Monday, 28 April 2008

Blair's Admission

I guess it couldn’t last. The new week began and in came the grey, pushing the blue climbing days away. A few spots of drizzle put paid to bouldering down the Glen. Instead, this week I’ve been getting a serious serving of inspiration.

Tuesday afternoon proved dry enough for Blair and I to head up to Tunnel Wall. He was champing at the bit to get back on Admission (F7c+). Between goes familiarizing himself with this 30 metre uber-stamina crimp fest, I put in a few more shifts on Uncertain Emotions. For the first time I clipped the rope all the way to the top (there’s a lower off two thirds of the way up that we’ve always used in the past). Seeing quite how much more of this route I had to learn was humbling.

Meanwhile, the Fyffe was ready and willing for the redpoint, so I pulled the rope as he chilled out. What followed was another display of Blair’s incredible stamina, eeking out semi-rests on tiny edges, smooth and inventive footwork. Naturally, the ascent went smoothly, with only very minor use of the ‘Strathspey War Cry’ as he dropped into an undercut. I was filming him as he reached the top, and I called up for him to say something profound to the camera, all I got back was “I’m pumped”. You wouldn’t have known if you watched him. What amazed me further was what followed; having clipped the lower-off of Admission, he shouted down that he was immediately going to shift the rope across onto his next project: Axiom (F8a). You can’t keep him on the ground.

Blair leading Admission

As the week progressed, the amount of precipitation increased and we were forced under cover. Having heard about Alan Kimber’s new bouldering wall at his place (about 5 minutes walk from the Crucible) we headed down for a look. With the walls constructed by Scott Muir and the problems and circuits set by Dave Macleod, you couldn’t ask for a better set-up. Within a conventional garage space they’ve packed in a vertical wall, a slab, a hanging slab, a 60 degree overhang, a mezzanine area dedicated to stamina circuits, a finger board and two campus boards, plus the piece de resistance, a stereo that you can plug your ipod straight into. Psyche. It’s exactly what Fort William has been in need of for ages, and me too. I went down there for three sessions this week; the weather wasn’t being any fun at all.

As Saturday passed it turned into a beautiful afternoon, so Rob and I planned on another Uncertain Emotions session for Sunday. We reached the crag just as the afternoon sun was hitting it, warming the rock and warming our muscles. I was really inspired by the difference that having warm fingers made, and by comparing notes with Rob and altering a few of my sequences I started to feel like I was making progress on this beast. Familiarity brings efficiency, and efficiency means that I might make it as far as the fourth bolt (out of nine!) before I take a whipper. Seriously though, it’s funny how just a week ago I felt like it was going to be a seriously long-term project, now I’m not so sure. I’m not saying that it’ll go anytime soon, but I’ve got the slightest twinkle of hope that it will go one day. The moves are all there, I just need the endurance.

Looking down Uncertain Emotions

Seems like those stamina circuits at Alan’s wall are going to get some serious action.


It seems that I've recently been possessed by trendy clubbers as I've become enraptured with the work of Kissy Sell Out, a DJ who seems to be at the more dirty end of dance music. I'm not really sure which ever-evolving genre his music/remixes/mixes fall into but all I know is I'm loving them. Maybe its grime, maybe it's krunk, maybe its electro nu-rave post-punk baroque. I particularly like the 'Garden Friends' tune on his myspace page. It reminds me of the Skins theme. Man, I'm so down with the kids.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

North West is Best

Another good week of looking for grouse in the mornings and pulling on small holds in the afternoons has passed. It's been pretty successful on both counts. I spent a few sessions in the glen, looking for a new project to fill the gap left by Killer Instinct. After a spanking from the walk up to the Sky Pilot area with a bouldering pad, and then a spanking from the steep problems up there, I've settled on lower altitude problems. I did Inspector Clueso (Font 6c, apparently) on the Cameron Stone after a few tries, so think I'll see how I get on with the sitting start, called The Right To Silence (Font 7b/V8). A very long term project me-thinks.

