Sunday, 28 June 2009


It’s a perfect summer Sunday morning. As I sit tapping at the keys I can see Harry the dog lazing in the sunny garden and hear the cries of swallows and swifts, filling the air with their optimistic cheer. The last of the early morning mist is rising to reveal the Cairngorm corries beneath a deep blue blanket, promising another scorching day. The gentlest hint of wind stirs the leaf-burdened birch. Fortified with strong coffee and ibuprofen I start to reflect on yesterday.

Banks of cloud lowered the temperature in Strathspey, making a cool day up on Firestone a fine prospect. This time I was joined by Dave Macleod, keen for a look after seeing it while working his mega-route To Hell and Back on Hell’s Lum in 2007. I felt pretty calm and optimistic after my first session on a top-rope on Thursday, and felt sure that it would feel easier in the cooler conditions. I decided to go to the crag with an open mind, if I felt good on a top-rope I’d go for the lead, but only if. Dave was keen for the onsight – a very hard task on such a delicate and tenuous route. I’ve known Dave a wee bit from living over in Fort William, bumping into him in Glen Nevis and running endless laps of the Ice Factor bouldering wall, but this was the first time I’d been climbing with him, so I was looking forward to learning a few tricks from the master. I suspected that I was going to be shown up pretty rapidly as he calmly waltzed up the route.

Dave getting psyched beneath the pink streak of blankness

The continuously dry weather ensured that the line was still seepage-free, so on arrival Dave chalked up, cleaned his shoes and stepped on. After some upping and downing he stepped back off for a think. I was quite impressed that even he was finding it tricky and hard to commit to. Maybe E7 slabs are quite hard after all? I put the rope on it and linked it first time. Gulp. The conditions were definitely better than Thursday, but those moves are still very committing where it rears up at the top. After more playing, chalking smears to highlight where to go in the maze of nothingness, I came down and Dave got on the rope. He had decided that headpointing was more sensible than onsighting – the slide from the top didn’t look tempting…..On the rope Dave made quick work of it, refining the top sequence a few times before coming down.

My turn again. I was faced with THE decision. I knew that I could do the route. I knew the moves and where to go. I knew that if I didn’t get on the lead today I’d only have to come back another day, and all the time between now and then it would be eating away at me, challenging me, questioning me. For some reason the name of The Smiths song How Soon is Now? came into my head. Was now too soon? This was only the second session on the route; I’d expected that this decision was weeks or months away. That slide, thirty feet from the last moves to the ground, okay, it’s not going to kill you, but it’s definitely broken ankle territory, and what if you clip a heel and spin, landing badly? I tried to take all the nagging doubts and push them away, focusing on the positive – I know I can climb it, I know I can climb it. I’ll do it.

Inside the bubble I stepped on, vaguely aware of Dave above taking photos, gently snaking up the rock, right foot rock-over, left foot rock over. Standing on the mid-way ‘holds’ I suddenly became aware of the bubble bursting and realizing what was happening, where I was and what I was doing. Trying to re-focus I noticed how much I was shaking, adrenaline surging. Taking it all in I started the crux sequence, a tenuous series of smears rising leftwards to the crescent flake. Three moves to go, rock over left and match the horizontal fault, shaking, two moves, feet on bad smears now the rock steepens, trust trust trust. Then I feel a foot going, I try try to stay in balance but deep down know the battle is lost. I managed to shout out “Fuck, I’m going” four times before gravity took over and I was gone. Sliding thirty feet, picking up speed, hurtling at the ground. Bang. Shit. The first thing I did was laugh, I was okay. Was I? Picking myself up I could hear Dave calling down, seeing if I was hurt. Wow, I genuinely was okay. Besides bruising my heels and the odd scratch I was fine. Lucky bastard! We both giggled as the dark air diffused. Oh well, next time, I thought.

After a few minutes of recuperation it was Dave’s turn to lead so I hobbled to the top and got on the rope to take photos. He knew he could do it, but seeing me take the ride from the top definitely put tension in the air. Naturally, he got the route first try, but not without some shaking at the top, reflecting that this was still no walk in the park. Nice one Dave, E7 headpoint and the first repeat of Firestone (?), which is pretty impressive since he onsighted Prophet of Purism, a famously hard and steep E6 in Glen Coe the day before. There’s no stopping him!

