Monday, 31 December 2012

....of 2012

To mark the march of time I'm compiling a list of 2012's finest.  The fire is glowing in the grate, the glass has been charged with an Ardbeg (the bottle's close to hand). Time to reflect.

Book of 2012:  The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt.
It was a fierce contest with Ross Raisin's God's Own Country but Byatt clinched it.  The Children's Book follows the fortunes of several families over the tumultuous 25 year period around the start of the 20th Century.  Personal stories of individuals set against a backdrop of the changing times: the Arts and Crafts movement, Queen Victoria's death, Suffrage, the rise of European Socialism, the First World War. A complete novel.

Tune of 2012: Bob Holroyd, African Drug (Fortet Remix)
Listen to this loud. 

Trad Route of 2012: Megaflake, E2 5c, Creag Rhoda Mor (aka Supercrag).
As single pitches go, this provided everything.  Long, sustained, brilliant rock, terrible rock, good gear, shonky gear, exposure, and a tricky finish.  And all on a sea cliff in Wester Ross, surely the finest place on Earth.

Sport Route of 2012: Snowflake, 7a+, Goat Crag.
The ego was tempted to go for Jam Sesion at Terredets but that was just a lucky holiday tick. Snowflake was an affair drawn out over several visits, requiring a fair effort.  Besides, the climbing is just plain fun, yarding on the biggest holds in the Highlands, and still getting pumped senseless.

Boulder of 2012:  Road to Domestos, 7A, Scatwell.
This one was hard to pinpoint as there aren't really any problems from the last year that really stand out.  Despite probably bouldering more than ever, I'm constantly trying problems and rarely succeeding. This one got the top spot as it was something I'd tried a few years ago and couldn't fathom, then tried again last Spring but didn't finally see it off until this Winter.  Great rock, classic moves and a lovely spot, but not a king line.

Spanking of 2012.
Where to start?  As an occasionally lucky boulderer, getting a kicking is a regular feature of my climbing.  The list of things I've tried and failed on is doubtless longer than the list of successes.  I think this award will have to go to Malcolm's Arete in Torridon, purely as it's the problem I've had my sights set on for ages, tried hard on, and still can't do.  No doubt it's hard, and harder the shorter you are (I'm not that short, but definately not tall!), it's very conditions dependent and, recently, it's been drenched.  2013 is the year.

Run of 2012
I've not run as much this year as normal, in an attempt to climb more, but I did have a few good days out.  The best (and hardest) was an attempt to link the last two Northern Cairngorm Munros I'd not done: Cairngorm car park to Beinn Bhreac via the Saddle and Fords of Avon, then up Carn a Mhaim via Derry Lodge, then back across the plateau via Ben Macdui and down the Goat Track.  The last 5 kilometres back to the car were messy.

The traditional dash to Dartmoor when visiting my folks at Christmas and last day out of 2012.  Amazing conditions in a strong wind meant the year ended on a high(ball) after I finally shook my way up Aerobic Wall - a long held ambition and quite exciting on my own above 2 small pads.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012


It's a virtue, they say.

I feel like I've been tested recently. Since coming back from Spain in late November I've only managed one day on dry rock. It's not that it hasn't been dry at times, it's just been a timing issue. Despite having 3 day weekends the dryness has always been midweek, when I'm normally waist deep in a bog, being paid to count deer shit.

I've got bored of checking the forecast, of driving out and waiting in the rain, of trying to dry holds, of asking around for conditions updates.  So, instead i've tried to make better use of my time, to be ready for when the stars align.  Every day that I would normally be trying to get out I've tried to have a good session on Richie's board or at the Inverness wall, tried to work on some specifics.

So, I'm down south for the festive season and the theme continues. My normal day at the Roaches has given way to a session at Mirf's Redpoint wall in Birmingham. I'm holding out for some Dartmoor granite when down at the folks' in Somerset but expect I'll be in TCA in Bristol.

Hopefully all these intense sessions of movement on a variety of steepness will be what's required for progress on the projects.  Let's hope the seasonal eat-athon isn't too detrimental to the regime....

Merry Christmas!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Torridon Diaries #3

It was wetter than forecast.  The snow flurries scurrying up Loch Torridon sent Richie and I bailing to the cafe in the village, to nurse a brew and wait for the weather to pick up.

Everything was still drenched when we made it to the Jumble, even Slot Crack, so we warmed up lapping Slot 1 then hid down in The Pit.  It's a reliable hideaway when everything else is wet.  I'd tried The Pittance before but a lack of ability and skin and the fear of the looming block to the right stopped me in my tracks.  It almost did again, but a lurching jump high above the pads eventually saw me at the finish jug.  Screw Rich's technique.

That previous try on The Pittance - don't hit the block! (Photo: Richie Betts)
The Ship was still wet so we went upstairs for Rich to have a tickle on Stokes Croft, DanV's 7c+ prow/arete thing.  What a problem, and what a location.  Rich is getting close, and it seems right that Mr Torridon should do one of the hardest problems there.

After diminishing returns started to set in we went back to the ground floor, spread the tarpaulin and I started to re-warm for the familiar attempts on Malc's Arete.  I'd heard there was the potential for going from an outside right edge on THE move so felt I had to try it before ruling it out.  Like all the other potential methods, it was no better than a straight up throw.  After studying Rich on his eight thousandth lap of it I had a go exaggerating the bend of my right leg on THE move and found my fingers over the hold.  Over the hold...  Of course, I didn't hold it, but it was clear that this has to be the way.

Friday, 30 November 2012

A Good Read

A quick hit to the limestone playground of Catalunya is the perfect tonic for climbers getting bogged down by the wet and cold at this time of year.  I was only out for a week, but it was enough to forget about the winter dark at home, and I managed to climb lots of brilliant routes at a range of crags, and to have a couple of fruitful redpoint battles.  There's nothing quite like that rare feeling of satisfaction when you're climbing seem's to be going OK.

Highlights were a quick redpoint of Jam Sesion, a cool 7b contrasting burly tufa with delicate wall climbing at Les Bruixes, Terredets, and somehow managing to onsight the 35m Ay Mamita! at El Pati, Siurana, as the last route of the trip.  I think being surrounded by very good climbers (Iain set the scene by flashing 8a on day 1, and onsighting 7b+ seemed fairly routine) made me raise my own expectations, not least because I knew they could get my clips back when I failed!

Anyway, a while back Blair wrote this blog about his favourite novels, prompted by how important reading during downtime on climbing trips is for him.  He reminded me about it on this trip (he was reading a very serious-looking translated French novel), so I've decided to do the same.  It's taken a wee while to think about these and compile a list, and I've tried to go for books that I enjoyed for their content, and for books that have meant something more to me. 

So, my top 5 novels of all time (so far...):

Salamandastron, Brian Jacques.
A slightly odd inclusion, not least of all because it's a childrens book about warring tribes of woodland animals.  I first read this when I was 8 or 9 years old, and it was the book that really whetted my appetite for reading.  My brother was given it for Christmas and I have vivid memories of sitting by the fire at my parent's cottage, engrossed in the woods on winter evenings before bedtime.  From then on I lapped up all of Jacques' books from his Redwall series and started to explore further afield. In fact, I kept reading his books as an adult, up until he died in 2011 (although Wikipedia tells me 2 more have been published posthumously - must get them!). 

