Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Seasonal Soft Rock

Dave on 2 x 30 (F8c) at El Pati

Back home in Aviemore, back to work, back to the cold. After a week in Siurana under blue skies and perfect climbing temperatures it’s a bit of a shock to be thrust into the frost and the dark.

Our wee trip was no-where near long enough, but it was definitely enough to get me psyched to get in on this Euro-sport climbing thing. A leisurely start, a brew, read a book, stroll to the crag, climb, belay, rest, chat, climb, stroll back, have a brew, make some dinner, sit about, chat, play some chess, sleep. Repeat.

Shoes: Check. Harness: Check. Rope: Check. Banana: Check. OK, ready to roll.

Siurana itself is a tiny hilltop village, surrounded on almost all sides by limestone cliffs looming out of a sprawling pine forest. It’s the perfect playground: a mixture of adrenaline-pumping psyche and awe-inspiring beauty. There’s just so much rock, with over 30 separate crags within walking distance of the village, and with grades spreading from F4 to F9a+. On first arrival and the first flick through the topo you can’t help but be bewildered. Luckily for me though, most of the folk I was with had been here before and cherry-picked the best crags and routes to try.

Siurana village

I won’t witter on too much about routes and grades, but for me the tip was a success. I somehow managed to flash a F7a (Ramena Nena at Espero Primavera) and managed the goal I’d set myself of redpointing a F7a+ (the brilliant Cromagnon Climbing at Can l’ Isobelle). Mind you, these pale into insignificance when surrounded by the other folk on the trip. Among the highlights were Euan flashing a F7c and redpointing an F8a+, Blair onsighting at least one F7b everyday, Dave ticking an F8b+ and Jenny taking her first airmiles. Other things that impressed me were Tweedley’s ability to climb everyday with tips held together by a cocktail of superglue, tape and dried blood, Donald’s ability to spout utter nonsense for a full 45 metre pitch, culminating with cries of “that’s the jigger” as he clips the lower-off, and Dave’s remarkably accurate impression of a pheasant trying to cross the A82.

Tweedley gets to grips with a F7c


So, I imagine that rounds off the Soft Rock adventures of 2009 (unless something exciting happens next weekend). It’s not all about numbers, but at the start of the year if someone had told me that I was going to onsight E3, headpoint E7, flash F7a, redpoint F7a+, onsight VI and come 9th in the OMM Elite Class, I’d be a very happy bunny, so I guess I should be. All these personal successes have come with their own ups and downs, stresses and strains, and all have formed and shaped the rich tapestry of the past twelve months. Here’s hoping all our explorations and adventures continue to grow in 2010.

Merry Xmas y’all.

The sun sets on another perfect day

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Siurana Sunshine

It´s wednesday night, the end of a rest day and the night before I get on my wee project in the cool morning sunshine.

So far it´s been a really good trip and this tiny blog post can do absolutely no justice to the quality of the climbing and the beauty of the place. Suffice it to say, I´ll be back.

Donald cuts loose on the start of the brilliant Cromagnon Climbing (7a+)

Somehow flashing Ramena Nena (7a)

Jenny bears down while Blair looks chic at Corral Nou

Tweedley needs a rest!

Go to Dave´s blog for more words and pics of bigger and harder things...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Winter in Aviemore

A new day

Opening the account: Alex on Route Major

Evening entertainment: Steve thinking way outside the box

Back to work

Eerie ice on the first aid box in Scneachda

Joe's go

My happy place

Thursday, 26 November 2009

On Bolts

Like most British climbers, I’m a jack of all trades. As the seasons and weather dictate I enjoy my share of rock, snow and ice. Whether it’s a big icy runnel in the mountains or a five-move boulder problem in the glens, I’m a happy camper. However, there’s a problem. I’ve come to realise that there’s a glaring omission in my climbing C.V: sport climbing. You see, I’ve not really done much. I feel that in all the other climbing disciplines I’ve worked hard and progressed and am finally beginning to reach a level that I’m fairly proud of: not so with sport climbing.

