Friday, 23 May 2008

The Deep South

Alright my luvver? Drink up thee cider, and other colloquialisms from Somerset. That's right, I'm down here for one more day, then back up to the Highlands to start my new RSPB contract. It's been a good wee trip thus far.

The Mendip Morris Men

You may recall a T.V. programme from almost a year ago in which Tim Emmett took Julia Bradbury up some classic rock routes, Commando Ridge in England, Crackstone Rib in Wales and Ordinary Route on The Old Man of Stoer in Scotland. It was during a period in which the BBC seemed to be paying a lot of attention to climbing because there was also the 'Great Climb' thing which led to Macleod's To Hell and Back on Hells Lum. Anyway, my brother, not an 'outdoorsy' type at all, contacted me after the Emmett programme, asking me to take him climbing sometime. Go on BBC! Well, time passed, Christmas came and went, snow fell and melted and eventually we were both in the same place at the same time, so we headed up to Overshoot Wall in Cheddar Gorge. I climbed a couple of easy sport routes and illustrated belaying and all that jazz, and and he got top-roping and really enjoyed it. Once happy that he wasn't going to kill me if I took a whipper, he kindly offered a belay on something harder. I'd eyed up a little 10 metre 7a called Whose Line is it Anyway? a few times in the past, but never been on it, so decided to see if I could get the redpoint (lead it cleanly after rehearsing the moves, for those not in the know). Well, bugger me, I got t! It's a 70's boulder problem that they used to jump off, but has recently been bolted to the top of the crag. The technical crux is pretty low down, but it's certainly not a path from then on. After putting the rope up it bolt-to-bolt style I played around on the top-rope to become familiar with it. Within half an hour I was pretty confident that it would go, so pulled the rope, chilled, and went for it. My first F7a, and back on home turf, where this daft love affair all began. Cheers for the belay bro!

On Monday I hooked up with Em, a buddy from the Edinburgh Uni Mountaineering Club who's from Bristol, and we headed south to the mighty Dartmoor. Beginning at Hound Tor, I got spooked off the short, sharp Aerobic Wall (E2 5c), so went for a look at the micro-route Anaerobic Wall (E1 5c). Described as scary, dangerous and 'not fall-off-able' in the guide, all illustrated with a tale of some local boy smashing his leg up, I opted to see if there was any gear. Having hung around for a while to find the crucial wire and place it, I pumped out going through the crux and took the fall, splendid! Second time round it went fine, which is fortunate, as a fall from any higher would definitely be on to the rocks. Tasty. Em then climbed Liar's Dice, a great little Severe, before we had a picnic and headed round to Haytor and Lowman.
Em dancing up Liar's Dice, Hound Tor

Down on Lowman I got embroiled in Tom Patey's classic HVS Outward Bound. It climbs through a sizable roof on HUGE holds, pulling onto a very accommodating belay ledge, before weaving it's merry way to the top of the crag. Immense. To use guidebook language: very impressive situations for the grade. Up on Haytor, we then did the fun Letterbox Wall (VS 5b, 4b). The first pitch is a 5b boulder problem, with nay gear until it's all over. Not the average VS then.

Moving onto the roof on Outward Bound, Lowman.

It's funny, these short routes, where the adjective grade basically boils down to the likelihood of hitting the ground. It may be technically nails, but it's not going to kill you to fall off the crux, so it's HVS! It may be a 5b move with no gear, but it's only 4 metres up, so it's VS! I guess it's the same as lots of grit and sandstone crags, short routes have to pack a punch to earn the grade. Anyway, we all know that these little crags aren't proper climbing! Bring on the mountains.

Em and I met up later in the week and went for a look at a little bolted wall in Trym Valley Gorge, North Bristol. The easiest line there is F7a, so armed with my recent success I was looking forward to another fight. Sadly, as seems to be the way with crags round here, part of the wall was covered in ivy, so we opted for the only clean and accessible line, a F7a+. With a spot of swearing, some aid and general faff I got the rope to the top and we both had a go at working the moves. Blimey Charlie! It was nails! I've very little experience of routes at this grade, but am aware that on top-rope I should at least be able to work some of the moves out. Unless you're very tall, I can't see how it's 7a+. Slightly disgruntled, we gave up and went home.

Musical Pick of the Week

A new feature on Soft Rock, should anyone care. This week I have been mostly listening to Buck 65. Nova Scotia born, world traveled, pretty much the epitome of modern music. Rapper, story-teller, scratch artist. Tells tales of the everyday to a backdrop of hip-hop, folk, tv themes, rock, classical music. Who else manages to make a song about being a shoe-shiner (besides Johnny Cash, of course), being a centaur wanted by the porn industry, or about how small-town gossip ruined the life of Stella. That's not a tear in the corner of my eye.....

