Saturday, 21 December 2013

... of 2013

Book of 2013:  We the Drowned, Carsten Jensen
I've never read a Danish book before, but if they're all like this one I'll be filling the library.  The book follows the fortunes of the harbour town of Marstal on the small island of Aero, telling the story of over a century of shipping, salty seadogs and the families they leave behind.  Uniquely, most of the book is written from the point of view of the town's community rather than one particular person, which allows the story to focus on different generations of the same families and travel all over the world, from tropical piracy to the Arctic convoys of World War 2.  

Tune of 2013: The Shoes, Time to Dance (Extended Video Edit) 
OK, so I think this came out in 2012.  And I only started listening to it a few weeks ago so it might not pass the true test of time, although I did hear it in a Kissy Sell Out podcast a while back.  Energetic, funky, chimey, and the extended version has a couple of nice breaks and builds, which I'm always a total sucker for.

Trad Route of 2013: Where Seagulls Dare E3, Pink Walls, Pabbay
2013 has been pretty weak on the trad front, with the highlight being a week on Pabbay and Mingulay back in June. Compared to many of the routes on the islands this one isn't that remarkable: one good long pitch sandwiched between a couple of easy filler-ins, but it stood out for me because I got the big main pitch at a point when I wasn't feeling very confident.  It's a classic islands number - long, steep, exposed and safe. On reaching the belay at the top I basked in that warm satisfying glow of a fight well fought, and for a brief spell that elusive confidence returned.

Sport Route of 2013: The Shield 7b, Am Fasgadh.
That's right.  I'm choosing a short route with a hands-off ledge at half height. Despite 75% of routes at Am Fasgadh being way out of my league, it's become one of my favourite sport crags.  The name says it all - the refuge.  Somewhere for the myopic rock climbers of North Scotland to delude themselves that they're still getting out during the short dark days of winter.  I did The Shield on a memorable day: bitterly cold and windy, the hands-free rest was fully milked to get sensation back in the fingers, and then skipping a clip for the crux right at the top of the golden headwall as the Fisherfield hills disappeared behind another snow squall.  I love you Scotland.
Tess on the crux section of The Shield
Boulder of 2013: Lawrence's Crack 7A, Ardmair Crag 
An obvious line on brilliant rock in a stunning location.  Enough said really.

Spanking of 2013: Primo (Curving Crack) 7b+, Am Fasgadh.
After The Shield this is the next on the list of Am Fasgadh test pieces.  It's the first (and perma-dry) section of the full 7c line of Primo, scuttling off right to an intermediate lower-off below the umbrella-esque quartz band.  It's taken a while to get to the point when I can do it in overlapping halves, but on redpoint I just don't have the fitness to get anything from the 'rest' so I'm off as soon as I start the second half.  Is 2014 the year? Only if Malc's arete gets done first...

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A crow starts from the spruce

A crow starts from the spruce, rasping call and black flapping away.  Crunching through frosted grass, the cows steam in a huddle, lowing loud.  Despite the chill I sweat up the slope, through the fence marking the divide between the farmed strath and the heathery slopes.  Part way I stop and turn to drink it in: the frosted flat expanse of upper Strathspey. Smoke hanging above cottage chimneys,  green belts of fir and pine and golden stripes of birch and beech, and down by the river the sheep flocks grazing, as ever.  Then above, the hills rise and rise.  Late November's snow in patchwork with the brown of last season's plants, then above, perfect uniform white.  Beinn a Chrasgain and the rest of the Monadhliath, once more in winter's grip.

Pushing on, the ground levels out and I follow paths made by sheep and deer through the heather.  A raven honks overhead, and for a second I'm transfixed by the rush of sound of it's wings beating the air, nearing and retreating.  Grasses rustle and the Allt na Cubhaige burbles round ice-petalled pebbles.

Yesterday I went back to Laggan.  It was my first visit for well over a year, since moving from Aviemore up to Inverness.  I'd been meaning to return for a while, partly to try a few problems I'd not previously managed, but partly just to go back, to see the place and remember its shapes and colours, and the times I've spent there.  So far this bouldering season I've been more involved in the siege process than ever before, determined as I am for this to be the year of Malc's.  I'm still relishing the battle, and starting to see some benefits come through, but there's no doubt that the more you focus on the specifics of holds, moves, conditions, skin, the less you open your eyes to your surroundings.  Yesterday it was good to re-connect with a place, to remind myself of the journey this microcosm of obsession has come from: the mountains and glens, the woods, the rivers, the fields.

