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Rock climbers scale heights of indignation at poet's Cultural Olympiad trail


Graffiti in the wild places, say objectors. But others are in favour of Simon Armitage's work with Ilkley Literature Festival on the Yorkshire Pennines

It might be Yorkshire Day all over the world, but for many climbers and outdoor folk, a Cultural Olympiad-sponsored poetry and scupture trail on the West Yorkshire uplands spells 'trouble at mill'. The Stanza Stones project is a collaboration between renowned local poet Simon Armitage, artist Pip Hall and the Ilkley Literature festival.

The Trail itself features six new poems by Simon Armitage which have been carved into rock by Pip Hall in what have been descriibed as 'six atmospheric locations'. The problem is, that for many rock climbers the moody gritstone edges represent an almost sacred altar of movement. The rough, skin grazing, dark-textured stone is often described by the gritstone cognoscenti as 'God's own rock'. These small scattered outcrops,escarpments and boulders offer a climbing experience unlike any other.

In contrast to the techniques required on the rhyolite,limestone,granite and dolorite cliffs in other popular climbing venues, gritsone requires an almost unique climbing style based on balance, friction and an ability to utilise the rounded cracks through a climbing technique known as 'jamming'. It is an occasionally brutal style of climbing where quite often, upward momentum requires the climbers' to suspend his/her body weight on jammed fist. For the uninitiated, this often involves leaving some skin behind in the crack.

Writing about the stanza trail on the leading climbing and hillwalking website UKClimbing.com, outdoors writer Dan Bailey has unleashed some dark mutterings from the gritstone rock climbing fundementalists. The first respondent on the story's thread comments:

Frankly, I don't give a shit if it's pretty poetry, I'd much rather our limited wild spaces remained untouched as long as possible. I find this depressing.

Another choruses:

I was outraged to hear hammer and chissel (sic) whilst soloing one quiet afternoon. The fact that the chissel was being used for what is clamed to be an artistic project changes nothing in my mind. This is now a permanent feature on the rock, in a rock type that most of us do our utmost to minimise our impact upon.

Climbing artist and illustrator, Phil Gibson, is also surprisingly dismissive of the project offering,

What a pity that Mr Armitage has chosen to carve his scroll across the rocks that he perpetrates to covet. Not only does it smack at egotism, but it is also pretentious: gold-emblazoned. His work should have been left in print, and for the sake of the literary festival, transported to these places in a more transient manner. Oh please, we already have Mr Gormley, Mr Hirst and Banksy. Please don't encourage him.

Enough said.

However, it has to be added that many members of the climbing community supported the project and chided those critics for alleged selfishness and naivety. Others made the point that rock climbers do not own the crags and indeed, that their own activities could sometimes be seen as far more visually intrusive and ecologically destructive.

The full Stanza trail is now open and is advertised as suitable for short family walks taking in one or two stones, to full day outings which are best suited to experienced walkers who can take in all six stanza stones.

John Appleby is a Liverpool-born artist, outdoor writer, mountaineer and guidebook contributor who has lived most of his adult life amongst the North Wales mountains. Articles on art, rock climbing and conservation appearing more recently on the Footless Crow blogazine which also features many of the UK's leading outdoor writers.

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