Stairways to heaven

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The Independent Online
A new television series investigates the inspirational nature of rock climbing on obscure and difficult mountains around the world. But, writes Charles Arthur, commercial pressure from trekkers and even helicopter-carried picknickers are wrecking the romance of these wildernesses.

The sandstone spires of the Wadi Rum, in the Jordanian desert, have long fascinated the Bedouin tribes who live there. In past centuries, they climbed them in bare feet, trying to catch the ibex mountain goats which loped sure-footedly about the craggy rocks soaring up to 2,000ft above the ochre sands.

Nowadays, the Bedouins' reason for loping up the gritty rock is a more commercial one: working as guides for the growing number of foreign rock climbers who now visit the area, in search of adventure. It's a cut above the standard package holiday spent by the poolside or gazing at inhospitable territory from behind the windows of an air-conditioned bus.

Rock climbing is a comparatively new activity in Jordan: the first European climbers there came in 1952. Tony Ward, a keen climber from the village of Greenfield near Oldham, was first inspired to look more closely at the possibilities of the rock formations by their use as the backdrop to David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia. In the manner of the true obsessive, Ward scoured Lawrence's book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom for any mention of rock suitable for climbing. He then began asking the Jordanian government for permission to travel there and climb. In 1984 his persistence paid off, when he was invited to visit. Since then he's been a regular.

And for anyone who thought that such "adventure tourism" as rock climbing would only be the preserve of the young, fit and strong, The Face, a six- part TV series which started last night on BBC2, shows Ward and his partner Di Taylor - "both the wrong side of 50", as the producer Richard Else puts it - attempting a dangerous climb on the uncertain rock of the Wadi Rum. They survive, despite a moment 800ft up when Ward, leading, finds himself stuck on a blank face with no obvious way up or down. The relief and inner satisfaction they felt on reaching the top, just as the evening sunset turned the desert floor into a blue carpet, isn't the sort of thing you can capture on film, notes Else.

His aim in making the series was partly to show how climbing is not just the preserve of suicidal supermenschen who are born without a fearful bone in their body. That's not to say, though, that they haven't lived a little. Besides Ward and Taylor, the series' participants include Andy Parkin, who ruptured his spleen and dislodged his heart in a near-fatal climbing accident in the 1980s, and Joe Simpson, whose book Touching The Void is a vivid, terrifying account of how he crawled off a South American mountain alone, after being lost and left for dead with a smashed ankle.

Non-climbers who have seen The Face say it opens their eyes - "though I don't think it sends them down to their local climbing shop. But at the end they realise it's not about being mad, or getting to the summit, or getting killed. They realise it's inspirational. They feel it's a real adventure."

But Else also wanted to show off the idea of climbing's world spread. These days it truly is a recreation you can pursue anywhere there's vertical rock: have rope, will travel. The locations for the climbs range from Canada's frozen northwest to Vietnam, to Scotland, South Africa and, of course, Jordan.

You might notice a certain mountain area missing from the list of locations. "We purposely didn't go to the Himalayas," says Else. "Enormous damage is being done there. The budget could have covered it, and actually it was more expensive to go to Canada. But it was a deliberate choice." The "damage" Else and many others are seeing in the Himalayas is wrought not only by climbers, but also by commercial trekking expeditions that treat the mountains and surrounding environment essentially as a disposable resource which can be abused at will. Rubbish and human detritus is piling up. Nor is that limited to the Himalayas. On reaching the top of one remote summit in Jordan, Ward and Taylor found graffiti carved and painted onto the rocks, and litter thrown down cracks in the rock. The rubbish had come from visiting picknickers, not climbers, who had arrived by helicopter.

"Is nowhere sacred?" asked Ward, rhetorically.

These days, the answer tends to be no, not if there's money to be made taking people there. It is increasingly difficult to find real wilderness, though climbers tend to discover it more easily. "The higher you get, the less you see," says Else. "But in Jordan, for example, there's an awful Jordanian flag painted on the summit of the Wadi Rum. Then there are the names and graffiti carved into the rock - English names, Scottish names." Other disfigurements include arrows painted onto the rocks by guides from nearby cities, rather than the local Bedouin, to show tourists the way up the traditional climbs.

Ward and Else are wounded by such indifference to the environment - so much so that they have petitioned the King of Jordan to make the area of the Wadi Rum into a national park whose wildlife, vegetation and local people would be protected. "People come up from big cities like Aqaba and Amman and drive all over the desert, destroying the ecologically fragile surface and vegetation," Ward says. "Quite recently trees have been chopped down to make barbecues and picnics."

The desert ecology can't survive such an assault. Else comments: "It's important that the Bedouin should have their own economy, but it should be handled in a way that leaves the environment undamaged." The Bedouin at least trust Ward to put their case: they have nominated him as their spokesman. But does he think the park will be created? "Some people in the country have suddenly realised that Wadi Rum is a big money-earner, so it's difficult to say. At the moment, it's in the lap of the gods."

"The Face" is on BBC2 on Friday evenings at 7.30pm. "The Face: Six Great Climbing Adventures", a book to accompany the series, goes on sale from Thursday, priced pounds 18.99 from BBC Books.