Check him out here, and you can listen to a collaborative concert he did with Symphony Nova Scotia here.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The News In Brief

Man. So much good weather, so little time. Since last posting (only four days ago) I've been out and about in the hills again, topping up the tan and deepening my love affair with Scottish trad climbing. Talking of which, exciting times on the Scottish scene, made all the more exciting by the blog revolution. The Fort's own Dave Macleod has been up on the Ben, day in day out, shovelling snow from the top of his Echo Wall project, and regularly updates his blog to illustrate his bottomless psyche levels. Meanwhile, Sonnie Trotter has come across from his resident Canada to try Macleod's Rhapsody at Dumbarton, check oot (as he might say) his thoughts here. I'm a particular fan of his turn of phrase.

In our own way us Fort William layabouts have been getting our share of fear, pain and beauty. I've still been getting up between 3.00 and 4.00 am every day, but I've been squeezing in a few hours of sleep on my return from grouse watch. It's been such a good job, allowing me to explore nooks and crannies of Lochaber that I would never otherwise go to, watching the sun rise, and all finished in time to get out climbing during the day. Tomorrow is my last day on this contract, so I've got a week off before I move over to Abernethy for a few months to start my new RSPB contract. More Black Grouse!

Monday afternoon was a cheeky wee boulder session at the Skeleton Boulders up the Glen. Danny, Blair and me, seven pads and a handful of big lines. Now these are what I call boulders. The kind you see in America, tall, steep and sick 'ard. I didn't get up much but had a nice time none the less, and I'll challenge anyone to find a more scenic, good bouldering spot anywhere in Britain, maybe even the world. Danny made a wee film of our endeavors on his blog. Note the ratio of falling to topping out, and if you're wondering what I'm doing with that banana. the director asked me to eat it in a contemplative manner. Look out Cannes.

Unknown climber on Lady Jane (E2 5c***)

Tuesday was a day in Glen Coe. Blair and I briefly met Sam and Kiwi Steve before going our separate ways, them to The Big Top (E1 5a***) on the West Face of Aonach Dubh, us to the East Face. I wanted to look at Lady Jane (E2 5c***), and did just that, look! It's a steep, sustained 25m pitch of steady wall climbing, with good, if a touch spaced, gear. Note the word 'steep', i.e. not my forte. I started up, but after only a few metres I decided to down climb. My excuse? Well the main one was just good old fashioned fear. I was bricking it! The other was that in the full glare of the late morning sun the rock was extremely hot and greasy. I felt pretty insecure, despite being on good incuts. Another E2 failure! Blair got on the lead, and admitted himself that it felt pretty hard for E2 in it's current nick. I seconded up, and immediately felt justified in bailing. I didn't fall off or owt', but was pretty glad of the top-rope. Definately the best route that I've seconded so I'm stoked to get back on it one day. It's definately a level up for me at present. Harrumph. In an attempt to massage my ego I climbed Spider (HVS 5a**) on Weeping Walls, and that was really good fun; 45 metres of juggy slab, with the odd delicate and bold bit here and there for good measure.

Aonach Dubh's East Face

We then crossed to Yosemite Wall on the West Face of Gearr Aonach, where Blair was up for trying Boiling Point (E4 6a**) . It's an awesome looking line on an awesome bit of rock (see page 145 in the Glen Coe guide for a picture), but after a bit of trying, Blair decided that today wasn't the day. With marginal gear making a ground-fall pretty certain if he blew the entry to the steep groove, he climbed back down. To salvage the day, we headed up the Glen on arrival back in the Fort, and Blair climbed Tomag (E3 5c**) on Pandora's Buttress. Sandbag or what?! He huffed and puffed his way across the overhanging twin crack traverse, and I bricked it because I knew I would fall off while seconding and take a swing. Naturally that happened, so Blair abbed down to clean the pitch.

Blair eying up Boiling Point (E4 6a**)

Wednesday: my last day of climbing for a while as I'm off home to Somerset on saturday, so I called the shots. I wanted to climb Plague of Blazes (E2 5b***) on Gorge Crag, and did just that. I really enjoyed the slabby cracks, the delicate and bold traverse and the steep jug haul to the top. One of the best routes I've done in the Glen, deservedly popular and a fitting end to two weeks of pretty solid climbing. Blair then set to work on Stolen (F8b) on Steall Hut Crag, making progress despite the fact that it's clearly hard as nails.