The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens.
I must have been in my late teens when I read this, and it was a revelation when I discovered that stuffy old classics could actually be incredibly funny, poigniant, intelligent, satirical and, well, modern.  It was one of a few books that led me into me reading lots more 'classic' literature.  The book tells of the loosely-related adventures of the pompous but well-meaning Mr Pickwick and his friends in the Pickwick Club as they romp around Victorian England.

Black Dogs, Ian McEwen.
I always love Ian McEwen's books.  He writes about people so well, in a way that allows books in which not very much actually happens to be utterly enthralling from cover to cover.  This was a toss up between Black Dogs and A Child in Time, but there's something about the character Bernard in this book that I like.  Bernard believes that science "can cure the world's 'wretchedness'"; and is embarrassed by his wife June's "unbounded credulousness," her eagerness to buy into religion and mysticism.  I think I agree with him!

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy.
A classic Classic.  I've got a soft spot for Hardy: why use one word when ten will suffice?  As a bit of a country bumpkin myself, I think this description from Wikipedia part explains why I like the book:  [Tess] portrays "the energy of traditional ways and the strength of the forces that are destroying them".  Also, while perhaps not being a cynic, I do consider myself a reallist, and I know that sometimes life can be downright cruel; this is the story of Tess

The Children's Book, A. S. Byatt
This one's a bit of a cop out, as I've not actually finished it yet.  So far (I'm about halfway) it's been amazing; a tangled web of relationships among the artistically and politically active families that live around Romney Marsh at the turn of the last century.  The details and descriptions are so well written, and all of the (many) characters are mysterious yet somehow believable.  I'm including it for 2 reasons: firstly, I'm hopeful that it will become one of my favourite books, and secondly, it's a symbolic inclusion.  As the book I'm currently reading it's a nod to the never-ending journey of books.  There's never really a definitive favourite.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Working Goes

Winter days. Short, dark days. Cold, wet days. The horizons shrinks and the bigger picture blurs.  Time to get embroiled in projects.  This time of year is all about the detail; micro-exploration. Deeper relationships; not the brief acquaintances of the trad season, the lucky brush with a route that comes and goes. It's about getting to know something, and yourself.  Breaking it down, working with it.  Picking battles and chipping away at them. Small victories become big triumphs.

Malc's in Torridon is a given. I know those moves up to the last so well now. Sloping red rails, the sidepull crimp scar, sit over the right heel, intermediates leftwards, then pop. Ian offered some intriguing beta, something new to try. Can't wait to go back but it won't be until after next week's limestone pump in Spain.

For routes, Am Fasgadh is the perfect highland winter sport crag. Mostly perma-dry, all perma-brutal. I've had three days trying things there so far this season.  The Shield is all worked out and ready to go, it's a waiting game for the top wall to dry out now. Primo still feels solid; powerful and sustained. Saturday's session was spent lobbing half the height of the route trying the cross through into the crack at the top. A Sea Eagle cruised above and wondered what the fuss was about.

At last a small success: Road to Domestos at Scatwell Boulder finally caved in to my trying. A perfect woodland lowball hidden with the hazels above the raging Conon river.

It's a start.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Torridon Diaries #2

Saturday was Goat Crag with Tess, first time up there for ages, and first time on routes for about a month. Moving house and friends getting married play hell with consistent climbing. Not that I'm complaining, it's one of life's balancing acts that I'll forever be battling. I felt rusty but got stuck into Fidgy Muckers, one of the newer routes from Ian Taylor at the righthand end. Managed to throw it away a few times from the last moves, only to realise I was making it way harder by using a duff sequence. Too tired by then though. Classic Marshall puntering.

Back to Torridon on Sunday with Sarah to meet family Betts. More folk bouldering there than I've ever seen.  It's good to see the quality is being recognised but there's definitely a different atmosphere to the place when it's not just one or two mates. Guess we Highlanders are pretty spoiled.

Despite the time of year it was proper hot; tops off hot, slippery slopers hot. I consigned myself to only trying Malc's in the short spells when it clouded over and a breeze picked up. No more progress: I either need to find a way to keep a foot on for the big move or do something altogether different. The fat pebble out right keeps luring and trapping me, but there's a feeling that it could be the way. I think I need a session by myself in good nick to do some experimenting.

Rich was fresh from repeating Dan Varian's Days Go By at Kishorn the day before so happy to potter about in the heat and put chalk on problems for me. I'd not done Dandy Don's ArĂȘte or Swamp Monster Sit on the Ship so pleased to do them, then put the cherry on the cake by doing Put a Sock in it on the back of the Celtic Boulder, which I'd flailed at 2 weeks ago. Good nick and more skin this time and it felt better boning the teeny holds like a champ.

It's a rare day when Torridon allows success so a cheeky bottle of Timothy Taylor's Landlord was my reward when I got home. Livin' the dream...

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Torridon Diaries #1

The illness subsided and I dragged my newly emaciated body out West for the first Torridon bouldering session of the season.  An early start for the Betts on a Daddy Day Pass meant for in-situ weather reporting as me, Blair and Nona sped through the Contin-Garve Wormhole.  News of morning dampness improving temporarily slowed the charge at Tarvie Services for a low-grade 'cappuccino' and high-grade fruit slice - the swings and roundabouts of Highland catering.

The aim for the day was to get back on Malc's Arete, and as a bare minimum to reach the high point I was reaching at the end of last season.  I did this, at least, but the top still feels distant.  I was hoping to point "Lochaber's 2nd best all-rounder" Blair at Malc's to glean some short person's beta, but we both spent the morning floundering from the slopey shelf.  Now at the stage of trying to improvise moves as the big throw seems unlikely.  Great nick until the sun came out.  Meanwhile Rich entertained crag-dog Bronners and show-boated on the Ship.  Welcome back to Torridon.

Rich then took us up to Another Level, a cool wall on one of the of tiers above the classic boulder jumble that he'd recently developed.  Twiglets, possibly the best 6A in Torridon stretches between hidden pockets and breaks left of Rich's new 7a+ Worry Bomb.  Interesting to see the shorter Blair's intricate beta for Rich's fewer long-man moves on this.  I'll hopefuly be somewhere in between but didn't really try it, too busy unearthing One Man Mexican Wave, a rare dyno amidst Torridon's techy walls.

Skin was starting to wear thin but the ego was in search of a tick so I looked out Dan Varian's new '7a' Put a Sock in It.  Classic Torridon technicality linking two teeny crimps from an off-balance ledge.  Close but no cigar.  Got home and watched Rich's vid of him doing it for beta but could never do it his Mr Spaghetti-Arms way.  Just going to have to bear down on the left crimper like a champ.

Boulder season begins...

Friday, 5 October 2012

Breathing Space

It's not often that you're forced to stop everything, to take a step back and let things be.

I can't pretend that I've enjoyed the last four days of being housebound by a viral infection, never more than a few slipper-shuffles from the loo.  Oh!  The glamour!  It struck at a fun time too, a week after Sarah and I had moved up to the lovely new place we're renting in the bright lights of Inverness, all our belongings hidden in boxes, clothes in piles on the floor, no local GP, and worse, no bed.  I've spent most of the week off work, suffering manfully, of course, and am now definitely clawing my way back out of the malaise.

