Thursday, 20 December 2007

To the trees

Not much in the way of excitement of late I'm afraid. Most of the snow is gone, so I'm not too worried about getting into the hills for now.

However, its been an absolutely beautiful week up here. In fact, I'm beginning to forget what clouds look like. A hard frost has coated everything white since the weekend, complemented by watery blue skies and incredable sunsets.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be doing some woodland surveys over on Loch Sunart, near Strontian, crunching through frosted leaves and brushing ice crystals from skeletal heather stems. Not only was it another peach of a day, but its part of an area of incredably old, biologically rich oakwoods and for little old me, fresh out of school, to be the one that gets to stroll round them for a living is quite the privelage. Here are some snaps of yesterdays trees:
South to Loch Sunart and Morvern beyond

December light filters through the naked trees

Last week I ventured across the Fort William end of Loch Lihnne and was surveying in Stronchreggan, a glen I look into from my bathroom window. The view back towards my bathroom window is a stonker:

Benjamin Nevis and my house.

Last night I decided to play with some video I had lying around on my computer and came up with the wee clip below. In the past I have mentioned working on the Isle of Canna last Autumn. I was volunteering on a rat eradication project for 6 weeks, and on my days off (when the weather smiled) I went out and scoured the island for rock that wasn't falling down. The only success I had was on Coroghan beach, where the waves have got rid of the worst of the choss. Over a few weeks I did quite a few wee boulder problems, but the best was this one, Pied Piper (rat catching, see?). It's on this weired boulder shaped like a christmas tree, which looks out to Skye and the Cuillin. Happy days.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Strike 1

The stage was set.

Bands of low pressure and heavy rain had been passing through Lochaber all week, falling as snow high on the Ben. Every so often the cloud level would lift just enough to show the falling snow line. 700m, 600m, 500m. On saturday the rain stopped and the temperature in town fell. Winds were forecast from the north-east, meaning the norries would be getting the brunt of the ming and the west would (should?) be drier and less wild.
As the drizzle dripped down the windscreen at 7.00 on sunday morning we began to wonder quite what we were up to. 4 degrees at the Nevis Range car park. Hmm, that's not cold. Ach well, Chris and I had been offered a lift up to the top gate with Rob and Martin, so it wasn't much of a loss if nothing got done. Still, we could (should?) have still been tucked up in bed.

With the snow line at about 400m on Saturday we thought Castle Ridge would be a good choice, and a good introduction to mixed climbing for Chris. The guide says it can be climbed under virtually any conditions, so with a good covering of powder it would be pretty sporting.

Problems began on the walk in when we realised that the snow line had risen quite a bit, and that nothing was freezing. Still, it's a longish route so it might be freezing higher up.

We slogged up to the start, geared up and then moved off, deciding to move together until we reached something that deserved pitching.

About 100m later I set-up a belay and Chris joined me on a big ledge, above which the ridge started to steepen. All in all it had been a very disappointing experience. What had appeared as a decent bit of snow from below was only a dusting. There was a smattering of powder on the ledges and lots of soggy turf. Each step cleared the tiny layer of snow, exposing the naked wet grass beneath. What's more, every so often it started to drizzle. This was definitely not winter climbing. After a brief cost:benefit analysis we bailed off the ridge via easy ground into Castle Coire and then back to the track and the car. Strike 1, the first miss of the winter.

Soggy grass under a few centimetres of snow

Ach well.

Of course, the moral was that we should have headed up high, where Rob and Martin were. They did Strident Edge on the Trident Buttresses, and it sounds like a pretty gnarly route. The problem was that we were after an easier route as an intro for Chris, and there's not much easy mixed stuff up there.

"If this is winter climbing, winter climbing is crap": Chris's sentiments

Some you win, some you lose.

Another thing that's really bugging me is this: right now its about 2 degrees in the Fort with clear blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. A nice high pressure is sat over us as I write. I'm sat in the office trying to work (obviously not very hard if I'm writing this), and numerous people I know are up high on the Ben right now. What complete and utter bastards. I'm sure they will all have a good day, tick some hard routes and come back down and tell me all about it.
Living under the Ben is very cool, but having a job sucks. I'm still adjusting to this 'weekend warrior' thing, which is rather inconvenient when winter conditions are so fickle. Also, moving to a new place it's quite hard to get climbing partners because people genereally already have them, and buddies from down in Edinburgh tend to make their plans down there. I guess I'm just going to have to wave my flag and let people know I'm keen.

On another note, I crashed my car on tuesday, which is a bummer. I was going across to Aviemore to meet my boss and must have gone over a patch of ice or something slippery because before I knew what was happening I was going sideways. I slid across the road and along the verge for a wee way, ripping off the bumper and lots of other stuff underneath. Balls. The recovery chap reckoned it was a write-off due to the age and amount of damage. I'm still waiting for my insurance company to pull their finger out and let me know the outcome. Almost a week without a car in Fort William is a pain in the arse, and at the speed the insurance people are working it's going to be a wee while before I get back to the status quo. So, if anyone knows anyone with a car for sale let me know.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Winter's Cusp

Crunch, crunch, splash. "Bollocks". Crunch, "bollocks" splash.

I'll never understand the minutiae of snow pack and consolidation. Why is it that given a one metre square you can jump up and down on one bit and hardly make a dent and on another you go in up to your arse?

The last few hundred metres of the walk-in in Coire an t'Schneahda on Saturday seemed to go on forever, as my feet seemed to keep finding the soft snow in between the patches of decent neve. Not to worry, we made it to the crag anyway. It was only Jones' second winter route, and my first one of the new season (I don't think Fiacaill Ridge really counts as a route), so we had decided to climb Hidden Chimney on the Mess of Pottage. I was a little concerned about the blackness of the crags, and the amount of bare turf and running water in Jacobs Ladder as we geared up, but thought I might as well have a poke up the first pitch to see how it looked. The first pitch is the first 45m of The Slant, a grade I, so bailing would be fine if the crag wasn't playing ethical ball. I had hoped to do the IV 5 direct start but that was pretty much bare of anything wintery, so that was that.

