Monday, 21 January 2008

New or old?

Something is beeping at me. A distant chime dragging me back from my dreams. It's 6.00 already, I'm sure I only just closed my eyes. Bleary eyed and yawning I fall downstairs for a brew and some toast and pretend that I'm psyched and good to go to Gaz Davies, who's in a sleeping bag on the lounge floor.

It's still dark when we step outside, a blackbird laughs at us from the hedge. Part of me is pleased the Ben is so close, we don't have to get up at 4.00 for a days climbing, but 5 minutes in a car isn't long enough to wake up and prepare for the onslaught. We start up the new Ben path, trying to keep my eyes open as I sweat and wheeze upwards. Bloody hell. Climbing always seems like a good idea on a warm sofa in the evening, but on a dark January morning it seems like a fools errand.

On arrival at the CIC hut we look up into the Ciste to see dark crags and full gullys swathed in cloud. I've learnt this lesson before: mixed routes are going to be good high up. On friday night Andy 'Turnermator' Turner told me about a wee buttress above Number 4 gully with new, easier route potential, so we thought we'd slog up there and have a peek. We weren't dissapointed.

The crag above No. 4 Gully. I took a line trending up and right from the snowy bay in the bottom left.

Overlooking Number 4 Gully on the right hand side is a short crag made up of turfy corners, grooves and ramps and looked nicely white and iced as we approached. We decided to try a likely looking groove line up the centre of the wall. I lead off, coming to an abrupt halt at a tricky step that was slightly undercut. Where were my feet? Skating about in search of a hidden hold. In the end there was nothing for it; bury the tools in something frozen and heave-ho. With judicious use of knee I flopped onto a ramp and continued up, panting and swearing. After 45m of turf, rock, neve and ice I slithered up a V-groove into a pleasant snowy gully and belayed Gaz up. He then followed the crest on the left of the gully for about 25m to the top, popping out about 50m to the right of the top of No. 4. Wow, convenience climbing on Ben Nevis.

Gaz Davies on the last V-groove of pitch 1.

Gaz on the crest of pitch 2.

We sorted out our gear, went down No. 4 to the base of the crag again and found another line that Gaz started up. The snow started in earnest, and the thick clag hid the whole of the mountain. Again, it gave about 40m of good climbing, steep awkward steps and turfy ramps, coming out in the same gully as the first line. I followed the same crest to the top for pitch 2.

Gaz endures heavy snow beneath the crux on pitch 1 of the second line.

Gaz on the final awkward step

We felt both routes were about 70m long and around IV,5, with maintained interest all the way. I'm in consultation with the powers-that-be to find out if they were new lines, but regardless, it was a great adventurous day out. The crag has loads of potential for other routes, and it's really accessible (except for being at the top of the Ben), perfect for second routes or shorter days and being so high is probably in nick regularly. So get busy.

The alarm was as unwelcome as the day before when it kicked me into life yesterday. I snoozed as Gaz drove down to the Coe and groaned as we stomped into Stob Coire Nan Lochan (Stobbers, as it is becoming known by the Banff Crescent glitterati). We thought about getting scared on Chimney Route (VI,6) but neither of us fancied an hour of thrutching and wriggling so decided to climb Twisting Grooves, a IV,5 to the left of Twisting Gully. It's a nice wee route with two good mixed pitches and two snowy 'fillers'. We felt if it was IV,5 our routes the day before were probably about the same grade. It was only 13.00 when we topped out but neither of us was particularly bothered about another route, feeling smug and satisfied by the weekends endeavours, so slid back down to the car for tea and tiffin.

Myself after pitch 3 of Twisting Grooves

News Flash:

Just heard from Simon Richardson and both our lines have been done by him before! Nothing else has been done up there though so I'll have to get back up. The first route is called Triton Corners, IV,5 and the second is Poseidon Grooves, IV,5. Nice to see we got the grades right at least.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Better late than never

Nevis Range in the evening light

Somehow I’ve arrived at the age of 23 without ever learning to ski. I’m fairly certain that just about everyone I know, at one stage or another, has strapped on a couple of planks and hurtled down a bit of snow somewhere, sometime. I don’t really know how it happened but I never got round this peculiar activity. In order to make up for lost time my turn eventually arrived on Saturday.

A week or more of fairly persistent rain at sea level translated to a whole lot of snow on the tops, and a forecast of no wind and next to no clouds meant that Scotland’s ski resorts had one of their busiest January days for a long time. I was one of those punters falling off the button tow and snow ploughing my way to victory at Nevis Range, but I have to admit, it was a really good day.

