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...