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The Wall of the Trolls

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Troll Wall PhotoPlanning and schedules are important in publishing; projects can take up to three years to come to life. The Vertebrate Publishing production pipeline is a well-oiled, disciplined flow of commissions, photo-shoots, typesetting, printing and marketing. We know almost to the book what will be coming out, when, and by who over the next three years. Almost.

Every now and then something lands out of the blue, something so important and so brilliant you wonder how it’s been kept secret, especially secret for nearly 50 years. And sometimes these random emails stop you right in your tracks, in this case fifty thousand words, accompanied by a photo of three lads, teenagers in the most part, sorting ropes on an exposed ledge, soaked to the skin and ravaged by a storm, retreating from the highest unclimbed rock wall in Europe. A climb that would later be described by Joe Brown ‘as one of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers.’

Forty-five years on, Tony Howard, in a rare period of time sat at home in Greenfield – while not exploring the remote rocky corners of the world – receives a phone call from an old Norwegian contact of his: they are opening a Mountain Museum in Åndalsnes, the town at the foot of Romsdal, under the shadow of the Troll Wall. Did he by chance have any photos, or perhaps unpublished writings about his first ascent of the Troll Wall in 1965? There were of course boxes full of old photos, but, thinking back, he recalled there was something else. Tony had written up the story of the climb in great detail days after the ascent, but chose to bury it away. He’d been somewhat embarrassed by the media attention the climb had received, and so shelved the manuscript and instead went back to work on the fishing trawlers before returning to Norway to guide and, soon after, set up Troll Climbing Equipment. The manuscript was forgotten.

That his partner, Di Taylor, found it 45 years later was remarkable, and that would have been the end of it, had it not been for a detached retina. A simple operation to fix his eye meant Tony was forced to lie flat, face down for two weeks, so Di scanned and digitalised the original manuscript for him to read. Brooding away reading those words from 45 years ago, Tony sent it to all things mountain literature Ed Douglas. Ed’s our ‘No-Man’ – we tend to send Ed all our maybe commissions for him to answer with a variety of ‘no’s’, ‘what were you thinkings?’ and ‘been done befores.’ But this time Ed had something to show me, uncharacteristically brimming with enthusiasm he needed a publisher who knew a production schedule could go out the window in a flash when something as important as this came along.

I knew those Romsdal ledges – rain splattered, miserable – but what I didn’t know was the story of the first ascent. Flicking through Tony’s photos reminded me of my attempts to climb in Romsdal, but reading his words painted a different picture. Tony, John Amatt, Bill Tweedale and Tony ‘Nick’ Nicholls had a different ethos, a boldness and sense of drive rare amongst climbers. Tony’s words were sharp and fresh, relevant and fascinating. It was Andy Kirkpatrick without the sound and fury, Leo Houlding without the silly hat.

Troll Wall, The Untold Story of the British First Ascent of Europe’s Tallest Rock Face, is not just a great piece of mountaineering literature, it’s a great and important piece of British history that we can all be proud of, even if Tony did try his hardest to hide it away.






Main photo: Preparing to retreat after the first attempt, Photo: John Amatt

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