Patches of cloud were whisked over head at high speed on the stiff breezes that circled and eddied in the coire, and a pale blue wintery sky looked down as Jones snuggled down to her first stint at the belay. I felt pretty excited as I hooked and torqued on anything and everything, uneccasarily swapping axes and revelling in leashless freedom and promptly dissapeared round the corner onto the open ramp of The Slant. There was actually much more snow than I had thought, and much (but by no means all) of the turf was frozen. 45m and three runners allowed me to reach the bottom of Hidden Chimney, a wide, stepped gully-come-chimney. Jones made short work of it all and was soon looking cool and comfy ready for belay duty number two.

Pitch two was a pleasant re-introduction to this bizarre mixed climbing lark, with bomber gear all the way up and some nice tricky little steps. I felt that in it's current condition (no ice and no real snow build-up) it was fairly tricky III, as the wee step before the chock-stone was fairly steep and relied on sexy wee hooks in the sidewalls (what was it I said in a previous post about winter climbers being weired perverts?).

Jones nearing the tricky end of pitch 2

Again, Jones excelled herself and met me at the chock-stone in short time. I was impressed. Maybe she's a gnarly alpinist in the making. Infact, her inner thermostat seems to work in reverse, so maybe she is a natural in the hills. When its boiling hot indoors she's sat shivering with 5 layers, a beanie and 3 pairs of socks on, but when its snowing and she's sat on the belay for half an hour she's positively toasty. Bizarre.

I got her to lead about 3 metres up from my belay on the chockstone to a wee bay behind it so I wouldn't kick her as I made the last steep moves above. A bit of wriggling, a cam, a bomber hook and a swing across the chimney saw me exiting from the chimney onto the final slope up to the plateau. Jones got some funky high-step maneuvres in on this bit as the snow really started to fall. Before we knew it we were stowing the ropes as the wind tried to relieve us of them and scuttling back down Fiaciall a' Coire Cas.

High-stepping into the blizzard: Jones exiting the chimney

"Run away": Leaving the wind-scoured plateau

A spot of recuperation in Aviemore's Cafe Mambo was just the ticket and before long we were safely ensconced back in Banff Crescent, enjoying tea and tiffin, well, beer and sausage-cottage pie (which is actually pretty good). The drying room heater was doing over-time and we had that smug, self-satisfied glow that only comes after a days rewarded efforts. It's pretty sweet to have got out into the winter snows twice already, and December has only just begun. This Highlands lark isn't all rain and long, dark nights.

Sunday was spent doing not a whole lot. Jones and I ventured down the Glen as it was clear and dry and I fancied a go on Midnight In A Perfect World. Little did I realise that the combination of the last few week's moisture and the lack of sun in the Glen at this time of year had conspired to ensure everything was wet and slimey, so we just drank tea and admired the view, which isn't too bad. It might mean my pact will have to be aborted, unless we get some sustained high pressure before I head South for christmas. Drat.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Initial Foray

Friday's view from the office
The first icy touch of winter came to me this weekend. Friday was an exceptional day, cold, crisp and cloudless, with fresh snow on the Ben and plastered over the North Face. Staring at the white slopes from my desk window was tortuous, especially since I knew some buddies of mine were over in the Northern Corries getting the first tick of the coming winter.
Saturday's forecast was pretty poor - low cloud, rain and snow and a strong wind, so I wasn't really sure what to get up to. I didn't have a partner anyway so decided on a wee walk up to the CIC Hut to see how things are coming along up high. For those not in the know, the CIC Hut is a wee shelter found at the foot of Ben Nevis's incredible North Face. It's the starting place of many a famous expedition in Scottish climbing's rich history.
North East Buttress, Observatory Ridge and Tower Ridge feeling shy

Fortunately, the forecasted apocalypse stayed away until I was on my way back down the hill, and the clouds were kind enough to reveal enough of the crag to satisfy my reconnaissance mission. There was a fair amount of snow up high and on the rocks. Coire na Ciste is filling up well, as is Observatory Gully, and the classic gully lines (the Point/ Zero/ Comb etc.) are all white, but there won't be any worthwhile ice in them yet. There is a bit of ice forming at the top of the Curtain and on the Organ Pipes under Carn Dearg, but that was bout it. The one area that looked promising was the steep mixed lines on the sides of Number 3 Gully (Darth Vadar/ Gargoyle Wall etc.). From down by the hut they looked nicely hoared up, and I wasn't surprised to discover that Souix Wall was done on Friday. Nice one.

White Rock: Mixed hard things around No. 3 Gully

The forecast in the East was quite promising for Sunday, so I grabbed a lift with Danny and Em over to the Norries and we made a team escent of Fiacaill Ridge. Sadly the 70% chance of cloud free Munros didn't seem to apply to Cairngorm and it was a pretty wild day with zero visability on the top. After the ridge we dropped down into Coire an t'Schneachda for some shelter while we had a bite and then trudged back up under the Mess of Pottage to the plateau before getting lost and eventually working out the right way back to the car. In the Coire the crags were looking in prime nick for Cairngorm style mixed climbing and there were a fair few teams out making use of the early season conditions. I felt quite dissapointed that I hadn't decided to go for a proper route, but I didn't have anyone to climb with anyway. Hopefully as the season kicks in properly this won't be a recurring problem.

