Friday, 28 April 2017

Seismic Shift

This is the fifth day in a row that I've been stuck at home feeling sorry for myself.  It's that time of year, the capercaillie lek time when I'm supposed to turn semi-feral and sleep out in the woods night after night to be up early to count the birds strutting their stuff. But instead, part way through proceedings my Judas body has turned on me and crashed and I've been jibbering at home with a virus instead, marshalling the survey team via texts from my bed.
Mr Caper at twilight, photo through binoculars.

I've attempted to start writing this blog a few times while killing time but keep packing up because there's not been a whole lot to report lately. Work, work, family visits, a wedding, work and more work. Except, I guess, for the seismic-shifting news that Sarah and I are expecting a baby later this year.

But what about my already stuttering and minimal attempts to be a climber, which is what this blog is supposed to be about? What indeed. I already seem to have very little time to get out, and now with the imminent arrival of a bundle of laughs and vomit time will be even tighter. I'm doomed!

I'm seeing it as a two fold opportunity: In the short term before the yoof arrives I've got a clear deadline by which I want to try to achieve a couple of long held ambitions. In the long term, when we're in the midst of nappies, sleep deprivation, toddling and teething I reckon I'll have to be pretty organised and disciplined to keep getting sessions in on the board and to make hay when the rare opportunities to get out present themselves, so I expect I'll become very project-orientated (which I kind-of am already). Although trad headpoints are a bit of a cop-out, for the time-starved I can imagine that they might feed my rat admirably.

As ever with these things, I'm a bit nervous about setting my ambitions out in a public space like a blog, because then if I fail it's for all to see.  But conversely, it should act as a driver - I've said these things, now I need to do them. With a due date of 30th September, I've got 5 months.

Short term ambition number 1: redpoint 7c.
I've done a handful of 7b+s around these parts but never once tried a 7c, so it's a logical step. It's always seemed like a magic and unattainable grade, but I'm realising that I'm really bad for putting restrictions on myself like that and never just having a go.

Choosing the right route will be the initial issue, as it'll need to be somewhere other's are regularly going otherwise I'll never get a catch. I don't imagine this will be a one session project. Potential contenders would be Prow Lefthand at Goat Crag, the north's most famous at the grade and at one of the most popular and reliable crags.  Then there's Primo at Am Fasgadh, which I've done the first part of as Curving Crack, but Am Fasgadh isn't generally a summer venue.  More locally, Brin It On at Brin would be available for after work evening sessions, or maybe something at Zed Buttress perhaps.  Or what about Loch Maree's Super Crag?  Thinking outside the box, something at Dunkeld might be an idea, but it's a fair trek to have a project. I'm also on a family holiday to Yorkshire for a week in July, any soft touches at Kilnsey?

Goat Crag

Short term ambition number 2: Onsight E5.
This is the one I'm far more nervous of.  I've only done a handful of E4s and still not that many E3s really, and in recent years my trad climbing has stuttered to stagnation with just a few routes done each year.  With trad, confidence is key and confidence comes with mileage, and trad mileage just comes with lots and lots of time at the crag.  In general, that's not something I have a huge amount of. But hell, if not now, when?  I've got a 10 day trip booked with Nick C at the end of May in which I'll hopefully make a good start to clocking up the mileage, and then hopefully I'll be able to keep plugging away with days here and there over the summer.

It's much harder to be specific about what routes I want to do as I think it will really depend on where the sun ends up shining.  If pressed, in the north I'd say I probably have more chance on something long and gneissy rather than short and sandstoney, but I'll take each route as it comes, and build up a base of fitness and familiarity with the trad faff.

Any advice or route recommendations?

Above all, I'll have to try to remind myself that it's all just a bit of fun in the end, and if I don't achieve these things it's not the end of the world.  By having a go I should get to some cool places and climb some good routes along the way.

Just thinking, there are 3-star E5s and 7cs at both of these crags, they seem like good places to start...