And, I could barely do this move a year ago.  Which was nice.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Coming of Age

I remember back in the autumn of 2007, not long graduated and not long living in the Highlands, over in wet Fort William. Plying my attempted trade as an ecologist, one weekend I went up to Kinlochewe to join a group on a lichen identification training weekend (no sniggering at the back, lichens are way cool). I was staying in the bunkhouse at the Kinlochewe hotel and one evening, while I overboiled my pasta, I picked up a copy of Scottish Mountaineer magazine left behind by a previous incumbant. Flicking between the stories of bearded heros in snowy couloirs and gatered wonderers on their favourite Munros, the pages fell open on an article about bouldering. The peice was describing the Celtic Jumble in Glen Torridon, describing a scenic circuit on perfect sandstone, tucked between the towering mass of Liathach and the lapping shores of the sea-loch. I remember one photo in particular, of a tall skinny guy stretched out on a problem called The Mission on one of the most awesomely shaped rocks I’d ever seen.

Little did I know how much that place would come to mean to me, how much time and effort I would pour into that rock, and that that tall skinny guy would soon become a good friend.

Bouldering in Torridon is now one of my favourite past-times, my default setting whenever the weather looks right. As any Soft Rock reader will know, I’ve been locked in a wrestling match with one of it’s most famous problems for the last few years, and during that time, when I’ve not been sat beneath it trying to envision my eventual success, I’ve spent hours exploring the boulder jumble, climbing it’s sandstone shapes.

Rich had told me a few years ago that him and Ian were thinking of putting a guide together. It makes perfect sense since it must now be one of the finest bouldering venues in the U.K, and people deserve to know about it. The location alone makes it special, in the quiet Highland solitude between mountain and sea, far from major population centres but only a short walk from the car. The rock is as good as you could dream, both on the scale of the lines and the holds – sculpted sloped edges, pebbles, pockets. And the range of problems: friendly lowballs, ankle-searing highballs, Font 3, Font 8A.

And it’s happened, Ian and Rich have put together a real labour of love: the comprehensive guide to the main boulder jumble and local outlying areas. The boulders have come of age. No longer must people rely on whisperings, blogs and half rememberances. It’s the full shebang: photo topos, lots of large scale maps, well researched descriptions and quality action shots, and all bound together with Ian’s dry wit. Personally, I think it's great that the two guys that have put the most into developing the area have gone to all this effort; recognition of the world-class bouldering and documentation of the psyched wee North West scene.

Besides wellies and a tarp, what more could you possibly need?

You can get yours here.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sea Eagle Omen

Autumn fronts have brought bands of hated rain across the North over the last couple of weeks.  Not so bad for me as I've been sat in front of a computer modelling deer populations while my colleagues have been out in it counting trees.  Less good on the weekends though, when the options at this time of year are dramatically narrowed.

True to form, Am Fasgadh delivered, living up to it's 'outdoor climbing gym' billing.  The problem of course is that normal climbing gyms have routes I can actually do.  Nick had been on The Warm Up a few weeks earlier so was hungry for the tick, I'd not been there since about April so just happy to get the beta for Primo (Curving Crack) back out of the box and blow the dust off.  Neither of us were successful on that first visit, although Nick did all the climbing of Warm Up, just couldn't get a hand off to clip the chain. Gutted.

Next day it was mirky and damp in Inverness and I had to be home to get Sarah from the airport by five but all the Westies kept texting to say it was blue with them.  I couldn't face another day at Am Fasgadh so took the pads up to Ardmair for a look at the stuff under Arapiles Wall.  Bouldering at the crag was still a hole in my North West C.V.  As expected, I wasn't disappointed, getting stuck into the tenuous finger-locks of Lawrence's Crack in the anti-socially warm October sun.  After about 5 goes working out how to climb the crack, another 5 working out how to do the finish and then about 10 doing it all and then blowing the last move, diminishing returns set in and I packed up, keen for a return with fresh arms and new shoes with edges.

Another week of deer numbers passed and Nick and I were forced back to Am Fasgadh.  It rained all day but the crag stayed dry behind it's curtain of drips.  Mustering motivation was hard work in the cold dampness, but having driven all that way we both stuck to our guns.  A sea eagle floated by on the breeze - a good omen.  This time round Nick got The Warm Up sent, despite climbing all the way to chain only to fail on the clip on his first redpoint.  Effort for sticking with it.  Curving Crack started to come together, and I can do it in two halves almost every time now. Getting anything back at the halfway 'jug' is proving a little problematic, but I've refined some foot faffing which makes the next (crux) moves less strenuous.  We'll see.

Nick demonstrating the importance of rest before a redpoint.

Like last week, next day I went back to Ardmair, but this time armed with a pair of box-fresh Megos. After a warm up Lawrence's Crack went down third try. In it's own right it's a really quality line somewhere a bit different; slightly techy, slightly powerful and then a highball  lurch to a jug.  In the big picture it's a really good addition to the ticklist I'll be relying on for positivity for the impending Torridon seiges.