To my mind, sport climbing and bouldering are the keys to being a good all round climber. There’s no doubt that being strong on bolts translates to being strong above wires, cams, hammered hexes and tied off screws, and although it might not directly teach you how to deal with the fear that trad and winter provide, knowing that you can hang around, find rests, and do hard moves again and again can only be a huge confidence boost.
So, in my sad quest to be a better climber, why haven’t I done much? I’ve had a think and come up with two reasons. Firstly, the classic excuse: I live in Britain, and there’s not much high quality sport climbing here. To focus in a bit more, I live in the Highlands, and there’s even less of it (although what we do have is generally very good).

Secondly, the real excuse: it’s hard! Let’s be honest, in trad and winter climbing you don’t actually need to be that good a climber to climb at a reasonable standard. In these disciplines there are so many other factors involved besides the physical act of climbing – finding and placing protection, route-finding, dealing with fear, a long approach, bad weather and conditions on the route. Managing all these factors make up such a big part of the day that the actual climbing doesn’t have to be that hard in order to feel pretty involving. In sport climbing there’s none of this, there’s a line of bolted rock between you and the top and all that exists is the physical movement. Being able to keep a cool head miles above your last runner is no help here: you need to be a good climber. And that’s the problem.

Preparing to headpoint Firestone: Evidently, it's not that hard, you just need to be brave (or daft). Photo: Dave MacLeod.

Chris after Number Three Gully Buttress on the Ben. It wasn't the climbing that did this to him, it was the fear, the blizzard and the long approach.

However, I’ve got a chance to try to change. I’m off to Siurana in North East Spain for a week in early December; an escape from the not-yet-winter, and a chance to try hard on the steep stuff, so let’s see what happens….

My first (and last) sport climbing holiday, in Sardinia in 2005. I'd only been climbing for a year so hopefully I'll be a bit better this time.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Recipe

November bouldering requirements: Flask, hat, wellies, dachsteins (for feet)


2 x Five Ten Anazazi Verde rock shoes
1 x Full chalk bag
1 x bouldering pad
1 x old toothbrush
1 x bar towel
1 x down jacket
1 x wooly hat
2 x Dachstein gloves
2 x Wellington boots
1 x flask of coffee, large
selection of cereal bars, chocolate, fruit, nuts.
1 x big dose of motivation for ‘pulling down’

Plus a selection of either:
good skin or lots of finger-tape,
good technique or an excess of strength (preferably both)
good circulation or thermal clothing

An excess of skin may be handy

Wait for a cool, sunny day in November. Pack all the ingredients into your shiny new car and take them to the Ruthven boulder. Once there, deploy the 2 x Wellington boots for the treacherous approach. At the boulder use a suitable combination of the ingredients to warm up (1 x wooly hat recommended, and possibly exchange the 2 x Wellington boots for the 2 x Five Ten Anazazi Verde rock shoes). When fully warm and stretched unleash the 1 x big dose of motivation for ‘pulling down’ on a boulder problem of your choice (chef’s recommendation: The Big Lebowski). While working on your chosen problem it is important to have regular breaks. At these points 1 x down jacket, 2 x Dachstein gloves, 1 x flask of coffee, large, and the selection of cereal bars, chocolate, fruit, nuts may be used liberally. Once the top has been reached or the 1 x big dose of motivation for ‘pulling down’ has been depleted, pack up and go home, smiling all the way.

Putting in another shift on The Big Lebowski, Ruthven

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Ice was all around

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men or beasts we ken –
The ice was all between,

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The view to come. Photo: Viv Scott
With the changing of the clocks something stirs in the Highlands. There’s a discernable feeling of the new season approaching; a switching of the gears in readiness for the long dark months ahead. Headlights illumine the daily commute. A torch comes to hand when walking the dog. Jackets and hats and gloves start to make their way onto the hooks in the hallway. The coal bucket fills and empties, the embers glow in the stove.

Then the murmuring begins. Starting low but slowly, slowly gathering and lifting, building to a clamoring gaggle: the expectant buzz. Training and boulders, hilltops and hot-aches, tall tales from times past, big ideas about times to come. Plans.