Loch Maree Crag

Goat Crag

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Back in January, Sarah and I took ourselves off to New Zealand's South Island for a 13 month overdue honeymoon.  It was never going to be a climbing trip, but we'd budgeted a couple of days of our hard-won annual leave at the famed limestone boulders of Castle Hill.  However, fate, or more accurately Qantas Airlines, conspired to scupper those plans and we were delayed in the transit hell-hole that is Dubai for two days. While sitting in a strange hotel ballroom with 300 other stranded passengers waiting for news of our flight we started re-working our holiday plans and it was natural that the two days at Castle Hill got the boot. Sarah doesn't climb and two days was never going to be enough to feed my rat. Bye bye boulders.

Faced with three weeks of holiday with no climbing, as we travelled and played our way around the beautiful South Island I couldn't help but think about the winter rock season slipping by at home - all those projects, all those days of perfect friction, all those Torridon sunsets with the sun slipping behind a snowy Beinn Damph. Fortunately, sporadic checks of the MetOffice app reassured me that the weather at home was crap and I wasn't missing anything. This was verified by the lack of uploads on the Highland scene's Flickr pages - no FOMO. But with three weeks of no climbing I knew if I was to get anything from the shortened season I'd need a plan of action on my return: some serious time spent on the board and a ticklist of routes and problems to aim for.

I've now been back from New Zealand for seven weeks. To begin with the board was mean.  The warm ups were hard, the classics were projects. But by sticking at it I started to feel better and get back to being able to do last winter's classics and then I started to feel even better and even some of last winter's projects started to go.

The ticklist is still with me.  Some of the things on it I've not tried, some of them I have but are still incomplete, but there are a few that I've managed to see off.  The last couple of weeks have been particularly good, with my three 'list' succeses all going down in that time.

The first to fall was an arbitrary local's link-up at the Scatwell boulder.  It's a version of Fly Tip Lip, the right to left lip traverse which I managed in March 2016, but for some inexplicable reason I couldn't repeat the last long move when I tried it this autumn. So instead I started trying to drop down off the lip into the last moves of Alcove Left Hand, turning it into a bit of an endurance issue and opening my eyes to the possibilities for other link-ups for the myopic local. I've no idea what grade it would be. Font 7A+?  It took much longer to do than I thought it would, about 4 after-work lamp sessions before we went away, dropping the last big move back up to the lip about 10 times in a row before managing it on the first session there in 2017.  In the end it was a relief to see off.

Next came a rare success at Am Fasgadh. I've not been there much this winter, but the project du-jour was Pillar-Up, which links the start of The Pillar into the top of Warm Up at around 7b+. The Pillar section has really intricate climbing; about 15 hand moves for about 5 metres of height gained before joining Warm Up and having to keep it together for it's heartbreaking clip at the lower-off.  I didn't really expect to do it that day, I was just going to be a fun day out climbing, but I managed a few beta tweaks and refined a clip that seemed to make the difference and before I knew I was at the chain. The only problem is that now the next obvious route to try there is going to be one of the hard ones.

Two days later I was in Torridon, geared up and dry-mouthed underneath Ian Taylor's Super Pittance, a pokey little trad route that climbs the steep wall above his original boulder problem in the pit at the Jumble.  I belayed and seconded Ian on the first ascent of this last winter, catching him when a hold broke on an initial direct finish attempt. He reckoned it would probably come in around E6 for the onsight. Knowing that it was pumpy but safe (Ian's gear held!) and feeling a tiny amount of ownership in the first ascent process, it seemed like a good choice to have as my first headpoint project in years.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly it all came together.  A few weeks ago I had two days bouldering in the Glen in quick succession and halfway through the second day my skin was in tatters.  It seemed like a logical time to stop bouldering and to inspect the route so I abbed it to check the gear.  A couple of weeks later I went back again with the shunt and worked out the moves. Then along came this weekend.  I managed to blag a belay off Lawrence Hughes who was projecting on the other side of the Glen.  He came over to the Jumble after his session so I'd had plenty of time to re-familiarise myself with the gear and the sequence.  Few people are as positive as Lawrence and with him holding my rope I didn't even question whether I was ready - he was psyched and so was I.  All went roughly to plan, including the pumpy downclimb to the rest that you can't rehearse on a shunt, although I did manage to punter a cam placement and drop it.

