladies’ Alpine Club’ with many years of Alpine climbing including an ascent of the

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Matterhorn on her honeymoon with Murray. She was awarded Life Fellowship of the RGS. He was known to the Bedouin as ‘The father of the Ababda’, a tribe in southern Egypt, and to quote from the Alpine Journal in memoriam files, he and Edith ‘were travellers in the Egyptian deserts of almost legendary fame’. Murray knew his stuff, but more importantly for us it seemed no one had followed in his footsteps in Egypt’s Red Sea Mountains or in Sinai, leaving us with a wealth of projects. Where Rum had provided us with around 600 square kilometres of unexplored desert mountains, the Red Sea Mountains that extend for 600 kilometres offered at least ten times that. We were hooked. Di’s discovery of that book led to four trips to Egypt and concluded with us in a military jail! We managed to make our first exploratory trip in spring 1988. After a stay with our Bedouin friends in Rum, we set out alone to Sinai. It was something of a pilgrimage, partly out of biblical curiosity, but also a quest for a holy grail of unclimbed rock and mountains. From Rum not far to the west across the waters of the Red Sea, the mountains of Sinai rose against the same night sky, though looking less hospitable, even less beautiful to our eyes. Even so, they were peaks which had inspired not only Murray, but were also inextricably linked with Old Testament deeds, despite there being no pharaonic records or scientific evidence to support the story of the Exodus. A web search reveals that, though not accepted by Christian and Jewish literalists, ‘mainstream history and arch­ aeology now consider the Exodus never to have happened, and the story to be an entirely fictional narrative put together between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE’. As the late Uri Avnery, of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace activism group, said, ‘In spite of all the frantic efforts of a hundred years, no archaeological evidence has been found that there ever was an exodus from Egypt, a conquest of Canaan by the Children of Israel or a kingdom of David and Solomon’. Nevertheless, according to the Old Testament, it was on the summit of a mountain in the heart of Sinai, now named Jebel Musa, that Moses reputedly received the Ten Commandments from God, laying the foundations of Judaism which, followed by Christianity then Islam, altered the course of history forever, inspiring a third of the world’s popu­ lation. This has given impetus to and excuses for many of the world’s wars and hatreds both great and small. Similarly, the reputed subsequent sighting by Moses of the ‘Promised Land’, which is a central tenet of Zionism, has excused Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

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So it was that, having taken the ferry to Sinai, and reached the top of this ‘Mountain of Moses’ in the heart of the peninsula, I sat and pondered history and wondered if John Lennon’s simple message, ‘All you need is love’ wasn’t a better credo. Moses on the other hand supposedly had no doubts why he was there: we are told he had been called there by God to receive the Ten Commandments. Unlike our visit he had no distractions: there was no small temple on the summit, no church or mosque; no heaps of litter or smell of human defecation in the hot midday sun; no graffiti; no wellworn trail or ‘Steps of Repentance’ from St Catherine’s Monastery below; no monastery either for that matter, just a wild, windswept mountain in the wilderness to whose summit he is said to have climbed alone. Sadly the peak is now lacking in spiritual grandeur and the way from the monastery is a wide, well-worn scar on the landscape but, hidden on the other side of the mountain to the west is a quieter, less obvious path. From the village of St Catherine’s we had noticed a wadi going south into the hills and we walked up on the evening of our arrival to check it out, only to be stopped by a guard from an Egyptian military base at its entrance. We asked for permission to go up the valley, but to no avail – it was forbidden. We had the impression that everything in sight was also forbidden. Indeed we felt sure the guard didn’t really know what his job entailed but if he refused access to everywhere he would surely not be failing in his duty. This meant the great 500-metre cliffs of Jebel Raba immediately above our camp were obviously out of bounds, which was a pity as we had hoped to climb there. However, it did seem that we might be able to enter the valley by discreetly approaching up its opposite shoulder and if that worked we could also get some climbing in on the cliffs of Jebel Fara beyond. As a consequence we set off early next morning and sneaked into the valley, finding a path between crumbling granite boulders, their surface like those in Sudan, shattered by the extremes of desert temperatures. Ahead, a well-tended oasis nestled between the rocks, emerald green and smelling of herbs. Ancient cypress trees, date palms, nut, olive and fig trees cast their shade over the neat, irrigated garden: a jewel in the bare harshness of our surroundings. Further up the valley we passed the seemingly abandoned Convent of the Forty Martyrs and beyond, the busy farmyard sounds of a Bedouin village coming to life in the morning sun. We continued up the path that rose above it, not wishing to confront its occupants in this apparently forbidden place.

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At this point the path split, the lower one winding off up a narrowing rubble-strewn canyon to the west, to the highest summit of Sinai, that of Mount Catherine at 2,642 metres. To this place, so legend goes, the body of St Catherine was ‘transported by angels’ from Alexandria where she had been tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her belief in Christianity. Here we go again, I thought, continuing my mountaintop meditations on religious idolatry. Our chosen path however led pleasantly and gently up and across the western slopes of Jebel Musa with ever-increasing vistas of the wild surroundings. Curving round the shoulder and over the col to the south, we joined the ‘tourist track’ below the summit walls. Just beyond this point we met the final rock-hewn 3,000 ‘Steps of Repentance’. The cutting and laying of these steps which lead almost directly from the monastery to the summit was a self-inflicted task carried out by one of the monks of St Catherine’s as a penance, though reaching the top was for us, as I have said, a singularly disenchanting moment and we quickly moved away to more remote rocks where there were fewer disgusting signs and aromas of human presence. Descending the hill on its more usual side, we passed the small hollow where it is said ‘the seventy elders of Israel stood’ waiting for Moses to descend from the mountain, and where Elijah hid from the wrath of Jezebel and was fed by the ravens. Down below, now shimmering in the midday heat, the ravens of today flew above the wall of the monastery itself. Built 1,600 years ago, this magnificent fortified hermitage with its medieval walls and streets conceals a macabre ossuary of monks’ bones carefully preserved over the centuries and, deep in the gloom, an ancient church. Incense fumes fill the darkness through which an icon of Moses is dimly seen on the far wall, the ‘burning bush’ flaming behind him against a golden sky, for it was here that the famous apparition supposedly occurred. The monks seemed to have absorbed much of the mystery and serenity of their chosen mountain retreat, smiling with beatific contentment and, hopefully, transcending and coping with the ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims and tourists arriving at their door. We ourselves carried on down the valley after only a brief stay, feeling ourselves intruders in this ancient sanctuary. Murray’s Red Sea Mountains in Egypt’s eastern desert were waiting and time was short, so we moved on. Local buses rattled us up to Suez, narrowly avoiding a desert storm and washed-out roads, and on down to mainland Egypt’s Red Sea coast. There, we were greeted by three days of stinging sandstorms that eventually obliterated the road and all else from view.

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To the west, the cliffs of Jebel Galala were rumoured to hold potential for the climber, the only way in being by tracks leading to yet more monasteries, those of St Paul and St Anthony. Sixteen centuries ago, the ‘Desert Fathers’ had independently retreated into the desert to a life of ascetic solitude in the caves and canyons of these mountains, in so doing founding the world’s oldest Christian monasteries, pre-dating even St Catherine’s. The Vitae Patrum – a Latin collection of their lives and sayings written in the fourth century now translated in Helen Waddell’s book, The Desert Fathers – reminds us that, ‘inhumanity towards one’s self had often its counterpart in an almost divine humanity towards one’s neighbour’. My initial interest had been the cliffs, but having read the book I was, more than ever, intrigued. We hitched in for eight miles up a sand-covered desert track to the remote monastery of St Paul during a break in the sandstorm, being given a lift by a Coptic monk driving a battered pickup. We felt the inner glow of contentment in the aura of the monk as we travelled through the barren landscape. The same smile radiated from the face of the monk we met sitting in happy solitude in the shadow of the monastery wall. Their search it seemed was over, while ours continued, as having found no climbable rock in the vicinity, we hitched another lift back down to the coastal road later in the day. The now increasingly fierce winds quickly turned the sky ochre with sand from the deserts of the Nile and perhaps even further beyond, from the mountains of Tibesti, and, who knows, from the Hoggar and the Atlas Mountains, as the Sahara is the world’s biggest desert extending virtually from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, spreading its sandy fingers into every nook and cranny. It’s also the world’s biggest source of wind-blown sand, and that day we were surrounded by it. Hidden in the whirling dust were some of Egypt’s highest peaks – Gharib, Qattar and Shayib, all said by Murray to be of good red granite, and further south the ‘aggressive needles of El Farayid’, with a huge rock bridge that he said, ‘seemed to sway and throb in the wind’, and the needle of the Berenice Bodkin, known to the Bedouin as ‘El Meibar’, a vantage point from the vicinity of which you can’t be seen in times of war or danger. Beyond that the fabled cloud-capped and forested Elba Mountains stood guard on the Sudanese border, but unless the sandstorm abated we were going nowhere. We could see nothing, not even the road – even breathing was difficult. The chance of a lift seemed zero. We weren’t even sure we could survive long out there but then a car appeared out of the murk less than two metres away from us, crawling along the sand-covered road,

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its wipers struggling hopelessly to clear the whirling sand from its windscreen. It stopped! We needed no request to jump in, slamming the doors quickly behind us. ‘I take you to Ras Ghareb,’ the driver said. It was the first town down the road and suited us fine. It was a run-down place with a squalid-looking ‘hotel’. With no choice, we booked in then dashed out to get some food in a small cafe. When we got back there was a magazine under our door – not a tourist brochure but a porn mag. Was the receptionist or the person in the next room having fantasies about Di, I wondered? In the evening someone knocked on the door and invited us for tea in his room – well, nothing ventured nothing gained. Travel is about meeting people, so we accepted his offer. He seemed pleasant enough and, chatting away in good English, having noticed I was rubbing my back he said he had been a physio in London. ‘Do you have a problem?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘just an old injury but it’s okay’. ‘I can fix it for you,’ he said. I very much doubted it, but the Canadian truck driver who had invited me into a vibrating bed with him had turned out to be a genuine guy, so, curious about the unfolding events, I said ‘Okay,’ stripped to the waist as requested and lay on his bed. After a few minutes of his physio massage, which was useless, he announced, ‘All done, now I massage your wife’. ‘No need,’ I said, ‘my wife has a good back. She’s fine’. ‘Massage good for lady anyway,’ he said, but finally convinced Di wouldn’t be taking her blouse off he said he had to go, and showed us the door. So we never got our cup of tea. Next day with the sandstorm easing we caught a bus down the coast road to Hurghada hoping to get our first look at one of ‘Murray’s mountains’, Jebel Gharib. Its ‘beautiful red granite’ had not only been climbed by Murray in 1937 but also, so my enquiries had revealed, by a character called James Burton who had gone to Egypt ‘as an excuse for not returning home to fulfil his father’s wish that he “find himself some gainful employment”’ – something I could empathise with. Today’s Bedouin doubt that the summit has been climbed by either. Having found a decent hotel in Hurghada, which was then just a fishing village rather than the tourist resort it is today, and with clearing skies, we tried to contact the Bedouin living near Jebel Shayib, as it wasn’t far to

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the west, but no luck; we found people who could help, but were told we needed permits from the army and they could only be got – if at all – in Cairo. This was particularly frustrating as that meant we were unable even to approach the mountains to see Murray’s ‘serrated ridge of Shayib’. Having then failed to get past checkpoints to the south, it wasn’t until 1996 that we got permission to return. And I used to think desert climbing wouldn’t involve as much bureaucracy and paperwork as Himalayan expe­ ditions …

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Profile for Vertebrate Publishing

Quest into the Unknown  

We are all climbing where we are and with the gear we use in no small part due to Tony Howard’s quest for adventure. Find our more about Ton...

Quest into the Unknown  

We are all climbing where we are and with the gear we use in no small part due to Tony Howard’s quest for adventure. Find our more about Ton...

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