Where will you be this winter?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


It’s funny how things go. You anticipate and expect so much. You plan, you stress, you strain, you sweat and you train, and then, just like that, it’s over. Like a climbing project, you always inflate it in your head until it feels like a massive challenge, but when you actually do it, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been worried about competing in the OMM this year, but it seems like a healthy dose of fear was needed to kick my arse into gear. Somehow, and I’m still not really sure how, Duncan and I came 9th overall in the Elite Class. Given that we were initially thinking that simply completing the race would be worthy of celebration we’re pretty pleased.

So, what was it like? Well, let’s put it this way, I won’t be volunteering as an ambassador for the Elan Valley tourist board. The place is one big bog, covered in a thin veneer of bog, surrounded by a load of bog with bog in the bits between the bogs. Shoe-sucking, knee-deep, peat-black bog. Okay, I’m probably overdoing it. In fact, it’s not all bog, because there are the hundreds of square miles of tussocky grass, waiting for an unsuspecting ankle to snap or groin to strain too. To my botanical mind the grass is called Molinea caerulea, or Purple Moor-Grass, but I’ve also heard it called Bastard Grass, Babies Heads and Policeman’s Helmets, due to the way it forms distinct and large tussocks and is bloody hard work to get through. The worst part is when the gap between the tussocks is bog. However, besides all this, the rolling nature of the hills and their relatively minor stature means that much of the ground is fairly quick to get around and there are no huge crippling ascents.

As seems to be becoming our hallmark, Duncan and I never really flew between the controls but managed to keep a steady pace and to keep on top of our navigation and route choices (mostly). We’ve done enough races together now to know the score: what kit to use (borrow other peoples expensive and very light gear), what to eat (smash, cheese, peperrami, and our top secret ‘Power Breakfast’) and what to carry (I get all the heavy stuff). I definitely had a couple of ‘sugar lows’ when I started to feel empty, but managed to fuel my way out of the slumps with Jelly Babies and energy gels, following on behind Duncan who seemed pretty indomitable the whole time. Bastard.

Now, at last, I can relax and revel in the one short time of the year when I don’t feel the urge to be out getting things done. It’s generally too cold, dark or wet for rock climbing, but it’s not cold enough for winter climbing and there’s no longer any need to be out running; the OMM has been and gone. Instead, let’s light the fire, put on the kettle and settle in with a good book…..

Monday, 19 October 2009

The End Is Nigh

Autumn in Gruinard Bay

Time keeps slipping by and the big weekend of the OMM is now just a matter of days away. My training seems to have worked out pretty well, and I surprised myself by managing to come in in 17th place in the Pentland Skyline race, taking 2hrs56. Later in the week I managed to knock a minute off my Loch an Eilein round, making my time now 18.56 for the 5km trip (being dragged around by freakily fit Stevie Hammond did wonders here). Race partner Duncan came up from Edinburgh for the weekend and we managed one last run in the hills before a week of serious rest. Now it's time to make the final tweaks and arrangements - what to run in, what to carry, what to eat, how to stay hydrated, how much vaseline Duncan's going to put on his balls. All the big questions.

Partners in crime: Harry and Stevie Hammond living the dream

Iain Small on an onsight attempt on a recent E5 6c addition to Goat Crag

I've recently found that when one aspect of either my running or climbing is going well, the rest starts to suffer, and I've definately noticed my indoor climbing has gone all to cock now that my running seems to be going OK. Hoping that this wouldn't be the case on the real stuff I made use of a high pressure system hovering over Scotland, took a day off work and hit the road northwards to get some late-season rock routes done. Now, for those that know the North West Highlands you'll know that come sunshine or showers, this place is heart-stoppingly beautiful. What I hadn't expected was how much more spectauclar it is at this time of year: the kaliedoscope of autumn leaves, frosty white glens, golden hillsides, cloud inversions and clear blue skies, and with acres of rock to play on it could just be paradise. On day one Stevie and I joined Blair and Iain at Goat Crag in Gruinard Bay, where Stevie and I got a resounding spanking on the bolts while Blair and Iain showed us how to climb properly. On day two Duncan and I went to Stone Valley Crags south of Gairloch and had a great day on perfect gneiss trad. I managed to come away feeling pleased to not fall off Bold as Brass (despite my very best efforts), reassured that there's still some fight left in me.

I suspect that these will be the last rock routes of 2009 (unless winter stays at bay and we all do a big sun dance), and looking back over the summer, I feel fairly pleased with the way my climbing has gone. Here's hoping that I'll be able to look back at the race this weekend in the same way.

Blair cruising Freak Show (E5 6a) at Goat Crag with the Fisherfield Forest beyond.

Friday, 9 October 2009

I just felt like....

I've been struggling to come up with an entertaining way to write about training for the OMM, but to no avail. So, I won't, I'll just give the facts. This is meant as a personal record, so I apologise for any boredom inflicted on the reader (if you exist).

Since Duncan and I decided to enter the elite class I've been fouling my little lycra leggings. We're gonna be rocking with the big boys so I thought that I should at least try to train properly. From my experience, success in mountain marathons is based on three things: route-choice/navigation, tactics (when to push, when to slow, what kit to use) and hill fitness. The first two of these come from race experience, practice and a logical approach. The latter comes from lots of hard work, and it's this that I'm concentrating on. Fortunately I've got an OK base-level of fitness to start from so I've simply been stepping up my running (frequency, distance and speed). Working a 9-5 week, I've attempted to split training into longer hill runs on weekends and shorter runs in evenings, balanced with regular bouldering and climbing sessions on nights off and one or two rest days. The plan is to keep increasing the workload until a few weeks before the race, when I'll start to taper it down and rest.

My longer runs have been:
  • Glen More - Loch Avon - Beinn Meadhion - Bynack Mor - Glen More: 27km, a bit over 4hrs
  • Glen More - Ryvoan Bothy - Strath Nethy - Coire Raibert - Cairn Lochan - Coire Cas - Glen More: 24km, 4hrs.
  • Sugar Bowl car park - Larigh Ghru - Derry Lodge - Coire Etchecan - Loch Avon - Coire Cas - Sugar Bowl: 37km, 4hrs45.
  • Loch an Eilein - Glen Einich - Sgoran Dubh Mor - Allt a Mharcaidh - Loch Gamhna - Loch an Eilein: 21km, 2hrs40.
  • Forest Lodge - Meall a Buachaille - Forest Lodge: 13km, 1hr30.

Shorter week-night runs have generally been around Aviemore, up Craigellachie, round Loch Morlich or Loch an Eilein, the Challamain Gap or Burnside circuits. I've also started adding faster runs to the mix, either doing intervals of hill sprints on Burnside (sprint uphill 30 secs, walk back downhill for 45 secs, repeat to the top of the hill) or fast rounds of Loch an Eilein (5 km, P.B: 19mins51). So far, so good.

The next step is doing the Pentland Skyline Race just outside Edinburgh this weekend, then I'll try to speed up round Loch an Eilein in the week, then a small run on the weekend, followed by a week of pasta, resting and quaking in my boots.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


Mid-September gloom on the West coast

Four pitches up and the inevitable happens. We’ve been watching the surrounding glens and hills smudge in and out of view through the greying rain all day but somehow our own little mountain paradise has remained under a spotlight of sun; romping up the rough schist of Creag Ghlas’ Salamander, holding out for a sliver of luck to keep the soaking away until after the climb.

Only two pitches left, we huddle into the belay, shivering and shuffling like ledge-bound guillemots in an Atlantic storm: the onslaught arrives. Water drips off my helmet and down my nose as another squall races down the glen at us, a slavering pack of hunting dogs come to ruin our fun. “As soon the rain stops this wind’ll dry the rock” I tell Steve, feigning confidence. “Aye, we’ll sit it out a while and see what happens” he replies.

Two minutes later, considerably colder and wetter and with no likely respite, we’ve made up our minds and start our descent. Belay devices wring a steady trickle of water from the ropes as we begin the abseils; stiff frozen fingers fumble with prussik loops and screw-gates. Touching down on rope stretch we pack our sodden gear and slide down the hill, to the bikes, to the car, home and to the warm fire. All the while the waves of showers keep breaking.

Tails between our legs, we spend the evening drying gear around the wood-burner and arguing the toss over tomorrow’s plans. The smart money points eastwards to a day in the Cairngorms, but emboldened by blind optimism we decide to drive into the storm again and see if we can punch through to a sunny West coast. Time will tell.

