Monday, 28 July 2008

Culicoides impunctatus rides again

Liathach looms above Glen Torridon

As an ecologist, I’m often asked “what’s the point of the humble midge”. The notion that an organism’s existence has a purpose is a little outdated, by, well, science. Ignoring this minor detail, however, I don’t really know much about them, but I guess birds and fish eat them. But what do they eat? I’ll tell you. Me. They eat me. They eat you. They eat us. They eat everything. Flesh. Blood. Swarming. Biting. Landing. Tickling. Itching. Scratching. Bastards. Bastards. Bastards. Bastards

And so it came to pass that Blair, Jenny and myself found ourselves the victims of many-a-midge this weekend. It all started so well. We were at Loch Tollaidh Crags, a fine collection of gneiss outcrops between Gairloch and Poolewe in the North-West. I had warmed up on In The Pink (HVS 5b**), and was then pointed over to Buena Vista (E2 5b***). Daunted, dry-mouthed and clammy-palmed I looked up from below the line. It looked long, sustained and steep, or more simply, proper climbing, and the kind of thing that I’ve got away without climbing much of. Was I about to be discovered for the fraud I felt like? Check out the photo in the SMC Scottish Rock Climbs guide for a look at the line - my photographer fell asleep. Fortunately, I managed to wiggle and shake my way from the bottom to the top without peeling off, and felt pretty pleased with myself.

Loch Tollaidh Crags from the road - they're much bigger when you get there.

Me on In The Pink (HVS 5b**)

Now it was time for someone else’s lead, and I was ready for some chilling. But our old friend Culicoides impunctatus had other plans, and started to appear in industrial strength. There was nothing to do but cut and run, and that was that. Coffee at the Bridge Cottage café in Poolewe followed by getting midged off the Ship boulder in Torridon were all we managed before heading for the Ling Hut for the night. It was even midgey in there.

Jenny's midge-proof chic

A breeze stirred the heather the next morning so we sweated up to Seanna Mhealan, only to find the midges had followed us. Blair climbed The Deerstalker (VS 4c**) and we followed in our midge-nets. As the day warmed up the midges got better, so Blair climbed A Touch Too Much (E3 5c***). I just about got up it cleanly, but can safely say that it’ll be a while before I’m leading that one – there’s nae grips. As the temperature soared I climbed Rowan Tree Crack (HVS 5a**), for some reason actively seeking out a wide crack, and then we bailed. It was just too hot, so we cooled off in the river and hit the road.

Be prepared: Blair ready for the midge on The Deerstalker (VS 4c**), Seanna Mhealan

Blair on the second crux of A Touch Too Much (E3 5c***)

Two days climbing cut short. Five routes, two hundred miles. Not the best ratio, but what can you do? It’s the Highlands. It’s pretty rare that all the factors come together at the same time, but when they do, I can tell you, its' worth all the false starts, midge bites, blood, sweat and tears.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Reiff Encounter

Myself on Mac's Route (HVS 5a), Pinnacle Area, Reiff
All photos: Sarah Jones

More dodgy weather forecasts, more indecision. This time round Saturday was spent hanging ten up at Jones’ pad in Munlochy. In terms of activity the highlight was sending my long-standing project - the obvious traverse between the lounge door-frame and the ledge above the stairs. It’s difficult to grade. At this level it’s all just theory, until some-one comes along and onsights it. Good luck to them. The next best thing was discovering Leaky’s in Inverness. It’s a huge second-hand book shop in an old church with a wee café upstairs. Sometimes I wish I had a bit of spare cash to splash out on old books and fine food, but, hell, I’m 23, there’s time.

More dodgy weather forecasts, more cups of tea. I felt bad about bailing on Chris on Sunday, he’d hoped to come up and climb on the Shelterstone - I had too - but common sense prevailed after some serious webcam checking and thorough forecast reading. What to do now?

One of the best things about Jones’ base on the Black Isle is it’s proximity to the North West. We made a last minute plan and decided that Reiff would be the best option - quick drying, low-altitude, accessible, and in this case, away from the inland showers (apparently). The other benefit is that it’s Reiff. No trip up to Coigach or Assynt is wasted, like heading into the Loch Avon Basin, they instinctively feel like the right places to be. It was Jones’s first trip up that way too, and the excitement written on her face when Stac Pollaidh, Suilven, Cul Mor and Cul Beag rumbled into view was like seeing a toddler at Christmas.

The promised land: Coigach slumbers under the clouds

Our only problem was that Reiff is quite extensive, and I had left the guidebook back at Abernerthy. Balls. With the route list and memory from a previous visit this obstacle was overcome. Naturally, we were confined to the Pinnacle Area, because that’s the only section close to the car park that I’ve been to before, and we only had route names rather than descriptions, but we had a good day none the less.

The latest SMC Northern Highlands North Guidebook

Jones lead Moonjelly (VDiff**) and Edge of the Sea (Diff*), I did Midreiff (Severe*), Skel (Severe), Mac’s Route (HVS 5a*), Jellyfish Slab (Diff*), soloed Puckered Wall (VS 4b*) and landed in the rockpool under Earth Shaker (E2 6a**) a few times before deciding that it was clearly a silly route. Without a guide we decided that quantity was better than quality, and with a few passing showers it wasn’t really a day for engaging with fear.

Jones high on Moonjelly (VDiff), The Pinnacle

Jones 'laying one on' on Mac's Route (HVS 5a)

Just one of the many benefits of Highland living.

On Monday night I met with Jones again, this time at Cummingston, and we had a pleasant evening’s cragging. After climbing Left (VS 5a**), we headed round to Gutbuster Bay. I was in the mood for a fight, and promptly got stuck into Gutbuster (E2 5c**), literally. I’ll tell you now, I failed on this monster, and at the time I felt a little disappointed with myself. However, on reflection I’m not disappointed, I‘m pleased that I had a go. The route starts up a well protected overhanging wave-smoothed off-width groove-come-crack, before finishing up a wall to a good looking arete. No points for guessing where I failed. “Was it the overhanging wave-smoothed off-width groove-come-crack?” I hear you ask. Yes. Yes, it was. Having udged, jammed, cammed, reached, bled and grunted, I just don’t understand how one climbs this kind of thing. Not having had a ’gritstone apprenticeship’, as all those smug troglodytes would no-doubt call it, means that I’m stuck when it comes to grievous bodily harm in a leaning chimney. Bollocks to them. However, I down-climbed, rather than lowered off gear, so my ground-up ascent is still in tact, and it is an inviting line. Maybe one day.

Afterwards I blew away the black cloud created by Gutbuster by soloing Flakey Wall (E1 5a*) and soon felt a bit better about the world. Jones then climbed Rice Crispie Wall (Diff) as the light began to fade over the Moray Firth, and that was that.

Another summer week ticks by, another weekend’s cragging. However, with a great forecast for this week, maybe the coming weekend will enable some classic mountain rock activity. Check back in a week’s time to find out…….

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Wet Play

No, I'm not referring to some dodgy sex game. I'm talking about finding ways to spend my time when it's pissing with rain. And it has been. All last week was a wall of wetness, a saturated, dripping festival of badness. What's a boy to do?

MWIS, BBC and Metcheck all fooled me into thinking that the weekend would be nice and dry, so Steev headed up on the train and we crossed our fingers to see if we could get over to Shelterstone crag in Loch Avon to climb The Needle. Of course, we couldn't. Instead we went biking at the Moray Monster Trails near Fochabers and it was a blast, as our pan-oceanic friends might say. We ended up soaked to the skin, plastered from the very tip of my rotting, blistered toes to the top of my noggin in a thick crust of Morayshire's fertile filth. Lovely.

Would you trust him with your kids? Teacher-to-be, Steev.

The panacea view: Loch Avon

With a good forecast for Sunday we thought about an alpine-start and cycling in to Garbh ChoireBeinn a'Bhuird to climb Squareface, a quick drying four star VDiff. However, the liklihood of Steev missing his train put paid to this plan. Instead, we headed up to Coire an Lochan on Cairngorm to see what we could find.

Steve waving from the belay on Savage Slit

After retreating from a very slimy Fallout Corner (VS 4b**), Steev headed up Savage Slit (Severe ***). Despite a fair bit of water hanging around, it provided two brilliant pitches, including some good old-fashioned back-and-footing up the chimney. It's definately getting the Gaz Marshall treatment this winter. With a fair bit of time to kill before Steev's train, but not enough for a big route, we strolled down to the wee slab below and left of Hell's Lum in the Loch Avon Basin and I climbed Pluto (E1 5a*). It's 45 metres of friction padding on beautiful water-worn granite, mustering about three decent runners in it's length. The climbing was a doddle, but I guess the joke RPs in flared cracks made it pretty dangerous. Most of the winter snows have melted away by now, but there was still a wee patch just beneath the route so poor Steev got frosty toes while belaying from the bergschrund.

Who needs the Alps?

The Lower Slabs, Hell's Lum. A worthwhile spot for a second route.
heads straight up the driest line, above and right of Steev.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Logic vs. Adventure

All smiles: Fran and Jones chilling on Cioch Nose

Remember those annoying questions in maths classes? If Jimmy has three bananas and five pears and Jenny has two plums and an apple, how many men does it take to change a lightbulb on the 16:22 train to Okehampton? Or something like that. Well, on Saturday morning, cruel logic, something I hadn’t really thought about, took it’s toll.

If you have a 1.3 litre R-reg Skoda Felicia and fill it with people and kit, will you be able to drive it to the top of Britain’s longest/highest/steepest mountain pass? Obviously, no. Or at least, not without it overheating at least three times and needing to wait in a layby with the bonnet open, radiator fan wheezing, like a fat Labrador on Scawfell on midsummer’s day. Fortunately, and about an hour later than planned, Jones, Steev, Fran and I finally made it to the car park at the top of Bealach na Ba in Applecross. Our objective: Patey and Bonnington’s Classic Rock masterpiece, Cioch Nose (Severe****) on Sgurr a’ Chaorachain.

Fortunately, the weather forecast had North West Scotland as the sunniest spot in Britain for Saturday, so we were in the right place. With at least three teams in front of us on the route we took our time about it and relished the climbing. Steev and Fran climbed in front of Jones and I, meaning it was a very sociable and friendly day out, despite the ‘out-there’ nature of the line for the grade. Obviously, it’s a great climb, four pitches covered in huge holds and good gear, made all the better by finishing up the A’Cioch ridge above the climb proper. This adds another 100-odd meters of VDiff/scrambling followed by some towers and gaps to skirt round/down/over/up.

Fran employing traditional skills seconding pitch two.
Jones finishing pitch two

We camped just below the Bealach na Ba car park on Saturday night, barbecueing sea bass and overlooking Skye, Eigg and Rum. Who says that low-budget climbers have to survive on super-noodles?

The happy team stroll back to the car, with Skye beyond.
Sunday dawned and we all slept in. Oops. Still worried about my car, we decided to head back to Chez Jones in Munlochy for brunch before heading to Cummingston in her wheels. I felt that I had an inevitable date with Diedre of Double Doubt (E2 5b**) so warmed up on Diedre of Doubt (HVS 5a**) and then Right (HVS 5b*) (neither of which is particularly easy for the grade, I felt)

Me on Right (HVS 5b*). Photo: Steve Crawford

Before I could psyche myself out I stepped up to Diedre of Double Doubt and became embroiled. It’s a great wee route, (I would say that, having done it), pretty steep, but on big holds for the most part. Gear is spaced, and fairly wee and far below the crux, providing pretty ‘heady’ climbing. I felt pretty strong on it though, down-climbing to place more gear before getting fully committed. Smuggly belayed at the top, I felt justified in sitting on my arse for the rest of the evening, which I did, watching Nadal take Federer’s Wimbledon title.

'Getting some back' on Diedre of Double Doubt (E2 5b**)

Nearlly there.... Photo: Steve Crawford

So, despite still not climbing any properly challenging mountain routes this year, I feel like I’m beginning to break into the E2 grade, something that I had really wanted to happen this summer. Also, as Jones gets more confident we’re starting to climb some of the easier classics that I’ve never done, like Cioch Nose. All in all, mustn’t grumble, really.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

If you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes....

Chris Edwards pulling down on Inspector Cleuso (Font 6c+),
on the Cameron Stone, Glen Nevis. (Photo: C. Edwards)

Another week slips by, another opportunity to reflect on the passage of time.

I haven’t made much mention of my work on Soft Rock, mainly because I don’t really do much of it, but I’ll enlighten you. At the moment I’m working on a short contract for the RSPB, acting as a Research Assistant on Mark Hancock’s ‘interventions for black grouse and pine at the forest edge’ project at Abernethy Forest Reserve. Black grouse are birds of the pine forest edge, and are pretty fussy about the habitats that they frequent – too many trees, not enough, the wrong species, the wrong age, the wrong ground vegetation, anything to complain about, really. As such, changes in land use over the last century have sent their numbers into decline. Mark’s research is trying to glean an understanding of the best ways to manage the forest edge, in order to reverse the plight of this rare bird. At the same time he is looking at the effect that different management techniques have on the regeneration of the magnificent Scots pine forest here at Abernethy. The management interventions in question are burning patches vs. cutting patches vs. leaving all the vegetation alone. This is where I come in. My boss, Johanna Willi, and I spend our days going to all 60 of the experimental plots (20 burnt, 20 cut, 20 left alone), surveying the vegetation (to give an idea of the habitat present for black grouse to hang about in), surveying the invertebrates (black grouse chick food), surveying dung (to see what species are using the plots at present (grouse, capercaillie, deer, etc.) and surveying tree regeneration. Easy.

Spending my days on the moors just North of Cairngorm is pretty pleasant, and for those with an affinity for nature it’s a great job. Hardly a day goes by when you don’t see something of note or learn about a new species. Today’s discoveries included pulling a dry owl pellet (dropping) apart and finding a fully intact shrew spine, with its tiny tail still attached. Later I learnt about the differences between frogs and toads (a toad’s pupils are oval, frogs are more circular, and toads prefer to crawl than jump, frogs are the jumpers). Yesterday I learnt about Formica ants (wood ants). They spray Formic acid at attackers, which you can feel when you pass your hand over their nest. Last Thursday we saw a 6 day old Capercaillie chick, standing stock still in the blaeberry, not something you see every day.


On to the more familiar subject of climbing. Jones and I headed to my town residence on Friday night - a very soggy Fort William, via a dry Kingussie Crag. I climbed the unimaginatively named, but very good Right-hand Crack (HVS 5a**) and was disappointed to be turned away by its partner, Left-hand Crack (E1 5b**). My head wasn’t really in it, and with gear I didn’t much care for I backed off. Some you win…etc. The Groove (HS ***) and The Slab (Diff**) were both polished and pretty disappointing.

Much of Saturday was spent drinking coffee in Fired Art and watching the cloud roll up Loch Lihnne. Chris came up from Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon, and it stayed dry long enough to allow an evening’s bouldering up the Glen. Although I didn’t actually try anything new I had a good wee session, very nearly repeating Midnight In A Perfect World and Killer Instinct on the Heather Hat in the first attempts in months. Chris tentatively took the first steps on the long journeys that these Glen Nevis stalwarts can provide. I hope he has as much fun as I did.

All weather forecasts pointed East for Sunday, so we upped sticks and headed to Cummingston on the Moray coast for the afternoon. I hadn’t been to this sunny sandstone beach-side crag before, and was pleasantly surprised. It’s famed for being the driest spot in Scotland, and a good trick to have up your sleeve when the rest of the country is underwater – mind you, even here rain eventually stopped play. For me, the highlight of the trip was climbing The Prophet (E2 5c**), a grooved, roofed arête with good gear – possibly the difference that provided the confidence I lacked on Friday? It’s not really technical, just takes a positive approach and a stiff pull to unravel the crux.

Getting involved with The Prophet (E2 5c**), Cummingston. (Photo: C. Edwards)

Working out the crux of The Prophet. (Photo: C. Edwards)

Chris then made short work of Stegasaurus (VS 4c**), a steep but gloriously juggy arête. Jones deserves particular mention at this point for her clean eduro-second of this pitch. It’s definitely the steepest thing she’s seconded, and she hung in there to the top, at times quite literally, showing some of that fighting spirit that she claims to lack. Grrrrr. She’s a tiger. Finally, as the rain set in, I nipped up Trapeze (VS 5b*) an extended boulder problem, and was very nearly decorated in fulmar vomit for the trouble.

Chris, sandstone and blue sky. (Photo: C. Edwards)

Finally, a wee sesh up at the Link Road Boulder yester-eve saw off a couple of the problems I tried last week. Sadly they’re nearly all one-move wonders, so not particularly exciting.

Chris on a 5c problem on the Link Road Boulder, April 2007. Coire an Lochan beyond.

So, there we are. Another week closer to the winter. Uh-oh…….

Coiling ropes at the end of two contrasting days in the Cairngorms.

(Photos: S. Jones)