On Thursday Rob, Jenny and I headed up to Tunnel Wall on Creag A' Bhanchair and we all received the customary spanking from Uncertain Emotions (F7b). In truth, the cruxes felt easier than they have done in the past, but linking them is still a very long term goal. Bring it on.

So next came the weekend, and Jones and I ventured to pastures new. I've drooled over Torridon's Seanna Mhealan crags in the guidebook a few times, so with good weather forecast we decided that it was as fine a time as any to explore. We weren't disappointed. The Western Sector provides shorter and sunnier routes than the main cliff, and with more lines in the lower grade range, we made a bee-line for it.

West over Loch Torridon towards a distant Skye

It's hard to do the crag justice, but picture this. A flat, grassy terrace backed by pink Torridonian Sandstone walls looks out over Loch Torridon. The clearest, tropical blue waters wink and shimmer under the cloudless skies, giving way to the Diabeg peninsular and Skye beyond. Across the glen, Liathach is starting to shed it's winter coat, white giving way to grey. Visions of paradise come rarely, but climbing in Scotland seems to provide them all too often.

To get used to the rock we started on the Quartz Slab, an easy angled slab speckled with quartz chicken heads, seams and rails topped by a vertical headwall. Quartz Warts (Severe*) was followed by Off With Her Head (VS 4b**), both contrasting gentle rock-overs and smears with steep jug-hauling at the top. Marvellous.

Jones starting up Off With Her Head (VS 4b**) on the Quartz Slab

Next up I decided to see how things were progressing and got on Bleached Whale (E2 5c**). On paper it sounds like my nightmare, a roof and a finger crack, but being very well protected I figured there was little to lose and got busy. Annoyingly, I had to rest on the rope going through the roof, but got it clean on the third go, once I'd found the good hold that was staring right at me. Balls. With over-head gear the whole way it was a real delight to climb - no fear at all, just a shame about the 'route reading'.

Above the roof on Bleached Whale (E2 5c**)
(Photo: Sarah Jones)

Despite not getting Bleached Whale on the first go I definitely felt positive about it so jumped straight on it's neighbour, a vertical right-angled corner called Dolphin Friendly (E1 5b**). This was 10 joyous metres of very well protected smeary bridging. In fact, I think I clipped about 7 bits of gear!
Count the runners: Me nearing the end of Dolphin Friendly (E1 5b**)

It's pretty good to feel like I'm climbing better than I have ever done, both physically and psychologically. I've currently got the time and the access to work on some great boulders, and am 'sending' harder problems than ever. And as a fairly regular boulderer, Ive known for a long time that I should be able to lead routes much harder than I currently do, but having the balls to step up and get out of my comfort zone has always been my problem. However, it's early season, the sun is shining and I'm feeling positive about getting deep down and dirty. Will this be the summer when it all kicks off? Lets hope so.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Big Rocks, Little Rocks....

The dawn hours of friday were spent cycling through misty woodland in Glen Garry in search of your friend and mine, Tetrao tetrix. The Forestry Commission padlock was frozen shut, so I had to ride to and from my survey site. A 10km cycle for work? Fair enough.

I was stationed back in the Fort by 10.30, and with my admin completed with the help of a large amount of coffee I decided to head to the Glen. I was out of favour with the Heather Hat - it's steepness was beginning to hurt, so I decided to solo something bigger and easier in the sun. After weaving up to Cavalry Crack Buttress I saw that my objective of Heatwave was damp, so slithered across to Pandora Buttress to see that Flying Dutchmen was dribbling too. "If in doubt...", I thought, and sweated up to Pine Tree Wall for another tick of The Gutter. I first soloed this during my first week up in Fort William and, then as now, it's so much fun. I sat at the top and drank in the spring scene. Deep snow on the tops, dry rock in the glen, buzzards circling on the thermals above and the Water of Nevis shimmering and scattering the sun's rays below. Smug? Moi?

