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A review of Troll Wall by an avid mountaineering book collector

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Respected mountaineering guidebook and narrative collector David Price tells us about his all-time favourite mountain book. 


Troll Wall by Tony Howard, Vertebrate Publishing, 2011

There are very few things that surprise me, perhaps a reflection of my life’s experiences, changing times or simply my age. I recently re-read Troll Wall, Tony Howard’s account of the first British ascent of the tallest, steepest rockface in Europe. This second reading was an unprecedented event for me, as with 5,000 titles in my mountain-book collection, I do not recall thumbing a book for a second time. This act is a testament to a thrilling and honest account.

But should I be surprised? Troll Wall is high in my list of all-time recommendations. Of the dozen or so friends who have read the book – their unanimous verdict is simply, ‘brilliant.’

The original manuscript sat in a drawer for almost fifty years before Howard asked well known mountaineer and writer, Ed Douglas if it was of interest. It was! Vertebrate Publishing miraculously slotted it into their busy schedule.

On finding a guidebook at Alderman Rocks as a boy, Tony's lifelong love of climbing and adventure was born. Living on the doorstep of Chew Valley in the Peak District, exploring the outcrops became a teenage obsession for Tony as new routes were bagged at the local crags. Then later classics further afield with climbs in the Dolomites, Morocco and Lofoten Islands.

In 1965 a team of seven from the Rimmon Mountaineering Club set off to attempt the Troll Wall. They were all in their late teens and early twenties: Bill Tweedale, Jeff Heath, John Amatt, Margaret Woodcock, Rob Holt, Tony ’Nick’ Nicholls and Tony Howard went to climb a new route up the notorious 1,100 metre wall. Throughout the book, the feeling is that the expedition was nothing more than a group of mates with: ‘all the freshness and enthusiasm of youthful adventure.’ It was an expedition on a shoe string. Equipment was scant and basic, with bendy steel pegs, homemade harnesses, slings and bivvy tents. Belay and abseil devices hadn’t been invented.

Tony was advised against the attempt, but his maxim was ‘you never know until you go’. Encamped below Store Trolltind the team realised a team of Norwegians were also making a simultaneous attempt, incorrectly billed as a ‘race to the top’, by the Norwegian and British press. Throughout the book, quotes from tabloids make for amusing reading. Inaccurate headlines included: ‘Norwegian Climbers Challenge British to Ascent of Trollveggen. Norway’s honour at Stake.’ 

Hampered by atrocious weather, Tony explains: ‘they barely survived disaster on their first attempt.’ The grim photo of Tony Nicholls, Bill and Tony on page ninety-seven needs no explanation, yet within two weeks and only hours apart both teams successfully conquered the wall, but who won ‘the race’? [sic] The line was named ‘The Rimmon Route’ which partially collapsed in 1988, alas the line is no more but the narrative lives on.

Looking through my previous review notes I wrote: ‘Troll Wall is both sublime and gripping – a sheer delight.’  That it certainly is. The Italian translation won the ITAS Mountain Book Award, at the Trento Mountain Film Festival and a Special Award for Norwegian Mountain Literature at the Romsdal Fjellfestival in 2011. One of only two books to receive this accolade in five years. 

Jim Perrin wrote for Climber magazine in 2012: ‘The midnight push for the top up the summit gully had me open-mouthed and breathless. Nothing written by Andy Cave, Andy Kirkpatrick, Mick Fowler or any other recent exponents of mountain writing – excellent though many of them are – comes close to the sheer edgy thrill of it.’

Post expedition, almost all modern climbing harnesses resemble Tony’s design which he developed at Troll Climbing Company and originated with his Troll Wall harness. 

Gifted the nick name ‘Howard of Arabia’, by Doug Scott, Tony has led a remarkable and full life. Scott wrote in his foreword, ‘It is about time we had more information about this mountaineer, who has contributed so much to climbing here in Britain and abroad.’ I agree. If you desire an outstanding book, first read Troll Wall. Then pre-order Tony’s autobiography Quest into the Unknown, my big tip for this year.

No joke, if the book does not make the Boardman Tasker short list, I will eat a copy.


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