The remaining projects on the ticklist are all sandstone boulder problems so will require good cold conditions if I'm to stand a chance.  Lets see what the weather brings...

Topping out into the sunshine on Super Pittance (Photo: Lawrence Hughes)

Saturday, 24 December 2016


The annual retrospective blog post: what have the 2016 pebble-wrestling highlights been?

This year in particular the haul feels pretty insignificant - lots of bouldering, a bit of sport, very little trad.  It's strange that despite really loving bouldering, in my own scoring system I still attribute more personal value to climbing routes, and more for trad than for sport.  I mean, it's not about one being better than the other, I love them all, but when I look back on the memries, I do feel like I still get more reward from a good trad fight than a sport redpoint or a worked boulder.  I can't really put numbers on it - is an onsighted E3 more valuable to me than a redpointed 7b? Probably. So, because of this weird skew in my head, it feels like I've not really had a good year, when in reality I've done a load of really good things. Here's a single highlight from each month:

January: Clach Mheallan 7A, Reiff in the Woods
An unexpected start to the year. I'd looked at the obvious steep arete a couple of times before but the low start always seemed impossible.  The necessary change was Ian being there to give me the beta, so basically, I cheated.  Regardless, a top tick from one of my favourite bouldering venues.
Reiff in the Woods

February: Changed Days 7B, Kishorn
Chronicled here.  I'd actually gone to Kishorn to try The Universal but I never even got to it as this little number sucked me in.  It eventually took three sessions plus an aborted attempt when the road was blocked with snow. Totally worth it.
Changed Days

March: The Tippler, E1 5b, Stanage
I backed off this at about 8am one cold misty morning in March 2012, the last time I was at Stanage. So, on this trip it was imperative that I didn't get shut down again on a mere E1.  If I'm honest, it was still pretty touch and go but I somehow clawed my way to the top.  It was my first trad route of the year and I was confident that it heralded the start of a long spring and summer of battling, but of course, life intervened.
Getting horrifically pumped but somehow only 5 metres off the deck. Photo: Phil Applegate
April: Little Minx, 7b, Zed Buttress, Brin
April is always a tricky month for climbing. It's the peak period of capercaillie breeding so I go semi-feral and spend most of my time out in the forest counting them at their leks. Doing Little Minx doesn't feature in the list due to it's quality (it's good fun but fairly forgettable) but because it was a triumph of localism - a couple of quick sessions at Inverness' nearest sport crag, squeezed in between nights spent sleeping in cramped hides. Enough to keep the rat fed.
Brin - Zed Buttress

May: Town Without Pity, E2 5c, Ardmair
Going on pure numbers, in May I had one of my most unexpected successes when I somehow squeezed my way up Rich's The Scientist boulder problem at Brin, but going on that skewed value system I seem to have the fight I had when I did Town Without Pity at Ardmair definitely comes out as a more worthy victory in my memory. Strange, eh? To be fair, it is bloody brilliant.

June: Throw Lichen to the Wind, E2 5c, Ashie Fort
Another nod to localism and probably the most esoteric route on this list.  I'd never trad climbed on conglomerate before so was a little un-nerved by the whole process, but the rock was solid and clean(ish), the crag was sunny and the route was pumpy and safe. And then we drove to Dores Inn for ice cream by Loch Ness.

July: Over the Hills and Farr Away, 7a+, The Camel
I think this only qualifies as it's the only route I did in July that I'd not done before.  Not the best route at the crag, but to be fair it does pack a punch.  It was a typical July climbing day: overcast, mild, midgy and showery, trapped in that dark gully, belaying in midge nets and duvet jackets. One of those days when getting anything done is a victory in itself.

August: Pink Wall, 7b, Brin
If you'd asked me on the 1st of January what routes I wanted to climb this year, Brin's Pink Wall would have been one of the first on the list. There aren't many three star 7bs in this part of the world, but this is definitely one of them.  This probably marked a high period of my climbing year, as two days later I managed my Conon DWS project.  Within the week I was off sick with a viral infection.

