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