Monday, 23 June 2008

The Misty Mountains

Jones honing her skills on the sharp end on Afterthought Arete

Just a brief one this week. Mid-summer weather is currently in effect in the Highlands, so the caress of stone has mainly been replaced by fondling chalk-smeared plastic. I've taken to hiding from the rain at Scott Muir's Extreme Dream climbing wall in Aviemore, which is pretty cool - certainly enough to satiate my addiction to severe forearm pump.

Hallowed walls: Shelterstone Crag with Carn Etchechan beyond.

Jones super-styling the first and best pitch of Pygmy Ridge

On Mid-summer's Day it stayed dry in the Cairngorms for a full 24 hours. Jones was in town so we headed for the hills in search of some gentle mountain rock. Starting in Coire an't Schneachda we wove up to the plateau via Pygmy Ridge (Mod**), crossed down to Loch Avon by Coire Dobhain and popped back up via Afterthought Arete (Mod***) on Stag Rocks, then back to the car down the Goat Track. A good wee circuit, taking in some pretty epic scenery on excellent rock. Jones and I shared leads all day and it was great to see her confidence grow throughout - practice makes perfect.

Roaring melt-water heading to Loch Avon

Just because it's easy doesn't mean it's not awesome!
Me on Afterthought Arete. (Photo: Sarah Jones)

Alas, any plans for Sunday were curtailed by ceaseless precipitation. Nothing to do but light the fire and batten down the hatches in the wee cottage.

After work today I ventured up to the Link Road Boulder by the Coire Cas car park. It's a big lump of glacier polished granite that doesn't have a single good hold on it's considerable bulk. I set to work with icy fingers on crystal crimps and ragged slopers until a big squall stopped play, then high-tailed it home. There's the potential for a few evening's playing, but none of the problems are particularly inspiring. If only Glen Nevis was just round the corner.

I'm hoping the good weather of yester-month returns, as I have many a date with the magical mountain crags of this land. Surely another summer can't slip by without at least my doing The Needle or Minus One Direct. To all climbers reading this: get in touch via email/text if you're getting out and want to play, I have no mobile reception so it's hard to find partners up here in the wilderness! Ta.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Soft Rock Review

Would you believe it, it’s been just over a year since Soft Rock was born? Aye, time flies, especially when you’re having fun. I have to say it, but it has been a good year.

Inspired by my then house-mates, Sam’s Seasonal Affected Disorder and Steev’s Stevious Says…, I quite liked the idea of archiving my activities. As a climber you spend a lot of time traveling to new places and drowning yourself in emotional experiences which really lends itself to the written or spoken word; small wonder mountaineering has such a rich history of literature. Combining my whittering with pictures, videos and web links, it’s very easy to create something that looks half decent, and sitting down for the weekly blog session has become something I really relish. If anyone out there does actually read this, then cheers, hope you like it, get in touch. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy writing, so even if no-one reads this, I’ll keep going.

So, the last year. Twelve months ago I was just nearing the end of my monster 10 month doss at Loveday Towers in Edinburgh (I will give you some money one day Sam, honest, but I’m still very skint!). Four days a week I worked in Peter Green & Co. Wine Merchants, the rest of the time I was trying to climb. However, with no car and no money, Edinburgh isn’t an easy place to get lots of climbing done.

A typical evening in Loveday Towers: Big Brother, tea, beer, brown sauce.

My big break and the biggest change of all, came when I moved to Fort William in July, starting a graduate placement with Gary Servant’s Upland Ecology, which lasted until Christmas. I rapidly discovered that Highland life was something I was well suited to, and can’t really see any reason to ever work anywhere else: life really is too short to put up with the things you don’t like. I discovered the delights of Glen Nevis, both the exceptional climbing and pure beauty. Laying siege to the Heather Hat gave me some of the most intense and enjoyable climbing I’ve done. I know on sight trad climbing is where it’s at, but there’s no denying that the feelings of exhilaration and pride rapidly fade. Projecting something hard provided a whole new, deeper, experience. Just another thread in the tapestry, I guess. My contract with Gary ended, and along came the winter season.