Mid-flow in the headpoint bubble

Dave on the last few hard moves before the crescent flake - the point I took the slide from

Relief: it's in the bag

Me again. I opted for another go on the top-rope to refine those top moves, and to see how my bruised feet would get on. With a slightly different foot sequence making the stretch to the crescent flake more in-balance I came down. Faced with the decision again, the thoughts began to swirl in my head once more. I really didn’t want to take that slide again, but I really wanted this route, and knew that whatever happened, I’d be doing it soon. If not now then maybe tomorrow or the next day or the next. I was here now, standing below it, with the moves fresh in my mind. Ding ding, round 2.

And this time it worked. Firestone, E7 6b, headpoint. Possibly the 3rd ascent. Slight hobble, big grin. Committing to those crux smears was still utterly terrifying, but this time I had enough mental strength in the tank to trust them and make the awkward stretch to the crescent flake, gently rocking over onto the easy slab above. Happy days.

So, big thanks to Dave for coming across and offering up the psyche, and to Jules for doing the first ascent 14 years ago. You’re a nutter!

Friday, 26 June 2009


As I'd hoped in my bloggage t'other day, this spell of good weather has hung around for long enough to get out a bit.

I joined Alex for some post-work mountain cragging on Wednesday evening, in the shape of No Blue Skies on the Mess of Pottage in Coire an t'Sneachda. This pleasant wee crag gets all the sun going from mid afternoon onwards so is perfect for an evening's play. Three pitches of mountain granite in shorts and T-shirts at eight in the evening, then back home for tea and medals (pasta and pesto).

Alex following pitch one of No Blue Skies

Mark was keen to join me for a Firestone raid early yesterday morning (work didn't start 'til mid-day, honest) so we made the familiar slog to the Lower Slab for a look-see. For the first time this year the route was all there - no seepage, no snow: play time. He very kindly belayed while I played on a top-rope - the first time I've actually been on the route proper. First things first, at about 20 degrees by 9.30 in the morning it wasn't optimal slab climbing conditions, as proven by my amazing vest-shaped sunburn (colder = better friction), however, I did make some pleasing progress, linking the whole thing in a one-er once (beginners luck?) and spending time refining the moves. Unsurprisingly it's pretty hard, very delicate and sequency, but I think with full knowledge of the moves and cooler conditions it might be OK.

Learning about friction: working Firestone

Fortunately the weather is cooling for the weekend so if it stays dry I'm heading up again tomorrow. There could be a wee posse of us this time, and with an open mind let's see what happens....

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

High and Dry?

My office: Looking towards Strath Nethy from the southern edge of Abernethy Forest
The summer ticks along apace and the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon looms in a little over a week. In preparation, I hopped on the train and joined team mate Chris Jones (a.k.a. Jones' bro) in the Lake District for a weekend of slogging up hill and sliding down dale. Day 1 was a circuit from Coniston: up Wetherlam, down to Wrynose Bottom, up Grey Friar, down, then up the Old Man of Coniston and back to the tent. Day 2 was a circuit above Langdale: New Dungeon Ghyll, Stickle Tarn, High Raise, Angle Tarn, Bowfell, Three Tarns, New Dungeon Ghyll. I'm feeling pretty fit at the moment so can't complain too much - stomping over to the slab project is paying dividends. Fingers crossed for decent weather for the race.

Chris showing off his hill-chic

Fickle weather has meant I've not done much climbing lately, besides circuits at Burnside bouldering crag and a wee session at Ruthven yesterday. Good weather just hasn;t co-incided with day's off. I would say that it's frustrating, but I've lived in Scotland for long enough to just roll with the punches. A settled forecast of hot high pressure is on us so something might happen....


Firestone Sessions

A combination of bad weather and work commitments (get me) mean there's not much activity to report here. The sun shone for some of Monday so I dragged myself up the hill after work for a peak. The effects of a week of poor weather were visible dribbling straight down Firestone. It's quite amusing really; the route takes a smooth pink streak up the otherwise dark slab - pink because it's worn smooth from millenia of water dribbling down it. The end of the crux section is a steepening that you pull out of using a beautiful crescent shaped blind flake, and this seems to channel the water straight down the rest of the route. Lesson learnt: even with the snow all gone you need a fair period of dry weather for the route to be in condition. It's really nice getting to know a bit of rock really well - the shapes and colours, the minute intricacies, the conditions required, the views.

Monday's view of Firestone: the left-hand wet streak.

Reluctant to waste the journey, I stuck the rope down the slab and worked the dry line next to Firestone, just to get familiar with the type of climbing that's required. It's funny, but I can honestly say I think there's only one 'hold' in the whole 25 metres. The rest relies entirely on smearing, palming and subtle variations of weight distribution and movement. Because of this, learning a sequence that I'm confident to lead is going to be hard - one non-hold looks like any other non-hold!

There's a dry, warm forecast for this week, so the route should be drying as I write. Another post-work session is on the cards so watch this space.....

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Lochan Meall an t'-Suidhe, known to most as the Halfway Lochan on Ben Nevis. (Phot: Mike Marshall)

In the summer of 2002, in the adolescent twilight between A-Levels ending and university beginning, four friends and I travelled north from the West Country and walked the West Highland and Great Glen Ways from Glasgow to Inverness. We stayed in Fort William for a halfway break and on my 18th birthday made the pilgimage to the top of Ben Nevis. Those three weeks were the first time that I was really unleashed on the Scottish hills and a spell was cast over me that's still working it's magic today. Before long I took up residence as a student in Edinburgh and started making attempts to break out and walk in the hills on weekends: train journeys to Bridge of Orchy, drives to the Cairngorms. As my confidence grew, the thrill of rocky scrambling and winter walking began to appeal as ways to reach bigger and better personal peaks. Then, one day I had a go at the next logical step, rock climbing, and everything changed. I joined Edinburgh Uni Mountaineering Club, blew my loan on mountains of shiny hardware, and spent evenings falling off lumps of plastic at the indoor wall. All of a sudden weekends were taken up charging round the Highlands looking for dry crags and walking was demoted to a simple means of access, rather than an activity in it's own right. The poor walking boots never stood a chance and but for the odd foray have been gathering dust for the last five years.

So it was a really refreshing change to put the boots back on and to enjoy a day's walking this weekend. I had invited my Dad and brother up from Somerset and Glasgow respectively to take them up Ben Nevis. Neither of them are really outdoorsy types and havn't spent much time in the hills, so this was a chance to show off Scotlands jewels. Wanting to give a good impression we went up via Carn Mor Dearg and CMD Arete, only having to jostle with the crowds on the tourist path on the first half of the descent. It's a really nice route up the Ben, with stunning views of the mighty north face, a bit of air beneath you on the exposed CMD Arete, two Munros for the price of one, a decent amount honest slogging to earn the evening's beers and hardly anyone else around. All went to plan, and Mike and Dad bagged the Ben with ease and were all smiles, despite the clouds hiding the view for much of the day. Maybe the mighty Ben will have cast it's spell on two more unsuspecting people....

Mike, me and Dad, happy trekkers on the Ben (Photo: Jon Marshall)

Firestone Sessions: #3

Managed a quick run on Sunday evening to see how things were shaping up on the slab. Personal best of 50 minutes from car to crag, but think this could be trimmed down substantially.

Run-in tunes: Son of Red Mixtape by Stevious.

Good news: The top snow patch and almost all of the bottom one has disappeared. Bad news: The route is dry; no more excuses. Except, this one: as soon as I got on the route it started to rain. Using my GCSE physics I deduced:

holdless granite slab + water = low friction

Abbed the line to check the cam slot: it takes a Wild Country Zero 4. Going to have to weigh up the psycological advantage of knowing I've got some gear to go for, even if I've done all the hard climbing by then, against the faff of trailing a redundant rope for the very thin first 12 metres. However, there's a long way to go before I need to worry about that.....

Run-out tunes: None, my ipod battery is crap.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Not Amused

Saturday was free and I was looking forward to some more lone slab warrior action on Firestone and another blue-sky day like this:

However, when I looked out of the window on Saturday morning I saw this:

Now, I don’t know much about the intricacies of global weather systems, but it’s June and this is just bloody rude. I spend weeks shoveling snow, crossing fingers, doing ritual dances and sticking pins in voodoo snow flakes to get rid of it from the project, and it starts falling out of the bloody sky again. Rude. Plain rude. What the hell am I supposed to blog about now?

Well, I’m afraid you don’t get to miss the dubious pleasure of the weekly Soft Rock sermon that easily, so instead I’ll find something else to witter on about.

Here are ten random thoughts rattling around my hollow skull:

1. The BBC have been bigging up poetry of late in their Poetry Season. Big thumbs up. Don’t worry boys, there are some manly poems in there too. Grrrr.

2. Just finished Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It’s very good, but I fear that books that take a few days to finish will be forgotten in roughly the same time. Just started Crime and Punishment to alleviate said fear.

3. Managed to keep the positive momentum up from the start of the rock climbing season and have managed a few routes I’ve wanted to do for ages: The Magic Crack, The Needle, Dracula, The Bug, Pete’s Wall, to name but a few. Smug.

Starting up the mammoth pitch of The Bug at Creag Mor Tollaidh

4. Have noticed that words in songs/poems/films etc. bear more relevance when you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps. Every cloud has a silver lining.