There was a good showing of familiar faces, both from Edinburgh and here in the Fort, and even though I was in very unfamiliar territory and stepping in to depths very unplumbed it somehow felt like a pleasant reunion. Fortunately I had expert one to one tuition from Jones. She’s been desperate to get me out on the pistes for ages, but I had managed to resist so far. I’m not sure why I buckled this time. She's been skiing since she was knee high to a Chorthipus parallelus (the meadow grasshopper, sorry, but I’ve got to get a bit of ecology in here somewhere) so was more than competent to teach me the basics and catch me every time I couldn’t stop. In truth, its only fair that I learn to ski, given that I have dragged her up loads of routes and wittered on and on about climbing ever since I met her.

Jones: I'm a skier don't you know?

I was pretty amazed how rapidly it started to come together towards the end of the day, but when I first clipped in to the skis I had no control whatsoever. Everything was sliding one way or slipping another. Knees were twisting and I was swearing. Once I’d mastered staying still I had to learn the seemingly impossible – moving. Then it was stopping. Blimey. Ski Sunday looks like a piece of piss but this was well ‘ard. Eventually I even learnt how to turn, weaving in between the masses of hurtling children, cartwheeling snowboarders and beginners as inept as myself. Not only did I conquer the button tow but I even went on the big boys chairlift and fell pretty much all the way down a blue run. Get me. All in all a good day, followed by some 'apres ski' drinking in the Fort. Suffice it to say scrapercaillie was as delightful as ever.

Sunday passed in a blur of vile clag and rain - top marks to Chris, Grant and Adam for driving up for a day on the wet slopes.

Today (monday) I've actually been gainfully employed for a few hours. I've been the 'mountineer assistant' to the SAIS Lochaber avalanche forecaster Blair Fyffe. This basically entails digging him out if he gets avalanched and lending a hand when he's recording snowpack data. It's been a rather nice day I must admit, walking up to the Ben, digging a wee pit under The Curtain on Carn Dearg, inspecting the extensive avalanche debris under No. 5 Gully and then walking back under the (currently) forming ice on The Shield Direct, Gemini and Boomers Requiem. All are rather thin at the moment, but showing promise. I'll be out with Blair again tomorrow, but this time I think I'm going to be on skis, so once more I will be fully immersed over my head, and then some.

Blair in his pit

Friday, 11 January 2008

Stob Ban on a bike

Looking north towards the Fort from Coire a' Mhusgain

I'm still waiting for the conclusion of my insurance claim so am still car-less up here in the hills. I'm also currently unemployed, which is good in that I can go climbing when ever its good, but is bad because I have no money. Harumph.

The combination of these factors led to the hatching of a wee plan that saw me cycling down Glen Nevis to the Lower Falls car park this morning, then walking up into Coire a' Mhusgain on Stob Ban in the Mamores. Many a time have I looked up at the pyramidal peaks of this hill while getting a spanking on the Heather Hat and wondered if there were any routes to be done. There are a handfull listed in the Ben Nevis guide, including the 200m East Ridge on North Buttress (II/III**), so I thought I'd go and see what I could find.

Stob Ban back in November. East Ridge is the nearest skyline ridge, starting well below the snow line.

It wasn't that cold and fresh snow made the approach fairly tedious and sweaty, but eventually I got to a wee rowan tree at the base of the ridge (indicating how low the snow line is, and how low the start of the route is), donned my pons and helmet, downed a kellogs square bar, and went to with a will. I soloed up some nice turfy grooves for about 100m, interspersed with big snowy ledges at about grade II. The turf was patchy, bomber in places and soggy in others and everything was buried by a good few inches of fresh whiteness. I continued on up until I got to a steeper step that looked a touch airy and scarey to solo on my own so about turned and escaped leftwards. Inspection afterwards showed that my bailing spot was just beneath the big half-way snow slope on East Ridge and probably the crux of the route. The picture was taken part way up, with the top of the ridge hidden in the ming.

The low snow line and clouded summits are prompting a fair bit of lower level exploration in Lochaber. Check out Donald and Mike's new route here.

The top of one of my turfy grooves

The weather is looking good for tomorrow, so the question is this: do I go climbing or do I try my hand at skiing for the first time?

Sunday, 6 January 2008

A Stormy Start

Not a good omen for routes being in great nick.

White. Wet powder. Not crunching underfoot but sinking to the ankles, the knees, the waist. The duck tape that conseal the rips all over my trousers start to soak off and the rips start to fill. Here we go again.

