The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Something in My Eye

British Peak District

I am not crying, there is actually nothing in my eye, but I do feel nostalgic. We often appear to cry when we have dust or grit in our eyes. Perhaps I am a little melancholic due to some grit, Gritstone to be exact, from the Derbyshire Peak District.

At this time of year I always miss that particular rock most. May is the perfect climbing season for those wobbly edges of beautiful rounded stones: the days are hot (mostly) but not too hot, the moor smells fresh and the rocks are dry and frictiony after winter.

A strong feeling of adult loss for that younger, freer, fitter me had me looking around the web earlier today for names from my past. I should have been working obviously but enjoyed the short surf through the great and good of my twenties. Coming across images of outrageous climbs in the the Peak and names like Ben Moon, Jerry Moffat and Johnny Dawes.

Now I am a photographer and my heroes live on this unreal space where I write these words. Their personalities and wares inhabit webpages that are meant to be easily accessible. Accessibility is our business after all and we push it out to find new people that will learn to like us and what we do and in turn give us jobs in interesting places and money to spend in less interesting places.

How different to the climbers of my earlier life. Inaccessibility was where they made their mark and reputations. Most have webpages now of course: their business is also to bring the idea of adventure to the consumer. Their reputations have to pay for the scraped-together maturity building itself from the vagabond life they used to lead perhaps. We used to lead.

Peak District climbing

I never quite made it a career that could support me. I was not quite good enough or brave enough. I did live the life though: ten years of travelling irresponsibility that has me struggling for respectability now. An ambition to be tanned and free is one no employers unsurprisingly finds worthy, (believe me a photographer is not much higher up the food chain either). Climbing for the sheer visceral pleasure of it is still possible with friends in high places though and not just an altitude freak show as some Everest climbs seem to be these days. The people I admired when I started climbing were full-on lovers of experiences that you had to earn and maybe would never get. You couldn’t be real if you didn’t feel the history of the activity you undertook or gloated too much over reaching some goal. Everyone posted their colours to their future greatness but stood them in a veneration of the past and and the best were confident but humble. I loved them for it.

It was perhaps the desire to connect with that past that made me send an email to one Johnny Dawes. Without a doubt one of the boldest and best climbers of his generation, he was the person we all aspired to be. I had nothing to say to him really; we are and were not friends. I have perhaps spoken less then twenty words to the man in my entire life when I ran into him at the crag occasionally. One of those encounters I remember well is at my beloved Burbage Crag, when I was trying to solo some E2 climb I liked but kept bottling the top smear and clmbing down to rest. Johnny Dawes was bimbling around the boulders and edges nearby and asked politely if he could climb past me.

“Of course.” I said and by way of explanation on my lack of upward progress said something like, “I can’t seem to get the top moves anyway.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit bold, I’ll probably fuck it up myself.” said Johnny.

“Who are you kidding!” I snorted. “You’re Johnny Dawes.”

He smiled and climbed through on a move that was way below bold for him. And that was the last I ever saw of him in real life. I moved to Japan a few months later and have barely climbed since.

It is a mark of the man that the supreme self confidence needed to climb the routes he does and did is not exhibited through a crushing ego. He didn’t rub my face in his ability that day and he was incredibly nice when he replied to me just now. Despite both my interactions with him this last ten years having something of the stalker about them. He thanked me for my mail said it made him feel good as he was feeling a sick today and it was nice to hear someone say something about days that were in his own words “a great time on the rock”.

Stanage Bouldering

I have written before about heroes of that time. About Alan Rouse who informed my every ambition on the life I pursued then. How it was the  book: Alan Rouse: A Mountaineer’s Life, written as an act of love by his friends after his death on K2, that made me turn up in the Byron Pub in Nether Edge knowing no more than that one name and the craziness I wanted to join. The middle-aged climbers that humoured me must have seen some passion in wanting to follow in his footstep. I was naive and immature but they took me under their wing and helped me by taking me out cragging on grit for the first time ever the next day. That day changed my life permanently for the better.

Some people say it is never good to meet your heroes as they invariably disappoint. I am lucky, I think, in my twin passions of climbing and photography as I have not only been able to use the opportunities both give me to visit some amazing places and gain an understanding of them that is perhaps deeper than most passing through. I have also met some amazing people. Heroes and new new people alike, those without fame or notoriety but all have ambition and talent. The heroes have almost never let me down; being as generous and genuine in the flesh as you expected them to be. And the friendships I have made through sharing these interests, encouraging and educating each other are still the deepest and most meaningful of my life.

Great days indeed.

Pic at the top of this post is Over Owler Tor with my good friend Ivan Waldren scrambling around on an icy dawn, while someone was breaking into our car.

The second is Ivan again bouldering at Curbar Edge moments after we got to climb with the legendary Ron Fawcett.

The third is a climber I met, and whose name I forget now, cranking-out on the boulder problem, Brad Pitt at Stanage Edge. I do not know if the Hollywood actor Mr Pitt is aware that he has a boulder problem named after him and if he would approve. I fail to see how he could really take offence though, but then again I have not had my name attached to a grotty dark hole between some dripping rocks on a un-noteworthy low hill in a poverty-striken part of a small, insular island off the coast of Europe 🙂

It is all those things and I still miss it!




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