5. My Dad just got called up to play for the England Over 55’s men’s hockey team. Now that is one cool cat.

6. Still rinsing out Mumford and Son’s tunes at high volume, but they’ve been joined by Lisa Hannigan as well. Folkey dokey. At the other end of the spectrum, looking forward to Kissy Sell Out’s forthcoming album.

7. My indoor bouldering abilities seem inversely proportional to my success at on-sight trad climbing. A small price to pay.

8. Just back from a day’s climbing near Gairloch. Slowly coming round to Jones’ view that Slioch is the finest Scottish hill. Looked particularly doom-laden and menacing under swirling purple clouds as we drove past.

9. Starting a load of fieldwork for some black grouse habitat research at work tomorrow. Are my bryophyte ID skills up to the task? That's mosses for those not in the know.

10. Not fallen off a route yet this year. The clock is ticking.

The pilgrimage to Loch Avon and granite heaven

That snow better melt soon otherwise I’ll have to think of ten more things for next week.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Spitting Distance

My car is crap.

Maybe that's not fair.

Maybe what I mean is that my confidence in my car is crap.

I can just about cope with the daily routine of the commute to work, but much further than this and I'm convinced that something is going to blow up. It's had enough trips on the back of recovery lorries for me to think that every bump in the road, every whirr of the engine, every twitch of the steering wheel is a crucial part of the under-carriage dropping off or snapping or burning or breaking. Often I'm sure I can hear a hideous noise emenating from beneath the bonnet, only to find that it's the music on the radio. I reach my destination a nervous wreck, terrified I'll never make it home again.

Obviously, this is mildly irritating. However, looking on the bright side it does mean that I have to look for fun on my doorstep (or rely on other people with cars that work). If I lived in a city centre or in the flatlands of South East England I think I'd have shot myself long, long ago, but luckily I don't. Fortunately for me, within spitting distance of my front door (if you can spit about 15 miles) is one of the finest playgrounds known to man. I may have mentioned it once or twice. It's called the Cairngorms.

Wearing my tree-hugging hat (it's hand-knitted with a bobble), the Cairngorms are a unique area of high sub-arctic mountain tops and remnant Caledonian pine forests. Rare plants and bugs and birds and mammals abound in some of the only wilderness that we have left in these isles. Just being here is a privelage. Wearing my climbers hat (it's a beanie with the word 'gnarl' emblazened across the front), it's a haven of granite peaks and cliffs, slabs and cracks, turfy corners and icy gullies. A higher concentration and diversity of world class routes is hard to come by in the rest of Britain. Wearing my runners hat (it's probably made of lycra and makes me look like a dick) it's a vast array of forest paths and rocky singletrack, high mountain passes and endless rolling hills.

If you combine these factors, sprinkle in a smattering of blue skies and rub in a big serving of energy and effort, you might just find paradise.

Firestone Sessions
Friday: A run over the back confirmed that the snow is still steadily creeping away from the bottom and top of the slab. The melt-water from the upper snow patch is dribbling down the initial 12m section (the crux), but this should stop once the snow has all gone (not too long now). The top 12m is dry.
Saturday: Returned to the Loch Avon Basin and climbed a route on Hell's Lum with Colorado David. The 25 degree heat was doing wanders for the snow melt on the Lower Slab. More crag-swag: a sling and wiregate Krab on pitch 1 of The Devils Alternative and a nice new wire from the top pitch of The Magic Crack in Coire an t'Schneachda.
Sunday: Back to Firestone on my lonesome. Walk- in tunes on the ipod: Mumford and Sons - Love Your Ground EP and The Cave and the Open Sea EP; The Octopus Project - Hello, Avalanche; Lisa Hannigan - I Don't Know.
More digging from the top and bottom snow patches. I found a better anchor than previous and set up a top rope. Abbed the route and found a small cam slot protecting the top section, trouble is, you've done the hardest climbing by then. Worked the dry top section on the shunt. Pretty easy. Worked the dry line next to the wet lower section (it's not the route, but looks like a section of similar climbing: delicate, balancy friction). Delecatable. Took a while to learn how to trust non-holds but eventually managed to link the whole thing into the top of Firestone. Still a few metres of snow to go from the bottom which will add quite a lot of height to the crux. Awesome. I Imagine that working the route from the safety of a top-rope is going to feel 'fairly' easy, but doing it solo will be quite a different prospect. Soloed Hell Gates before dropping the shovel down the rundkluft (gap between snow patch and slab). It's going to remain there until the snow recedes. Arse.
Walk-out tunes: Kissy Sell Out - Are People Real Mix; Doug Stanhope - Deadbeat Hero.
Bring on the melt.