September: Scorchio, 7a, Am Fasgadh
The weird viral infection hung around for a few weeks, affecting my balance and making me knackered, so September was a bit of a low point, but I did manage a fun day out with Tess to Am Fasgadh.  The three routes on the right side of the crag are normally wet when I'm there so I'd never tried them but this time they were in and I managed to come away with all three - resorting to doing the best one, Scorchio, second go.
Am Fasgadh

October: South Groove, E1 5c, Trewavas Head,
I'd not placed a wire since July, but a family holiday for my Mum's 60th in Cornwall offered the opportunity to blackmail a belay from Sarah ("we can't come all this way...").  Trewavas Head fitted the bill for a non-tidal crag within a short drive of our accommodation, and it was a beautiful spot ticking all the Cornish cliches: golden granite, turquoise sea, wind-clipped heathland, an old tin mine and chattering choughs overhead. I only did a couple of routes, of which South Groove was the more memorable due to it's non-hold granitey weirdness crux, but both were well worth the trad faff, reaffirming my trad> sport> bouldering value system.
Trewavas Head

November: Teasel, 6B+, Bus Boulder
When Ian gifted me the Bus Boulder for development back in the Spring I had concentrated on looking for a way up a steep wall and hadn't paid much attention to it's vague left arete.  But then one day, with a slightly tweaked perspective, I spotted that there was a line to be done but that the top needed a serious clean. I eventually got round to getting on a rope on a horrible wet day and did my best to clean it up but then didn't go back for a few weeks.  Eventually I got there in the middle of a really good spell of cold high pressure, when the trees were white with rime, the rocks by the river were shiny with verglass and Ben Wyvis resembled a giant meringue. I'd originally envisaged a sit start, but that seems pretty futuristic for now. However the stand is a cracker. The day before, Teasel the family's 16 year old Jack Russell terrier was put down, so the name seemed like a fitting memorial.
Bus Boulder

December: DIY, 6B, Stanage  
Similar to March's top tick, on that trip to Stanage in 2012 I tried and failed on a lovely highball called DIY, so it was on top of the to-do list for another quick trip in early December.  It's possibly the definition of my perfect climb: just off-vertical, high enough to be exciting, short enough to be safe above pads.

So, all in all not too bad a year.  Here's hoping that 2017 brings more, and hopefully a bit more trad. But there's a winter of bouldering still to come...

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Ticked Off

Another Soft Rock hiatus.  It probably reflects where my climbing is these days: kind of aimless, wondering, opportunistic.  This time last year I’d climbed my six year project and was floating on a cloud of egotism, well into a productive winter of bouldering . This year I feel like I’ve not even got going yet.

In a bid to change things, yesterday I had a great day out circuiting with Rich in Strathnairn; my first time out in that direction for a long time, and my first day out with Rich this season.  Brin was pleasant enough and we managed a few problems between falling down holes and losing dogs, including the dubiously named Celebrity Leg Penis. Despite telling me he’s not had much form and not been training much, Rich still burnt me off on everything.  It’s good to know your place.  Farr was in much better nick with a cool breeze and, frankly, is a much nicer place to climb; far better and cleaner rock and fewer holes in the ground.  If only there was more of it.  As the light started to dip we raced up to Ruthven for a nightcap.    

Throughout the day, between falling off and throwing tennis balls for dogs, the conversation regularly turned to the increasingly evident impact of boulderers in bouldering areas and in particular the mortal sin of not brushing off tick marks.  It’s a funny old thing, and certainly something that seems to be increasing in frequency, both at the crags near me and everywhere else, and documented with righteous indignation in the brilliant Hall of Shame thread on UKB.

Fair enough, you might feel the need for a line of chalk pointing to where a cryptically camouflaged or hidden hold is, but not everyone does, and not everyone will use your sequence so might not even use that hold.  If it’s an obvious hold, what do you need a tick mark for?  And is a line 3 inches long really necessary? After considering all that, if you still need a tick mark, just brush it off when you leave.  It's not hard and we all carry a plethora of expensive brushes with us these days.