Me atop Plague of Blazes (E2 5b***)

Lets just hope I can get something done down on the internationally famous and popular Somerset limestone. I'll miss you Glen Nevis.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

We Continue....

Glen Etive: our playground
The blue skies have remained and the Lochaber adventures continue apace.

After logging my airmiles on Tuesday I decided to have a rest day on Wednesday and belayed Blair on his Tunnel Wall project: Axiom (F8a). After a faultless toprope ascent on Monday afternoon he felt ready for the redpoint straight away and, naturally, got it first go. His first proper 8a, and instant membership to an elite club. There can't be too many Scottish climbers operating in this grade, least of all on Scottish crags. Nice going Mr Fyffe. To celebrate we drove down Glen Etive and hurled ourselves down a waterfall a few times. The dream lives on.....

Blair lost in a sea of rock: Axiom

Thursday provided a few butterflies in my tummy as we headed to Whale Rock in the Glen. I wanted to climb Earthstrip (E2 5c***), but after my recent E2 attempts, what would happen? Blair wanted to climb the Extreme Rock cover shot Just a Little Tease (E5 6b***), but as his first trad route of the season, how would he fare?

Well, let me put you out of your suspense. Earthstrip succombed to my advances with a touch of heavy breathing on the crux, otherwise it went really well. First E2 in the Glen, and on a cloudless blue sky day, I couldn't have asked for more. Blair employed proper trad tactics for Just a Little Tease, climbing up to place good gear, down climbing, resting, going up and placing a bit more, coming down, resting and then 'avin it. He took a couple of falls on the peculiar crux sideways dyno/fall so lowered off and then climbed the route 'ground up' (ie. he lowered off after a fall, then climbed it cleanly from the bottom on the next go). I've never seen anyone climb an E5, and was very impressed by Blair hanging on in there on the steep upper cracks to place gear. I know that I would have been off a long time before then! To save a complete faff I decided not to second it (obviously, not wanting to blow my flash). Blair cleaned the gear on abseil and in doing so noticed a bat slumbering away in the upper crack, just next to a cam! Good job he hadn't squished it or dislodged it on the lead, or he might have had a fright!

Me nearing the end of Earthstrip

Blair above the crux of Just a Little Tease, Ben Nevis beyond
Friday ended up being an 'admin day' (mountain guide slang for a day off) so I was stoked for some mountain rock on the weekend. I met Steev, Chris, his sister Rachel and her boyfriend Euan at the Clachaig on friday night, had some ales (man, I'm a light-weight these days) and readied ourselves for a day on Garbh Bheinn on Saturday.

After a pretty leisurely start Steev and I were making the long and sweaty stomp up to the South Wall of Great Ridge by about 10.00 and after a semi-epic approach up a wet gully got to the base of the crag by about 12.30. Note: If climbing on the South Wall, don't walk in from Coire an Iubhair, go up the 'short but brutal' Coire a' Chothrum, as you need to get to the bealach at the head of Garbh Coire to access the routes.
The upper tier of Garbh Bheinn's South Wall
Fortunately a steep, dry 100m gneiss wall was more than enough to sooth the aches from the inconvenient approach. The plan was to start on Butterknife (VS***), a three pitch route that takes both tiers of the wall, taking a steep corner system in it's first half. To look at, you wouldn't think that it was a lowly 4b, and I won't pretend that I wasn't a touch intimidated when I started up pitch 2. However, the gear and the jugs just kept coming and it was a real pleasure to climb. Being fairly steep, this crag gets the air beneath your feet pretty rapidly and with views East up Loch Leven to Glen Coe and West down Loch Lihnne to Lismore and the Atlantic beyond it felt like we were on top of the world. A very aesthetically pleasing aspect of the routes here is that they top-out on the summit of Garbh Bheinn. As we sorted the ropes and drank in the view, the hills of Moidart, Morar and Knoydart poked through a cloud inversion, adding to the high mountain feeling.

We had hoped to do Excalibur (HVS 5a,4c***) next, but time was pressing on so we decided that an easier route would be quicker. Rachel and Euan had to get back to Edinburgh that night so we didn't want to leave them waiting. We plumped for Sgian Dubh (Severe**) on the upper tier and weren't disappointed. Again, the steep, juggy rock and good gear provides thrilling situations for the grade, and as the afternoon gave way to early evening the clouds began to clear and the sun beat down on our exposed skin. Bloody marvellous.