It was great to be back out in the hills in winter though. I love the way all the different aspects add up to make something as simple as Fiacaill Ridge a bit of excitement. The slog up to the ridge and the freezing hands as we stopped to put crampons on on the wind-scoured hillside reminded me that this wasn't Bowden on a sunny evening. After a good few months without using an axe it was amusing to remember the funky moves of hooking and high stepping on mixed ground, digging and scraping at the rime to find the rock. I even managed to scrape about a square milimetre of red paint from my new axe. Now I'm just stoked for as much climbing as I can get, so if anyone, anywhere wants to go climbing, I'm here!

Em and Danny stomping up the side of Coire an t'Schneachda

It's looking like there's a thaw going on at the moment. I havn't seen the top of the Ben for a couple of days now for the clag, and it looks like a series of fronts are passing over Scotland this week, so it might be a wee while until the conditions come back. However, a decent freeze and a bit of snow are enough for most of the norries routes to come in, so fingers crossed.

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Build Up

I took this photo at work, its patches of a crustose lichen on a hazel stem. Pretty cool.

As another warm front passed over the West Highlands, the weekend was a complete wash-out. There was not a lot to be had round here, but Chris fancied a change of scene from Edinburgh so braved the wetness.

Saturday night was a bizarre one. We headed into town for a few drinks and found our selves in a charicature of a Wild West saloon. It was all swinging doors, spit on the floor, brawls, bottles flying overhead and the sheriff throwing people behind bars. And who said the locals weren't welcoming. Thats right, it was me. Just to add a surreal touch it was all to a soundtrack of cheesey dance and Runrig.
The Hat.
Sunday was no drier than Saturday but we fancied a chance to blow away the cobwebs so headed to the Glen and the Heather Hat. The roof is substantial enough for the majority of the great Maisie Gunn to be dry so Chris got to work as I got very rained on taking photos. I was impressed by his moves. He 'sent' the part of it that was dry in good time, which was all the more awkward because every thing, except for the rock itself, was wet. Later we headed to the wall and had a nice wee boulder.
Chris trying to keep himself dry under Maisie Gunn

I'm beggining to get an air of anticipation about the coming winter season. There has been a very slight covering of snow high on the Ben all week, and the weekend's precipitation seems to have been falling as snow higher up because it's whiter now than it has been yet this year. My housemate Danny, of Mountain Plan, walked in to the norries on both Saturday and Sunday and found conflicting conditions on both days. On Saturday there was no snow so they left, on Sunday there was loads but they could hardly stand up for the wind, so they left again. Fair enough. There have been routes done though, by those who can just nip in for a look at the drop of a hat, or as I like to call them, bastards.

Last year was my third season as a winter climber and I felt like I reached a level of climbing that I was really happy with, and that I feel like I should be able to build on this year. I've even got some new tools in the form of the very sexy DMM Rebel and am ready for lots of figure -of -fours up the likes of Black Spout Gully. Bring it.

The winter game is quite a funny one. It's certainly very addictive and very sado-masichistic. Maybe thats why all the handy winter climbers I know are weired perverted types, or Polish. It certainly falls into Viv Scott's 'Type 2 fun' category, that is, its not fun while its happening, but when its over and you're reflecting with a nice pint of IPA next to the fire, its more fun than you have ever had.
Sado-masichist?: Sam Loveday mid-epic on Red Guard last year

Polish: Konrad Rawlik 'enjoying' Observatory Buttress

Waking up in a frozen sleeping bag in some random car park at 4.00am and sleepily stumbling through the dark towards a vast slumbering hidden hill, head torch beam picking out the frosted grass and walking poles sparking off the rocks. Crunching onto the first patches of snow as the day begins to dawn and the ice smeared faces loom down at you. You are insignificant, ant-like, crawling across the snow slopes to where your line of turfy corners or iced slabs laugh at you. You shiver, you yawn, you get ice knocked on you, you feel sick as you start to move off the belay and blood surges into your numb fingers. Sometimes you walk all that way, and find nothing. The crag has won. The stark nakedness of the rock is an indecent joke. Sometimes though, and if you're canny and know a thing or two, you'll find deserted 400m ice lines that seem to go on all day, with not a soul around except you and your friend. Perfect hero neve that sucks at your picks and front-points, almost magnetic. Perfect granite cracks and flakes to hook and torque up.

Late season ice oozing over the Ben

Now, I'm a keen rock-jock. I love the feeling of movement on rock, pulling off hard (for me) moves above gear or a pad, and I really like the idea of training to get better (a very unfasionable thing in the winter world) but last winter really cast a spell over me. The whole experience of Scottish Winter Climbing seems much fuller than a similar day on the rock. For the most part, the exciting, scary and exhausting parts of a day on the rock are the brief periods of climbing. In winter you can get that on the walk in, the slog up to the foot of the route, the route itself and the descent. It never fails to immerse me under a tsunami of emotions, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Since the 1st of April last year, when I did my last winter routes, I've been looking forward to the onset of the cold, dark months of crisp snow and frozen turf. Now I live up here, under the Ben, I can actually see the build up beginning and I'm getting very excited. You should be too. So, dust off your tools, maybe even sharpen then up a wee bit in homage to the coming season, and get ready, because in a few short months it will all be gone again.

Anyone fancy a look in the norries next weekend?

Monday, 12 November 2007


This morning saw the first proper ground frosts of the approaching winter and I feared that my bike would find a rogue patch of ice as I flew down the Achintore hill to work. Fortunately I arrived unscathed. The view of the Ben from the office is as impressive as ever today. Wintery blue skies are contrasting with the soulless grey screes of the summit slopes. Maybe it won't be so long until those screes are hidden by the season's snow.

This weekend found me in Edinburgh, visiting Jones and hanging with yummick types at Chad's 30th in Loveday Towers. A good bruising party I must say. Poor Mrs Leith downstairs wasn't so impressed though. I guess you can't blame her, but it's not like it's a regular event.