A Fort William Winter: are you tough enough?

Fort William turned into the place to be. Coming down for breakfast you’d trip over a slumbering dosser on the kitchen floor. Strolling around town, bleary eyed and red-faced from a day on the hill, your eyes would meet with some other rosy-cheeked, greasy-haired climber type and we’d share a knowing smile. The scene. For three months I subsisted on a few mornings work with Blair for the Avalanche Service, and the pay-out from writing my car off – rock and roll, man. Luckily, as things started to look desperate, and the snow started to look like melting, a job fell into my lap. As a black grouse fieldworker for the RSPB I spent my early mornings surveying the forests and glens of Lochaber for lekking birds. Up before dawn, finished by nine thirty. Not bad. At this time the sun started to shine, and the cragging season began in earnest. Then along came my current contract, and I’ve moved over to Abernethy Forest in the Eastern Highlands. The climbing has continued, and at the moment I’m feeling pretty good.

Searching for enlightenment on the Heather Hat

This time has been punctuated by a few stand-out moments: Johnsey’s wedding in Nova Scotia in August was an alcoholic hill-billie roller-coaster ride, as was my brother’s in October, just with less hill-billies and more kilts. Topping out on Midnight In A Perfect World was the final piece in a five month jigsaw, and a real lesson in self belief, persistence and some of the more mental aspects of climbing. Taking my first decent trad fall was utterly enlightening too. I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders, and a sudden confidence: falling isn’t that bad (sometimes!), and this realization has since allowed me to strap it on on a few occasions that I would have bottled in the past. One final defining moment was the starriest night I have ever seen. Jones and I were camping in Glen Muick, planning to climb Lochnagar’s Eagle Ridge the following day. The combination of time spent with Jones, the slumbering mountains, the prospect of a days climbing and an endless view of those distant galaxies was damn near perfect.

Jones high on Eagle Ridge
Throughout the year Jones has been a pillar, gamely putting up with all my climbing spray and obsession, supporting my decisions as I moved around for work and not minding when I buggered off to play on stones. There’s no denying that not seeing her as often has been one of the biggest challenges of the year, but hell, if you want things enough, they’ll work out.

All in all, not a bad passage of time.

Much of this reflection was brought on by the last weekend. A decidedly unsettled Highland forecast sent me South to my old haunts in Edinburgh, and as much as I still love the place and all the friends still there, it definitely felt like a stranger to me. The whole time I just had this nagging feeling that what I’d left behind in the hills and glens of the Highlands was the world I now inhabited, and that a city boy I was no more (was I ever?). I guess I’ve just been spoilt by having it so good up here. Living in the stix isn’t for everyone, I’ll admit, but it’s what I’ve come to love. Let’s just hope that I can continue to find work up here.

Chris and I headed down to Back Bowden on Saturday. I had hopes to do battle with a few routes I had tried before and failed on. Starting on The Witch (E2 5b***) I found much better gear than last time round, but proceeded to go the wrong way and took the lob. Next time round I discovered that if you go the right way it’s actually pretty easy. What a twat. Look away now if you want the on sight: don’t traverse the bare slab beneath the overlap, step up high and undercut the overlap all the way from the gear. Big holds make it easier than no holds. Next up: The Sorcerer (E1 5c***). I failed on the long reach on the initial boulder problem a few times, but when I finally latched it the rest all came together. Over a year ago I had had a comedy wobble before falling off when pulling round the lip, but this time that bit went on the first go. At the end of the session I did The Magic Flute (E2 5b**), and am indebted to the guy that lent me his cams for the crucial gear. None of mine fitted, and he threw his up. Surely that’s not beta, I only knew what kit to place when I was at it. Anyone? No? Fine.