Brin: Remind me, where are those holds? (Photo: Rich Betts)
It’s hard to know exactly why it irks me so much, but I think it shows a massive lack of respect for whoever comes to the boulder after you, an assumption that they’re happy to climb in your mess and embodies a wider selfish attitude where the boulders and places we all love are just there to be consumed: leave your mark, move on to the next, repeat.  Is it a symptom of more climbers graduating from walls, swinging between brightly coloured blobs, into the real world where you need a bit more skill and experience to spot holds?  Maybe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t brush them off afterwards.

Ruthven: What is this even pointing to? (Photo: Murdoch Jamieson)
It’s something I know Rich wrestles with. Having co-authored a guide to one of the best but least-frequented bouldering areas in Britain, is he basically opening the door for the hordes to come and trash it? I guess it’s inevitable that the more people that come to an area, the greater the impact they’ll have, but by acting responsibly there’s really no reason why those impacts need to be significant and to impact on other’s future enjoyment. 

Torridon: That's a starting hold you can reach from the ground.(Photo: Rich Betts)
Last weekend I had 3 days in the Peak, at Stanage, the Roaches, Cratcliffe and Robin Hood’s Stride, and was appalled at the state that some people leave some of these boulders in – massive tick marks pointing to obvious holds that aren’t brushed off, excessive loose grains of chalk plastered on every conceivable hold (including the ones you really don’t need), yellow chalk stains everywhere and, inevitably, the signs of broken holds and erosion that come from climbing on wet rock.  If you then include the soil erosion under the landings and around the footpaths you’ve got to accept that a sport that’s been in existence for less than 40 years is starting to trash places that have been around for millennia.  Forget the annual furore about crampon scratches on a distant mountain crag, where's the anger about the state of our boulders?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Get it while it's hot!

I buckled under the pressure and spent some time trying my little DWS project on a shunt.  All ethical scruples go out the window when there are only a handful of days each year that I'm willing to fall into a river.  Majorca this aint.

Pleasingly, there are some pretty meager grips up there and the easiest sequence I found was still pretty hard. I still couldn't link it on the rope, so although I knew what to do a nervous air of mystery remained.

Last night my motivation was pretty low.  After a day at work the grey skies and breeze didn't make the thought of another watery plummet particularly inviting.  I checked the forecast in the hope that tomorrow would be nicer but it wasn't looking much better. Shit. Maybe that was the window. If I don't go now maybe I'll have to wait another year. Shit.

Knowing what I was in for, I knew I would have to be well warmed up to have half a chance; one of the many reasons I love having a board at home. I slowly started the process, going through my list of warm up problems: Juggy Circuit, Undercut, Left-hand Yellows, Left-hand Yellow Mirror, Moon Pinch. Eventually, as the mists of the work day started to part, I started to feel the psyche arrive. That bubble in the gut. That burning. I dived in the car and turned on the tunes.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Potterer

"Call this summer?"

It amazes me how short the collective memory is.  For a nation that's supposed to be obsessed with the weather our obsessions don't seem very grounded in reality.  So many people I talk to seem to have a rose-tinted view that the summer months of July and August should bring picture-postcard long hot sunny days, mountain crags, nights under the stars, sea cliffs, bronzed bodies frolicking on beaches - the dream sold to them by social media and marketing - and feel cheated that in the Highlands it's generally two months of humid, midgy, bracken-choked rain.

Goat Crag.
Video: Ian Taylor

Photo: Tess Fryer

For me, I've lived here long enough to realise that it's better to write these months off for big objectives, to keep ticking over in anticipation for the cooler months ahead and then to consider any climbing that happens as a bonus. The summer seems to have consisted of pottering about at local crags and boulders. Fortunately the hard work of a handful of folk means there are a few great routes round here that are well worth doing over and over again. I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of doing Little Teaser at Moy, scraping through those last metres to the belay using different holds every time. Then at the Camel Stone of Destiny never feels like a certainty and is pretty stiff for a warm up, and then The One and Only at Brin is just superb, straight up the middle of the wall.