Chris and I were keen to head to North Berwick Law for a seige of Fogtown, a 10 metre F7a that we had tried a few times back in the early summer. Having moved away, and significantly increased the amount of 'strength' type climbing I've been doing (aka. bouldering on the Heather Hat roof), I was intrigued to see how it might feel. The route is only a few degrees overhanging, but the holds are all pretty small, wee crimps and edges with no good rest for its length. I think 'sustained' sums it up nicely. Would I be able to get the redpoint?

Chris beavering away on Fogtown

I've never considered myself a sport climber, so the idea of working a route until it's wired seems some-what foreign, but then I realised I do that on boulder problems all the time, so whats the fuss? Obviously the on-sight would be awesome, but by aiming for a route that's far harder than I've on-sighted, and isn't that much of a classic that I'd rather save until I'm good enough, it's good fun and really good training. One other benefit from red-pointing something hard would be that I might fall off. It's hard to believe, but in four years of climbing, rock, plastic, snow and ice, I've never lobbed. Sure, I've rested on gear, but I've never actually taken a fall from above it. Everyone says that to climb harder you need to be more confident at taking falls, and its definately true. I want to be there pushing the boat out, ready for a screaming pisser, so it's about time that I start falling off. There's loads of times I've thought I might fall off, but have always just got through or rested on gear.

I started by putting the rope up the route, bolt to bolt stylee, and then we set about top-roping. On my first go on top-rope I very nearly linked it, but ended up pumped silly and falling off on the last hard section before the finishing jugs. So, I had another go, and again, pumped silly, I fell off even lower down. However, I was impressed. The route felt like it might just about go, I just had to make sure I remembered the sequences, and maximised the shake-out time on the few bigger holds. Focus and breathe.

Learning the moves: Where are the holds?

Between my goes Chris was looking good on it too. He's definately stronger than last time, but still has the odd issue with the opening moves. On his last go he had it nailed though and was going well with just that old enemy 'the pump' to contend with. Alas pump won, but Chris felt happy because there was clear improvement from our last tries those months back. Bring it.

Then it was back to me. We pulled the rope through, and those quickdraws looked very lonely hanging up there. It was time to get the lead done. Fogtown. 7a. Focus and breathe. The first moves are probably the hardest, but once they are done its a sustained attack from edges moving out right. Stopping to clip adds a good dose of lactic acid to the fore-arms, so a brief shake-out is needed before the next long move into a break. Amazingly I was still there, breathing hard. Bolt three was clipped, then its right along the break, and an off balance move with the right hand into a small pocket, left hand into a thin lay-away, right foot onto a small edge and left foot up and left into the break. No, further left into the break. The bolt is level with your left foot now. One move, out of the lay-away and balance over the left foot, pushing off with the right hand in that small pocket. One move, left hand arching left to the jug rail. Its easy from there, I've done it with ease a few times now. Swing along the jugs and round the arete. Stand back round the arete on the rail and clip the lower off. It's easy. Stop. I'm still trying that last hard move. But my fingers are uncurling. My foot is in the wrong part of the break. Move it 6 inches left to where it's deeper. Focus and breathe.

On the lead in the gathering gloom

Then I'm swinging free. The bolt's above me and I'm giggling like a kid. It was so close. One move and it's in the bag. But I took the fall. I'm not sure which makes me happier, the thought of redpointing my first 7a or taking my first sizable lob. Either way, it was bloody good fun and all adds to the redpoint process.

Seems to me that it's just another reason to keep training hard on these long dark Lochaber nights.

All photos by Jones. Top banana.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Literate Motivation

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;..."

We studied 'To Autumn' by John Keats for GCSE English, and those two lines have always stuck with me. They were going round and round in my head yesterday as I sat under the Heather Hat roof, flask in shaking hand, trying to rest between goes on Project X (Midnight In A Perfect World, but its getting boring writing the whole name, and anyone who reads this will know about the obsession already). I hadn't been able to get down the Glen for over a week, now that 'daylight-saving' has removed all the day-light from our lives, and there was a really noticable difference in the Glen. Autumn is definately here, and by the looks of thinks getting ready for that switch into winter. Where before the bog-trot up to the rock was a wade through sweet-smelling bog myrtle, it's now a wade through their skeleton-bare twigs. The leaves on the birch trees that layer the side of the Ben and hide the hundreds of wee craglets all over Polldubh, have all passed-on. No more fiery gold and orange to light up the hills, just their ghosts to rot down and become next years food. And the weather. It hardly needs an introduction, but it's fair to say that the whole of last week has been a shocker. For the first time I saw the MWIS forecast use the word 'incessant', and you know thats not going to be good. The rain seemed to arrive with the gaining of an hour in bed. I wish I'd slept in. It just didn't stop. In fact, I was glad of the OMM wounds for an excuse not to cycle to work.

So when it dried out on Saturday morning, and remained dry into Sunday a Project X mission was in order. I thought I'd make a session of it, bring a flask, my book, lunch and ipod, rest properly between tries, warm-up properly and keep warm. You know, the opposite of the usual get pumped and stay pumped with cold hands and leave twenty minutes later.

I really noticed that I hadn't done the moves for a week or so as I repeatedly failed on the first crux the first few goes, but after a while it came, and it was time to settle into the same old routine of trying 'the big link'.

In Stone Country, the Scottish bouldering guide, Dave Macleod has written a really good peice called 'Happiness In Slavery'. It's all about the feeling of being trapped by a project that you just can't leave alone, and the proccess of wiring it all together, inch-by-inch. He describes sitting under one of the big roofs at Dumbarton, locked in by the rain outside, pulling on for 3 seconds at a time before crashing back onto the pad. But slowly, week by week and month by month the 3 seconds becomes 5, and he can throw for the next hold, then the next, until in isolation he can do it all and he realises that one day it will be possible. But until that day he is a slave and he wouldn't want it any other way. Instead of becoming despondant with the huge obstacle he has to surmount, he draws inspiration from it. It's a reason to try harder, get more pumped and fall off more.

Its getting that way with Midnight... Except that Dave Macleods project was about V14 and mine is V5/6/7 (depending on which guide you look at). I can do the whole thing in two overlapping halves, and the second half is coming easier than it was, but having the juice to do it all in one is still proving evasive. I feel like I'm locked in battle and victory is possible, but it's not coming without a lot of skin, heavy breathing and gurning. Awesome. I'm loving it. I just need a few more dry weekends when I'm free and it will go. It will go. In the mean time its down the wall thrice a week so that I can bear down like yo mumma.

Still hanging on: Lining up for the first crux

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Pay-off

Its monday morning and I'm sat in front of the computer in the office, ready for a day of mapping the distribution of ethnic groups in the US for a GIS course I'm doing. Its crisp and cold outside with mix of clear blue and ominous grey in the sky and there is fresh snow down to about 800m on the Ben, CMD and Aenoch Mor. Also, I hurt quite a lot. No one area hurts the most, its just a general ache. From the blister on my left heel, up through my leaden calves to my dodgy knee and tight thighs, past the mole on my back that gets really sore by the rubbing of my rucksack to the tender bits on my shoulders where the sack rubbs up and down.

Winter?: Snow on the hills.

Thats right. It was the OMM this weekend and it was a good one. Saturday was a race-planners dream, starting clear and fast and turning into a trudge through 50 mph winds, thick hill-fog and endless miles of tussocky hillside. Duncan and I started our first A-class campaign well at 08.41 and were going strongly for the first five controls. Perhaps too strongly though, because as soon as we turned from control 5 to 6 we were headed into the wind for the rest of the day and we faded fast. The winds increased, the cloud thickened and no matter how many cereal bars, jelly babies and monkey-cum energy gels I loaded I felt drained. To make it worse my left knee started to play up and running on the tussocks was a no-go. Duncans feet started to get shafted too and it all felt very bleak. Mind you, we kept moving at a fast walk, concentrating on our navigation and making sure we made no mistakes and the controls were steadily ticked off. Walking/falling/sliding/hobbling down the last hill to the over-night camp was a knee twisting love affair, knowing that soon it would be over. I worried that it would all be for nothing though if I couldn't walk tomorrow.

The over-night camp at a mountain marathon is always an amusing place to find your self, especially when the weather is utterly vile. Everyone has their own strategies for comfort, nutrition and hydration, but the one thing that binds us all (besides the mutual misery and suffering) is 'plastic bag chic'. You are no-one without two plastic bags to keep your changed socks warm and dry inside your very wet running shoes while hobbling to and fro. Without them you are nothing.

Dunc and I were rather surprised to discover that we were lying in 14th over-night, especially since we had walked from half-way. The terrible conditions must have slowed everyone down, and our good navigation must have earned us brownie points. It made me even more worried though, because with a good position we should try to work hard on the Sunday to keep it, but my knee wasn't well. I just chewed my scrounged ibuprofen and put it out of my mind. Food, sleep and trying to keep things dry was enough to occupy us for the next 12 hours. Buddies from Edinburgh, Konnie and Kiwi Steve (both recently mentioned on these pages for Alpine endeavours), were 2nd in our class by just 30 seconds. Game on for them.

Sunday morning started as usual with the 6.00 bagpiper reminding you of the farce you are in the midst of. We readied for our 08.36 start and hoped for the best. The weather had cleared up and it was looking promising. Clear and blue, clouds scudding on the morning breeze. Maybe it was possible to push through with some dignity. Navigation shouldn't be too much of a problem, just the usual issues of route-choice and finding fast ground.

Some where on the first wake-up-call ascent my knee stopped hurting, and bouyed with the sun on my face I started to feel good. Duncan was moving fast too, and the game faces were back on. We could do this. As usual, Dunc was there with good route-finding all the way, and by making sure we were always thinking one control ahead the checkpoints began to fall. That way as soon as you reach a control you already know which way to head off to the next. A longish leg between controls 7 and 8 meant it never felt like it was nearly over until we were legging it down the track to the last control, number 10. Duncan's power-shouts to keep back the tears bemused the teams we were flying past, but we didn't care. We were both digging very deep to keep moving fast over those last kilometres. Then it was over. Crossing the line and back into the real world. All the stresses of finding little controls in re-entrants and at stream bends just faded away.

We knew we had done well because we had been overtaking teams that were placed above us over-night, but it wasn't until we had got in, had a change of clothes and some food that we realised we were up to 8th. Nice one Duncs. The Power Bar Carbo-drink never tasted so sweet!

Konnie and Steve ended up as winners in A class. Hell yeah. Go team. Although their high altitude training must be cheating, surely! Seriously though, a really good effort by those two. Just think how good they'd be if they navigated well!

Jones and Will got round well in C class, gaining about 20 places on day two, so top banana to them and to all the other yummicks who braved the utter ming of the OMM 2007.

It seems that my training: sweating up, down and round Cow Hill, the Ring of Steall, the Five Sisters of Kintail and riding home from work up the hill to Upper Achintore every night seems to have worked out alright. Just let these aches go away and bring on the winter climbing season.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Tick Tock Tick Tock

That sound is the clock counting down to the start of the OMM this weekend. It's gonna be da bomb. The week leading up to it is always a good one. Like the excitement of waiting for christmas when you're a kid, but just a painful, muddy, wet christmas with cardboard flavour cous-cous instead of roast turkey and spit and bile instead of chilled champagne.
I'm so excited. 3 days to go. I've already got most of our food. Just a few dilemmas to clear up now. Do I run in shorts and keep my leggings dry for the camp or do I save the weight and run in leggings?