Unknown climber on SW2(?) on SW Buttress

Back down at the car I unpacked the pad and perused the bouldering guide for likely looking lines. The highball Heart of the Sun (V2 5b) on the Heart Stone was a touch fluttery, and the technical Tom's Arete (V3 6a) beneath Scimitar Ridge took quite a while to work out and grated my tips. Mustn't grumble.

Seeing a good forecast, Chris boarded a westbound train on Saturday morning and by early afternoon we were ensconced on Secretaries Buttress Direct (Severe). What a route. Three interesting pitches bringing whoops, smiles and laughter. We had wanted to do the Super Direct, but passing showers shifted us across the slab to the easier option. Just as we coiled the ropes and thought about the next route it started to rain again, so we decided to run for it. Back at our bags the sun came out once more. Harrumph. Spying a good looking line on the left toe of Secretaries Buttress I started up Just Passing (E1 5a). Naturally, the grade implies either bold or sustained 5a climbing, and it provided a bit of both. The gear was good but there wasn't much of it, and with the crux section at the very top and a decent way from my last wires I felt fully immersed. I had got there so quickly that it didn't feel quite real. I wasn't up for a big fall. There was no obvious line to take, no crack to follow or flake to swing up, just the top to aim for. Blindly feeling for crimps in the ocean of schist waves, I found a quartz 'gaston' and with a nervy cross-through of my left foot I stuttered across to a better hold. Relax boy, relax. The top came soon after, and as I belayed Chris up, the adrenalin was just leaving my blood-stream and my shaking hands were beginning to steady. It's definitely the most committed and insecure I've ever felt on a route. Jolly splendid!

Next stop, the Heather Hat. Chris had unfinished business on Maizie Gunn's... (V4 6a) and set to with a will. Last time he tried this it was pissing with rain so he didn't have a chance to try the last moves, this time he got them sorted rapidly. After the excitement of success on Just Passing I decided to have a try on my project, Killer Instinct (V5 6b), and somehow did it first go.... except that I fell from the last easy moves mantling the headwall. NOOOO! What a twat. After almost two months of trying, I fell from the easy finish. Sloppy footwork. Disgraceful. After a minute of loud expletives I had another go. With even worse footwork and lots of foot-off gurning and Chris Sharma-esque shouting I managed it this time round. I had lead this dance so many times I just wanted to do it this time. At long last. Check the vid for an example of how not to do it:

Killer Instinct is a pretty cool problem, I think it's technically harder than the fabled Midnight in a Perfect World, but a bit shorter so didn't require so much of the power endurance that I lack. Nice one. Chris had all the moves down on Maizie Gunn's but couldn't link it. Next time man, next time.

Chris on one of our new problems in the gneiss end of Glen Tarbert
(Photo: Chris Edwards)
On Sunday Chris and I gambled and crossed the Corran Ferry to check out some boulders I'd spotted in Glen Tarbert. I had taken a look at some of them before and been very impressed by the size and quality (difficulty) of the lines. At the East end of the glen the boulders are gneiss and we did a handful of good problems, being forced to leave the meat of them well alone as they are BIG and HARD! At the West end they are granite erratics and again we had to leave the best looking things alone as they are BIG and HARD! Some potential projects for Mr. Macleod me thinks? I'll be back though....

Me on an as yet unclimbed slab problem in the granite end of Glen Tarbert
(Photo: Chris Edwards)
All in all, a damn good weekend if I do say myself.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

And That Was The Winter That Was

Paradise: Sam Loveday on Kipling's Groove, Gimmer Crag, April 2007.

It's still buried, the Ben. The snow just refuses to budge and climbers are still ticking the classic ice routes that streak those hallowed walls. Despite this, however, I've pretty much taken the decision to hang up the tools for another year. I say 'pretty much' because if some routes that I'm hankering for come in I'll head up, but I just can't be bothered with the continual condition checking anymore.

