Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Power down. Cough, snuffle, sniff, groan. Oh woe is me, man-flu I hate thee!

I'm very rarely ill and have been very rarely injured, but here I am, cut down in my prime by this vile wintry pox. The flu. Or is it just a bad cold? No, it's bronchitis, surely. I'm not used to being incapacitated, what are you supposed to do?

I'll sit here and grumble quietly to myself and polish off the last of the festive confectionery. You don't mind do you?

Well, that's 2010 been and gone. I was proudly in bed by 12.15 on new years night. Bah humbug, cough, splutter, grumble grumble. Actually I rather like waking up on the first day of the year hangover free. Trying to make a big event out of something that just isn't always leads to a disappointed melancholy when it's all over, all you have is a hangover and a mild feeling of depression to show for it.

From a climbing perspective, 2010 was a funny old year. I'm chalking it up as a year of consolidation, rather than one of progression. I don't think I did much that was harder than anything before, I just did a bit more of it than previously. I bouldered and sport climbed more than before - mainly thanks to the rain and convenience, but also because I was introduced to the endless supply of Torridonian sandstone and Lewisian Gneiss in the North West. Trad started OK but never really got going as the summer monsoon stepped in.

Hopefully 2011 will be a chance to up the trad output. To do this I need to be ready to pounce as soon as the Highland spring begins. The pre-midge dry season is so short and arrives so soon after winter it's hard to be ready. A winter of pulling on plastic can only do so much good as it's my head that always lets me down first. I think a large amount of practice falls and sports mileage in February and March are required. And of course there's the growing list of sport routes and boulder problems that will require serious attention if they're ever to be completed, plus getting a job, plus going winter climbing, and learning to ski and staying on top of the running. Tricky tricky.

In the mean time, Jones and I have been down in Staffordshire and Somerset visiting family. Both our contracts ended just before Christmas so we're currently free agents (anyone got any work?). I've managed to slink out into the cold a few times for a quick boulder. Un-named tidal limestone problems at Brean Down were the best I could manage in Somerset but Staffordshire's Roaches have been a bit more accommodating. On Christmas Eve most things were still covered in snow but C3P0 on the Spring Boulders was worth the drive alone. Yesterday things were dry but baltic so I didn't stay still for very long and The Staffordshire Flyer and Wild Thing were the highlights among lots of easy circuit problems. We'll be back home in Aviemore by the end of the week when serious job hunting and playing in snow can commence.

Happy New Year y'all.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

1000 Words

The nature of winter rock climbing generally means projecting hard boulder problems and sport routes. Short cold days aren't conducive to casual days of tradding, so I spend my time attempting to make incremental gains. Sometimes it feels like banging my head against a wall, but I know that the feeling of hard-fought success will be worth it if I complete even one of my growing list of projects...

Here's the latest Soft Rocking....

It's pretty rare that I get to report a success, but as previously reported, Masonic Fingershake at Cummingston finally gave in.

After the turbo-thaw Torridon was back on the agenda. There's not much left for Richie to do at the Celtic Jumble, so now he has to work on the desperates. Here he's trying Dave MacLeod's Frantic.

After a rapid flash by Richie, I managed to scrape myself up Mike Lee's Girls in Their Summer Dresses. (Photo: Richie Betts)

Another Am Fasgadh Sunday Session. Here Rich battles with Bog Talla. Given The Sheild's regular wetness I'm switching my attentions to the drier line of Primo. It's the first route I've been on that I've not been able to do all the moves after the first session. I think this might be a whole-winter seige. Bring it on.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Mixed Feelings in the Dark

I get mixed feelings as the cold continues to grip onto Scotland and starts to squeeze hard. Every man, woman and their dog in Aviemore seems to have donned their luminous baggy clothing and thousands of pounds worth of skiing kit (how do they all afford it?) and joined the queues on the pistes.

Part of me feels like I should too, or at least be out ticking winter climbs. I mean, why live in the Highlands and put up with it's generally crap weather if you're not really fussed about playing in the snow? I'm not sure what it is that puts me off. I guess sharing the same small bit of hill with every Tom, Dick and Chummer isn't exactly my idea of a fun time, regardless of how much you have to pay on kit and up-lift to get there. And as for winter climbing, it still holds an attraction, in the right place, at the right time, but wading through ball-deep avalanche debris to dig around in powder and stare into the same mist-obscured corrie isn't it. Give me a bit of freeze-thaw, some sunshine and a new mountain to explore and I'll probably be a bit keener.

So, I've been skiving off from winter and making use of the cold dry northerly by bouldering at Cummingston. Last weekend poor Chris was up from Edinburgh and heavy snow meant we couldn't get across to Ben Nevis. Naturally we ended up sheltering in the big cave at Cummy, as you do, and it was in good nick. This Saturday I returned with the Betts but a slight thaw meant it was a grease-fest. All except for the secret weapon: The Corridor. As luck would have it we were both armed with lamps to stave off these early December nights, so were able to light up the through-cave between Doubt Wall and the big Fingerlicker cave, and not only was the rock dry, it was beautifully wave-worn and harder than the rest of the crag. Time to make hay.

One problem I found looked fairly innocuous but kept kicking me to the floor. Slapping up an arete, spanning away to a pinch and stubbing blindly for a rounded-toe edge under a bulge. It looked so easy. Eventually Richie showed the way and just as I started to make progress the batteries waned and the shadows grew and we had to bail, blinking into the daylight. Empty-handed.

The future of raining/snowy days? Richie in The Corridor (Photo: Richie Betts)

With charged batteries, rested fingers and the return of colder air I went back on Sunday and saw off the problem. I called it The Enemy Within, and assume it will never be repeated cos it's in the dark, which is a shame really. Afterwards I put the cherry on my already pleased cake by doing Masonic Fingershake, which I've tried on and off for about 2 years so was rather chuffed.

Quick! The batteries are running out! Me trying The Enemy Within on Saturday. (Photo: Richie Betts)

Monday, 22 November 2010

Holy Buck

Time was short this weekend. All activities centered around a mad dash to and from Glasgow on Saturday night to the Buck65/Holy Fuck gig at King Tut's - Sarah was working on both Saturday and Sunday so we had to be there and back in one night. A bit of a mission but it was well worth it. There's a bit of a Canadian band invasion over the next few weeks and there's another night-raid in store when the elusive and truly god-like Godspeed You! Black Emperor play at Barrowlands on Dec 8th. It's no exaggeration to say that seeing them will be the realisation of a life ambition. Oh yes.