My day to day life is normally very heavily based around physical exertion and discomfort: my job as an Ecologist means being away from home for four days a week, of which three are out in the field, all over Scotland.  We're often covering big distances in the hills or on very rough ground (interestingly, the roughest bit of land that I've ever had the misfortune to try to walk/wade/lollop across is in the Central Belt, miles from any 'wilderness'), or squirming and worming between prickly thickets of forestry to access specific survey points (think of trying to walk through a very tightly planted Christmas Tree farm).  We're normally carrying heavy loads of survey kit and the weather is almost never a factor in our plans; rain or shine, hot or cold, the work needs to be done.  Then I come home on a Thursday night, sort out my horrible kit and then have three days to catch up with the rest of life, as well as trying to go climbing, training for climbing, and running.  I've managed to engineer myself a lifestyle that doesn't really allow room for illness, and the machine just keeps turning week after week.

So when a few days of sickness struck, it was quite nice to be forced to do nothing and an opportunity to have a think about what I want to be doing for the next wee while.

First off, I decided that I was going to pull out of doing the OMM this year.  Training has been going OK, and in fact I'm probably in the best form I've been in for a while thanks to a summer of marching up hill with an Ecologist's rucksack all over the Highlands, but I'm just not motivated this year.  I've done it every year since 2004, and with Duncan Steen since 2006.  Each year we've been getting better, somehow managing to finish in the top ten in the the Elite Class for the last three, but this year I felt like I was entering it out of tradition, because October means the OMM, it's what I do.  It wasn't because I was looking forward to the whole race experience.  So, I told Dunc, who took it well (he'd replaced me within a few hours!) and I sprawled in the luxurious pressure-free month I have ahead.

So, Autumn is normally running season, and my climbing goes down the pan, but now I'm going to reverse it.  The rest of Autumn and Winter will be spent exploiting my new proximity to the North West's boulders and hopefully will see a few good battles on sport projects.  In the short term, I'll try to get as much sport climbing mileage as possible as I'm planning to head to Spain for a week in November.

Just need to shake off the last of this vile pox...

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Turn

Yesterday I read a post on Farcebook by one of the Glenmore Reindeer Centre herders saying she'd seen snow on Braeriach.  If nothing else, not even the howling gale that kept waking me up last night, it's a sign that the seasons are turning.  There are still a few optimistic swallows hanging about in Aviemore but their days here are numbered, and the big skeins of migrating geese I saw this week mean it's their turn now.

The changing seasons generally mean a change of focus for me - Autumn brings more running in preparation for this year's OMM, and cooler weather means more bouldering.  On the bouldering front, priority number 1 for this winter season is the same as the last few: Malc's Arete in Torridon.  By the time the Spring warmth was arriving at the end of last season I was starting to feel pretty close, so hopefully some sessions in good conditions this time round will seal the deal.  Even if Malc's remains a dream, there's still so much to do in Torridon, including a load that I scouted while working up there this summer and all the stuff Richie and Co. have been doing on the South side.

It's usual in the Highlands for late Summer to be a bit of a wash out, with warm, humid and midgy conditions the bain of many a climbing plan.  This year followed a similar pattern, although not to quite the extent as the last few.  At least this year I had a few days out and managed to tick off some quality routes, here's a rather dull summary, as much for my memory as for your interest:
  • Sandwiched between the two sessions I had at Brin (previous post) Sarah and I went for a Cairngorm walk, aiming for a swim in Loch Avon on a scorching day.  On the way past Hell's Lum I persuaded her to give me a belay on one of Jules' wee slab routes, Two Little Devils.  As a big fan of the granite slab it was most pleasant to climb one with amazing gear all the way.  The E4 next door looked like a very different proposition and will have to wait....
Blue sky and bad hair
  • On the bolts front I managed to do the morpho boulder-in-the-sky Cloudburst at Goat Crag.  A good one to have done as I slowly work my way through the easier routes here.  What's next?  Steve and I later departed for Loch Tollaidh where he closed the account he'd opened on In The Pink a couple of years previously, and he cruised it.  It was his last Scottish route before moving to NZ for a year. 
  • Moy lost it's perma-dry title after Tess and I got caught in the mother of all rain storms.  Waterfalls down routes, not cool.  Before the misery I'd been having a good day, doing Cloak and Dagger and The Herring for the first time and getting up Ticks... in a oner, the first time I'd been back on it since redpointing it last summer.
  • I finally met up with Andy Hyslop, one of the very few Aviemore residents that actually climb, and had a day at Reiff.  Mis-reading a guidebook (plus an innacurate topo) meant I climbed a Severe (Plaything) thinking it was an E1 (Gussetbuster).  I thought I must have been going well as it felt really easy, then I re-read the book and ate my humble pie. Oops.  
  • Getting up to date, last Saturday I headed up to the hot crag of the summer, Ian and Tess' Creag Rodha Mor, aka Super Crag.  Tess was my guide, which was great as finding it is fairly involved, plus it eliminated all the usual faff of working out where to abb from and where all the routes go.  Trying to warm up by seconding a notoriously tricky E3 didn't do much for my confidence, but I managed to keep it together on the epic voyage of Mega-flake and the pumpy and then airy Gaunnisimo.  It was great to finally get embroiled in some committing climbing, after so much sport and cragging.  Psyched to get back next Summer when I've got some trad momentum.
South from Super Crag
And finally...  We all know that climbing doesn't really make good spectating, least of all trad climbing, and least of all slab climbing.  However, when I went into Beinn a Bhuird the other month I filmed my wee slab route.  It was mainly to get footage of me falling off, but I didn't.  I edited it together anyway, mainly just to remind myself  how gripped I was at the top.  It's refusing to embed in full size, so here it is:

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Courting Controversy - Brin Rock

As a Highland rock climber my primary goal is trad climbing - onsight, adventurous, wild and remote.  All the other climbing I do I often think of as training or I do because weather, conditions or a lack of partners mean trad is out of the question.  Living in the Highlands means these last three factors are often at large: it rains a fair bit, it's often cold, and there aren't many climbers about, which means in a year I end up doing more bouldering and sport climbing than trad. And that's great, because as well as the well-known wealth of brilliant trad climbing we have up here, there's also a lot of very good bouldering, and due to the hard work of a few dedicated folk, an expanding wealth of excellent sport crags.  

The realistic truth is that if I want to be a rock climber in the Highlands I want sport crags, and this means I need people getting out there with drills and bolts, doing the dirty work (Don't ask me, I don't know my arse from my Hilti).  This also means you need crags; crags that are suitable for bolting; that aren't historically or ecologically sensitive; that don't have an established no-bolt ethic.  Coming from a tree-hugging long-term viewpoint, I don't think we should be bolting things that might one day make good trad routes for a fitter, stronger, bolder generation.

And this is my dilemma.

There's a word that's been spoken quietly by the Highland scene for the last year or so: Brin.  Brin Rock is a crag high on a hill in Strathnairn, steep, south-facing, schist.  Best known by climbers these days for the boulders at the foot of the hill, but the crags muster a few trad routes from the 70s and 80s.  Nowadays these routes get very little, if any, traffic.  In the last few years, and unknown to each other, two men visited Brin - Andy Wilby and Guy Robertson.  They both saw the crag from opposite ends of the spectrum. Andy has been responsible for a large number of the sport routes in the Inverness and North West areas, including the now super-popular Moy Rock, and he saw a large amount of steep, fairly blank looking rock on an unpopular and forgotten buttress - ripe for sport development and rejuvenation.  At the same place, Guy saw the potential for a handful of hard, bold trad routes and put up an E6 of his own called Astroceltic Soundsystem.  Not knowing that Guy had climbed his route, (parhaps the moral of this tale is that more open communication in the secretive Scottish scene is needed) Andy and another Inverness local, Dave Douglas, started bolting the crag, staying away from the original trad routes.  When they found out about Guy's route they chopped the bolts that encroached on his line, but continued bolting elsewhere on the crag.  And that's pretty much where we are now.  The bolts are still there, and the crag is growing in popularity with a 'retro-concensus' seeming to emerge.  

I'd stayed away from the crag, not really sure what I made of it.  The sudden appearance of a load of new sport routes on a crag near home (including rumours of a 3* 7a) got the short-termist climber in me excited, but the more philosophical (idealistic?) long-termist part of me couldn't help but be concerned about seeing established trad venues being bolted.  If this crag now, what next?  With the surge in popularity of climbing you can't help but wonder what someone without the knowledge of the history and ethics of British climbing might want to bolt, and will the bolting of venues like Brin just encourage gung-ho bolting?  

In these debates people often say 'it makes a better sport crag than trad crag', or 'if bolting makes the crag more popular, then bolt it'.  I don't hold with these arguments at all - rock is rock, a natural resource.  It doesn't have amenity value or human worth.  If a crag isn't popular, so what?  Does it have to be?  In the geological time-scale of rocks, climbing has been around for the merest fraction of a fraction of time, what gives us the right to drill bits of metal into them just because we, humans alive today, aren't good enough at climbing to get up them without drilling?  On the other side, I've no-doubt that some climbers could do most of the sport routes I've ever done on trad, so should those bolts be chopped?

Anyway, enough cod-philosophy.  I felt like I had to go to see for myself, so went up on Friday morning with Nick.  To be honest, I still don't know where I stand.  I'm simultaneously impressed with the amount of work Andy and Dave have put into developing the crag (access paths through the dense vegetation, an in-situ rope up the scramble to the base of the crag and good bolting), and impressed with Guy for trad climbing up a bloody scary-looking steep wall.  On that sun-baked session I warmed up on a nice 6c called Captains of Crush but failed to redpoint the rumoured 3* 7a One and Only.  I was loathe to admit it, but it is a brilliant sport route, sustained and unlikely-looking, long moves between good holds, and no obvious gear placements.  I felt I had unfinished business up there.  Rich recommended a return visit on Sunday morning so I went back up to see if I could seal the deal.  It was a lot cooler, with more of a breeze, and I managed to get it done on the first redpoint.  Rich then ticked The Pink Wall, a great-looking, rather steep 7b(+?), and I surprised myself by doing Snake in the Grass, the 7a+ variation into One and Only, which, again, climbed brilliantly.

I had hoped the crag would be crap, with crap routes, a crap view and crap rock, and I'd  feel justified in not really wanting the bolts to be there, but the truth is that it's pretty good, it's close to Inverness and has a spread of grades that other local crags don't really have.  But, the question is, if this is OK, what will the uber-wad trad climbers of the future have to climb?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Reverting to Type

The distant chattering of a ring ouzel blends with the bubbling froth of the nearby burn.  The air is full with the sweet sun-warmed scent peculiar to the plants at this sub-montane habitat - matt grass, crowberry and blaeberry all dominating over the lower altitude heaths. I'm here at last. I've thought about this place a lot in the last year.  Ever since I first came here it's been nibbling away in the back of my mind as a place to return to, to explore.

Despite being a Cairngorms-based climber with a preference for slabs, I'd not been in the Cairngorms once yet in 2012, summer or winter, and not climbed any routes that I would describe as proper slabs. So after a few good days in the North West over the last weekends, including some steep crack grovelling at Ardmair and a redpoint of the mega-steep Snowflake at Goat Crag, it felt like time to change up and do something completely different. 
Not a slab: Abbing for a stuck wire on Space Monkeys, Ardmair. 
While working on the RSPB's Montane Bird Survey last summer I had the good  fortune to work on Beinn a' Bhuird, one of the more remote Cairngorm hills.  The size of the area we were surveying meant an overnight stay, but I couldn't be bothered to lug a tent up with me.  After a bit of research I found out about the Smith-Winram bivuac under Dividing Buttress in Coire an Dubh Lochan, and after a day's work dropped down into the coire to find it.  On approaching the crag I couldn't help but notice the smooth granite slabs set below the buttress itself and comparisons to the Lower Slab at Hell's Lum started to spring to mind.  Closer inspection provided all I needed to know - gently angled, compact, perfect Cairngorm granite, an obvious line of  blankness between two cracks.  Later I quizzed Julian Lines, the master of remote Cairngorm slabs, and he didn't know of any routes there.  I vowed to return with rock shoes.

Dividing Buttress, Coire an Dubh Lochan.
The slab is bottom centre, left  of the dark wet patch and above the boulders.
A year passed.  Winter came and went, then the rains arrived and the Cairngorms were out of bounds while the North West was in drought.  The slab remained in the back of my mind but other things got in the way - not the least finding someone else happy to bike and walk the 13km to indulge my twisted fantasy.  In the end I decided to go it alone and yesterday found myself under the slab at last.  Part of  me expected that over the year my memory would have changed the shape or angle or size of the slab - that on my return it wouldn't live up to my hopes.  Fortunetely, I'd remembered it about right.  

On my own, I wasn't really sure what I was going to acheive.  I didn't want to top-rope the route without a good try from the ground first, but could't really justify going for it without at least the vague knowledge that it might be climbable.  In the end I abbed the line, giving it a wee clean as I went.  Then I pulled up the rope (no jumping to safety!)  and after up-downing the start a few times to remind myself how slabs work, took a deep breath and committed.

A dodgy video still of the action.
I got it first try, which was great, but it did leave me feeling a bit puzzled.  It was definitely easier than I'd hoped it might be - I'd secretly been hoping for a new Firestone - and I couldn't work out if I had just pulled  an amazing climbing performance out of the bag (I'll admit, frictiony slabs are probably my strongest climbing area) or if the route just wasn't very hard.  I think the slab is a degree or two shallower than Firestone, and allied with slightly courser granite, there were more tiny edges and rugosities to play with.  Regardless, however, it was still a 17m solo flash of a beautiful piece of granite, which is more than I'd expected when I got out of bed yesterday.  I'm calling it Kissy Klub after everyone's favourite electro producer Kissy Sell Out, who's mixes have been keeping psyche levels high for the last few years (he was on the ipod on the way in and out yesterday), and, based on other routes I've done that are a bit like this, tentatively giving it E3 5b, but I'll be honest, I don't really know.  You could place a runner in one of the cracks right at the top, but am not sure if it would be worth it.
The Smith-Winram Slab.  Kissy Klub goes between the obvious cracks in the centre

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Barrathon and Beyond

Having lived in Scotland for almost 10 years and never been out to the Western Isles I'd started to feel that a trip was well overdue.  I've been out on climbing trips to Pabbay and Mingulay before, with quick overnight stops in Castlebay on Barra, but the full 130 mile trip up through the Uists, Harris and Lewis was still undone.  Sarah had heard about the half-marathon on Barra - the brilliantly named Barrathon - which seemed like a good starting point for an adventure, and luckily we managed to get an entry in the 45 minutes it took to fill up.  So, we booked ferry tickets, did some training, packed Sarah's battered old Ford Escort and headed west to Oban.  

Race-day dawned damp and breezy, and the prospect of leaving our cosy wee tent on the Vatersay machair in short shorts and skimpy vest wasn't all that appealing.  On the start line the cloud slowly started to lift and  drizzle dwindled as the local priest (local celeb from the BBC's An Island Parish, no less) fired the starting pistol and 1hr29minutes of angst and suffering began.  It was only my second half marathon (last one in 2004, that's how much road running I do) and although I'm probably much fitter now I only improved on my time by 10 minutes, but it earned me 8th place.  Also, it's a pretty hilly course, with a brilliantly long climb up the side of Heaval at 11miles, just when you don't want it.

Disciplined Sarah had stuck to a training plan and was aiming for sub-2hrs.  She was a bit miffed to miss it by 2 minutes, but given the hilly course I'd let her have it, especially given that it's the longest continual run she's done (mountain marathons don't count, it's all walking!).  I'm really proud of her dedication.
The next day we went to find Breaker Wall, a nice crag on Barra that's been fairly recently developed (info on Colin Moody's site here) and after some scary sheath-cutting abseiling (my fault) did a brilliant E2 called Druth's Groove and a nice aptly named Diff called Escape Route under the watchful eyes of a rather bemused grey seal.  

Druth's Groove, Breaker Wall, Barra
We laugh afterwards: 50m ab rope soon becomes 2x25m ab ropes.
From Barra to Eriskay, to South Uist, to Benbecula, to North Uist, to Berneray - big skies, empty spaces, sandy beaches, historic sites, museums, tea, cake, not much exercise.  These islands felt a bit like the land that time forgot, still following the seasonal crofting cycles - small houses dotted across the landscape, grey, pebble-dashed, functional.  Even the occasional nods to the modern world, like the military base and airfield on Benbecula, felt old and impoverished, like looking at archive footage of the 70s and 80s.

Sarah and the Sea
Eventually we docked at Leverburgh on South Harris, a much more familiar (and much preferred) landscape of hills and rock.  A quick run up Clisham the next day then off to the tiny island of Bernera off Lewis' west coast.  Here we found our favourite beach of the trip at Bostadh, where an Iron Age village had been hidden in the dunes for centuries, to be exposed to our inquisitive eyes by an Atlantic storm in 1993 then re-buried to preserve.  We found Creag Liam nearby and I mustered some psyche for my first ever deep water solo - Mini Tsunami, 4a, 20m, S2 (what ever that means), first done by the heroic Jules Lines.  Suffice to say, getting to the bottom of the route was far harder than 4a, and you really wouldn't want to fall off from much higher than the first 10 metres (the shaking started when a hold broke at about 15 metres).  An intense, deep experience, that will live on for a long time.
Part way up Mini-Tsunami at Creag Liam, Lewis.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Realisation

Looks like the sun has set on the long spring dry spell in the Highlands.  June showers are here again and it's looking like this will be the first weekend for quite some time that I haven't got at least one route done.  Sad times.  On the bright side, I'm seeing it as an opportunity to pull hard on small holds, to get pumped silly in a controlled environment and a chance to go running and not feel guilty that I'm throwing away the precious few trad opportunities that we Northerner's get offered.

Training for ledge shuffling
I'm feel pretty positive about the way the climbing year has gone so far.  Last August I started a new job that gives me a three day weekend, but means I'm away from home three nights a week. Initially I worried that being away for those three nights would really take a chunk out of the amount I could climb or go to the wall, that I'd start to lose strength (what strength?), fitness (what fitness?) and that I'd generally feel out of the loop.  Instead, by careful (selfish?) use of my longer weekends I think if anything I'm still on the very gradually improving gradient that I've been on since I started climbing in 2004.  When it comes to grades (and I apologise, but it does) the numbers don't say much, but the numbers of the numbers tell me I'm doing more, quicker.

Let's not get carried away,  mind.  E3 is still a big deal.  Redpointing a 7a is still something to be proud of, and bouldering harder than 7A seems nigh-on impossible (mind you, if this chap is to be believed, it appears that I've chosen to take on 'the world's hardest 7A+' in Malc's Arete).  I'm well aware that I'm the height of mediocrity, a fact reinforced by reading about and seeing the exploits of many folk that I know:  Rob, Murdo, Dave, to name a few, not to mention the rumblings of the grade-hungry climbing media.  I sometimes wonder why I take it all so seriously, why I hang from a fingerboard, why I do circuits on Rich's board, why I run, why I read about training, about core strength, about periodisation, about active rest, why I even write all this down.  And then I realise, it's because I love it.  Yes, I want to be a better climber, I want to go to amazing places and to be able to climb inspiring routes, I want to have deep experiences, to learn things about myself that only adventure, fear, hardship can teach.  But, even if those things never happen,  I've realised it's the process of trying to get there that I love.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Battle Stations

I'd booked a week off work a few months back, gambling that it would coincide with some Highland sunshine and finding midweekers to climb with, and by a stroke of luck seem to have hit the jackpot.  Blue skies, dry crags, midge-busting breezes.  10 days off work: 7 days out tradding, 1 day trying to boulder (too warm!), 2 days of domestic bliss (the lawn won't mow itself, or so Sarah tells me).

The Beginning:  a sunny afternoon at Glenmarksie on the way out for a Torridon weekend.  It's a nice wee crag in a lovely spot on the edge of Strathconon but, like so many Highland crags, has a dirty, neglected air.  In the Lakes or Wales it would be spotless and perma-chalked.  A winter of getting good at trusting the scrittly schist/lichen interface at Laggan paid off.  Then Groovin' High on Beinn Eighe on Saturday and getting baked on Routes 3 and at Diabeg on Sunday.  Sunburnt calves....

Steve had the camera while I was climbing and was convinced that if he zoomed in enough he'd see topless women..

Russell having a hard time after I sent him the wrong way on the last pitch of Route 3, Diabeg.  Must pay more attention to the topo in future.

The Middle:  Richie's on leave and prepping for a long weekend at Fairhead so keen to dust off his wires.  Gruinard Crag makes a good dog-friendly option on Tuesday and a chance to do Red John of the Battles, one of the classic North West cragging E2s.  A good route, but surpassed by the more technical Pistolero.  Rich mops up the E4s at the right of the crag.  Next day Reiff beckons and Rich starts with a decent lob off the top of The Mystic onto my little Zero 4 cam...  It holds,  phew.  I somehow battle up Elastic Collision but then have to rest seconding Seal Song next door.  I've got work to do with my crack climbing...  The day ends with a fluttering heart above The Channering Worm.  Starting to feel the trad momentum, this weather can't last...
Rich getting ready for the ride on The Mystic.