Steev enjoying pitch 2 of Sgian Dubh
Meanwhile, Chris was leading Rachel and Euan up Great Ridge (Diff*), and reported an awesome day out, so I'll have to get back with Jones. After the leisurely start, long approach, long route and regular three-person faffage they were quite late off the hill and we missed the last Corran Ferry - a long drive back to the Fort for us! Could have done Excalibur after all!

Sunday's forecast wasn't so promising so we decided that valley cragging would provide more flexibility than mountain routes and after brunch (ooh er, missus) drove down the Glen. Chris got straight on Maisie Gunn... on the Heather Hat and got it with minimal fuss, his first V4 boulder problem and a fitting birthday present. Things didn't remain so positive for the lad though. We got on Storm (HVS ****), Steev on pitch 1, Chris on pitch 2, me on pitch 3. However, half-way up the beautiful crack of pitch 2 Chris decided that this trad-climbing malarkey wasn't for him, so he came back to the belay. After pulling the ropes and lowering him off it started to rain, so I tied in to retrieve the gear, but it soon dried up and I continued up to the belay, an amazing hanging stance from a huge Scots Pine. Only after bringing Steev up, swapping the ropes and getting into the groove of pitch 3 did I notice that it was wet. Bummer. Not really wanting to commit to the wet crux we ended up backing off from the tree. Arse.

The view down pitch 2 of Storm

Back on terra firma Chris expressed a wish to do Kraut, an E1 5b on After Crag that bears an uncanny resemblance to the pitch he had just backed off, only, it's harder. Hmmm. Odd choice. Oh well. We packed up and headed to the route, but low and behold, he didn't fancy it! (Sorry Chris, but maybe getting lots of mileage leading easier routes is required before jumping straight in at the deep end! As Steev said, you're a bold man on the ground.) It's a line I had fancied, so I got busy in his stead. The guidebook description is bang on, strenuous, well protected and on good holds - the kind of climbing I'm not very good at! Shaking away placing a cam near the top, I remembered Blair's down-climbing and slithered into a rest position in a lower niche. After a good shake out and a spot of relaxation I was good to go and hauled my way to the top. Not the finest style, but a clean onsight none the less, and that's what I'm after. As the other two seconded the pitch the rain began again, and we all dicided it was time to call it a day.

The two E1s on After Crag illustrate two things very well. Firstly, the characteristic Polldubh slabby front face and steep left wall provide very different climbing styles. The former is much safer but more pumpy, the latter being more technical and insecure and generally bolder. For me, thin, technical slabs are much easier than steep, juggy walls. Rubberface (E1 5b**) goes up the front slab of After Crag and I waltzed up it a few months back, Kraut (E1 5b**) goes up the steep left wall and I found it pretty tough. It's all a matter of style, baby. Maybe I should spend more time on indoor walls.

So, with the good weather set to remain for a few more days, let's make sure this relentless climbing continues.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Full Immersion

The leaves are coming back, greening the hillsides and clothing the Polldubh crags in their shady blanket. The bracken is starting to stretch and unfurl, flooding the slopes. What's more, swifts, cuckoos and swallows are flitting and singing their way around the glens, the coo of pigeons floats on the air.

It's back. A new Lochaber season, and with it the new buzz of excitement and activity. Back in November and December there was an air of expectation about the oncoming winter season, the routes to climb and the new crags to explore. Now, spring is giving way to summer and the psyche is back among the Fort William flock.