There's also a ready-supply of routes at these crags that I'd still not done. Ian's Little Squeezer (6c) at Moy is aptly named but well worth it, filling an obvious gap on the Big Flat Wall. Neil Shephard's Over the Hills and Far Away (7a+) at the Camel put up more of a fight and wasn't helped by the midges and passing rain. Up at Brin I finally got round to redpointing Andrew Wilby's classic The Pink Wall (7b) over two sessions. Despite only being 8 clips and 15 metres long this packs in quite a bit of climbing, and for a scaredy-cat like me it feels pretty airy up there. Another one bites the dust.

Having written all that about the crap weather, this last week has actually shown signs of summer and the local pottering has continued in force.  I've been back to the River Conon where there's a cool steep wall above a deep pool to try to do a fierce micro-route that Andy Moles told me about last year.  I'd previously abbed it to check for holds, but have been trying to climb it ground-up and have now taken the splash-down from the same place 7 times.  Dry chalk bags and shoes (and midge tolerance) are becoming a limiting factor - not to mention warm sunny days that make the thought of falling in a river attractive - so I think I'm going to have to try it on a rope.  Watch this space.



Monday, 13 June 2016

Spring 2016

A typical Highland day in June. The sweet damp greens of summer unfurled; leaves and flowers and fronds uncurling. Brilliant yellow broom, bluebell blue; swallows and swifts and martens race each other through the drizzle.

Months have passed without a word. You've probably forgotten the cobwebbed pages of Soft Rock.  I know I have.  I think I left the last installment with a vague promise that bouldering would cease and ropes would be used. I've tried to keep my word, but on quite a few occasions in the last months I've had to resort to the easy default of the loner; bumping pads and brushes and cleaning paraphernalia to the big blocks, scrubbing new climbing into existence and resurrecting unloved old gems.

Ian pointed me to the Bus Boulder, an Inchbae erratic perched by the Blackwater river, 10 seconds from the road.  It's too far from Ullapool to be in his patch and only 20 minutes from home for me so he gifted the development duties (it's got nothing to do with acres of West coast quality he's still got to unearth). Leafy summer dank has now postponed activities until the Autumn cool returns, but before the midge ended play I'd squeezed out a couple of good lowball 6Cs. Hopefully there'll be more to come later this year.

Bus Boulder

As Spring wore on I managed a few trips to the likely sport crags Am Fasgadh and Zed Buttress, fluking my way up the crimpy 7b Little Minx at the latter and power shrieking my way up Super Warm Up (7b+) at the former and kidding myself into believing that I was getting fitter. A later date at Goat on a high humidity day took me back to earth with a bump when I barely got up Ian's new Sun Rays (7a) second go and then ungraciously failed on the 6c+ Bamboozle.  Arse.

Trying Little Minx at Zed last Spring (Photo: Ian Taylor)

Tradding? Once my raison d'etre, now a rare treat.  I've done so little these last years and with so little consistency that I think I've gone backwards.  I listened to a podcast with Stevie Haston the other day and he talked about the hardcore traddies of the 80s having 'head skills'.  That's definitely something missing from my repertoire.  For me, I don't think there's a way of short-cutting the path to confident trad climbing, you've just got to put in the hours. Faffing with ropes, weedling in wires, running it out. The odd day here and there just doesn't do it.  After bleeding my way up Town Without Pity (E2) at Ardmair I started to feel happy with my jamming abilities, but then last week I followed Murdo up the top pitch of Mid-flight Crisis (E4) on Stac Pollaidh and realised that I am still really shit at it. Failing on Seal Song at Reiff yesterday confirms my belief.  Maybe I need to try something that isn't a steep sandstone crack.

So, the odd bit of roped climbing lately but, depressingly for this time of year, my biggest tick has been a boulder problem.  A high gravity morning at Brin sent me and Murdo down the hill to Richie's long-forgotten cracker The Scientist 7B.  It's a proper good line, and when Rich first showed it to me years ago I was pretty inspired to try it.  I think I had one quick session and gave up without linking any moves. Roll forward 6 years and somehow I managed to do it in two sessions, with an interim visit in the rain to clean up the top-out.  Thoroughly recommended and big respect to those early pioneers back in the day...