Friday, 29 February 2008

The Iron Was Hot

In a brief respite from the utterly vile weather that's been passing through Lochaber, Sam, Helena and Becky made the pre-dawn pilgrimage to Torlundy on Wednesday. I met them at the north face car-park and before long we were sweating up to the CIC.

Following all the rain we've been having at sea-level I expected that the Ben would be buried in powder and that climbing would be slow and tedious. In truth, however, the stiff westerly winds had scoured most of the approach slopes and buttresses, so Sam and I romped across to the start of Observatory Ridge on stiff neve. I'd fancied climbing this route for quite a while, and the conditions on the day made it a good choice. Good ice was starting to form and was linked by banks of neve, which gave some great, if fairly bold climbing. We climbed the ridge in 5 pitches and then moved together for the last 150-200m.
Sam just above the tricky step on pitch 3
Sam Loveday observed in his natural habitat; a chimney.

I've heard a few tales of Observatory Ridge being pretty hard in some conditions, but we found it in very friendly nick. There were some thinly-iced slabs and one tricky step into a groove (made a bit harder for Sam after I took much of the ice out of it on the lead), but without these it would have been a bit too straight farward.

Lovers leads off on pitch 4

Helena and Becky had a good day on Comb Gully, and after a brew in the Crucible of Psyche the intrepid Edinburgh team headed back South.

So, just more proof that a close eye on the weather and a flexible approach can yield good results in this rather stormy winter. Now it's back to misery, misery, misery as 70mph gusts bring incessant, heavy, unrelenting, never-ending rain, rain, rain from the West. Mind you, I think the crags will be icing up a treat, so lets just wait for a settled spell and then pounce.

The End.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Fine February Fun

Surely even the cynics must be wondering about what we are doing to our planet. Winter has been far, far away and for nine days in a row it didn't rain in Lochaber. Nine days, in February! In fact, the sun shone, the birds sang and the rock dried. It couldn't last though, and it's looking like today will be the last in this spell of settled weather.

Since returning from Orkney I've been out every day one way or another. On Friday I met Blair for a boulder at the Heather Hat and I've found myself a new project - Killer Instinct. It's shorter than Midnight... so in theory shouldn't take too long to see off. All the moves are down, so I just need to link them.

On Saturday Jones had her first outing on the Ben. We joined the hordes in the Cascade area and climbed a version of Raeburn's Easy Route, with a slightly harder start and finish. It was great to see Jones keen to get on the lead and she made light work of the last pitch. For the most part it was a nice day - blue skies and scudding clouds, just a shame about the three hundred thousand other people we had to share it with.

Jones preparing to bust through the cornice on her first winter lead

Sunday saw Jones and I keen for some cragging action so we headed down the Glen and climbed a great route on Pandora's Buttress. Phantom Slab (VS 4c***) climbs the first two pitches of Pandora (Severe) before an exposed traverse leads across to the base of a beautiful rippled hanging slab. As the guidebook says, it's well worth seeking out.

Jones on the exposed traverse to the belay on Phantom Slab

And so here I am on tuesday night, feeling bruised, broken and sore. The last two days up at Tunnel Wall with Blair have taken their toll. Blair has been trying Admission (F7C+), the last of the set at that grade left for him, while I've been dangling on Uncertain Emotions (F7b) again. Damn, it's still a total beast. We had two days of great weather, and although it was pretty chilly we were able to get enough done to feel totally boxed. Blair's pretty close to the redpoint. I most certainly am not, but I'm sure that trying it is doing wonders to my strength and stamina, and anyway, it's February, anything is a bonus.

Tunnel Wall is deceptively steep: that rope is vertical.

It's also quite big: The sport routes are on the pinkish rock, but Blair looks very small.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Taking Advantage

They say variety is the spice of life. If that's true then I think I'm turning into a stick of cinnamon. In a spell of eight days over the last two weeks I have been up to some awesome stuff. I'm not bragging, just singing the praises of living in a country that enables such stuff.