Rob Jarvis, Blair Fyffe and myself took another wonder up to Tunnel Wall on Friday afternoon, Blair on Axiom (F8a), Rob and I on Uncertain Emotions (F7b). Rob was feeling inspired, so instead of working the route on top-rope he tied in and got on the lead, initially bolt-to-bolt (resting on the rope at each bolt), but linking progressively longer sections on the next go. He claimed he wasn't ready for the redpoint attempt, but decided that on his third and final attempt he would simply tie in and climb as far as he could before taking the lob (basically a redpoint attempt). He flowed up the initial groove, and despite a small error on the first crux, got up to the second crux just below the 'almost, if you're brave, hands-off-ish, rest' before succumbing to the relentless pump and took the lob. With nothing to lose he pressed on to the top, only for the pump to catch up with him again on the final moves. He was about to back off and rest on the bolt but yells of encouragement from below spurred him on and after a desperate throw and a blood-curdling yell he took the pisser. Good effort.
Rob Redpointing
Meanwhile, the Fyffe machine was bearing down with a combination of small holds and fancy footwork. He almost got Axiom in a one-er on toprope, boding very well for the inevitable redpoint attempts. I remained on a toprope on Uncertain..., but am definetely getting to grips with the final crux, and made my biggest link-up to date. As we strolled back to the car, feeling inspired and happy, the timeless view of the Buachaille soaked in evening sunshine reminded us of what a great place we're living in.
Me Toproping
Jones made her way to the Crucible on friday evening, and with a dry forecast for the weekend we went for a wee foray into the Glen on Saturday morning. We had planned to do the long mild VS called Autobahnausfart on High Crag, but Jones struggled with the damp first pitch so we headed over to Styx Buttress and she kindly belayed me on the classic Damnation (VS 4c***). As the guidebook says, it looks improbable for the grade, but it's all there with great gear, so get on it!
That night we decided to go for a spot of bothying, so armed with sleeping gear, instant noodles and wine, we made the short walk in to Glen Pean bothy. Despite being only a few miles from the road-head at Loch Arkaig this area feels pretty remote. Cooking up Morrisons Chow Mein instant noodles as the sun set was a real treat, eating them was less so, and the less said about the £4.99 Chardonnay-Viognier the better.
Glen Pean Bothy (Photo: Sarah Jones)

Bank-holiday monday provided Jones with another day in the Fort, and we headed down the Glen again, under hot blue skies. Blair and his lass Jenny Munro were getting involved with Pinnacle Ridge (Severe) while we headed up to Pandora's Buttress and climbed Flying Dutchman (Severe) with the excellent, if a tad short, VS 4c finish. Despite her grumblings about the vegetated and damp first pitch, Jones made light work of the exposed and unprotected traverse on pitch two and the tricky 4c finishing pitch. Proof that it's all in the head....mostly.

After a period of paddling and sunbathing on the banks of Nevis, Jones offered her belaying duties once more and I climbed Tip Toe Direct (E1 5b*) on the foot of Pinnacle Ridge. Although the E1 bit is only the top 7 or so metres, this was a fun route, combining a heady gearless slab (only Hard Severe? Blimey!) with some bomber cams for the crux overlap. It felt pretty easy too. Am I getting better or is it overgraded?

Me on Tip Toe Direct
(Photo: Sarah Jones)

So, after a 3.30am start to look for grouse this morning I teamed up with Blair at mid-day. The plan was for him to have a rest day while I climbed Plague of Blazes (E2 5b***) on Gorge Crag, but the top wall was wet so we headed for Travellin' Man (E2 5b, 5c***) instead. Gulp. Blair lead the short introductory pitch (no push-over itself) and I got ready for the crux pitch. It takes a slabby groove system on the arete of the crag, with spaced but good gear, as I soon discovered. With the sun beating down and the sweat beginning to drip, I gingerly started the crux section about 8 or 9 metres up, stepping left, transferring from one groove to another. As I smeared with my left foot and tried so hard to bring my weight over it, stabbing with my right, I was well aware that my last runner was a good few metres below, and that my fingers were greasing from the rock, unable to chalk up. "Fuck" I thought, "This isn't going to be pretty". Trying to breathe, my full body shaking as adrenaline surged, minutes, hours, days passed. "FUCK, I'M OFF" I yelled, as a let go. Darkness and blurred motion flashed and I found myself hanging upside-down, a few feet below and right of Blair on the belay, one rockshoe on, one off. Somehow unscathed, and laughing. My first ever trad fall, and a 25 footer too.
Blair on the belay of Travellin' ManMe on pitch 2. I fell from above where the crack containing the runners ends
Me off pitch 2, note the missing shoe!
Despite being annoyed with myself for falling off, I'm pretty chuffed to have finally taken the lob that has been inevitable for a while now. I think it's a natural part of becoming a better climber, so I refuse to feel negative about it.

After lowering-off and abbing to clean the gear, we decided to do something less serious, so made a bee-line for the Lower Falls to make 'the jump'. From the ledges upstream of the road bridge it's a 20-25ft jump into the pool. I had never done any river jumps like this, and despite trying to be the big man and trying to slay some demons from Travellin' Man I bottled the jump twice, before Blair showed the way and I rapidly followed suit, three times. We attracted a bit of an audience on the bridge, but it was great to hear the tourists enthusing about the natural beauty of the area and we were only too happy to extoll the virtues of living round here. Mind you on a day like today, just take a stroll down the Glen, look up towards Ben Nevis or across to Sgurr Mhaim, to Steall Falls or Polldubh crags, and that's all the extolling you could ever need.

Here is a rather rough video study on the effect of gravity on the body: