Author Interview: Ian Parnell, Hard Rock
- Wednesday 5 February 2020
Ian Parnell’s newly compiled edition of Hard Rock revitalises Ken Wilson’s iconic text for a new generation of climbers. Featuring many of the original essays alongside routes and writing from new contributors and fresh, all-colour photography, Hard Rock is as relevant now as it ever was with climbers of today still drawn to the challenge of traditionally protected climbing.
In this interview, Ian discusses the challenges he encountered while assembling the new edition and how it felt to take on something as timeless and reputable as Hard Rock. He also offers some food for thought about the consistencies and developments within climbing over the last decades with reference to climate change and social media.
What do you think qualified the new climbs you selected to include in the new edition of Hard Rock?
Choosing the new routes to add to the original list was one of the trickiest parts of the project. I had a lot of discussions with different well-travelled climbers whose opinion I respect, and there was a lot of back and forth. There were quite a few personal favourites that I would have liked to include that didn't make it through. The routes obviously needed to be good! But also have a "stand-out" quality to them. Often in the case of the routes at Lundy, Pembroke and Swanage they were in an area not previously represented in the book, and so had to be representative of the individual character of the climbing of those cliffs. The routes also had to be ones we felt would last the test of time; if you look at the fifty-nine routes in the original list only a couple of those have fallen out of favour, the rest remain classics.
Ken Wilson’s Hard Rock quickly became considered a classic in climbing literature. Was the task of compiling a new edition daunting?
I think revisiting something as iconic as Hard Rock is always a little daunting. It's a book that has played a part in many climbers' lives and so you are potentially walking all over something of real value to a lot of people. I noticed a few comments early on that a new edition would just be a "tarted up" version and we should just republish the original. However, I was pretty confident that what we were planning would have been something that Ken would have approved of. Ken had already put together a new colour version of Classic Rock in 2007 and had begun work on a new edition of Hard Rock. I think we had a choice of preserving Hard Rock as a document of a particular age, something for dusty shelves or as a living thing continuing to inspire people to head out climbing. Ken himself during the 'bolt wars' was painted as an out of date reactionary, but really he was a dynamic personality – a man of action.
What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
Undoubtedly getting a complete collection of new images. It sounds simple but it's much harder to compile a set list of 300-plus shots than it is to put together a similar length list of new routes, where if you can't get the odd photo you can just drop a route. Getting shots of the big mountain routes was the crux. The last few hot dry summers helped. But still, persuading someone to drop their climbing plans and take their climbing partner to climb a particular route on a particular day wasn't always easy. I'm really thankful for the climbers who said yes, and went out of their way to help. Without them the book wouldn't have happened.
What do you consider to be the most significant difference between rock climbing in the 1970s and rock climbing today?
There are obviously huge differences, and I've enjoyed writing about those in a postscript to Ken's introductory history at the beginning of the book. We've had the rise of bolts and sport climbing, the development of bouldering and in particular the growth of climbing walls. Many of the climbers from the 1970s would look at the gear, car ownership, and opportunities that today's climbers have with jealousy. But when it comes down to it I think the similarities between climbers then and now outweigh the differences. Most of us today share the same desire as they did in the 1970s to get out to amazing places, make cool moves, burn a bit of adrenaline and then share the stories amongst friends afterwards.
Do you think the growth of indoor climbing centres has had a negative impact on traditional climbing? Are there valuable skills that can be gained from traditional rock climbing that you think exclusively indoor climbers won’t experience?
I've always been in love with traditional climbing, for me it's the perfect climbing experience. But I don't think it's helpful to think of one branch of climbing as negative or positive. I'm aware of the irony here, as my way of thinking about this is very different to how Ken's was. There is a lot of polarised thinking today and I don't think much of it has been helpful. The reality is that outside of perhaps London (where the wall can be a gym alternative for some), most climbers climb outdoors and at the wall. Every good trad climber I know uses the wall.
Having said that, there are obviously some brilliant experiences that are pretty unique to outdoor trad climbing. A well-executed trad lead, at whatever grade, requires a whole series of valuable skills. You're constantly assessing the rock for what lies ahead; how to balance the security of protection against the risk of a run out; how to manage your energy resources – whether to use your energy to protect yourself or keep moving ... That bombardment of information, alongside figuring out how to make the moves, can be overwhelming. But once you master it, it becomes an innate flow of unconscious decision-making and action – like driving a car. At its best it's like cruising along in a Tesla on the most beautiful mountain roads. Although occasionally it can feel like you're in a banger, with the fuel gauge well into the red and you're not sure you're going to get home.
What impact do you think climate change will have/is having on rock climbing, not only in Britain but also globally?
My main background is alpine climbing and there it is already having a massive impact, with whole rock faces falling down and routes beginning to become inaccessible due to glacier retreat. Rock faces of course aren't static things, even if they feel solid and immovable to us. Several of the routes in the original Hard Rock list have collapsed or lost features to gravity. Changes in the climate will only accelerate that process. On a parochial basis climate change could have positive aspects in that mountain crags might have more climbable days if we have hotter, drier summers.
I think the bigger impact is that even though governments and some of the public are in denial, we are going to have to change the way we behave. The idea of jumping on a cheap flight for a week’s climbing in Spain or America will in hindsight be seen as a real indulgence. It's another reason why Hard Rock remains a valuable book, as I think we'll have to concentrate our climbing closer to home. It's not that much of a hardship when we've got such brilliant climbing in Britain.
What kind of effects do you think commercial marketing is having on rock climbing as a sport?
Commercial marketing has used climbing for a long time, so I don't see its influence as anything new. I'm not sure how much malign influence commercial pressure has had on rock climbing in general – most folk, both elite and grassroots, are still just climbing the routes they want to do. I think the Olympics this year has the potential to have a significant impact and bring a new emphasis on the sport for younger climbers.
What I think has changed is climbing culture and the growth in importance of social media and the drive by some marketing forces to turn sponsored climbers into 'influencers'. Brands choose to put their marketing money into this social media direction or make their own branded content, and withdraw it from traditional sources such as magazines or independent film-makers. There's some good 'social media' stuff – I'm thinking of Ricky Bell's 'Tops Off for Power' videos and James McHaffie's Best Route list on his blog, but there is also an overwhelming sea of mediocrity too. I think climbing culture has suffered a bit as a result. I'm positive though the success of Vertebrate has been a godsend for climbing writers, and there is a real gap there for some young bright things to bring out something creative and authentic.