I arrived back in the Fort on friday night after a drive slowed by heavy snow. A new year in the highlands. It seemed fitting that when I left for home before christmas everything was frosted and wintery and my return was heralded with lieing snow and white hillsides.

On Saturday Danny and I headed east for a look in the Northern Corries. We couldn't see much though. Very strong winds and heavy snow made for a generally miserable day out but we were both keen to have a poke about on the Mess of Pottage. It turns out that it was pretty much the most sheltered place to be. In the end we just climbed a couple of short pitches up grooves left of the bottom of Jacobs Ladder which gave some nice moves and felt like a friendly introduction to a season I have high hopes for. Not a proper route or owt but enough fun to make it worthwhile. We made sure that topping out into the maelstrom was never an option and shuffled off down The Slant.

A couple of pics of Danny on our wee jaunt in Schneachda

Chris rocked up from Edinburgh in the evening ready for action so Sunday morning saw us in a gondola heading up Aonoch Mor. Word was that the buttresses were looking good, but in the end fresh snowfall on a westerly wind, allied with a pea-souper of a day, meant that the prospect of heading down an avalanche-ready Easy Gully to the routes was not a pleasant one. We bailed and headed back down to the house for coffee and stilton sandwhiches.

A team hunting for the top of Easy Gully on Aonoch Mor.

At the moment the highlands are experiencing pretty wild unsettled weather and lots of snow is building up all over the shop. With a bit of freeze thaw and a spot of high pressure there'll be some stonking nick in the hills, but as it stands climbing is going to be slow and arduous. Patience my dear Watson. There are a huge number of climbers based in Britain nowadays, so when accessable crags like Coire an't Schneachda and Aonoch Mor are deserted you know its a wild one.

Making the decision to bail is always a tricky one. After all the effort of an early start and slogging through the ming, maybe even climbing a pitch or two, it seems like a big waste to jack it in for the comfort of car heaters and the promise of coffee. Where's the gung-ho 'lets 'ave it' attitude that sees hardcore routes getting done? Well, sometimes that's just not a wise choice. Live to fight another day and all that. And I can assure you all the gnarly climbers that have ever been pushing the limits have all had their share of dissapointing days where they simply walked in and walk out again. You just don't hear about it because it's not interesting reading. Chief of sufferance and misery, Andy Kirkpatrick, wrote about it in point (d) here. Fair enough.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Southern Fairies

Home in Somerset for the festive season in a borrowed car. All the usual fun and games: lots of food, Butcombe Bitter, The Plough, Morris Dancing and general tomfoolery.

I had high hopes for getting a route or two in on the local limestone but it's all wet and slimey so I've had to contain myself.

However, I have had a pleasant enough couple of days out and about. Jones and I met Chris at a very soggy Roaches and had to settle for a long walk to the driest rocks at the Very Far Skyline and a wee play at Newstones post Rock Inn refreshments. All a bit of a bummer, but definitely nice to be out.

Jones spotting Chris on a go on Lazy Trout, The Roaches

Grit seems to be a pain in the arse. I've had some really memorable and prolific days climbing and done a handful of great routes and problems, but for every good day there has been at least one day when it was pissing wet, green, dirty and slimey or so hot that you grease off jugs, let alone the famed 'fat sloper'. The jury is still out, but I think the moral is that you need to pick your days wisely if you want to get the most out of it, rather than settle for doing soggy Diffs (something that some find fun).

A low key new year allowed Jones and I to hit the very quiet M5 at a decent hour on new years day and spend a day at some of my favourite crags: the Dartmoor tors. Hound Tor to be precise. These short, very sharp granite tors offer up a variety of routes and problems off all grades and types and on a winters day when it's a bit too nippy to get involved with long or nails hard routes there's not much better than getting involved with the crazy piles, pillars and blocks that the granite creates.

Hound Tor basking in the sun of a new year
Me trying Skin Graft (V2 5c), apparently this has been graded
on the 'Plymouth' scale so is more like 6a. Those crazy devonians.

Still trying....

Off.... Bugger.


Later we met Jen and Luke at Bonehill and spent a nice hour or two on some of the problems on The Cube. One of the things that I had hoped to do was Rippled Wall, a rather highball V3 6a, and I was pleased that it went with (fairly) minimal fuss. A good start to the year. It had been a while since I had had that fluttery feeling at the top of something and as I scrambled back down and the adrenaline surged through me I remembered how amazing it was, and how addictive too.

Jones alluringly modelling Rippled Wall

I'll be back up to Fort William on Friday, looking for a whole lot of wintery fun. So here's to an adventurous 2008!
Happy new year.