So, not enough time on Saturday to head oot west (and not much decent weather) and not enough wakefulness to join the Am Fasgadh Sunday session. So, I took a gamble with a local venue I'd been keen to explore for a while, the Creagan Soillier boulders at Laggan. Mike gave them a brief write-up in his local guide, saying something about them making a good wee spot if people made the effort to climb there and keep them clean. So, armed with several wire brushes (the Homebase Value set is a bargain at £2.98 for three different sizes), ipod, flask and gardening gloves, I was all ready for a voyage of discovery.

Now, I'll admit that in my keenness to get out in the past I've been guilty of cleaning and climbing on some pretty desperate bits of choss, and my fear was that these would be just another non-venue - dirty, small, eliminate - but in all honesty, I was impressed. Set on the slopes below the broken crags of Creagan Soillier, above the oft-driven through village of Laggan is a small boulder field: cleaved from the hillside, debris from geological history. Most of the blocks are too small to bother with, but amongst them are five or six big beasts, worthy of bouldering note anywhere, let alone the backwater of Strathspey.

I spent Saturday hiding from showers under a blank highball leaning face - a project for the travelling wad - with more convenient lines up either side (although sit-starts will bump them up to meaty grades). Between showers I took a few strolls around, checking the other blocks for the next visit on a dry day.

And Sunday was the dry day. Blinking through the fug of sleep deprivation, a looming cold and fatigue from trying the same move fifty-times in a row the day before, I staggered back up the hill to the blocks. So, I had a bit of a circuit boulder - working my way through the boulders, trying lines, failing on most, getting up others. The only problem I kept coming up against were damp mossy/licheny top-outs. I did what I could, but next time I'll do more brushing and less climbing. It won't take much though, and with a bit of publicity and the passage of more feet this should become known as a decent, accessible central Scottish venue. If only...
Where I hid from the showers for most of Saturday: Two well-chalked holds and lots of steep blankness.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Working at it

Just another brilliant wee problem we found in Torridon (Photo: Richie Betts)

The annual brief punt at being a runner is over for another 10 months so it's a chance to try to fulfil my ceaseless ambition to actually become an OK climber. I've got high hopes for a winter of training and getting strong, but lets be honest, I've had this hope every year for a while and I'm still a weak and scared punter. To get psyched for the OMM I got into reading lots of Mark Twight's thoughts from the Gym Jones website: maybe it's time to take his advice, turn up the punk rock and get all medieval on the fingerboard. Quotes like

"Acquiring the spirit necessary to win, which includes a positive acceptance of pain, is difficult in a society where comfort is more highly regarded than capacity. When genuine physical fitness is the norm for so few it is hard to avoid being dragged into the morass. You become what you do. How and what you become depends on environmental influence so you become who you hang around. Raise the standard your peers must meet and you'll raise your expectations of yourself. If your environment is not making you better, change it. We did."

get me all psyched for a Fight Club-style rebellion, quit my job and live the dream. But who am I kidding? Difinately not my bank manager. Just got to fit the beastings around the rest of life.

Last winter - the winter of all winters - I made the strange choice of ignoring the cold stuff and concentrating on trying to be a rock climber. I justified the decision to myself when I redpointed The Warm Up at Am Fasgadh and started to discover the wealth of brilliant boulders in the North West. I feel like I'm still on that trajectory from last winter, still exploring, just on the edge of getting up some routes and problems that might herald a new standard for me. I just need to apply myself a bit more.

Saturday saw a tiny bit of progress on Malc's Arete in Torridon - still failing at the same place as before, just failing slightly better. Train, train train and return. Sunday was the first of (hopefully) many winter Am Fasgadh Sundays, with the local beasts wadding about in typical Am Fasgadh style (i.e working hard projects). I had my first look at The Shield, which will hopefully become a winter project, so long as it's not too wet. First half OK, second half hard. My lack of consistent route-climbing really shows in a) getting pumped 3 metres off the deck, and b) being scared of falling. I think the latter is really the thing that holds me back the most in all my climbing and is something I need to confront.

In Highland boulder news, strong munro-bagger and Scotrail-sponsored youth Murdo Jamieson (I stole that quote from Richie) made the second ascent of Richie's monster prow The Essence in Torridon, after three specific weekend raids from Glasgow. Beast. I'll post a video ASAP. And just in, Richie added a sit start to his own Applecross creation The Universal in Coire nan Arr yesterday, making it longer and "proper 7b". Like I know what that means. Video here.

Murdo in heaven on The Essence, looking out at Liathach. (Photo: Richie Betts)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Warm Glow

3, 2, 1, go - run - check the map -run - check north - fight through the slow starters - wrestle with the over sized map, finally fold it into a manageable shape - confer with Duncan, confirm control 1 - run - link tracks to sheep trods, line up the walls and the tor on the skyline - run - there's the river, find a crossing point - run, the first deep breaths up the first hill - check the next leg - reach the tor, Control 1 - Beep - Go.

And continue....

It's been a few days now since I got back from the OMM. Enough time for the dust to settle and the worst of the pain to subside. Enough time for the worst of the misery to be forgotten, leaving only the spirit-soaring highs. I'll say this much: it was a long old way. Dartmoor isn't blessed with big hills, and it's got it's share of fast terrain. To make it hard the organisers just had to keep us going. And going. So that's what we did.

52km on day 1; Dunc and I laughed when we first saw it printed on the map - we almost cried between those last painful controls. At least it was clear and dry, making for easy navigation and route choice. The weather turned that evening, making for a long loud night of wind and rain howling and beating at our cocoon.

Day 2. We stirred as the heavy showers continued and started the admin - breakfast, blister plasters, hydration, the queue for the portaloo. Slowly, gently, wake up the legs. Pull on the wet shoes, hope the blisters don't bite too badly. Join the hubbub and excitement at the start line. 3, 2, 1, go.

5 hours 22 minutes later we emerge out of the cloud and stumble over the finish, a wet, wheezing mess, miles of bog and hill behind us. An overall time of 12 hours 45 over the 2 days, just shy of 90km in a straight line, more in reality, puts us in 8th place behind the big guns. Happy days.

Same time next year? I expect so.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


Falling leaves, burnished golden hillsides, the first snows - the clock inevitably ticks towards the OMM next weekend. The training runs start to wind down to the all important tapering period before the race (more time free for climbing). Team admin begins (the classic cous cous vs. Smash debate). Old race maps lie strewn around the house, studying route choices, brushing up on navigation. The October traditions of the last seven years.

Living and training up in the Highlands, I'm hoping Dartmoor will feel relatively warm and dry, but I won't hold my breath - these events have a good record of attracting the worst of the elements.

It's now at the stage when there's not much more I can do to prepare. Now it's time to sit it out, think, relax. Be ready for the first glimpse of the map and the sound of the starter's airhorn -then it's time to act.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Still There

I've managed to stay on the tightrope a bit longer. Another climb/run weekend passes with a trip down to auld reekie and The County. Back Bowden in the harr on Saturday allowed enough dry rock for a nice wee boulder and route or two. I'd not encountered trad climbing for a while so got a good work-out on the 3-dimensional The Arches.

Sunday was the real reason I headed south: the Pentland Skyline race. The cloud was down the whole way, making some of the intricate route finding tricky, but I was pleased to come in 15th. 2 places higher than last year, although 3 minutes slower; I'm blaming the weather for those 3 minutes. Konrad was 6 seconds behind in 16th and OMM partner Duncan came 21st, so OMM prep is in good shape. Dunc's sister Katie was the final Team Towers member to cross the line, in a very respectable sub-4 hour time. High fives all round.

The big news, however, is that Mr Betts got his Torridon project on Saturday: The Essence. Not many lines like that hanging around. The Bettsmaker is beggining to pay off. Nice one bruvva!

Richie on a previous session working what would soon become The Essence, Font7b+ish: a perfect highball line low on Seanna Mheallan, Torridon.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Despite last weekend's little mishap with the disappearing bothy I've tried to keep up with the OMM training. Having spent the summer doing survey work in the hills I think I've got an OK base of fitness, which I'm adding to with a few intense short runs in the week and longer hill runs on the weekend. This Saturday's run was a nice circuit in the Coulin Forest, south of Torridon.

Running is a lot like hillwalking I guess, as it's a great way to get out and explore places you don't know. Fortunately it doesn't take as long and doesn't require knee-length red socks. Over the years of inhaling the contents of climbing guidebooks some hill names become engrained in the memory, but I still don't really know where some of them are, and more importantly, how you get to them in the pre-dawn dark of a frosty winter. So, after this latest run I now know a wee bit about Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh and their beautiful cliffs. Will this be the year I get to see their wintry side?

The only problem I'm having with OMM training this year is that I'm equally psyched for climbing as I am for running, and trying to do as much as possible of both is a delicate balance. As much as I'm really looking forward to the imminent OMM suffer-fest, I'm also looking forward to that time when it's over and I can knuckle down into the autumn sport and bouldering season. Projects ahoy!
Sport project: Mactalla at Goat Crag. I had my first proper play this weekend and was muchos impressed. (Photo: Murdo Jamieson)

Boulder project 1: Malcolm Smith's Arete, Torridon. Beautiful line, beautiful place, hard. Perfect.

Boulder project 2: The Scientist, Brin Rock. Fairly local, very hard (for me), a long term goal. (Photo: Richie Betts)

Monday, 27 September 2010

Finding Stones and Losing Bothies

Sunshine points the way to the Coire na Arr boulders, Applecross

At last! Sunshine!

Our meteorological masters have granted a reprieve from the incessant rain: time to pounce.

Richie was keen to head out to the mythical Applecross peninsula to explore some sandstone beauties he’d spied last winter. I’d seen this picture of them on his flickr page and was PSYCHED. So, at 9 o’clock on Saturday the team assembled in Inshes Tesco car park: Richie, Blair, Jenny, myself, a stack of pads, tarp, brushes, flasks and plenty of skin. Oh, yeah, forget the last bit – my tips were already shredded after a prolonged wrangle with micro-holds at Burnside in the week, and I’d shut the car door on them on Friday night. Fool. But anyway, off we trotted.

Ignoring the well-documented Kishorn Boulders, our destination was a fair poke up Coire nan Arr, lurking in the the shadow of the towering Sgurr na Choarachain. It’s at such magical places as these that real treasures lie for those willing to put in the effort of reaching them, and we were not disappointed: cresting the final boggy hummock half a dozen big free standing blocks of the cleanest Torridonian sandstone hove into view. As Richie gave us the tour-du-bloc the roar of the stags rumbled down from the hills above, setting the scene for a perfect day.
The official advert for Scottish bouldering: Richie on his own creation with Cioch Nose beyond.
Concentrating on Blair's central slab problem; the real line of the slab still awaits an ascent...

Richie's Flickr site has more, better pics.

Afterwards my weekend took a rather less successful turn. I'd planned a big run round Loch Arkaig on Sunday, so on Saturday night ran into Invermallie bothy in Glen Mallie, only to find that it wasn't there. I spent a moonlit hour searching high and low, near and far. I re-traced my steps, checked and re-checked the map and never found it. Being half ten at night I decided to run back to the car, sleep in it and do a slightly different run the next day. But alas, as reliable as my Kia Rio has been since I bought it last year, it's no good for sleeping in. As I tried to rub some life back into my cramped and folded legs I realised that I wasn't going to be in a good state to run anywhere in the morning, so bleary-eyed and somewhat peeved I decided enough was enough and started home at 4am.

A bit of googling the next day informed me that a new track has gone into Glen Mallie and isn't on the OS maps, so, the bothy was the best part of a kilometre from where I was, which, it seems, is a long way in the dark. Arse.

After a quick snow-evading run into Coire an t-Schneachda in the morning I went for a sunny afternoon's bouldering up at Burnside, where, two strange things happened. Firstly, I managed a project I'd tried but failed on before, but secondly, and even more excitingly, for the first time ever, I met some other climbers there! Madness!

The first ever queues at Burnside.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Tis the season

Some punter doing the 2009 Pentland Skyline. Photo: Bill Fairmaner

I'm pretty sure I've written a blog entry at this time every year for the last three years saying the same thing; but really, where did the summer go?

It only seems like yesterday that it was June and I was dangling off a very big rope half way down a large Hebridean cliff, and now look at it: the leaves are turning and the first dusting of snow has been reported on UKC. Surely it's only a matter of time before someone claims a winter ascent of Pygmy Ridge. For me, this time of year means donning the lycra and heading out running in the hills. Yes folks, it's OMM season.

I've done the OMM, or KIMM as it was, every year since 2004, so despite it being down on Dartmoor this year (mountain marathon, seriously?) I'm signed up again. I've run it with the same chap, Duncan Steen, for the last 5 years, each year doing better than the last, so the aim is high and the training is in full affect. I try to do one big hill run every weekend for the two months leading up to the race at the end of October, which means I generally don't get too upset if the weather is too crap for climbing (which it seems to be), and I get to bag one or two otherwise unheard-of Munros. Runs I've got lined up in the next few weeks are a circumnavigation of Loch Arkaig, which I've wanted to do for ages for some reason, and the Pentland Skyline race down in Edinburgh. Psyche.

Mainly, though, its an excuse to wear short shorts and lycra.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Cake Shop Block

My my, it's been rather quiet here at Soft Rock Towers of late. Life seems to be getting in the way of most of my attempts to climb: people to see, places to be, work and weather. Same old for 99.9% of climbers I guess.

Last weekend I was visiting the folks down in Somerset and had a morning on the sport routes at Brean Down, the Costa del Bristol, and was suitably impressed by the sun-drenched continental style limestone. Resting between routes, with the August sun beating down and the grasshoppers chirruping nearby I could have easily mistaken the place for any Mediterranean sport destination. Warming up on Brean Dream and Coral Sea allowed for a quick redpoint of Pearl Harbour, a good F7a that contrasts a start on steep buckets with a thin balancy climax. Of course, all too soon it was time to pack up and head to Bristol for the Old Duke Jazz Festival. Nice....

But, anyhoo, time for the exciting news you're all clamouring for. As hinted at in the last Soft Rock I've been cleaning up a new bouldering spot near Aviemore, and it's about time I showed it to the world. So, here's the beta:
Last winter, while working on the RSPB's National Capercaillie Survey I stumbled across a rather large, rather green, crag in Inshriach Forest, only a few hundred metres from the road. Well, after realising that Aviemore was in dire need of more evening venues I eventually went back this summer to see what was what. After walking the length of the jungle/crag (a few hundred metres) I finally came across a wee cave at the far end and set to work with trowel and brush. They say that the great sculptors can look at a rough block of stone and see the shape of their creation already inside it. Well, it wasn't exactly like that, but I knew there was promise from the start, so over a few weeks I made it my wet-weather project. And now, a month or more later I think it's more or less ready for public consumption.

So, with all the normal disclaimers and caveats: this is a Strathspey bouldering venue, it isn't Font or Rocklands or even Dumbarton, this is a dank, north facing schist crag in the middle of a forest. However, if you happen to be hanging around the area for any length of time and are looking for somewhere to provide an hour or two of pleasure, you'll probably have a good time at The Cake Shop Block (so named because it's close to the truly amazing Potting Shed cake shop at Inshriach Nursery. Consequently I accept full responsibility for the sickening cake pun problem names.) As a bonus, for some unknown reason, it isn't midgy. Wahoo!

The Cake Shop Block. NH 868062 (ish), called Creag Ghlas-uaine on OS Explorer 403.
Directions: Head south from Aviemore on the B970, passing Inshriach Nursery and Inshriach House. A few hundred metres after Inshriach House there is a small layby, leading to a grassy forestry track (closed green gate) on the left. Park here and head up the track into the forest, circumventing a large fallen tree, after which the track turns left and becomes indistinct. Here strike off uphill until a long vegetated crag is seen ahead. The easiest thing to do now is follow the crag eastwards (left) until it peters out and an obviously cleaned cave is found. (That's not actually the quickest way from the car, but you'd definitely get lost if I wrote it down, trust me).
The crag is a rough schist (similar to nearby Farletter, but rougher) and consists of a long low roof at the base of a slab. The best independent problems all breach the roof one way or another and are all pretty straight forward. The obligatory lip traverses are probably the hardest and best problems, and as with all 'local' boulders the scope for eliminates is pretty big. The back wall under the roof does seem to seep so wait for a good period of dry weather, but this doesn't affect the best problems (lip traverses).
Steve hanging a fat sloper.
Problems so far are:
The Black Forest, V4/5. Right to left lip traverse without feet on the back wall, starting at the far right of the roof, finishing up from the central square jug.
Sloper action on The Black Forest. (Photo: Steve Crawford)
The Filling, V2. Based around two small slopers on the lip near the right end. Climb direct from as low as seepage allows.
Eplekake, V0. Left to right rising traverse. Start from the corner and pull through the roof from the central square jug.
In The Gateaux, V4/5. Left to right low lip traverse without feet on the back wall. Sit start in the corner and finish up from the central square jug.
The Cherry On Top, V4. Up the hill left of the main bouldering area is a short steep wall: climb edges from a sit start.
The Cherry On Top, (Photo: Steve Crawford)

Monday, 16 August 2010

Something Stirs in the Darkness...

Just back in from the first proper session bouldering at a wee rock I unearthed in the Forest near Aviemore. It still needs a bit more work before it's anything other than a dank hole (in fact, it might always be that), but it's definately got potential, including this wee number which succombed on the next go:

I'll post more info and a topo when it's a bit more presentable...

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Strathspey Climber Part 3: Boulders

Fourtet and Walking on Aviemore's Waterfall Boulder.
Continuing with my theme of the delights of being a climber living in Aviemore I’m now going to show you round the bouldering we’ve got to hand.

For me, it’s probably more important to have some semi-decent bouldering nearby than it is to have good cragging. Sure, I prefer to climb routes, but when you and everyone else works for a living we all know it can be tricky to co-ordinate a steady supply of partners. Sometimes it’s just easier to head out for a lone boulder after work. So, now I’m sure you’re wandering why I’m so happy living in Aviemore, since it’s hardly known as a bouldering Mecca? Well, look again. OK, maybe adjust your views of what comprises a quality boulder, then look again.

Unlike the brilliant bouldering that Fort William climbers have so close in Glen Nevis there’s no single venue in Strathspey, but if you start to hunt around and are willing to put in a little brush- or spade-time there is plenty of potential out there. Over the last few years a few intrepid Aviemorons (for that we are), led by Mike Gale of G2 Outdoor, have been scouring the area for rock and compiling them in a local’s guide. And the truth is that there’s actually quite a lot out there, it just needs more keen folk to open their eyes and get out to clean things up and keep them that way.

I definitely think that that’s one of the big differences between Highland climbing and elsewhere – there just aren’t as many climbers. I’m pretty sure that there are places in Strathspey that are in exactly the same state as some well known venues elsewhere were when they were first developed, the difference is that in the Lakes or Wales or the Peak there’s a steady stream of boulderers keeping them clean and chalked, so they become reinforced as quality places to go. Up here, exploratory bouldering is in it’s infancy so we’re still waiting on that steady stream…

Anyway, enough moaning, lets go climbing:

I’ll start close to town, heading through the forest to Burnside Bouldering Wall. Dappled with sunlight beneath the birch trees on the edge of the Burnside plantation, this clean wee wall is the Aviemore local’s secret training crag. The endless there-and-back traverse is great for endurance training, with just good enough rests at each end, and now that Mark and Gregor have cleaned the top there are a few good (and rather tricky) up problems too. When you’re done here, and if you don’t mind a walk, a kilometre or so further up the hill is the Waterfall Boulder. It might not be perfect for an out-of-the-car post-work session, but the location and views across the strath make up for the walk. This odd block is perched over a small burn, providing a couple of lip traverses, a few easier ups and some eliminate hardness, just don’t fall in!

A rough video of the Burnside Traverse.
While you’re sitting there, supping from your flask with adrenaline-shaking hands, you can’t help but look across to the granite corries of the Cairngorms and wonder about the bouldering potential there. You’ll be sad to know that, bizarrely, given the amount of bare rock, there isn’t that much bouldering. Unless you fancy a long trek into the Loch Avon Basin with your pad (which is to be recommended, I hear) your best bet is to head to the Link Road Boulder above the ski road. I had dismissed this as a bit of a silly stone until recently - the problems are all granite slopey weirdness that seem to take me ages to fathom - but with my new ‘local = worthwhile’ hat on I’ve had a couple of really good sunny evenings up there recently. Although the problems are limited, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The other accessible Cairngorm spot is Cranberry Rocks, up in Coire na Ciste, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t think any of the problems were worth the almost universally dodgy landings last time I went up there. I should probably go back with that hat on and prove myself wrong.

Continuing off the beaten track, have you ever heard of the Laggan boulders, or Inshriach, or Creag a’ Mhuilinn, or Pityoulish? Well, they’re all out there, waiting to be re-discovered and re-climbed and eventually, maybe, to be written up and published and expanded on. I grant you, the strength of Strathspey isn’t necessarily that it has the very best climbing nearby, it’s that is has a big variety within easy striking distance, and with enough active climbers doing their bit it could and should be recognised for that.

OK, enough spray. Now it’s time to get back in the car and head North up the A9 to the genuinely classy bouldering near Inverness. I’m no authority on the Inverness scene, but have spent a bit of time bouldering up there and can reel off a list of venues and problems that are as good as anywhere I've bouldered in Scotland (in good conditions!). Ruthven, Cummingston, Brin and Scatwell, to name a few. Over the past few years the likes of Richie Betts and the strong youths of Mike Lee and Ben Litster have started to put the Inverness area on the map for Scottish bouldering, so there's a fair bit to go at.

Forever failing on Masonic Finger Shake on Cummingston sandstone.

In my final (thrilling) installment of 'Strathspey Climber' I'll talk about all the other stuff you need to know about as a climber in these parts: walls, weather, coffee, beer, gear, etc.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Strathspey Climber Part 2: Ropes

Mr Winter goes all-rounder: Guy Robertson working Ubuntu at The Camel on a dreich summer's eve.
I may have mentioned this before, but the weather has been a bit pish recently. Consequently, I’ve been doing almost all my climbing close to home in Aviemore. Normally I would spend most of my time driving out to the West Coast, and although West is still best I’ve started to see my local crags in a new light. As such, I want to share my new found enthusiasm. So, first things first, lets stroll down to the Mountain CafĂ© for a coffee, then set off on an exploration of the local rock.

The Strathspey climber can split the local crags into a few categories. Obviously, we’ve got the Cairngorms - the big daddy show-offs like the Shelterstone and Hell’s Lum and the more accessible Northern Corries. Then down in the strath we’ve got the schist outcrops. After that come the not-as-local but still accessible crags up in Strath Nairn and round Inverness.

The Gorms
I won’t talk much about the Gorms; the acres of flawless granite are no secret and I’m by no means an expert. The fact that a whole large SMC guidebook is dedicated to them is proof that there’s a lifetime of climbing up there. But I will mention two things I’ve learnt:
1. Despite providing the backdrop to Aviemore life and just because they’re nearby doesn’t mean you climb there much. This year there’s been so much snow and so much rain that there have only been a handful of really good dry days this summer. I’ve only done 4 Cairngorm routes so far. However, last year was much better, so I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.
2. The Northern Corries are overlooked in summer. Despite being Scotland’s most popular winter crags, hardly anyone climbs there in the summer. This is possibly because there are very few well known routes, and the cleanest are all pretty easy, but a look in the guide shows that there are actually loads of things to go at, and the crags get sunshine late into the evening. And they’re only a 45 minute walk from the car, so perfect for post-work pleasure.

The Strath
In a perfect world we’d always be able to climb on pink Cairngorm granite, but cruel reality means we have to look elsewhere for our fun. This is where the schist crags come in. In their own right I guess most of these crags are minor venues with only local appeal, but I’m starting to realise that if you live near to them you might as well use and come to appreciate them.

So, lets start in the South at Creag Dubh, the jewel in the crown. Scotland’s premier roadside crag with over a hundred routes between Severe and E7, etc etc. It does have a reputation for scariness, but there are loads of routes and not all of them are death on a stick. The style is generally steep and positive (not my finest style) and I’ve been a bit soft and not done much there. Time to man up.

Starting up Cunnulinctus at Creag Dubh (Photo: Steve Crawford)

Moving North we next get to Kingussie Crag. I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Kingussie either, having only been there once. From what I hear, it is worth visiting, especially for the lower grades and is South-facing and open so less of a midge-fest than other spots. In fact, as I write this I’m wandering why I haven’t been more! North again we get to Farrletter, the one people always want to bolt or just top-rope. It's a funny old place but I am quite fond of it. Yes, it’s pretty bold, yes, it’s pretty hard, but I would argue that if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. I’ve done (or fallen off) 5 routes there, some of which were safe as houses, and I can personally vouch for the integrity of at least 3 of the old pegs. Saying all this, if someone did bolt it it would be a fun, if rapidly exhausted, local sport venue. Finally, Huntly’s Cave. Another ‘nationally’ known crag, steep, positive and safe. It can stay dry in light rain, but equally can get super-midgy, and it’s not huge so you do run out of routes do fairly fast. As an example I went there last night to try a route I'd not done. It was drizzly, warm and very midgy and I ended up bailing from an HVS. Not a fine hour...

Then we've got the other ones – Burnside, The Badan, etc.. If you thought Farrletter was esoteric then you aint seen nothin’. Scattered about the Strath are loads of wee faces and chunks waiting for you and your wire brush, but whether the attention they get will justify the effort is a different story.

One of Aviemore's strengths is it's location. Lots of places are easy to get to, if you're happy to put the miles in. In terms of climbing that is still local (less than an hours drive away) we have The Camel for long, steep, perma-dry pebble pulling on crazy conglomerate, and only 5 minutes from the car. An amazing stamina training crag, which is growing in popularity, and deservedly so. In fact, it's been the saviour of this wet summer so far. Then there's Duntelchaig. From what I hear it’s quite popular but I’ve only been once to climb the classic E3 Dracula. Must do better. Then a personal favourite, Tynrich Slabs for two-teired gneiss slabby goodness near The Camel. It’s quite small so there aren’t many routes, but the ones I’ve done have all been great and the rock is superb. Definitely should be more popular than it is. Finally there's Moy, The Camel’s friendlier cousin, with a few more routes and more in the 6s. Superb, long conglomerate pitches and only 5 minutes from the road.

Steve Crawford getting his feet into Puffball on the lower tier at Tynrich.

Well, I think that sums up the trad and sport climbing close to hand, so next time I'll get involved with the world-famous Strathspey bouldering. Prepare to be inspired...

Monday, 2 August 2010

Strathspey Climber: Part 1

Man alive, it’s been wet. I can’t remember a day when it hasn’t rained up here in Aviemore in the last month. So much for fleeing from the West Coast monsoons of Fort William to live in the dry Central Highlands. I got back from Pabbay in mid June, all psyched and keen for miles of mountain rock and sea-side cragging and have been shut down by rain at almost every attempt. I’ve always known that to be a climber in the Highlands you have to endure a substantial amount of crap weather, and if you can it makes the good times all the better, but honestly, it’s beginning to get a bit boring. I know Blair has bailed from the Highlands to North Wales for the rest of the summer.

I think it’s fair to say that North Wales is the Promised Land for most British climbers. It’s where everyone seems to live, or at least, it’s where everyone seems to spend a lot of time, and for good reason. Almost all the variety of styles of British climbing, including many of the very best, are accessible within a tiny area, so even if the weather’s crap there’s almost always something to do. Consequently there are loads of climbers around so it’s easy to find keen beans to get out with, and lets face it, that’s half the battle – finding folk to share the adventures. I think another reason it’s so popular is that despite being fairly tucked away and quiet, it’s not that far from big cities and modern amenities – you don’t have to be an all-out balls-out yokel to get on there.

So, I got thinking about the places in Britain where climbers seem to live and about living here in Aviemore and thought I’d write my musings down in a series of blogs. Maybe the Strathspey tourist board will hire me to promote the area for climbing bums.

Generally, when I tell non-climbers I live here they assume it’s a great place to live as a rock climber - with the Cairngorm mountains right here there must be no-end of rock to play on. But the truth is not so simple. As the highest continuous lump of ground in Britain The ‘Gorms are out of condition for most of the year – either they’re caked in snow or they’re hiding in a rain cloud, so we have to look elsewhere for rock. And while the high tops are capped with beautiful pink granite, down in the Strath we have to settle for schist, (I’m not being rude), and this schist seems pretty reluctant to bare itself.

Naked schist: Creag Dubh's Great Wall (Pic: Steve Crawford)

So, over the next wee while I’m going to spray a bit about my experiences of living here and the climbing we’ve got at our fingertips. Stay tuned...

Sunday, 25 July 2010


Isn't climbing brilliant? So many disciplines, so many challenges, so much to keep going back for. And in time, if you stick with it and try hard you might start to improve. But, of course, just when things are looking upwards and you start to get complacent you get a thorough kicking to remind you that the rock is still the boss.

Such was Saturday’s expedition to Covesea, an under-used sandstone crag on the Moray coast. Granted, I’ve not been able to do much trad climbing recently, and with it’s combination of seaside smeg, less than optimal rock and the odd sandbag grade I’m happy to take the beating like a man.

Richie on Banana Republic. 'One of the best routes here', which says a lot.

Then, on the flip-side I had a good evening at the Camel last night with Team Strong from Inverness. I made a quick redpoint of Inverarnie Schwarzeneggar, the F7a at the left of the crag, while Richie, Murdo and Andy ran laps on most of the other routes . Not a bad week for Andy, who made the first ascent of a new E7 at Glenmarksie Crag in Strathconon on Sunday (pic here) and did both Death is a Gift (F7c+) and Ubuntu (F8a) last night. He's done both these Camel routes loads before but this was the first time he'd done both in a session. Beast.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A Light in the Dark

A glimmer of light has flickered in the darkness of this wet July.

The wetness has continued and the only dry climbing I’ve found has been either up at the Camel or on the new Inverness centre of gnarl, the Bettsmaker.
The Bettsmaker (Photo: Richie Betts)

After getting psyched for the pump-fest of Paralysis by Analysis at the Camel two weekends back I’ve been back up a few times. One quick trip after work with Dunc in a rainstorm, one with Richie under a curtain of drips. On both trips I was agonizingly close to the top, either fumbling the last clip or not catching the winner flake and flailing for nothing. Then on Saturday I went up with Jones for a quick try before hitting the bright lights of Inverness. Armed with all the lessons from my previous tries I eventually found myself at the anchor, so pumped I could barely hold the rope to clip the lower-off but grinning like a madman. Perseverance pays off once again.

Counting down to failure on an earlier try on Paralysis by Analysis at The Camel

Sunday was even drier so the trad rack was dusted off and I headed north to meet Richie and find Invrness’ crag of the moment: Scatwell River Slabs. This impressive schist slab hangs above a swirling silt-dark pool in the river Conon, south facing and compact. It’s an unusual place to climb, in a way more reminiscent of sea-cliff climbing than a Highland outcrop as the routes require abseil access and the water gently laps away below as you teeter upwards. The only problem is that dirt and leaves collect on the slab and build up into a layer of slimy filth, under which it has languished for years. Then, up steps Ray Wilby with a wire brush and a whole lot of keenness and hey presto, there are some clean lines and even a new route to go on. We climbed The Tilting Yard (why are slabby corners so awkward?), The Joust (possibly the best route here?) and Ray’s new addition The Lance, then headed over to finish off on the Scatwell Boulder.

The Tilting Yard, Scatwell River Slabs (Photo: Ian Taylor)

There we have it, some dry rock, some trad climbing and a ticked project, not too bad for a July weekend in the Highlands.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Are you local?

Are you local?

The longest day has been and gone; the summer keeps ticking on. As is the norm in the Highlands the warm dry early summer months have finally given way to unsettled showery ming. You've got to concentrate to keep getting stuff done in these conditions otherwise before you know it the crags will be seeping and the lycra will be out for the impending running season.

A mix of meteorological conditions has meant that all my climbing has been local to Aviemore lately. The snow-melt and dry few months finally brought the Cairngorms into condition so I've had one or two pokes up there, mostly already chronicled here. But contrastingly the last few weeks have been quite a lot wetter, putting the mountains out of favour,and not making sense to head too far away. So I've had to make the most of what I have nearby. Time to bring on the projects.

On the route front I'm psyched for Paralysis by Analysis up at the Camel. 30 metres of sustained overhanging face climbing and weighing in at F7a+, this route truly inspires. I'm dangerously close to the tick, having lobbed from the final bolt twice now. I later discovered the local beta is to do the last hard moves before the clip but I'm not sure I'm brave enough for that so think I'll use an extender to clip from better holds. Stoked!

On the boulder front I've been up to Ruthven a few more times. Having done The Dude I was keen for Barry Manilow as the next mission but it's pretty eliminate and a bit beta intensive so I plumped for The Razor's Edge round the corner. In classic project style the first few sessions felt absolutely desperate and I felt like I was embarking on a long-haul adventure but somehow, and much sooner that expected, it all clicked and it was duly dispatched. Obviously I need a harder project, so what next?

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

To the hills...

After the amazing week out on the islands it feels like I've not been up to much lately, Work seems to have kicked off and I've been working some horribly long days, driving all over the place doing upland bird and habitat surveys. It's nice work and my hill-fitness is benefiting but I'm not too keen on work getting in the way of real life.

So, when not sweating up hills in search of our feathered friends I've had a few sessions up on the mighty Ruthven Boulder. I managed to climb The Dude, the twin to The Big Lebowski and although both get given the same grade it's defniately easier than it's sibling. Last time up I had a fight with The Razor's Edge and lost a large amount of skin to no avail. Hopefully soon I'll be back for another wrestle and maybe the tick.

On the other end of the scale I had a big day on Saturday on the Shelterstone with Chad. We warmed up on The Pin, although 'warm up' might not be the right term in it's current dirty state. Then we linked the first 3 pitches Steeple into the first pitch of The Spire into the last few pf The Needle. The original plan had been to climb The Spire but a combination of being very dehydrated after foolishly leaving all our water at the top of the crag, approaching drizzle, and the general hardness of the fist Spire pitch sent us scuttling up the Crack for Thin Fingers and the Needle Crack instead. By the time we emerged onto the plateau in the evening light the dehydration was in full effect. Tesco's blackcurrant and apple squash never tasted so good.

Chad starting up The Pin.

Chad on the first pitch of The Spire on our Shelterstone link-up.

I've found over the years that with the people I regularly climb with I'm often the stronger member of pair, and although this has some benefits it also means that I rarely get to follow harder pitches and to find out what to expect from them. It was good to finally climb with Chad because he's been climbing since I was a wee nipper and is fairly handy (he'll love reading this). Following that hard pitch on The Spire was pretty eye opening, and if I wasn't already, I'm pysched for the day when I can lead E4 in the mountains.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

FiveTen Rubber + Granite = Joy

Pre-crux on Perestroika on the Glasnost Slab, Hell's Lum.

Finally! At long last enough snow has melted to allow the first Cairngorm route of the year. Jones and I took our kit for a walk last Sunday afternoon, in the hope that something might be do-able and came back succesful. Most of the crags are clear but there's still a fair bit of the horrible white stuff left at the bottoms of routes; Mess of Pottage still needs a bit of time before convenience evening cragging starts and most of Hell's Lum still needs a wee while.

It just goes to show how much snow we had this year because by this time last year I'd already had about 10 days up there. The amount of snow on Firestone on the lower slab is as high as it was when I first went over there in early May last year, and by this time it was clean and fall-off-able. Madness.

Anyhoo, the Glasnost Slab on Hells' Lum is in a weird-enough location to be snow-free below and seepage-free above so the balancy-friction account was opened with the esoteric Perestroika, direct up the beautiful red slab. After all the positive steepness of Pabbay and Mingulay it felt great to re-aquaint myself with the amazing marriage of Five-Ten rubber and Cairngorm granite, and the two didn't let me down. I'm back over there again tomorrow in search of classic ticks on the Shelterstone. Excited!