This weekend found me doing one last training run in Kintail. I hooked up with the yummicks in their bothy, Glen Licht House, and Duncan (part of the dream team), Tom OG and myself ran the Five Sisters ridge plus Saileag (the first of the Three Brothers). It was probably around 20km and we made good time and I felt pretty good the whole way. I ran the 5.5km out to the car the next day and felt fresh as a daisy, which is always a bonus.
Duncan Steen: Stud

TOG at high speed on the way down to Bealach an Lapain

I've been getting a bit worried recently bacause small runs have been beginning to hurt more than I think they should, but the run on the weekend made me realise that when I'm on my own I actually run quite fast. Running with others means I can pace myself, relax and enjoy it much more, rather than just worrying about getting it done. Also, I've been doing lots of short, fast runs of late and I was worried that these might dent my ability in a longer, slower event. We'll see this weekend.....

In climbing news: The weather afforded one evening on the Heather Hat last week and I was able to reach my 'high point' on Midnight In a Perfect World a few times, but still can't link it into those last desperate moves. The toe hook is actually quite painful when you weight it, and I could only have a couple of goes at a time. Its looking like Midnight... is earning its grade and what with the nights drawing in its gonna be a struggle to get it done before the end of the contract. However, as soon as the OMM is over it's gonna be 100% psyche for climbing and getting strong. New tools for the coming Scottish winter season and some new house-mates too in the form of climbing instructors Rob Jarvis, of Highland Guides, and Danny Goodwin, of Mountain Plan. I just need a couple of bright dry days on a weekend and it'll go.

Outside of my rather small-rock orientated world, Sam Loveday and Konrad Rawlik made an alpine dash last weekend and climbed The Ginat on the North Face of the Droites in a 36 hour round trip from Edinburgh. Superb work I must say. However, on a rather cynical note, maybe it's things like 'EasyJet Alpinism' that's making classic routes come in to condition less and less. Discuss.
Viv Scott and Kiwi Steve Fortune are currently out in the Alps getting up to some sort of mischeif, though I know not what. I suspect Viv will let everyone know in due course....

I'll post some pictures when I remember to bring my camera to work.
Love and eco-freindly hugs all round.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007


Just a few of them this time.
Mike and Karen were happily married on Sunday. Twas a pleasant day at Creiff Hydro, ending with lots of alcohol. Top marks all round for all involved.
Last week the weather wasn't great so I didn't get up to a whole lot. One evening at the Hat was brought short by slimey conditions. One evening at the Hat later in the week saw me doing the last moves of Midnight.. (all cool people shorten the names of familiar routes/problems, so I will too, okay?) for the first time. In isolation they aren't that bad, but when dribbling and shaking with the exertion of the rest of the problem they are a tough wee cookie to crumble. Adding to that, a committing toe hook is going to make a tumble onto the big rock underneath you one to remember. However, I'm chuffed to have got this far in only a few short evenings in a few weeks. Now it feels like the stage is set and I just need to go away, get some endurance and some balls (or a spotter), and get a-sending.
To that end I went to the wall last week for a wee session and I'm planning on another one this eve. If only Kinlochleven wasn't so far away....
Chalky psyched hugs to all.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007


You could never say that the weather up here isn't varied.

As promised I took myself out and ran the Ring of Steall on saturday and couldn't see a thing. It was cold, wet, windy and the cloud was down to about 600m. Oddly, no photos were taken. I felt pretty good though, doing the round from the car and back in about 4 hours, and much of the ground isn't good for running. The compass came out a few times to make sure I didn't do anything daft and all in all it went smoothly. The initial ascent up An Gearanach felt good, despite going on a bit.

I'd been meaning to do the Ring of Steall since moving up here (it is pretty much on my door step) so it was cool to see it off. Mind you, it was fairly dissapointing since it's well known for its exposed ridges and good views and I could see dick all, and its not actually that far so I didn't get much of a working. I'll just have to go back on a good day and do it twice.

Getting an early start meant getting back to Banff Crescent in time to see England beat the Aussies in the Rugby World Cup quarter finals. A turn up for the books for sure. Come on my son and all that. Jones was up for the weekend and had been for a descent sized run too and was looking snug and smug when I arrived as the whistle blew for kick off.

In stark contrast, Sunday was a truly georgeous day. The early(ish) morning mist was just hanging in the glen above Loch Linnhe and from our eyrie in Banff Crescent we looked down on it as it swirled and spiralled out towards the sea. After a very leaisurely start Blair picked Jones and I up and we headed to Tunnel Wall on the Buachaille. He had been working on Fated Path, a classic, long F7c+, earlier in the week and was stoked for another go. I was just along for the ride as belayer as I was fairly certain that with the easiest route being F7b there was nothing for me. However, the Fyffester put a rope up most of Uncertain Emotions (F7b) and I got involved. There is a lower-off about three quarters of the way up the route so he clipped in there, telling me that if I was getting there with ease I shouldn't worry too much about the top section. Hmm.

Looking West from Tunnel Wall, Buachaille Etive Beag and the Aenoch Eagach
The outlook from Tunnel Wall is absolutely spectacular, looking down into the mouth of Glencoe to one side and across to the back of Rannoch Moor to the other, and Sunday was one of those amazingly clear days that you only seem to get when its cold and fresh. And did I mention the rock? Shit. It's not actually as steep as I had expected, being either dead vertical or just over, with bulges, small roofs and thin grooves. Eveything about it is subtle. There are no wild overhangs, no big corners, no ledges, no big cracks. Its just a big expanse of rock covered with lots of little edges. From my one afternoon of experience, the climbing is subtle too. Its about precision and technique, not about burling your way from jug to jug.

Looking along Tunnel Wall

These routes are BIG: Blair on the lead

Blair put a rope up Fated Path, top-roped it once and played on the moves a few times, ensuring they were all there, then was ready for the lead, or as he put it "I guess at some point I'll have to tie in to the wrong end".