Last Tuesday, Duncan, Becky and I climbed Menage a Trois, my first V,6, in pretty wintery nick. The next day I climbed Ordinary Route with Chris. It was a sunny day but the route was absolutely buried and fairly stressful to lead. Then on Sunday I visited Traprain Law and did some gentle cragging with Jones and Chris in pretty miserable conditions: the famed East coast Har. Then on Monday I ticked my project on the Heather Hat, a V6/7 boulder problem; Midnight In A Perfect World, in stunning evening sunshine. Then, on Tuesday I drove north and met Sam, Duncan, Konnie and Becky and we headed across to the sun-drenched Orkneys and climbed the East Face Route on the incredible Old Man of Hoy. My first sea-stack, and surely one of the most memorable and characterful routes in Britain. Getting the chance to climb it in perfect blue skies in February can't happen often. Hats off to Sam for leading the crux pitch - an intimidating roofed offwidth/chimney/corner that was covered in sand and dirt (though he thought it was OK because a) he is a pervert, and b) he is clearly wrong). Seriously though, a very good lead that only impressed on me that being able to hang crimps two metres off the floor is no substitute for having big balls. Watch Sams blog for some words on our adventure soon.

To make matters even better I've managed to get a wee bit of work with Upland Ecology again. And the sun is shining.

Monday, 11 February 2008

It's Midnight In A Perfect World

I’m here again. Another session perched on my thrown, hands shrouded in dachsteins, frozen toes swaddled with wooly socks and thrust into dripping wellies. That familiar feeling of heavy arms and numb fingers. Did I fall off last time because I was tired, or were my fingers too cold to feel the rock? Snuggled in a downy, no cold air can reach me now. I look out from under the roof, across the glen to the spike of Stob Ban and see some walkers coming down from the white coire. Not long ago I was up there, scratching about with crampons and ice tools. I recall looking down here, at this block, relishing our next date on a cold dry afternoon. Right now, my shredded fingers are relishing nothing. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve tried these moves on this piece of rock.

The Heather Hat in Glen Nevis. Almost a perfect cuboid of ancient schist sat in a bog on the slopes of Britain’s biggest peak. Tufts of moor-grass and heather stir in the breeze. The skeletons of birch trees shimmer and wave. In the distance the Water of Nevis gurgles. I silently look up. A few metres of horizontal roof jut out just above my head. A line of chalked jugs, then slopers, then jugs, then edges, then back to slopers work their way round the lip, from right to left. These small edges have entranced me for months now.

It all began in July. A new arrival in Lochaber, working for an ecological consultancy on a graduate placement, fresh faced and ready to immerse myself in an area steeped in climbing history. I cycled down the Glen after my first interview in June to see what all the fuss was about, and have been obsessed ever since. After a few weeks and a few midgie post-work sessions I had worked out the classic left-hand roof problem Maisie Gunn’s Magical Midgie Cream, the roof/arĂȘte of Theory of Relativity and numerous other gems on the Cameron Stone and was in need of a new project. The long traverse of the Heather Hat lip was the obvious choice: Midnight in a Perfect World. There was no doubt that I had set my sights high for this one, but what if….? What if…?

At first glance it didn’t look that improbable; there are jugs, and I was familiar with the finishing moves from previous problems. The problem was the bits in between the jugs, oh, and the fact that it’s a 5 metre roof. It didn’t take long to see which holds were best, but holding them was a task in itself, let alone linking them. That’s when something went wrong. Something happened to me. I found myself thinking about those holds when I was in the office. Thinking about moving from the heel hook to the sloper. Thinking about crimping the seam and crossing through to the edge. What had I become? Those few metres of undercut rock had taken me prisoner. Pathetic. A few metres of climbing had captivated me more than any long mountain routes ever had. I decided the only way to end this affair was to go all out and make a pact with myself; to have completed Midnight in a Perfect World by the end of my contract at Christmas.

Week followed week and the sequences started to become familiar. Weather permitting I would head down the Glen twice a week after work. Engrams engrained in my waking thoughts. The feeling of becoming fluid in motion became addictive, I would overcome this problem. I would. Remember to cross the right hand through before swinging into the heel hook. By late October I could traverse the lip in two overlapping halves, but I just didn’t have the beans to yard on those horrific slopers when I was slathering and shaking from the earlier two thirds. This was compounded by the pointy boulder that greets you as you come tumbling from the last desperate moves. Clearly something was going to have to change.

And change it did. The clocks changed and a Lochaber winter began. The cycle home from work became a dark, wet affair. Evenings on the Hat turned into evenings down the wall. Perfect ice-chipped edges became hand-moulded slopers on the 45 at the Ice Factor. Mountain breezes became a chalky fug. But this was all neccasary, so neccasary. Bouldering with the likes of Blair Fyffe, Donald King and Dave Macleod on the steep wall started to strengthen my fingers and teach me subtle footwork that I would never think of. Interval circuits at the Fort William wall attempted to build up my endurance - so important for a long, steep problem like Midnight... Three-finger dead hangs on the bar in the house attempted to make those moves on small edges that bit easier.
Blair doing circuits on the Fort William wall

2007 passed into 2008 and still I couldn't find a time to get down the Glen during a dry spell. So much for my pact. And so, it came to February. A fat high pressure is sat over the UK and the Highlands are bathed in glorious, unseasonal warmth and sunshine. Winter seems to have taken a break. I spent the day on a train back up from Edinburgh - escaping from the Har. Surely the Hat would be dry? Pulling in to Fort William at 16:00 I hurried to the car and drove straight down the Glen. There it was, under the pale wintery blue sky, that cuboid of ancient schist. After a spell of hanging the jugs, jumping about and generally trying to get some blood into my hands I got on it.