THAT view again.

Monday, 14 June 2010


The beggining...
It’s coming back again and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. It just keeps happening: a great big grin is creasing it’s way across my face. It’s the strangest thing, but ever since I left Aviemore last Friday and started the long journey westwards I’ve been breaking into impromptu fits of smiling and general merriment.

Exactly when the first one arrived I don’t recall. It might have been as the ferry set off from Oban, or perhaps it was as we put in to Castlebay on Barra under a perfect cloudless Hebridean sky. I’m sure by the time we met Donald the boatman the next morning I was already in the grip of the affliction and grinning relentlessly, and as we shuttled loads up to the campsite on Pabbay I knew I was done for. From then on, the whole week was a shambles of laughter and fun.

Rob and Helena 'balooning around' (his quote) on the juggy Sea An-enema in The Bay, Pabbay.

Topping out on Corncrakes for Breakfast on that first sunny evening as the seals sang across the waves and the lactic acid in my arms started to dissipate: that was a definite moment I recall it happening; climbing with Rob on the Banded Wall too. Then there was the day Alex, Rich and I were swallowed by the Grey Wall Recess twice and still came out laughing.

George having Corncrakes for Breakfast

The sensory overload of big sea-cliffs definitely seems to bring out the worst of this condition. The longer and more free-hanging the abseil; the more my mouth dries and hands tremble; the hotter the belay device at the bottom of the rope. The noisier and smellier the fulmars and razorbills and guillemots and shags; the closer the sea laps below and the bonxies swoop above; the bigger the yawning abyss below our feet and the steeper the ancient gneiss above: the bigger the smile at the end of it all.
Rich starting Sula on Dun Mingulay
The Puffin Burrow Hex

The harsh realities of island life: Espresso in bed and a terrible view.

Then on to Mingulay and it just got worse. A giant basking shark seen from the top of one of the most impressive cliffs in the country: Dun Mingulay. Outrageously big holds on an outrageously big cliff: Sula; a route I’d dreamed of for a long time. Even when ranks of nesting guillemots scuppered some of our plans, escaping up a VDiff above rough green seas and leaping white horses fed the fever.

Iain treading carefully on Road to Ixtlan, Mingulay

And it wasn’t just me, we all seemed to be suffering. The look on Blair’s face after conquering Ship of Fools, Rob extolling Fulmar Squaw's virtues, Sam wooping and hollering on the way down to The Boulevard and on the way back up Lost Souls. In the end, as we watched the locals descend into drunkenness in the traditional Saturday night knees-up in the Castlebay Bar we all seemed to be sharing the same condition: browned, sun-baked and wind-swept, greasy-haired and bloody knuckled, and grinning from ear to ear.

Until next time...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Investment

Iain Small on Pitch 1 of Cosmopoliton (E5 6a,6b). The top pitch has yet to be onsighted, and when I left Blair was making ready for the attempt, How did he do?

After all last weeks grumbling and groaning about not getting any better at climbing I had a pleasant reminder that all's not totally crap yesterday.

On the way East from a few days working in Ardnamurchan I popped into Glen Nevis to see if I could catch a quick route with Blair and Iain. They were embroiled in E5 missions and I didn't have much time to play with, so instead I slipped off to the Heather Hat for a quiet boulder.

Longer followers of Soft Rock might cast their minds back to the Autumn and Winter of 2007-2008, when I used to live in Fort William and I got a bit obsessed with a boulder problem on the Heather Hat called Midnight in a Perfect World. I spent hours up on that lump of Nevis schist, trying, failing, resting, trying again. And when I finally finished it off on that February afternoon I promptly got obsessed with it's nextdoor neighbour, a problem called Killer Instinct. This eventually succombed to my similarly stubborn efforts. At the time they were both really hard for me, and when I first took up the Midnight challenge it was definately to be a long term project.

I've been back to this boulder a few times in the intervening years, and despite a few tries have never been able to repeat either problem again: they seemed to belong to that winter season in Fort William when all my efforts were focused on that perfect stone. Of all the routes and boulder problems I've tried before and since in my seven years as a climber, the hundreds of thousands of holds and moves, these ones still have the deepest stamp on my memory.

So, back to last night and there I was again; swinging from the roof beneath the ancient peaks of the Mamores, silently watching my every move; expectant. And before long I was back there, back to that season, that success-hungry hunt.

Except, this time it was different. Were the holds bigger or the problems shorter? Had the heel-toe jam become more secure? Maybe my new shoes allowed more precision? But, no, of course not. All that's happened is my investment has started to pay off and I am, perhaps, getting a bit better.

The bouldering wall on Sanna beach, Ardnamurchan, perfect post-work fun.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

No Cigar

After rain intervened with our plans Blair took Richie and I to Dave's Cave near Arisaig. It's hard.

I'm in a bit of a quandry.

After the small gains I made to my sport climbing and bouldering over the winter I've got it into my head that I should be able to up my trad game too. The problem is that I had forgotten that trad climbing is a much more complex beast; the gains don't come in such a linear fashion. It's not just a case of being able to hold on longer or pull down harder, you've got to be prepared to do it in a situation where the consequences are bigger. Training the mind is taking longer than training the fingers.

Over the last few weeks a theme seems to have formed; after warming up on an easier route I've got on something a bit harder and invariably been shut down. I've taken two sizeable lobs from the top of Too Farr for the Bear, the E4 crack at Farrletter, and downclimbed or backed off a succession of other E3s around the Highlands. What's going on?

Fighting on Too Farr for the Bear, prior to the big ride.

In my defence, all the routes I've gloriously failed on have been pretty steep, and either super sustained, bold, or with fiddly gear, so perhaps I'm just trying the wrong routes? As we all know, I'm a slab pervert at heart, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that all this steepness is doing me in. But what am I to do? Should I keep on trying routes in the hope that one day something will click and I'll start sailing up E3s, leaving behind a trail of blown onsights, or should I keep consolidating at E2 until I think I've improved enough? Oh, it's just so hard being me!

Racing the pump on the brilliant The Executioner, Seal Song area, Reiff. (Photo: Steve Crawford)