I've got a circuit of websites that I constantly check whenever I go online: the SAIS avalanche forecast, MWIS weather forecast, BBC weather forecast, UK Climbing winter forum, Abacus Mountaineering, Highland Guides, Mountain Plan, West Coast Mountain Guides. What routes are in? Will it be frozen? Will the slope release when we try to get to the route?

After four and a half months of it, I've lost interest. I just want to climb rocks in the sun. It's so mush simpler. In a way, I feel a bit guilty. I think it's because the Ben is just above town, and I'm constantly reminded that I could still be winter climbing with a passion. Maybe I'm a soft-cock. Just a half-hearted winter climber, whose running for the convenient option as soon as it shows itself, but hey. I've done most of the routes that are getting done now anyway, so there.

Rapping in to In The Pink, Ghursey Mor, Mingulay
(photo: Rik Higham)

Last year was my third winter season, and I ticked loads of the classic V,5 ice routes during the uber fat ice-fest of February and March, so I had hoped to do a load of the classic VI, 5s this time round. However, the ice hasn't been as good this year (yet) so I've had to be content with lots of mixed climbing. Don't get me wrong, mixed climbing is great, but I'd rather blat fat ice in the sun any-day.
Konrad Rawlik: Ice Jedi at work on Observatory Buttress, March 2007

So, the winter that was: a low down

Best route?
A tough one that. Maybe Menage a Trois on Beinn an Dothaidh. It's a stonking line that I'd been after for a while, was my hardest lead of the season and was climbed with a good crowd. Minus Two Gully with Sam was also a great day. Easy enough to be fast, efficient and fun, but tough and long enough to be a challenge.
Me on the crux pitch of Menage a Trois
(photo: Becky Stedham)

Worst route?
Sadly, thats an easy one. Number Three Gully Buttress is well regarded as a great grade III, but when Chris and I did it in early March it was banked out with bomber neve, was pissing snow, graupel and windy as hell. After breaking trail into Coire na Ciste in knee-deep freshies we got amongst it. Excluding belays I think I placed two runners in four pitches. It was the easiest III I've done, and because it was minging I wanted to get off the hill as soon as possible so just legged it up the route. Oh well.

Best day?
To say climbing the Old Man of Hoy in February kind of takes the piss when I'm talking about winter, but it was incredible. Once again, the people you climb and explore with make or break the whole experience. Taking Jones out on the hill and seeing her turning into a gnarly alpinist has been great too. For me, our best day out was when we climbed The Skraeling on Beinn an Dothaidh. It's a route I had fancied for a while and at IV,5 was quite the undertaking for Jones' fourth winter climb. I thought it was a great route, with some fairly meaty climbing in the crux corners for IV,5, making Jones' maneuvres all the better. Climbing 'new route style' on Number Four Gully Buttress with Gaz Davies was also great. It has to be said, climbing into the unknown is the ultimate feeling. When you know the grade of a route you have a fair idea of how you're going to get on. With no grade comes no expectation, and, for me, with no expectation comes confidence - it'll go or it won't.
Gaz Davies on Poseidon Corners, No. 4 Gully Buttress, January 2008

Worst days?

Being cheesy, they say there’s no such thing as a bad day. To an extent I guess that’s true – there’s always something to take away, even if it’s that you should have stayed in bed. There were a few times this season when I’ve been sat in a car park as the rain lashes down or the wind howls, and in my heart known that leaving the warmth of the car is pretty daft. I guess there’s a time for optimism, throwing reason to the winds and ‘avin it in the heart of the maelstrom. There’s been a few times too when it’s gone the other way, and we’ve had to jack it in on the walk in. Those are always the worst days.

What did I learn?
Go leashless! This year I went leashless for the first time and it made a huge difference in all aspects of climbing, especially on mixed ground. Using leashes just seems daft now.