The initial jugs soon gave way to the heel hook and bouncing between the poorest slopers, then I'm swinging around the nose. Remember the sequence. I'm still on and I'm moving between the three-finger edges. I'm on the slopers. I'm hanging above the pointed rock. It's calling for me. But, no, I'm still on and I've got the heel-hook. I'm pulling onto the final jugs. It's just a mantle away. It's done. I'm ankle deep in heather on the top of the Hat, chest heaving and fingers shaking. It's over. Midnight In A Perfect World. My first real 'project' has been dispatched and when it came to it, it felt easy.

So what am I supposed to do now?

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Before The Thaw....

Once more I was in the pit of despondancy. Gusts of 135mph on Cairn Gorm saw Chris, Steev and I very rapidly abandoning our walk in to Coire an't Schneachda on sunday morning as teams streamed past us in similar escape. Now it was February, there had been two months of 'winter' already, and I had still only done a few routes, of which none were particularly impressive or inspiring. A Highland winter didn't seem to be getting me any more climbing than an Edinburgh one, just more failures. So, when I had three offers to go climbing this week I jumped at the chance to re-dress the balance. Two of the days clashed, so I decided to take the alluring option of meeting Duncan, Becky, Konnie and Tony at Beinn an Dothaidh bright and breezy on Tuesday morning.

Down at the farm it was warm and drizzly but Duncan and Becky were stoked to have a crack at Menage a Trois (V,6), a modern mixed classic and a route I had wanted to do for about three years, so we promptly started the bog trot up to the snowy, cloud-veiled corrie. Despite the distinct lack of a solid path the walk-in to Beinn an Dothaidh is pretty easy, and it never really feels like you're gaining that much height. Somehow you end up at about 850m above sea level, so there must be a hill in there somewhere. Despite there being so much snow, the turf was frozen and the game was on. Tony and Konnie scuttled round the corner to have a look at The Screaming (VIII,8, gulp) while we geared up at the base of the line and Duncan led off. Menage a Trois takes a line upto and then following an obvious corner, finishing either up an easy groove to the right or a harder groove to the left.

Duncs made short work of the first pitch and Becky and I joined him below a short steep wall that bars the way into the corner. My lead, and my first V,6 proper. On Red Guard last year I led the first pitch under deep powder and it was the hardest I'd led, but I wasn't really sure what grade it would be. Now it was time to discover quite what a tech 6 pitch feels like. I always love the way your head empties before you lead something testing, as you swap over the rack and sort out your gloves, eying up the line. When you get into a plane, you hand your life over to the inevitable - if something happens you just have to roll with it. I find a peculiar satisfaction in accepting your helplessness. Similarly, when it's your lead you just have to deal with whatever turns up. I love the feeling of grim acceptance and how quickly you go from cheerful and chatty to calm, resolute and ready. Maybe this is why I rarely feel scared when on the lead, there's too much to think about for that, and why seconding pitches always feels much harder. Mind you, I suspect that might change as the routes get harder and bolder.

It was one of the most enjoyable pitches I think I've ever climbed. Long and sustained, but never ball-breakingly hard. My memory of it is a series of steep steps, with small snowy ledges in between for chilling out and scratching about for placements. It was pretty buried and icy, so there wasn't a huge amount of good gear, but enough to inspire upwards progress. My semi-buried warthog and threaded icicle at the top left much to be desired, but by then I knew there was one step to go and then I was at the belay, so I was too psyched to fall off. As I sat and brought Becky and Duncan up I let the smug, warm glow wash over me. I had done it, broken a small barrier in my winter climbing. The ever-nagging doubts of "can I/can't I?" started to fade.
Becky pulling through the last step of pitch 2

Duncan decided to do the V,5 variation finish which takes a steep turfy groove that eventually forces you leftwards onto easy ground and then the summit. As we chilled out and sorted gear at the top we saw through the ming that Tony had got to the top of The Screaming, his first grade VIII, and a seriously good effort, especially for someone so young (particularly in Scottish winter climbing terms). The sky is the limit for him just now.
Duncan leading the V,5 variation finish