Leaving a near cloudless dawn in Aviemore, we drive north and west into the gathering dark. Passing through Achnasheen the windscreen wipers twitch and by Kinlochewe are in full flow; it looks like our gamble has failed. Beinn Eighe and Liathach have lost their heads to the swirling clouds and conversation falters to a dejected silence. Then, rounding a spur, out over the sea to Diabaig and Skye beyond we spy a blur of blue and gold on the horizon. Sun! Keep driving!

And we drive on.

A little blue speck beneath The Pillar at Diabaig. I'd wanted to climb this route for years and had said that if I could do this, The Bug and The Needle this summer, anything else would be a bonus. Onsighting E3 and headpointing E5 and E7 feel like pretty big bonuses.

Post-Pillar pleasure

Steve in similar post-Pillar shock and awe

Steve on the first pitch of Foil on the Main Wall at Diabaig

Monday, 14 September 2009

Light and Dark

Liathach and Ben Eighe from Sgurr a' Mhuilin, Strathconnon
In the same way that Aristotle said that "one swallow does not a Spring make", I'm sure that one high pressure system does not an Indian Summer make. Indian or not, however, this weekend's weather was good enough for me to throw off the oppressive shackles of race training and to go climbing in the sunshine. Yippee. Little did I know it but I was in for two very contrasting days.

Saturday dawned sunny and still as Alex and I hit the road north to Gairloch in search of a day's sport climbing on shiny bolts. Our destination was Grass Crag - a short wall of perfect vertical gneiss, sporting routes from F5 to F7a in a beautiful, friendly spot. In total we ticked 11 routes, included a 6c onsight (my P.B.) and a 7a redpoint, laughed, drank beer and revelled in the jeopardy-free experience that bolted rock affords. By the end of the day were so tired we both fell off a 6a+ before retiring to the wonderful Bridge Cottage Cafe in Poolewe.

Alex ready for another route at Grass Crag

Climb responsibly: wear a helmet.

When I woke up on Sunday and peeked through the curtains it was obvious that a different kind of day was in store. Low cloud shrouded the hills of Strathspey and a fine drizzle fell, saturating everything. I'd agreed to join Kev Shields to act as moral support/belay bunny on his quest to headpoint his first E7. Kev's inspiring story of climbing with only one hand has been written about by many so I won't dwell on the story, but suffice it to say that having moved to Fort William in the summer and climbing his first E5 and E6 in consecutive weeks, his lifeime goal of E7 isn't far away. He'd hoped to get on Firestone at Hell's Lum, but the weather had other ideas, so instead we headed up to Creag Ghlas in Strathconnon fo a look at another of Julian Lines' psycho-slabs, The Unknown Soldier. Paul Diffly from Hotaches Productions was with us too, filming Kev for an upcoming DVD.

Kev working The Unknown Soldier

It turned out that a combination of friction-sapping sunshine, a two-hand specific move on the crux and the trifling matter of a potential groundfall from 15 metres eventually put paid to Kev's attempts and we all walked back to the car in one peice. But, for a short time it was evident that Kev was building up to the lead, entering the dark headspace that dangerous climbing demands, and each slip or mistake on the top-rope seemed to be magnified into the bone snapping reality that it could spell. In the end, Kev realised that now wasn't the time to push the boat out, and sensibly came down unscathed.


I've got very little experience of this type of climbing, but I've done enough to know the feeling of inevitability, both horrible and thrilling, that Kev was going through. As soon as you get on the route and start to make progress you suddenly feel like you've entered into a pact, and you know that at some point, no-matter how distant, you have to climb it. The fact that it's a pact with yourself doesn't seem to matter, in fact, it seems to make it even more unbreakable, and the Damoclean sword just hangs over you until you end it, one way or another....

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A Conservation Conversation

Is this Sifaka worth protecting?

A conversation I had yesterday got me thinking about the nature of my work. Someone told me they thought that capercaillie (very rare birds that I’m involved in trying to conserve) were a mixed blessing. It took me a while to work out what they meant. Surely, the presence of one of Britain’s rarest and most charismatic birds anywhere is a good thing. We should be protecting them, shouldn’t we? Like me, the people I was talking to are outdoorsy types – runners and climbers - but to them the presence of capercaillie means restricted access to land, paranoid land-owners and, potentially, millions of pounds thrown away just trying to save a bird. It got me thinking about motives, and ultimately, about my personal view of the importance of nature conservation, and it struck me how it’s really a very personal issue.

As a professional tree-hugger I try to question the work I’m involved in and the motives behind it. I’ve thought long and hard about the hows, whys and wherefores and am still unsure of lots of the answers. Here are a few thoughts to mull over:

Why should humans bother protecting other species or habitats at all?

To what extent should humans intervene with nature in order to bring about our own goals, and by what ‘right’ do we intervene?

Is it acceptable to protect a species or habitat at the cost of human development?

If one rare and protected species survives by eating another rare, protected species, what are you supposed to do?

Are some species more worthy of protection than others?

In trying to answer these seemingly basic questions you very rapidly go from biology and ecology to much bigger issues of morality and philosophy, and people from different cultural backgrounds or points of view will give wildly differing answers. So, how do we decide who’s right, and how do we decide how to go about saving this planet that we’re single-handedly ruining?

Stormy times ahead

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Slipping Away

A Rowan Riot:
According to folklore, loads of berries in the autumn herald a harsh winter to come. Here's hoping.
It seems that August has come and gone just as fast as July did. The shortening of the days, the gaggles of uniformed kids waiting for the school bus, the stark red rowan berries, the first sign of condensing breath in the morning air; they all mean one thing: Autumn approaches. A time for showers and gales and piles of dead leaves; for coming in out of the wet and the cold and lighting the fire and drinking giant mugs of tea in your biggest, warmest wooly jumper; for feeling content with a summer well spent and the rising tide of excitement and expectation as winter’s first snows creep ever nearer.

For me, autumn means that the running season begins, as I try to ready myself for the Original Mountain Marathon in late October. Having done reasonably well in the A-class event in previous years, my regular running partner Duncan and I have decided to try the Elite class this year, which could prove a mistake. It seems to me that Elite running really is the preserve of proper hill-runners and orienteers, while I consider myself a lucky amateur who does a bit of running when climbing’s off the menu. Maybe if I take my training seriously this year we’ll at least finish the race.

On that note, where’s my lycra?

Shower dodgin' and bolt clippin': Strong Ewen cruising Inverarnie Schwarzeneggar (F7a) at The Camel

Guy Stephen (l) starting Inverarnie Schwarzeneggar and me on the amazing Stone of Destiny (F6c+).
(Photo: Blair Fyffe)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Deep South

Me wrestling with the joke protection on the popular Back Off at Fairy Cave Quarry

Normally, trips home to the West Country are all about seeing my folks, enjoying the local Butcombe Bitter in traditional hostelries, eating deep fried pork fat and catching up with neglected friendships. While a certain amount of this has been partaken of, this time round I've actually got some climbing done too. Perfection, non?

Bouldering on the mighty (i.e. humbling) Saddle Tor on Dartmoor acted as an effective exfoliant for any excess skin I happened to possess, and despite only fully completing one problem in a whole morning, I drove home from The Moor feeling like a better (more bloodied) person.

Now, these days I climb quite a lot, and while I'm no-where near as good as I should be for someone that obsesses so much about this absurd sport, it's quite nice that I'm occasionally reassured that I'm not as bad as I used to be. A few weeks back I was bouldering on the Heather Hat in Glen Nevis, and was able to make relatively light work of some of the problems I used to sweat over. Progress. Fortunately, the same thing happened t'other day at one of Somerset's more esoteric bouldering locations (and that's saying something about esoterica). When I first started climbing I used to look at the roof of the cave at Weston Super-Mare's Toll Road Crags and think how great it would be if I could climb through it. Well, after no small amount of sweat on Thursday afternoon I found myself pulling on the finishing holds with a large grin on my face. Maybe all this obsession is paying off after all....

Here's the proof:

The next day I took a trip down climbing memory lane with Luke, the fella I learnt to climb with. Happy to explore more wondrous esoterica, we went to Fairy Cave Quarry tucked away high in the Mendip Hills, and climbed some of the obscure slabby gems hidden among the fast-emerging buddleia, before retiring to the pub and drinking more of Butcombe's finest. It's been a hard few days.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Back to Hell

It didn't take long.

I'd told myself that after doing Firestone I'd give the slabs a rest for a bit and climb some steeper rock. Bad weather and bruised feet kept me away from the hills for July, silencing the call of Cairngorm granite.

Time passed, my feet got better and the amount of sun started to eclipse the amount of rain. Then I heard from Jules, the undisputed king of Cairngorm slabs. "Yeah man, nice one on the Lower Slab. You should get yourself on some of those other routes on Hell's Lum, you'll love 'em".

A quick squizz in the guidebook reveals a few more of Jules' lines scattered around the slabby pillars and buttress' beneath Hell's Lum crag proper, so I head out for a recce.

Just being back in the cauldron of the Loch Avon Basin feels good. Strolling down Coire Domhain: the epic scene of rock, water and air. It's nice to be back. Standing beneath Firestone I trace the line and wonder what the hell possessed me to climb it. I gird my loins and solo Mars further left on the Lower Slab.

Back under the main crag I spy a route of Jules' called Devils Advocate. Perfect friction padding, and it even musters some protection. I'll return soon with a belayer.

To: Mark C

Yo, there's a route on hells lum i'm pretty psyched to try to onsight, would you be able to belay me one night this week? I'll owe you lots of drinks or belays or summat. Gaz

As ever, Mark's psyched so we meet up after work and crush the walk-in. Cool and dry, it's perfect for frictional endeavors. I'm feeling relaxed and ready, though I'm not sure why: this could end in another big ride.

Committing to the crux, nothing to do but climb.

On the crux, high enough to hurt, still a way before the gear arrives, it's time to convert brain function from hope to trust. Hands sweep the grey pink rock, hunting greedily for a weakness, a fingertip ripple for balance. Flashes of yellow crustose lichen dapple the way ahead, runway lanterns. Don't think, don't hope: know. There comes a point where I realise there's nothing for it, no other way, empty the mind and climb.

Later, higher, happier, I shake Mark's hand and we start to walk home, one route closer to knowing.

Mark finishing the crux; flashing the route on my gear.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

A Matter of Style

From the outside, the sport of rock climbing looks pretty straight forward: you find a bit of rock and make your way to the top. What could be simpler? Well, what the casual observer doesn’t know is that it’s far from simple. Once you get sucked into this small, incestuous world you begin to realise that climbing is actually a hotbed of infighting, one-upmanship and ego, and for one reason: style.

Climbing is all about style (and, alas, I don’t mean trendy branded jeans or luminous lycra). By style I mean the way in which a climb is executed. Climbers, being self-obsessed pedants (me included) are keen to try to be the best they can be, and this means climbing in good style. Any old loser can get to the top of something in poor style, but it takes a good climber to climb the hardest routes in good style.

Getting to the top without falling off, placing all the protection on the way up, without prior knowledge, is the Brad Pitt of climbing style. Anything else comes lower down the scale, including working out the protection, watching someone else climb the route, pre-rehearsing the moves or falling off and trying again. Some would argue if the route is at a level of difficulty that makes the Brad Pitt style impossible then you shouldn’t bother with it, that by climbing in a poorer style you’re just reducing the route down to your level – beating it into submission. For me, though, trying the occasional route that’s miles above my current level is a great way to improve my Brad Pitt style climbing, and so long as it’s a route that I won’t one-day want to climb in better style, and that I’m not damaging the route for future climbers, everyone’s a winner.

"Hey! Look! It's Brad Pitt. Oh, wait. It's not."

Over the last few weeks I’ve done all four of the above-mentioned cardinal sins on the same route; I’ve worked out protection, watched someone else climb it, pre-rehearsed the moves and fallen off and tried again. In the end though, after a few failed attempts I managed to lead The Art of Course Climbing (E5 6a/b) at Farletter Crag on Wednesday night, and it was bloody great fun. It’s a short, very gently overhanging schist crag, and being steep and fingery is not a style of climbing I’d profess to excel at, so it was all good training for something….

Mid-flow on The Art of Course Climbing

High Five!