The easy finish to The Channering Worm, Reiff.  I remember back in 2005, imagining what it would be like to do this when members of my uni mountaineering club were failing to headpoint it.   It only took me 7 years. Oops.
 (Photo: Rich Betts)

The End:  A late start means it's only a half day at Rhue with Steve, but having never been before it's just nice to soak up the chilled seacliff atmosphere and drink in the view of Ben Mhor Coigach across Ardmair Bay.  The 15 metre Boom Boom Boom packs in an adventure totally out of proportion with it's size - one of the best routes so far this year?  Steve gets the Rhue Corner tick.  Finally, Sunday afternoon Phallatio at Creag Dubh - I'd bargained a single belay from Sarah with the promise of tea and cake at the The Potting Shed afterwards. I really should climb here more...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Laggan Bouldering Guide

A drizzly day in the middle of a week off work has finally provided the time to pull my finger out and put together a PDF guide of the latest Laggan bouldering.  I'm not especially computer-literate so apologies if it's a bit crap.

It's here:  Laggan Bouldering Guide

I'd be keen for any feedback and any details of new problems, and do take the grades with a pinch of salt, I don't know my arse from my elbow!

Monday, 28 May 2012

A Sermon

As a science-fearing atheist I feel very comfortable saying that I don't believe in a higher power.  No gods, no designers, no creators.  However, sometimes, and just sometimes, I wonder, and the conclusion I keep coming to is that if there is one, they're a climber.

God's gear?
I was thinking this as I walked off Beinn Eighe on Saturday afternoon, having just romped up Groovin' High on Coire Mhic Fhearchair's Far East Wall.  I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never climbed on Beinn Eighe before, but I'd heard tell of the brilliantly steep, positive and well-protected climbing provided by the steep quartzite walls.  I'm glad I'd heard this, as it meant I was prepared for the shock and awe cast by the sheer, grey, seemingly-blank appearance that the crags confronted us with as we dropped into the coire.  

"Are you sure an E1 goes up there?"  
"Well, that's where the guide says it goes"
"Looks pretty steep to me".
"Let's find out".

....some hours later...

Steve following pitch 1 of Groovin' High
"F*****g hell! That was f*****g amazing!"
"Not bad, eh?"
"The f*****g holds, f*****g...big!  And the f*****g gear!  And the f*****g exposure!  Just when you thought things were about to get sketchy you just placed a brilliant bit of gear, reached up, and hugged the mother of all jugs.  Again, and again.  F******g brilliant!"

Russell at the end of the last pitch.

It does sometimes strike me how incredible it seems that holds and cracks for protection are so regularly spaced on so many bits of rock across the globe - how many,  many bits of rock can be climbed at pretty amenable standards, even ones that look totally improbable.  Maybe there is a creator that designed it after all.

Or maybe Homo sapiens are one of many species of primate and are therefore quite good at climbing.

In  bad news, the 2012 midge season kicked off  this weekend.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Duncan Gump

The sun emerges on Clough Head (Photo: Viv Scott)

As dawn crept into the Eastern sky we could make out the glimmering of torches coming off Blencathra.  Flickering left and right, snaking down to Thelkeld and the waiting support teams.  Duncan, Adam and Andy, supported by the irrepressible Viv, soon arrived out of the gloom, steaming like colts in the frosty morning air, smiles beaming across their faces.  Leg 1 of 5: complete.  They'd been out for four hours already, starting at one in the morning on their second attempt at completing the Bob Graham Round, the Lake District challenge of 74 miles and 42 peaks in under 24 hours.   The first attempt having been cut short by wild weather almost a year previously.

Dermot and I were Duncan's pacers for leg 2, the graveyard shift from Thelkeld to Dunmail Raise.  Like a Grand Prix pit-stop, Sarah had Duncan's kit laid out ready for him on arrival: a change of socks, a bite of pizza, a mug of warm soup, water, jelly babies, jaffa cakes.  I took the rucksack from Viv, who stuck to his all-night- party-animal form and decided to carry on with us (if you've got up at midnight to go running, I guess there's not much point stopping at half four).  And within a few minutes of their arrival, we were off.

Toward Great Dodd (Photo: Viv Scott)

Four and a half hours later, leg 2 completed on schedule, we waved a freshly refuelled and re-shod Dunc goodbye as he started up Steel Fell with his new team of pacers for leg 3.  Sarah's job, as lynch-pin support driver for legs 2 and 3 was  now complete, it was 0830, and we had the rest of the day to play with.  However, somewhat weary after an early start, the best we mustered was the Langdale Boulders (mainly bouldering, but a fair bit of dodging the mountains of sheep shit too), followed by tea and cakes in Ambleside, a snooze, a wee walk to Derwent Water (watched a fishing osprey) and then a race back into Keswick to see Duncan sprinting up the high street looking fresh as a daisy.  He took 19 hours, 32 minutes for his Bob Graham Round - very fast indeed.  Adam and Andy arrived within the hour, making a trio of fast BGs.  Nice one boys!

To the victor, the spoils: Duncan after 19hrs 32mins of being Forrest Gump. (Photo: Matthew Tilley)
Sunday morning routes: M.G.C at Shephards Crag (Photo: Viv Scott)

Monday, 30 April 2012

Rain Sandwich

Two days of brilliant blue, sandwiched between two of the wettest, grimmest days for a while.  Strange.  Strange to be getting weather from the East at this time of year.  Strange to see the Cairngorms so blindingly white in the bright sun at eight in the evening - shadows and definitions different to those cast in winter.

I'd agreed to a day with Sarah on Saturday, which would normally involve some sort of running or being dragged up a Munro, or both, but she was battling with the end of a cold, which meant that snoozing in the sunshine while I bouldered was a perfectly legitimate couples activity (the promise of tea and cakes at the newly discovered Kilnroom Coffee Shop, just a stone's throw from Laggan 2, had nothing to do with it).  I even cleaned a new problem for her to do - Sarah's Slab, Font 3.  It's not all about me, you know.

Sarah had work to do on Sunday so I headed out to Goat Crag with Rich, Nick and Mike, meeting Andrew, Sue and Tess there.  I'd been keen for some trad action but Rich reckons he's ticked all the early season crags, so Goat it was.  (I told you it wasn't all about me.)  Given that Goat is the jewel in the crown of the North West sport crags, it was pretty ridiculous that I hadn't been for about a year, not since last Spring's Mactalla sessions.  During this time I (might) have improved, and even more routes have been put up, so was more than happy to leave the wires behind.  There'll be plenty more opportunities....ahem.

Nick, the sky and Snowflake (Photo: Richie Betts)
After Mactalla, the next amazing 7a+ is Snowflake - a techy wall capped by a ludicrously, and I mean ludicrously, steep flake, utilising a rather foreign-feeling selection of kneebars, heelhooks and joke-sized jugs.  I'm not ashamed to say I've not done it yet, but am looking forward to a rematch soon.

Sunday, 22 April 2012


Beware, this post might contain some moaning, in which case, I apologise.

After the quick trip down to the grit in March I had a great weekend in the Highlands, making the most of the warm dry spell and opening the Highland trad account in Gruinard Bay.  It felt great to be back out on the gneiss after a winter bouldering season that had centred on schist and sandstone, and after 4 days of tradding in the Peak I didn't feel too rusty when juggling wires and cams and wondering how on earth to make a clove hitch and equalise a belay.  I started to feel excited and ready for the (hopefully) approaching spring and summer of Highland trad exploration.