On Sunday we went to Stirling’s answer to Rosyth Quarry: Cambusbarron. I had been informed that it wasn’t too bad a spot, but let’s be honest, a dolerite quarry is a dolerite quarry: there’s no folklore and mysticism like the slate quarries here, it’s just a shit hole. It didn’t help that we had to share the crag with an aged Def Leppard (sp?) lookalike in lycra who would not shut up. I’ll be frank, maybe even snobby, but I don’t particularly enjoy spending my weekends in the company of weird old men in dirty holes in the ground. Chris had a valiant effort on Easy Contract (hard HVS 5b**), I did The Doobie Brothers (E1 5b**), and we both decided to sack it and bugger off.

The day before I was inspired to climb. On Sunday, despite being offered numerous quality(ish) routes, I was not. I didn’t mind though, I don’t really think I’m missing much by not going back to Cambusbarron.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The LAMM: Glenfinnan 2008, aka another ridiculous past-time

On Saturday I made some discoveries. Despite what I thought, pain isn't all in the mind. Pain isn't fun. Pain is very real. This oh-so-obvious fact hit me very hard while I was doing my best to stay on my feet, falling and sliding into Glen Dessary. Rocks lurked in the mossy tussocks I could once skip over, but my blistered feet wouldn't skip, they scuffed, slipped and tripped throughout the 500 metre descent. Each step contorting my soggy skin against grit embedded socks and shoes, hard-earned layers of skin just eroding away. Steep, fast, technical downhill was what I supposedly excelled at and enjoyed the most: not today.

It's the LAMM, the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon. Day 1. Between checkpoints 4 and 5 Duncan and I were faced with a route decision from hell. Like choosing between being hit by a speeding truck or being repeatedly, but slowly, reversed over by a SmartCar. The former choice was a brutal 700 metre ascent, a sledge-hammer blow to a dehydrated body under a cloudless June sky, the latter just meant going a long, long way. We bit the bullet and committed to being hit by the truck, at least once it's over, it's over.

For the first time ever, I started to feel bad. Not just tired, but empty. In past races, when ever I've felt low I've just munched some jelly babies, had a drink, told myself to man up and dug into my reserves. This time, it wasn't happening. My reserves were exhausted, long gone, nil. Infuriatingly, Duncan didn't seem to be too fussed and kept moving. "Why won't he stop?" I wanted to scream. I wanted to blub. I wanted to add my inevitable tears to my inevitable vomit. I wanted someone to make it all go away.


Hours later we hobble into the overnight camp, by now Duncan's pains have caught up with him, and together we shake and shuffle our way through the crowds to Chad and Konnie's tent. They look smug, rehydrated and refreshed, placed 2nd out of 33 teams in A class. We're 16th. Much better than I had expected, but it won't make the hollow feeling go away.


Never under-estimate the restorative powers of eating, drinking and sleeping. Bright and breezy next morning (actually, not breezy, as the latest fashion in midge nets testified), we were up and at it once more. Judicious use of wound dressings, climbing tape and compeed held our blistered feet together, and gamely we hobbled on. Somehow, the emptiness and apathy of the day before had been replaced by a sprightly spring in my step, much to Duncan's later dismay, and I felt high as a kite. Maybe it was from knowing that despite Saturday being a slow nightmare, we still made a fairly respectable place.

By the end Duncan was looking a bit ragged, having rubbed a hole through his compeed and back into his blister, but annoyingly for him I had racing fever. All I wanted was game over, so we just dug deeper, ran faster, and eventually, crossed the line in 13th position. Chad and Konnie had dropped to 4th place - still very good, but dissapointing for them, after Konnie's feet eroded into bloodied stumps. Rumour has it he was heard whimpering - for the first time, the mighty Pole was felled.

Holy Compeed: Duncan's bloodied stump.

Sexual heeling: Mr Rawlik's war wounds.

Our heros: (l-r) Duncan, Konnie and Chad during post-match analysis. Yes, Chad is wearing short shorts.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008


For the next couple of months I'm an east Highlander, living in a tiny cottage in Abernethy Forest, plying my ecological trade for the RSPB once again. I have no TV, no mobile reception, no internet, just got a pile of classic novels, an ipod and as many scots pines as you could ever want to hug.

I moved over last Monday, via a cheeky solo of Pygmy Ridge in Coire an't Schneachda, and am now well ensconced in the Cairngorms.

Week one of work went really well, lots of time 'in the field', as it's infuriatingly known, lots of new plants to learn, birds to spy on and endless vistas (copyright: V. Scott) to appreciate. Thursday took me along to the verdant, if imposing, Huntly's Cave, where I met Jones for some post work pulling down. We started on Cave Route (Hard Severe***), a splendid, airy line weaving through some steep ground, then I did Hanging Groove (E1 5c*), a bit of a two move wonder through a roof, and we finished up Right Hand Groove (VDiff*). All this was set to the babbling backdrop of the brook and the squabbling of young jackdaws, stowed in a dark crevice near the top of Double Overhang. A most pleasant evening, with barely a midge to swat at.

Cave Route at Huntly's Cave


I'm parched. Briney sweat beads collect around my lips. Palms become clammy as the sun pumps down. In the distance I overhear the sea, back and forth, water slapping rock, splashing. It's nearby, but it's miles away. I don't care. I don't care if there's a seal out there, or a whale, or flying pigs. I'm involved elsewhere. Greasy chalk smears illuminate my blind fumblings on the rock in front of me. Blind cracks scraped free of periwinkles have provided my only semblance of security; a protruding wire glares at me. I'm on the brink of severe ledge-ivitus. Right here I'm safe, right here I'm the king of the castle. If I stay here forever, I'll be safe. Steev might get a bit wet when the tide comes in, but I'll be safe. I don't want to leave this ledge. Upwards is a blank slab. Where are the grips? Maybe I'll bail onto the VDiff next door. Another failed E2 for the year.

Steev following The Musketeer, Reiff

But, what if I try? I havn't even tried yet? What if I fail? What's more terrifying, taking the fall, or not even trying? Sweat continues to pour down me. Chalking my hands has no effect, it just creates a paste, like powder paint in school art classes.

"Okay, watch me Steev". Tiptoes, finger-locks. "Watch me, buddy". Shit. Is this what I really want? Swap feet. And then my memory switches off.

Safely belayed at the top I look out to sea, across from my perch above The Musketeer to a distant Lewis and feel contented. It's mid-sunday afternoon, and we're at Reiff, the North-West haven of sandstone by the sea. It's been the kind of weekend that makes you smug. Yesterday Steev and I climbed Original Route on the Old Man of Stoer, along with Sam and Katie. Afterwards we sat and watched as paradise unfurled before us: the Inverpolly Forest; Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Cul Beag, Cannisp. Sky larks and fulmars, bog-cotton and orchids. And not another person in sight. We camped in a wooded cove and watched otters and terns, lit a fire and drank beer cooled by the stream. On a good day, is there anywhere better?

Inverpolly Forest: one of the best views in the world

Now we're at the Pinnacle area at Reiff, soaking up the sun and friendly atmosphere. I've wobbled my way up Westering Home (E1 5b***), and Steev has despatched Hy Brasil (VS 4c**) next door. After the steep jug haul of Puckered Wall (VS 4b*), I fancy something else, and find The Musketeer (E2 5b*) round at the The Point, described as thin cracks and ripples up a steep slab. It's the nearest starred E2 that doesn't involve overhanging jamming, so we step to.


It's almost home-time, so meeting Sam and Katie, we strip down and hurl ourselves into the blue Atlantic. Pale skin, picking it's way across the barnacle clad rocks. Childish freedom unleashed as we whoop and holler at the sky, cold water erupts with bodies.


As we drive south the clouds close above us and the drizzle begins. The tropical North-West was our little secret.

The Old Man of Stoer

9.5 for elegance, 0.5 for pants. Steev drew the short/long straw and got to do the swim across to the base of the stack to set up the Tyrollean Traverse.

Steev on the misty traverse

Two happy teams on the top