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Book Review: Days to Remember

viewpointYEARS ago I commissioned a young UIAA Mountain Guide to write a feature for the very first issue of Footloose, an outdoor magazine I edited in the late seventies. I’d read some of Rob Collister’s writings in the superb Mountain magazine and was very impressed.

Some years later when I was editor of Climber Magazine I spent the day rock-climbing with Jim Perrin at Tremadoc in North Wales and in the evening Jim invited Rob and his wife Netti to join us for dinner. In the course of the evening I learned much about this gentle mountaineer; his expeditions in Antarctica and the Himalaya; his first ascents in the Alps; his ski tours to places like Lebanon and most stimulating of all, his deep love of the Welsh countryside.

I met Rob again when I was asked to speak a Snowdonia Society annual lecture and Rob was delegated to be my host. He and Netti kindly put me up for the night at their home at Penmachno and I enjoyed another opportunity to learn more about this mountain guide who appeared to have a wider and deeper appreciation of the outdoors and of wildlife than most guides I knew. What’s more, I learned of Rob’s wider concerns about the world we live in and in particular the threat of climate change.

Last year Rob had a book published. Days to Remember is essentially a book of memoirs, a fascinating collection of essays that portrays the multi-layered lifestyle of Rob Collister, a man who was once described by John Barry, the ex-boss of Plas y Brenin, as ‘a man of culture, a man of peace, a Renaissance man, all the good bits from Chariots of Fire, arrow alpinist and as fit as a butcher’s dog – a deliberately inappropriate metaphor for a conscientious vegetarian.’

I’m delighted to discover that Days to Remember has been shortlisted for the Boardman-Tasker Award. In my humble opinion it would make a very worthy winner for there are direct lessons in it for all of us who enjoy the outdoors, whether we be mountaineers, ski tourers or hillwalkers.

The book neatly breaks down into three parts and begins gently. The first part deals with Rob’s home territory of North Wales and in a series of essays it’s clear where this man gets his motivation. On mountain bike or by foot Rob clearly takes huge delight not only in adrenaline-producing technical climbs or marathon runs over the mountains but in the simple things he sees each day – the birds, the plants, the simple co-existence of order and harmony in a landscape which offers him a real sense of belonging. Indeed, he likens his relationship with the Welsh word ‘cynefin’, which refers to the territorial instinct of sheep that are ‘hefted’ to a particular area.

The second part of Days to Remember reminds us Rob is an international mountain guide – this is how he earns his day to day crust, by taking clients on adventurous journeys through and over the mountains of the world, from the Alps to Antarctica and the Greater Ranges – “the boundary between work and play often blurring.” We are also gently reminded that Rob is a first class mountaineer in his own right, an explorer of note, a successful Alpinist and highly regarded ski tourer.

In these accounts it is abundantly clear that Rob Collister is not driven by personal ambition or a desire to be first or best. The truth of the matter is that he takes extreme delight in simply being amongst mountains and wild places and his exclamations of delight, his deep ecological appreciation of the mountain environment, remind me of Nan Shepherd’s personal imran, her spiritual journey as recounted in her seminal book, The Living Mountain.

She refers to a journey into an experience, from the sensuous gratification of list-ticking, the sensations of height and speed and movement into something infinitely more fundamental – to discover the mountain in itself, to become “a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”

One of the great problems we face in the twenty-first century is the steady divorce of our physical lives from the natural world so that we no longer feel connected to it. The fact is we are connected to it; the natural world sustains us, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Without these things we cannot exist so surely it makes sense to look after this old planet as best we can, each and every one of us?

And that is essentially the subject of Rob Collister’s final section. He calls it Issues.

It is clear that climate change is the biggest challenge we face and directly related to that is the way we pollute the planet. Ron is very critical of air travel and helicopter ski-ing and isn’t convinced that on-shore windfarms are the best way forward, but he hints at something much more fundamental.

In an uncharacteristic critique of his fellow mountain guides he suggests: “A fair proportion of mountain guides do not value mountains as mountains or for a relation to them that goes beyond technical mastery, challenge and achievement. The mountain is simply a place of work to be exploited for cash.”

And there lies the nub of the problem. As a society we don’t value mountains and wild places for themselves, but in economic terms. It’s the Achilles heel of the politician – everything has a value and we are not successful unless we are seeing economic growth and since we can’t make money from preserving our mountain environments then we ignore it, leaving its mono-management to those who do make money from such environments, the grouse shooters and the deer stalkers, the subsidy-seeking farmers, the over proliferation of sheep, the hooved locusts, who crop the hillsides to the bare bones.

Days to Remember concludes with a call to reconsider what adventure is all about and how we can achieve it within the constraints of a world that has become compromised by pollution and resultant over-heating. I believe Rob Collister offers some valuable advice for us all.

Days to Remember, by Rob Collister, is published by Baton Wicks at £12.99




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