Wednesday saw Chris up from Edinburgh for his fourth attempt to get a route in this winter (at least someone was having worse luck than me). With a sunny and cold forecast we made the unrelenting pilgrimage to Stobbers and headed for Ordinary Route on the Summit Buttress (IV,5). We bumped into Tony and Sam Clarke, who were thinking of heading towards Central Grooves. Still glowing from success on Menage... I thought that Ordinary Route would be fairly straight forward, but little had I bargained for the huge, and I mean huge, accumulation of snow and rime. The first pitch looked like a straight forward series of snowy ramps and turfy grooves, but in actual fact it was a series of thickly rimed slabs and corners. Every move was hard-won, and every bit of gear (all 6 of them in 50 metres) required an age of hacking, digging, swinging, chipping and swearing. Once that was done the next problem was finding things to put your axes in, so once more, hack, dig, swing, chip, swear. In that order. After about 2(+?) hours I had run out of rope and found a vaguely solid belay of a buried axe and a good hex. Chris made his way up to me and promtly vented is distinct lack of enjoyment and healthy dose of fear. He wasn't up for leading, so we swapped his axe for mine in the belay and I slithered, sunk and squirmed up more deep powder to the start of pitch three. By the time Chris got to me it was about 15.00 so we decided that we would escape down Boomerang Gully rather than up the final pitch. We couldn't work out where it goes anyway, and although I'm sure it has some interesting climbing, the first pitch provided enough excitement for me.

Summit Buttress, Stob Coire nan Lochan

Ordinary Route: Chris seconding a very snowy pitch 1

We had a cheeky pint in the Clachaig and headed our seperate ways.

Hours later.....
I'm in bed, watching an episode of Green Wing on my laptop and my phone rings. It's Tony. Please tell me they aren't part way up Central Grooves and in need of assistance. Fortunately not. They are in Ballahullish having broken down and need a doss. Like James Herriot on a late night call to a bad lambing, I gather myself, yawn, scratch and head out into the night.

Tony and Sam had taken a look at Chimney Route and decided that it was too snowy so did Crest Route instead. With them were Vet Tom and Anna who had abbed from Ordinary Route on Central Buttress due to very slow conditions and not quite fancying benightment.
Once again, Banff Crescent offered a fine doss and as I write they are on their way south, after a hearty Morrisons breakfast.

Now it's pouring with rain and 9 degrees in town and set to stay like this for a while. I'm just glad I got some routes in before all the snow is washed away.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Playing Away

I've not been up in the mountains since a few weekends ago so no wintery fun to report, except that the sky is currently spewing a huge amount of snow in Lochaber. Check out this photo that I took earlier:

I'm hoping to get out on the hill tomorrow. I suspect it will be a pretty full on winters day - lots of digging for gear and placements and a fair old wind, but I'm game for a laugh.

At last, I have a car once more, a Skoda Felicia from 1997, and despite the odd grumble and rattle on it's first journey it seems to work well enough. It's quite nice to have a slow car, there's no pressure to speed or overtake, or skid, or crash.

I was down in Edinburgh most of last week, hanging with the Jones and catching up with Yummick types. I even managed to squeeze onto a yummick trip to Bowden, home of the Northumberland strong man. As I've mentioned previously, I've been to Bowden so many times that I've pretty much exhausted the routes and highballs I can do, so I was there for fun and games, rather than serious gurning and fear. It was what a days bouldering should be: a bunch of good friends having fun, taking the piss because we're all crap and falling off lots. There was an air of 'the boys at the crag', as Viv, Duncan, Chris, Konnie and I ran about, giggled and fell off repeatedly. Suffice it to say I didn't get up anything I hadn't done before (mind you, I didn't exactly try), but still got a good working and had my share of fluttery top-outs. Childs Play, The Light Bulb, Russet Groove (twice), Sue, Castle Crack, the two groove problems, you get the idea. Transformer is still a bit too much without warming up, Flying Fish is still a bitch, The Trial is still too big, Overhanging Crack is still too, well, overhanging. However, we did do lots of lieing about on bouldering mats and eating Morrisons fine doughnuts, which is certainly the most important thing to do on a day at Bowden.

A typical Bowden day: Konnie, Duncan, Chris and Viv bearing down.

Viv clearly flouting the 'mats are only for sitting on' rule on Transformer

Chris on Russet Groove: the day finished with a mass ascent and the communal use of a hip-flask as we watched the sun set. Aww. How cute.