Since then, in typically Scottish fashion, the weather has taken a nosedive back to showers and snow on the hills so my dreams of sunshine and sea cliffs and getting scared and being puked at by birds have been scaled back to the standard fare of boulders and bolts.  I shouldn't grumble really, as I've had fun and am feeling relatively fit and strong (for me!) but after a taste of the sweet trad nectar I just want more.
I just need to make sure I make the most of all my opportunities.

The bulletpoints:
  • Laggan - I'd written off a project at Laggan 2 as a bit sharp and a bit hard to bother with for now, but after a quick play on the way home from work I changed my mind, re-jigged a sequence or two and reached a new high point.  Perhaps it's back on?
  • Applecross - stayed in Monty Hall's bothy at Sand and started a cold drizzly day of trying to climb under the MOD roof.  Did the traverse. Which was nice.
  • Torridon - Later we migrated to Torridon where it was drier but still chilly and got on Malc's for the first time in over a month.  Feeling pretty solid all the way to the shelf now and experimenting with the last big move.  Tagged the lip 3 times in a short session.  Big progress.  Will the cold return for another go?
Steve trying Scott's Wall on the Celtic Boulder
  • Scatwell - Same day, when everyone else seemed happy to pack up and go home when the weather eventually turned good I dragged Sarah to Scatwell and had a go on Road to Demestos but ran out of beans (and time) before I could do it.  Sad times.
  • Edinburgh - Staying with Sarah down in Auld Reekie and managed to sneak out for a few sessions at the old haunt of Agassiz Rock.  Surprised to see it still standing and most of the hold still there.  It really is a tottering pile of crap, but I've had a jolly nice time and got pumped so it's not all bad.
  • North Berwick - A quick morning session dodging showers with Chris.  Finally ticked Fogtown, after first trying it a few years ago and not going back since.  It's rather short, but good fun.

The way to Monty's Bothy...

Friday, 30 March 2012

Flicking the Switch

It would appear someone has flicked the big weather switch from winter to summer so it's time to rearrange activities in accordance.  Winter projects have been put to one side for now and priorities are for routes routes routes, and if possible, trad trad trad.

Never one to jump on a band wagon too quickly I held out for a few weeks and spent some time playing on the border between cold weather bouldering and warm weather routes.  A day at Bowden Doors saw a long awaited ascent of Klondyke Wall and a sealing of the deal I'd made with Dog Eat Dog a few weeks earlier. It was pretty darn sunny though, and Sarah was starting to look pretty bored, so we bailed for ice creams on the beach at Bamborough.

Next up I'd had a four day trip down to the Peak with Chris booked for a while, which coincided with the four hottest days of the year so far.  So much for great conditions and cold slopers, but it had the benefit of forcing me out of the easy bouldering options and onto routes.  Stanage, Froggatt, the Roaches, then back to Stanage, with a quick evening flash of Tom's Original at Stoney (the softest 7A ever?) in between.  Plenty of classic routes that lived up to their billing - Tower Face Direct, Brown's Eliminate, Via Dolorosa - to name a few.  A few soft touches - Four Pebble Slab anyone?  The odd sandbag - Shortcomings on Roaches Skyline.  And of course a few schoolings - warming up at 0830 in the morning by failing on The Tippler was one, failing to get a three metres off the ground on Goliath's Groove was another.  Oops!

Despite coming from there, it never fails to strike me how 'nice' England is.  Nice pubs and brilliant beer, lovely little villages, greens, rugby clubs and cricket squares, and rolling countryside.  The rural wilds of Scotland where I spend most of my time sometimes have an air of seriousness about them.  The weather and remoteness really can make some places feel a bit ominous and 'big', for want of a better word.  Down in England it's never like that.  It all just feels nice, warm and friendly.

Anyway, enough about that.  It's the next weekend already.  Just in from a Friday afternoon with Steve at Moy, the local suntrap, and managed a quick redpoint of Pulling on Pebbles, a bouldery F7a+ on the Flat Wall.  Steve's been locked on a journey with the crag classic Little Teaser for a wee while now, his first proper redpoint project.  He's now got the moves well within him, and even has the fitness, but it's turning into a mental battle.  He's got to believe!

Oot west for traddage tomorrow.  Psyche!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Long Road

Great weather timed with my 3 day weekend allowed time on both West Coast projects and a day to rest in between.

Malc's high point.
Another shift on Primo
Progress made on both, but they both still feel pretty hard, and with Spring in the air it feels like time might be running out on the project season.  More battling next weekend? Here's hoping.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Sealing the Deal

Friday morning.  Sheltering from the drizzle whipped by on the wind, trying to keep warm between tries on another new thing at Laggan, a text arrives from Rich.
"I've just had a mad idea to go to Northumberland.  Forecast looks mint."
A few minutes later, another beep and buzz.
"As in double fucking mint."

Laggan projecting.  Ignore the wonky skyline!

I check the forecast back at home, it agrees with Rich's mint scale.  That's that then. Pack the car and head south, the A9 passing in a blur, to Sarah's in Edinburgh, to be joined later by Rich all the way from a day at work in Inverness.

Saturday morning. The A1 to a coffee stop at Berwick then on into the sun to the County, that hallowed land of gentle rolling green speckled with breaking waves of golden sandstone.  The cold wind blows but excitement and an enthusiastic reccomendation send us to check out hilltop Ravensheugh.  Possibly not the best choice on this of all days,  but we stay long enough for Rich to do Debbie McGee.  I can do all but the last move and keep trying until icy toes bring diminishing returns and we bail.  Boulder pad sails in the gail wrestle and ragdoll us, throwing us both to the ground in literal gales of laughter.

Back at the car, back on the road.  To Hepburn, in the hope that some trees will abate the cutting Westerly.  They do, just, so we step to.  Rich points the way up the Fontainbleau-esque arete of Titanic, then it's sit-start.  I spend an hour flailing on it, my hips refusing to point where I want them, eventually giving up for some easy consolation prizes below A Northern Soul, which Rich makes light work of.  I start to get that low feeling, all this driving and still no decent ticks, so with a wing and a prayer leg it up to Rheumatology, a low-tech 7A, and scrape through the topout as the sun starts to sink.  In seconds I'm transformed from serious and sad  to happy-elated-bestever. It's pathetic.

Sunday morning.  The A1 again.  Coffees again.  More big blue skies but the wind from Cumbria keeps coming so we opt for shelter at Kyloe-in-the-Woods.  I've not been here for a good few years, since I lived in Edinburgh, so it's nice to warm up on the problems I previously had to work.  Rich flashes Playing Rudies, I try Jocks and Geordies.  It climbs brilliantly but I struggle with the long last reach and end up climbing the whole thing about 15 times and still don't make the bump from crimp to final hold.  With a bruised ego, I give up and we head to Bowden Doors to meet a strong team and use the last of the weekend's skin and muscle.