So, with about 15 routes in the bag (not counting a few days playing), 3 bailed attempts, a days skiing and 5 days avalanche service work, that is the winter that was. Bring on the summer.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Oh, Black Grouse Where Art Thou? A Trilogy of Musings

This morning I was up at 3.30, yesterday it was 4.30, and the day before that, and the day before that. When your job involves shifting your circadian rhythms to correspond with those of black grouse you begin to appreciate how many hours there are in the day. There's something deeply satisfying about being up before dawn, watching as the Eastern horizon gently fades in a wooded glen or heathy hillside. And I don't mind being in bed at 9.30 in the evening - it's not like there's much to miss in the cultural hot spot of Fort William. Generously, black grouse only lek until a few hours after dawn, so I'm heading home to a day of leisure by about 9.30. At the moment this leisure time involves bouldering in Glen Nevis, at the Ice Factor or the wall in town, or drinking lots of tea up in the crucible.

Most of the sites I have to survey are around Forestry Commission plantations in Glen Garry, Glen Kingie or by Loch Arkaig. Isn't life terrible? The remoteness of some of these sites has lead to a combination of very early starts, a fair bit of off-road driving and mountain-biking. It's pretty cool cycling along in the middle of absolute no-where in the cocoon of light cast by my head-torch. I guess some-one has to do it.


What with all this mild weather we've been having, and following the warm afternoon sessions on the Heather Hat, I'm definitely getting that end of winter feeling. Sure, I'll head out if I can be promised good conditions and good weather, but by this time in the season I can't be bothered with powder wading, misery and suffering. In truth, I'm hankering for warm, dry rock, and as such, I'm secretly hoping for a huge thaw.

Here is me earlier this week doing the first half of Midnight In A Perfect World.

A while ago I realised that I've never mentioned music on my blog. I'm not sure why. Possibly for fear of ranting, preaching or being boring. However, here goes.

I'm not really the 'muso' type, but I certainly appreciate a good, honest tune and listen to all sorts of stuff. I'm fortunate enough to have always been surrounded by 'muso' friends who readily burn me CDs and give recommendations, and they like real music. By 'real' music I mean music that has been created with some degree of honesty and integrity, regardless of genre or style, rather than the soulless shite voted for by a million gurning twats on a saturday evening - think X-Factor, think Take That, think Britney. I have strong feelings about this. Surely, everyone knows that saccharine-sweet lollipop mediocrity has no integrity. By it's nature it's bland and unoffensive so that EVERYONE will cough up their money for it and line the likes of Simon Cowell's pockets. Every time you see him sincerely say that the music he produces is good, you know a peice of him must die inside. Simon, buddy, we all know that it's utter shite.

That there was something more to be taken from music struck me for the first time when I listened to Mogwai's album Young Team, and the epic finale 'Mogwai Fear Satan'. It was then that I realised that music is much more than mere bubble gum for the ears. It's inspiration for activity, it's food for thought, it's a soothing balm, it's a frame for the big picture.

Or something like that.
Getting down to the silent groove: An Impromtu Silent Disco in Bristo Square. Edinburgh.

To illustrate my musical tastes I'll put itunes on shuffle and list the 1st 10 tunes to appear:
1. Solemn Thirsty - Malcolm Middleton
2. God's Small Song - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
3. Grass Root's Horizon - Kinobe
4. Tone Guitar and Drum Noise - Fridge
5. Get a Hold- A Tribe Called Quest
6. (untitled) - DJ Shadow
7. Monkey Fist - Phillip Roebuck
8. Sore - Buck 65
9. This One or That One? - The Six Parts Seven
10. Bottle Rocket - The Go! Team

The Cheery Malcolm Middleton at Green Man Festival 2006

I downloaded LCD Soundsystem's latest album, Sound of Silver, the other day and it's still giving me the horn. Before I heard the whole album I thought that Sam Loveday's 'possible tune of 2007' 'Someone Great' was as good as it got, but then I heard 'All my Friends', and haven't stopped grinning and dancing round the kitchen.

Adios amigos.