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Mountain Literature Classics: Feeding the Rat

© Ronald Turnbull

So who the heck is Mo Anthoine – and what, for the matter of that, is the Rat? A lot of books came out of the mid-20th Century British climbing boom, including well-selling autobiographies of Bonington and Joe Brown. This one is a bit different.

The rat is that other climber inside you, the one that thinks you're spectacularly adventurous and skillful  © Ronald Turnbull
The rat is that other climber inside you, the one that thinks you're spectacularly adventurous and skillful
© Ronald Turnbull

First of all, it was not written to pay for the author's next climbing expedition. It was not even written by the climber. Al Alvarez is known, if he's known at all, as a poet and literary journalist – I came across him in the 1960s, as compiler of a superb anthology, the Penguin 'New Poetry'. (Is there some mystic correspondence between rock climbing and early 20th century verse? The previous excellent anthology, 'The Faber Book of Modern Verse', was compiled by Alpine climber Michael Roberts.)

Anthoine was one of the 'other two' on the Bonington-Scott epic on the Ogre  © Ronald Turnbull
Anthoine took little credit for his pivotal role in the Bonington-Scott epic on The Ogre

Unless you were around at the time, Mo Antoine is the member of the Joe Brown group you maybe haven't heard of. With a steady job running Joe Brown's gear factory in Llanberis he didn't need to write a potboiler called 'Hoy There!' or 'It's All Ogre Now'. Alvarez's biography was written (very well written) for fun, and as a tribute to his friend.

Just like most Scottish winter climbs, the result's a bit mixed.

Anthoine was one of the 'other two' on the Bonington-Scott epic on the Ogre. After Scott broke both his ankles, it was Anthoine and the fourth climber, Clive Rowlands, who got the expedition down again. You may have attended one of Doug Scott's Ogre slideshows, in which case you'll have seen the picture of Scott crawling down the mountain, with Antoine crouched beside him. But you need to read the 'Rat' to find out why. "As he crept past, I thought, if he's crawling, he can carry [all these extra karabiners]."

One chapter features the Old Man of Hoy   © Ronald Turnbull
One chapter features the Old Man of Hoy
© Ronald Turnbull

The Ogre chapter is the most revealing of the various Ogre stories around, with ironic details missing from other accounts. (I don't think Clive Rowland has written it up, though I might be wrong about that.) The other hot chapter is a vivid account of the ordinary route on the Old Man of Hoy. Al Alvarez, a not especially talented 56-year-old climber, follows as second on the rope up what was probably his lifetime-most-thrilling ascent. Or maybe not: an earlier chapter describes an underequipped chilly bivvy on the north face of the Cima Grande.

There's another chapter the PR company for Snowdon Mouldings (Joe Brown's helmet-making factory in Llanberis) must have enjoyed a lot, the rest of us less so. And there's an account of an unsuccessful Everest expedition. Not spectacularly unsuccessful. Not lethally unsuccessful. Just a whole lot of folk waiting at the bottom of the North East ridge for a weather window that doesn't happen. This could be the only fully truthful account of what Everest is all about.

And the Rat? The rat is that other climber inside you, the one that thinks you're spectacularly adventurous and skilful. "When they come close to each other, that's smashing, that is." And so it's necessary, from time to time, to feed the Rat with suitably serious and exciting climbs.

Well, it is if you're Mo Anthoine.



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27 Sep, 2021

By coincidence (?) a French translation of this has just been published, but it has no photos. Long time since I read the original but I'm sure I remember photos & this review seems to confirm that, wonder why they were left out of the French edition

27 Sep, 2021

I loved the book. Climbing of it's era, which was also my era. Sat alongside The Games Climbers Play on my bookshelf for a long time.

27 Sep, 2021

Joe's factory where he famously made his helmets was the old school in Nant Peris, later a studio for one John Redhead.

27 Sep, 2021

Thanks enjoyed this. You might like my obit of Al Alvarez.

https://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/ukc/al_alvarez_-_a_climbing_obituary-710826

27 Sep, 2021

I'd have thought AA was remembered in the wider world mainly as the author of The Savage God and whatever that rather charming elegiac book about his daily swim in old age in the Hampstead Heath pools was called.

jcm

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