Rich flashing Playing Rudies, Kyloe-In
Re-warming on familiar solos I eventually pluck up the courage and stick the pads below The Trial, the classic blend between route and highball.  After years of wanting, it goes down with out a fight and all the morning's woes float away.  Later, after a prolonged but eventually fruitful battle with Cave Righthand and a traditional sunset ascent of Russet Groove we try Dog Eat Dog, which Rich does quickly and I climb to the sloping topout about 5 times without any success.  I blame it on my empty arms, but am starting to see a trend in failing to seal the deal when it matters.  I've got to start asking myself, what would Varian do?

Saturday, 4 February 2012


I spent much of the week obsessing about The Seer.  Trying to remember the intricate foot sequences around the crux,  the direction to clip at each bolt, where I might be able to squeeze out a rest.

Friday's forecast looked amazing so I went round the houses to find a belayer.  Admin and faff threatened to intervene, but eventually the stars aligned, and I found myself heading up through the wasteland of ex-forest once again.  A clear blue sky and crisp February air, hard frost in the shade, golden warmed rock in the sun.  It's was on.
Moy Rock in perfect winter conditions.
Knowing it might be a while until weather allowed a re-match, I wrote down the crux sequence after my first try of The Seer.  Luckliy it didn't take as long as feared, and as sad as it may be, it worked.  

Seeing off The Seer.  One project down, three to go.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Too many!

In my first post of 2012 I stated my aims for the winter projecting season - Malc's Arete for bouldering, Primo for sport climbing.  Both on the West coast, both beyond my current limit*, and both having easily brushed off all my previous puny attempts.  I'm pretty sure though, that with some dedication and attention they are both attainable.

*or my inaccurate perception of my limit.

Of course, within a week of writing this, bad weather in the West meant I had to make do with a weekend of playing in the East, and low and behold, without even meaning to, I managed to recruit myself two more projects - The Seer at Moy and a new thing at Laggan 2.  Both hard and both inspiring in their own ways.  While The Seer may not be an outstanding line, it's attraction lies in it's sustained thin moves, it's technicality and the surprise and joy of fiddling around with movements and feeling them come together.  The pull of the Laggan 2 project is more basic - it's hard, linking far apart poor holds on a leaning face, small enough to be safe, tall enough to be exciting, and, call me vain, it's never been done before.

I guess it's cool to have projects in the West and projects in the East -  games for all weathers.  But I reckon it increases the likelihood of never really buckling down to any of them.  I've got to prioritise.

With this in mind I tried to recruit Murdo to give me a catch at Moy, thinking that on the routes front, The Seer could be the quickest to dispatch.  Fresh from a week of hard mixed in the hills and about to leave his beloved Highlands for nine months at the Brenin, Murdo was keen to go West, so I agreed to go to Am Fasgadh instead.  No Seer for me this time, but at least another chance to get on Primo.

Trying to think tactically, I made the target of the day to find a new way of doing the last hard moves rightwards into the crack.  Previous attempts have always used other's beta; a backhanded stab into the crack, then falling rightwards across it to catch it with the left hand, a process that has always seen me hanging off the nearest bolt soon afterwards.  A mix of Murdo's Am Fasgadh knowledge and numerous earthward plummets eventually provided me with the sequence I was after, and a modest success to take home.  I envisage a long road ahead before any real success on the route, but i'll take solace from a small step on the way.

In a bid to keep the Eastside on the burner I bargained with Jones to allow a quick Seer session the next morning, in exchange for an afternoon spotting dolphins off the Black Isle.  With my excuses in early - it was a proper cold morning and the arms still felt fatigued from Am Fasgadh - I didn't know what to expect.  In the end I came away empty handed but invigorated.  The crux span didn't seem as far as last time, and on my first and best redpoint I fell at the penultimate bolt, boxed and cold.  With Jones starting to shiver on the belay I felt like a quick rest and try again was the fairest thing to do, but having scraped through the crux again I popped off one move earlier than the first go.  Time to pack up.

Jones wrapped up for cold belay duty

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Winter Sunshine

At last, a weekend with some good weather.

A quick hit at Laggan allowed time to see off one of the glaring omissions on the Gale Force block - a tricky sit start to the undercut slabby arete - and called it Fiercely Mild, inspired by a Dylan Moran stand up rant.  It's probably somewhere around Font 6b/+, but I don't really know - I still fail on 5s and then do 7as.
Fiercely Mild on a frosty January morning.

I managed to cajole Sarah to go up to Moy for some sunny winter sport action yesterday and decided to open an account on The Seer.  As a local 7b it's something I felt I should really be trying, so had at it, especially as it's a short steep slab.  Really enjoyable moves, tricky and sustained and makes use of a couple of teeny-tiny edges, which is always satisfying. Got to the stage of attempting to redpoint but failed on the crux span, then succumbed to the cold and the gloom.  With fresh fingers and a bit more familiarity it felt pretty do-able, so a return next weekend with the beta fresh in my memory is required.

Enjoying the process on The Seer
(Photo: Steve Crawford)
Or will it be time to head west for the projects out there?

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Soft Rock Review: 2011

As everyone blinks through their hangovers on the first morning of this new oh-so exciting Olympic year here are my thoughts on the year that was - purely from a personal climbing perspective you see. Insiteful comment on the apocolyptic-financial-meltdown-revelations-endoftheworld-diseaseridden-economiccrisis-starvation-wartorn world we find ourselves cowering in is best left to men in suits.

Overall I guess I'm pretty happy with the climbing year - a few more E3s, a couple of soft-touch E4 slabs, plenty of good E1s and E2s, several Font and French 7as. Trips to the grit, Pembroke, North Wales and Catalunya and a fair few raids to the North West, although I never climbed at Reiff in 2011 (How?). A few routes I'd coveted for a while finally succombed - Wings of Unreason, Mactalla, Comes the Dervish - and one or two unexpected gems - Deranged at Saint Govan's and Strongbow at Laggan 1. A couple of hitherto unreached numbers - Font 7a+ and onsighting French 7a. Finding the Laggan boulders in late 2010 has been great for my sanity in Strathspey, providing many days of discovery and a good local fallback when the weather elsewhere is crap, and there are still a few fruits to be plucked.

Dave Macleod on Strongbow
Of course, it's not all rosy. I'm still far from being the climber I want to be. There have been plenty of failures, falling off, backing off, and worse; not trying in the first place. I still haven't done Malc's Arete, I still haven't done Steeple, I still haven't done The Hill, I still haven't done Primo. The mind and belief in my own ability still hold me back. Like most people, my trad grades remain lower than sport and bouldering suggest they could be. The same old problem: confidence comes with momentum, momentum comes with the holy trinity of time off, psyched partners and weather.
During the Mactalla battle
There's no-doubt that living in the Highlands - Strathspey in particular - does put me on the back foot for rock climbing. The weather's often crap, there aren't many psyched climbers, there's nowhere to train, there's not that much decent rock close to home, it's midgy (when I write all that I marvel that I get anything done). Of course, the flipside is that I do live relatively near some of the best trad, sport and bouldering in Scotland (possibly Britain?), that when the weather is good, it's really good, that it's quiet, unspoilt, and in some of the most beautiful landscapes there are, and that although small in number, there are a handful of keen folk out there.

All in all, sounds like I should pull my socks up. Train hard, make use of my opportunities, go on a few trips, get into battle with my projects.  Come on 2012, I'm ready...

Priority Number 1 for 2012 bouldering (pic: Murdo Jamieson)