I'd never belayed someone on a hard route before and was a little nervous of getting in the way or not giving enough slack or too much, but it went without a hitch. He made it look like a breeze. F7c+. Nice one Mr Blair. There was one moment when he gave a power grunt, but he never looked like coming off. Respec.


Between Blair's goes on his route I had a couple of goes on Uncertain Emotions (with a tight top-rope of course). I surprised myself by being able to do all the moves. Linking them all was a different story though. However on the second go I was linking bigger sections. Maybe all this bouldering down the Glen is getting me stronger. Or maybe I've just never really pushed myself to try harder routes so don't know what I can do. Probably a bit of both. Its gonna be a long time until I'll be able to lead the route, but it felt good to know that one day it could be possible.

The only other sport route that I've seriously thought about red-pointing is Fogtown, a F7a at North Berwick. Over the summer I'd top-roped it with just one rest and felt that if I'd carried on I'd get it done one day. Uncertain Emotions felt about the same difficulty as Fogtown did then, though Uncertain Emotions is supposed to be no gift at 7b. Can't help but think that I should get down and get dirty on Fogtown. The only problem is that North Berwick Law is a bit of a shit hole and Tunnel Wall is about as georgeous as crags get. Oh well, nothing like a spanking for ones ego, as it were.

At the 3/4-way lower off after a fight

Midnight update: I'm still falling off the end of Midnight In a Perfect World but have got two (count them) two foot moves further. Wahoo!

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Lochaber Dreaming

What have I been up to since I last logged on?
Not a lot would be the general conclusion. The yummicks came up two weekends back for their Freshers Glencoe meet. As usual the weather was pretty pish. Sam, Vet Tom, Sheffield Dan and I decided to break the mould and cross the Corran ferry and try to climb Great Ridge on Garb Bheinn. It seemed like a big VDiff would be just the ticket if the weather wasn't quite E7 quality. For the second time in five days I found myself wading up the 'path' into Coire an Iubhair. It was still as shit as the last time.
By the time we got to where we thought the route should roughly start it was pissing with rain, cold and bloody miserable. It wasn't really the day for climbing mountain rock, VDiff or otherwise, so we jacked it in and trudged back to the car through very strong winds and horizontal rain. Bum.

Great Ridge in the ming

As per, the evening involved getting drunk in the Clachaig, beating Freshers and Committee in the Boat Race and general tomfoolery. Tradition therefore decreed that we breakfasted in the Ice Factor. Tasty.
A few of us headed for a boulder down the Glen in the afternoon. Viv Scott very nearly made an impressive flash of Maisie Gunn (V4) on the Heather Hat, Clare Muir cranked hard on Theory of Relativity and I got a few moves further on Midnight in a Perfect World. Nice.
The rest of the week was same old, except for a 10 mile race on the Great Glen Way on Wednesday eve. I managed a fairly respectable 1hr8mins which pleased me since I hadn't run on the flat since about 2004. I also attended a very weired Congress in Glasgow about 'Intellectual Assets' - don't ask.
I managed to escape that early on Friday, before the 'speed networking', I kid you not, and headed East to the burgh and Jones. We headed across the water to the Limekilns for the afternoon where I bagged two VSs and two E1s. Only one of the E1s wasn't a repeat for me but I'd been meaning to do it for a while as it was the only E1 left there I hadn't done.
VE Day (E1 5c) is a fairly thin face climb with no (good) gear for the crux and I'd say its quite hard 5c. It took a bit of hanging around trying to place something worthwhile. In the end I stuck in my trusty zero 4 cam, knew it was shite and commited. It was one of those great moments when you know that if things go pete tong its gonna go quite badly that way, but if you even started to dwell on that then it would become even more likely. As soon as you latch the hold you're after it's feet up, re-balance, place that expected bit of gear, clip, breath. Then its a stint of heavier breathing, shaking limbs and quick climbing to better gear, better holds and sunlight over the lip. Beautiful.
Saturday was my big bro's stag-do, which involved guns and beer. Wahey. Paintballing, clay pigeon shooting and then some militant hockey team drinking games in the back of beyond (Spitall of Glenshee) made for a good send off to the boy. He's marrying Karen in two weeks time and I'm really looking forward to a big family gathering, Infact, it'll be the first time I'll have seen both sides of the family together. And of course, lucky old Jones gets to meet them all!
I've been down the Glen both nights this week as I'm getting keen on Midnight in a Perfect World. The first section is nailed, and linking it to the second section is getting better. However, the last few moves of the second section are proving tricksome, not lease because there is a big rock underneath them. When I eventually come to link it all its gonna be a blast, but I'm gonna have to be stronger. All this playing on roofs must be doing my body tension a world of good though.

The first section of Midnight In a Perfect World

October evening sunlight over the Ben

I was chatting to Fort William's own Blair Fyffe last night and we might be heading down to Tunnel Wall on the weekend. Very hard (for me), steep sport routes that stay dry in the wet a-go-go! Psyche. Also I need to get out running a bit more so I'm gonna do the Ring of Steall on the day that I'm not pulling down.

Hugs and kisses.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Rain rain go away

You love Native Woodlands don't you? Go to Loch Katrine and enjoy the Alder woodland pastures. I did last week. Mind you, I was being payed.

Its a sad sight from the office window today. The rain is as persistant as it can only be on the West Coast and the Ben, for sorrow, will not show his face.

The weekend found me in Edinburgh once more, as the forecast in the hills was gash. Infact the BBC forecats was gash for there too but it was wrong. Jones and I went to the Limekilns on Saturday morning and got rained off a route before I had commited to it. We hung around long enough for the rain to stop and rock to dry and I shot up Kiln dance with me, an HVS 5a (given E1 5a but its a path) and Jones Seconded it cleanly (probably her hardest second). Then the rain came back, so I shot up Humbug, the VS 4c next door, as the holds started to get slippery. After this we decided to call it a day, assuming that the predicted meterological onslaught was upon us. However, on arrival back in the city the sun came out, and stayed that way for the rest of the day. Balls.

Sunday, however, was truly vile so we went to watch Atonement at das Kino. I'd thoroughly recommend it to one and all. Then it was back to the Fort for I.

So far its been a pleasant week. Monday saw Miriam (my housemate) and I go for an inpromptu post-work climb in the Glen. Little did we know that a heavy hail and rain storm had just passed through before our arrival and everything was pissing. And I mean pissing. A wet ascent of The Gutter seemed like the only sensible option so we did that. Miriam hadn't done it before, and I hadn't done it as a waterslide so all in all a good time. We had to cut the session short though cos I had to attend a local council meeting. I really am growing up fast.

On Tuesday I had my chainsaw assessment, which I passed, despite my best efforts to fell a tree with the wrong cuts. I salvaged the wreckage well though so cannie grumble. On the drive back from Morvern to the Fort I stopped off by Coire an lubhair on Garb Bheinn and went for a run. The map would have you beleive that there is a path in that way, but don't be fooled. Its just enough of a path to connect some huge, Walsh-hungry bogs and I found myself thigh deep a few times. The weather was properly epic too, gale force winds (or so they felt) and horizontal rain, and came together nicely with the big rocky scenery to give a a good bit of OMM training. It was only about 7 km max but I was out long enough to get thoroughly piss-wet and covered in bog. Mmmm. I managed to flatten the Bravo's battery on the Corran Ferry with the heating and the radio and had to get bump-started down the ramp. Ho ho, what fun.

Last night I went to the Ice Factor, which was coolio. I met some guys down there that were really helpful and offered me a belay. I'll definately be back to make more friends and continue on my quest for power, endurance, and that old classic, power endurance.

Sweet dreams my children.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

A Weekend of Classic Ridges

Although the weather hasn't been great in the Highlands since coming back from Nova Scotia I decided to have a crack at finding dry mountain rock this weekend. Jones came up on the train from the burg on Friday arvo and not long after work that evening we were heading East in the trusty (?) Fiat Bravo. That scans nicely.

I had thought the of some easy big things in the North West, namely East or Central Buttress on Beinn Eighe and A'Cioch Nose. Jones is still a rookie really so its pointless aiming for harder stuff so big routes in big places make for the excitement. In the end the foreccast was giving the North West the shittest weather we headed towards the Cairngorms where fairer things were promised on the Monk-cast.

That night was amazingly clear, with no moon and millions upon millions of stars shining down on Glen Muick. Bootiful.

Look, its Eagle Ridge!

Eagle Ridge, the uber classic 4-star Severe, was on the cards so we scampered in to the corrie, only to find two teams starting the route already. Bum. They were going very, very slowly and it was only after we realised we were'nt at the true start that we understood why these guys were having such problems on a Severe. Only two hours lost! In fact we ended up overtaking the second team.
Jones, the Ridge and the Loch.

Its a great route, with maintained interest and some good exposure. The 'sentry box' pitch is particularly splendid, to use guide book parlance, with lots of air beneath you and huuuuuuge holds. Jones had a few 'moments' when the exposure was felt but pressed on like a trooper and was really glad that she had.

Joes was happy to get the route done.
The only problem is that now I've blown my winter on-sight. Damn. I've only climbed a couple of grade VIs in winter but I must say this one looks like a pretty full-on day. Respec.

The 'Sunday' route of choice took us to the Norries, and a very windy and cloudy Coire an't Schneachda. I had though of Fingers Ridge Direct, the VS version of the classic Diff, but the aerial moisture content, plus the 'oh shit I'm going to get hot-aches as soon as I stop climbing' conditions put payed to that. So we went for the Diff, and had a jolly good time. I've done it in winter, and its a stonker, so it was cool to see what you're actually torqueing and hooking.

Looking down pitch 3 of Fingers Ridge, its a beaut.

To add interest, the last two pitches were fully in the clouds and what might be known as 'pissing'. I'll admit I decided to don rock shoes for the short wall after the fingers so as not to slip off.

Then it was time for a brew in the ski-centres wonderfully named Cas Bar and a hitting of the road. By the time we were back in the West it was shitting it down and we both felt tres smug that we got a route done in the hills.

A brilliant weekend I must admit.

Jones topping out. Check out that view.....
So far this week I've done a bit of running and been down the Glen a couple of times. In fact I was down there today and was getting a kicking by everything I tried. The mantle on the top of A Dram for Donald on the Cameron Stone is still spitting me off. I have, however, decided to make the lip traverse of the Heather Hat, Midnight in a Perfect World my project, in order to get strong. Its V5, and I will have climbed it before my contract with Upland Ecology runs out on the 24th December 2007. you read it here first.

Friday, 7 September 2007

The Mountain

George, the living legend. Taken on the back of a speeding truck, sometime, somewhere.

The serious bit: It was a haven of tranquility amidst a sea of carnage. Bring it.

So, Tom and Lacey's wedding took place at Nancy and Georges place on Jake Reid Road, on the South Mountain, altenatively known as Gaspereau Mountain, deep woods Gaspereau or simply, The Mountain. Its a wee bit south of Wolfville, home of Acadia University, where Lacey and all her brides maids and maids of honour played rugger together (World Cup starts today, yayer!). Here are some photos that might start to paint a picture of our far too brief time up there.
The Young pretenders:

Brim, in his best man finery.

Tom early/late on his stag night

Ed, the court jester.

Tom, Lacey's dad Robert and Shotgun Steve on the way to The Library.

Phil looking longingly at his Keith's

Star of the show, Nancy. She put it all on and looked after everyone so well. Enjoyed a drop too.

Numerous people from back home couldn't make it so we put their faces on inflatable 'love' dolls. Em looks like normal...

Hazen doing what he does best. Microphone, vodka and a crowd. What a guy.