Thursday, 27 March 2008

Heather Hat in the Sun

The weather was so good today that Blair and I couldn't help but head down the Glen and play on the incredible roof.
The Fyffester was on fire and completed his project, then repeated it for the camera. I was less successful, only managing to shed much of my skin and blood on Killer Instinct.
Here's the video of Blair's efforts, accompanied by the sounds of the mighty Cinematic Orchestra:

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

A Good Job Well Done

I don't know how you could be jobless if you weren't involved in something as time and thought consuming as climbing. If we're talking about finances, the last few months have been nothing but a dead loss, but in terms of an obsessed climber, I'm in profit. Take the last week:

Monday: climbed Hadrian's Wall Direct, Ben Nevis, with Blair.
Tuesday: Bouldered at the Heather Hat.
Wednesday: No climbing - shadowing Gary on a woodland survey in Glen Loy.
Thursday: Circuits at the wall in Fort William.
Friday: Bouldering session at the Ice Factor.
Saturday: Climbed Rubberface on After Crag, Glen Nevis, with Jones.
Sunday: Climbed The Skraeling with Jones on Beinn an Dothaidh.
Monday: Climbed Minus Two Gully, Ben Nevis, with Sam.

You see? Without climbing that would be a very empty week.

It was good to get a dry spell and to get on the Heather Hat roof again. For such a small expanse of rock there is so much to do on it. I was trying a problem called Killer Instinct and it isn't coming quietly, but of course, that's the beauty. Blair pretty much did his new problem, but wasn't content with the start so stuck some more moves in, making it even more heinous.

Working Killer Instinct

The dry weather hung around, except for the odd snow flurry on the bitter northerlies we're getting, so when Jones rocked up she kindly offered a belay while I gingerly headed for my first Glen Nevis E1. I plumped for a route called Rubberface, which takes a bulge then a delicate and bold slab (yay) on After Crag. When the sun came out and filtered through the birch twigs it was actually quite comfortable, but when a scudding cloud got in the way it was pretty baltic. Fortunely, the crux is in the first few metres, so my fingers still had some feeling in them at that point. I found the climbing pretty easy really. As is often my problem, the crux was making the decision to start climbing in the first place.

Shivering up Rubberface (E1 5b)

The next day, Jones and I headed south to the turfy mixed climbing Mecca of Beinn an Dothaidh. Any fears of soggy turf were cast aside as we crunched across the bog to the coire. After a week's worth of northerly winds, the crag was quite scoured, and I wasn't sure of the ethical purity of scratching about on the schist. However, on closer acquaintance all the ledges were very snowy, the turf was bomber and the rock was well iced up. Game on! We climbed a great, IV,5 called The Skraeling, and at 250 metres it kept us on our toes the whole time. As is often the case, gear was hard to come by in the icy rock, but the turf was well frozen, so I just kept a positive mind and bashed on. With the weather coming from the north, we could only helplessly watch as the snow flurries and misery marched across Rannoch Moor toward us, blotting out the morning's friendly sunshine.

Jones is all smiles on The Skraeling (IV,5)

Incoming: more snow racing toward us.

The main cruxes are two steep corners, about halfway up the route, combining bridging with the odd tenuous hook. After these, pleasant turfy grooves and steps lead to the final snow slope and the top. Sadly my camera battery wasn't enjoying the cold so I only got a few photos.

The next day, Easter Monday, for the faithful among you, I teamed up with Mr Motivator Sam Loveday. He had travelled all the way from a wet and drunken weekend in North Wales, and despite delays, missed trains and snowy roads, he rolled into the north face car park at 7:00. I was feeling slightly creaky after the previous day's efforts, and Sam was tired from only a few hours sleep over a couple of days, so we took the walk in to the Ben quite gently. I tossed over the different routes we could do: Slav Route? Never Never Land? Route 2 Direct? But as we got up to the CIC Hut, Sam pointed out that the Minus Gully's looked like they were in. I had dismissed them as historic routes that don't really come into condition any more, but what did I know? Minus Two Gully was definately touching down, and Minus One looked like it was getting there, so we scuttled up to them, and after a poke about decided to climb Minus Two.

Icy Minus and Orion Faces, Ben Nevis.

Sam starting pitch two of Minus Two Gully (V,5)

In stark contrast to the turfy mixed climbing style of the day before, and the cruddy ice of Hadrians Wall last week, this ice was a pleasure to climb and (generally) protectable with screws. It provided steep steps and runnels, interspersed with easier angled neve, including some funky, continental-style ice-fangs and chandeliers to weave through. We were both climbing well and efficiently and got up the 250 metres in about four and a half hours, then traversed across North East Buttress and down snow slopes on the Little Brenva Face. Neither of us could be bothered with pushing on up North East Buttress in the freezing winds, having both done it before.

Me on pitch three.

So, back to the car and back up to the Crucible in the Crescent, only to hear that it's looking like I'm about to start a job. An actual, real, live job. Surveying Black Grouse leks (mating displays). Oh well, unemployment was fun while it lasted, but I really need to earn some money!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Jones Rips It Up, and Other Stories.

It’s all change for Jones just now. Not only has she moved away from the black-hole of Edinburgh (so-named because once you live there you’ll never leave), but she’s also becoming that rare beast – a female Scottish winter climber. The move should do wonders for her mountain going tendencies as she is now stationed in Munlochy on the Black Isle.

We made use of her proximity to the snow on Sunday and I met her in the Coire Cas car park. The forecast was for a bit of a breeze, blue skies and a few snow showers, however, it was totally clagged in and dumping snow when we arrived, so we paired down the rack, dumped a rope and changed our plans from a grade IV in Coire an Lochan to the classic guides day of the Twin Ribs and Fiachaill Ridge. This gave Jones a chance to continue honing her skills on the sharp end, which she did with aplomb, and to work on her confidence when soloing and moving together. I think one of the keys to winter climbing is being quick and efficient and this often means you need to move quickly over exposed but easy ground. If you pitch everything and expect to be able to stop every five metres to place gear you’re going to end up climbing in the dark. Being able to do this just comes with having confidence in your ability to move safely – the key to all climbing: trusting your footwork.

Jones throwing crazy mixed climbing shapes

Jones made short work of the tricky section on the ribs and we moved together to the top. We then soloed the ridge, pitching the short steeper section at the end, and dropped down the Goat Track into Coire an’t Schneachda. The clouds were coming in and out all day, at times affording the prized view across the plateau to the Shelterstone and Carn Etchechan in the Loch Avon basin, and at others affording the luxury of the 20 metres in front of you. Down in the Coire I felt a bit annoyed that I hadn’t packed that second rope as we could have easily nipped up a route in good time but as it was we pointed down hill to the car and Aviemore. Next stop – Cairngorm Mountain Sports cafĂ©.

Yesterday I teamed up with Blair Fyffe and we headed up the Ben. The forecast was for almost no wind, blue skies and cold temperatures, and this time it seemed about right. Blair used his avalanche skills in exchange for use of the forestry key – a much coveted gem that allows vehicle access to the top car park, rather than a walk from sea level – so he texted a conditions report to the SAIS forecaster. A bargain, I’d say. We ummed and arrr’d for a bit, trying to decide which route to do. A good covering of snow made everything look white and icy, but on closer inspection conditions were’nt as good as we had hoped. We thought about some icy mixed lines on Observatory Buttress, and had a peek round the corner at a very white Indicator Wall (white with snow, not ice I’m afraid), but in the end plumped for the fattest looking bit of ice around – Hadrian’s Wall Direct. Neither of us had done this classic V,5 so after spudding for the lead, a victorious Fairy Wife set off.

Blair on pitch 1 of Hadrians Wall Direct

The ice was pretty cruddy, making the climbing easy but quite bold. As I toiled away on second I felt fairly grateful for the ropes trailing upwards. The steepest section was also the cruddiest, and with only one suspect ice screw below it was a good lead. Mind you, Blair isn’t exactly a rookie. Like many of the routes on this part of the Ben, the first few pitches are the hardest, then there’s a lot of easier ground to move over before breaking through the headwall onto the plateau.

No matter how many times I seem to do it, topping out on the Ben on a good day is always a real joy. I guess it’s partly because it normally happens after climbing a great route, but I think it’s mainly because of those endless views. As we stood and took it all in – Skye, Rum, the Mamores, the Grey Corries, Torridon, Applecross, Ardnamurchan, and on and on into the horizon, the sun reflected in Loch Lihnne, and I couldn’t help but feel smug about living up here.

Enduring the horrors of the plateau

After most of the days I’ve been out this winter – wet, windy and with no views to speak of – I felt like I had earned the good weather, the views and the shorter walk-in and out, not to mention the brew in the CIC Hut. Who said Scottish winter was about suffering?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Winter Rumbles On

So with the car still in tatters in the Edinburgh Skoda dealers I fled back North to the peace and solitude of the hills. Steev, Jo B and Chris came up too to try and make the most of a Fort William base and to get some climbing done on the Ben.

It started badly.

Sitting in the car in the north face car park at 6.30 a.m next day with the incessant rain dribbling down the wind-screen. I utter the words that put an end to any climbing plans: “any-one want a brew back at mine?” No-one really fancied the slog up to the routes in the ming, so before long we were stationed back in the crucible and supping the life-blood of the climber – tea.

Next day dawned much better so this time we actually started walking in. Chris and I had originally planned to head for some icy gully action, but since it was dumping with snow we decided that a buttress route would be a safer bet. There was a huge amount of fresh snow lieing about and blazing the tracks up to Number 3 Gully Buttress was a real ball-breaker. Never the less, we romped up the ‘three star grade III’ (I thought it was more like a 1 star grade II, but hey, what does it matter) into a festival of misery on the plateau. Part way up the second pitch Chris decided to quit winter climbing, so the lead was all mine. Poor chap. Wind-thrown graupel battered our faces as we sorted the gear, so we rapidly descended down the zig-zags and legged it back to the car. Steev and Jo B had the usual fight with a powdery Slingsby’s Chimney so decided not to continue up North-East Buttress. Good mountaineering.

The sanctuary of the plateau: Chris not long after giving up winter climbing

We sat Monday out as ‘the biggest storm ever, in all eternity, officially’ was on its way, but didn’t get further north than Yorkshire. Mind you, they did have 46mph winds in Birmingham. Imagine. 46mph. I’m surprised anything is left standing after such a wave of destruction.

Tuesday, however, was a stonker. The MWIS forecast lead us to the Cairngorms, and although Jones and I had planned to head to Hell’s Lum in the Loch Avon basin, a threatening looking plateau sent us scuttling down into Coire an’t Schneachda. We climbed Fluted Buttress Direct, a continuous groove up the centre of Fluted Buttress, obviously. It’s a good IV,4/5, and was fairly buried, but Jones did really well on it. I feared that blootered funky Cairngorm granite grooves would be a bit too much for Jones’ fledgling winter climbing repertoire, but she soon demonstrated that it’s really not that hard. Go girl!

Biggles on Fluted Buttress Direct

Jones under a pretty buried Fluted Buttress, after 'sending' it (her words).

By the time we topped out the blue-skies of earlier were long gone and the frontal system from the west was in full affect. A swift descent saw us back at the car in time for tea and tiffin. We bumped into Steev and Alex on the way down and they had backed off something hard on Carn Etchechan (not Route Major, which they had aimed for).

Today (Thursday) Jones and I fled the ming in the Fort and headed for a walk on the Ardnish peninsular, in Morar. A pleasant path weaves across the headland to the Peanameanach bothy. Despite only being twenty-odd miles from the Fort, the weather over there was much better, with sunshine and a gentle breeze for most of the way. Marvellous.

Peanameanach Bothy: it's somewhere in the middle, honest.

On the way back I heard some good news about my car: they took it for a long drive and it broke down on them. A new drive shaft is required. At long bloody last!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

I'm Sorry, But......

I sincerely apologise for the lack of poetic grace and thought-provoking prose that ensues. However, I feel a small, self-pitying rant coming on.

The fears that I have been harbouring about my car have been realised once more. Last friday I drove South to Edinburgh to help Jones with packing up her flat and for a pleasant weekend in the city. However, the journey was interrupted when my steering wheel started to vibrate and shudder and try to veer off to the right. However, I found that if I let the car cool the problem would cease and I could get to Edinburgh with a couple of rests.
Now this problem has happened before, about a month ago, on the first journey I took the car on - similarly to Edinburgh. It was towed to Lix Toll garage and they said they couldn't see a problem and sent me on my way. It happened again 40 miles down the road and I was towed to Edinburgh (for £30). The Skoda dealer in Edinburgh also said they couldn't see a problem and sent me on my way. Fine. I drove back to Fort William and it was OK. I drove a fair bit round Fort William for the next month. Fine. However, here we are again. The problem has reared its ugly head. The common denominator? Long journeys - long enough for the car to really warm up.

On Saturday we decided to head to Northumberland, and with scheduled stops I felt that if the problem occurred again I could just cool the car and it would get better. Alas. On the way back it all went wrong, and wouldn't remedy itself after cooling down. So, Mr A.A. was called and we were towed to Edinburgh. The recovery chap said he could see a problem with the front-right wheel - maybe a wheel bearing? When he jacked the car up he could spin the wheel, but after a while he would feel some resistance and had to really force it round to complete the rotation. This would explain the juddering and sporadic twitching of the steering wheel. We all saw it too - I have witnessess Dammit.

So, the car went into the Skoda dealer again, I'm stranded in Edinburgh, I've had to turn down a morning's work with the avalanche service, and to top it all I spoke to the garage and they claim they can't find a problem. WHAT?

How many times am I going to have to tell them that it only occurs after a long drive? They have already turned me away once and said to come back if it happens again. Well, here we are. It has happened again. My car is not fit to drive back to Fort William. And of course, the fine service they offer involves me ringing them to find out the latest, rather than them ringing me.

I have been told to come down to the garage to talk later on, so they better have some good news, or I'm going to be a touch miffed.

That it all.