Afterwards, as I waited down by the road for Sarah to come and pick me up after her run, a sea eagle glided past.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Beginning

So, last time round I threw down the gauntlet.  Now it's out there on the web: things are gonna be changing round here.  I'd better stick to my word.

I've had 3 dedicated campus sessions since I wrote that blog, and have found that I can fit them in to non-climbing days at home pretty easily.   I'm terrified of being stupid and injuring myself so being pretty conservative in my sessions.  I'll try to do at least one a week from now on.  I've been working on a few very basic core exercises most evenings for a while now - mainly plank and sit-ups so been keeping them up.  I got some inspiring exercises and tips from Beastmaker Dan so will try to fit them into sessions on Rich's board.

The weather's played ball, giving up three days of early season Torridon action over the last two weekends. It's been nice getting back into the swing of bouldering sessions: trying hard, sore skin, flailing, pulling, fighting. Knowing that it's still early days I've been enjoying floating about, taking it easy, notching up mileage on old and new classics.  I guess I'm trying to build a base of positive momentum for the inevitable roadblocks that a winter of projecting will bring.

Jus' good ol' fashioned fun

Sunday saw a gathering of Scottish trad jedis on the Torridon boulders and it was cool to be reminded that bouldering is sometimes just plain hard.  A cool wind quenched the fears that it would be too warm to bother trying Malc's, so down went the tarp, the pads, the inhibitions.  The first 2 sessions of the season hadn't been great starts - admittedly conditions weren't great, but I'd struggled to reach the slopy shelf  which I'd reach almost every time last year.  Sunday felt good though, and I had a decent couple of goes on the move from the shelf where my fingers were over the lip as my flailing feet pulled be backwards.  A positive start.

Has last winter's Am Fasgadh robin de-camped to Torridon?
Murdo trying Sostenuto the hard way.
Murdo dancing with Poor-man's Mission
Tony and Murdo discuss where they can fiddle in some RPs on Malc's.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Turning Over an Autumn Leaf

The busy life of the A9 commuter means time flies by with barely a nod of recognition.  I was on Pabbay last week.  Wasn't I?  No, it was four months ago.  And what have I got to show since them? Months of hard hill days at work, a couple of days out West, a couple of local sport routes redpointed, a handful of bouldering sessions.  Not much.  Well, that's not quite true, it's been a great summer in real life: weddings, friends, family, holidays in Morocco. There's just not enough time to do it all.

But there's a change in the air.  With October's blustery arrival and Winter lurking on the horizon,  it's time.  Finally there's breathing space in the calender, weeks and weeks with no plans or distractions.

Regular readers will be shocked and stunned to hear that priority number 1 for this winter is to climb Malcolm Smith's Arete on the Ship Boulder, Torridon.  During last year's emotional rollercoaster of attempts I got fairly close, sticking the last hard move for a millisecond before gravity prevailed.  Over the 6 months since I last tried it I've been doing some soul searching and come to the conclusion that if I'm ever going to do it things have to change, and now is the perfect opportunity to start.

When it comes to training and prioritising I've always had a scattergun approach, hoping rather then knowing that if I do a bit of everything it can't hurt - routes: do some circuits, bouldering: do some deadhangs, go for the odd run, do the odd core exercise.  However, I've never really had a structure or kept a record of progress, and never stuck at something long enough to make any real gains, other than psychological ones perhaps.  So, here we go.  It's a few months yet until the really good conditions of winter, now is the time to start something that could and should make this the year of success.

  • Prioritising - I've already shown myself that Malc's is hard.  Damn hard.  If I really want to do it I'll have to make some sacrifices.  I expect this winter there'll be some lovely days when everyone else is off to Am Fasgadh, having a fun, sociable time, but on those days I'll have to ask myself what I want more?  Similarly, when I've only got a small amount of time, I'll have to decide whether I want a nice session on local boulders, or a punishing session on Rich's board.
  • Contact strength - I've hit the top of Malc's loads of times, but just can't hold on. I've done very little campus boarding and think that this should help.  Over the years I think I've neglected working on raw finger strength but I'm realising that it could make a big difference.  Fortunately the wall at Inverness Leisure Centre have just had a board built.  Divine providence?
  • Core - Specifically, keeping a toe on for the big move seems unlikely with my body shape, but the stronger the back and core the more I'll be able to dig my toes in for the jump, or keep my toes on if a miracle happens.  More generally, bouldering is brutal so the stronger the body, the less chance of mischief. 
Rich and I were out in the Glen yesterday for a pre-season friendly, pottering about on a circuit of brilliant easier problems.  With the imminent release of Ian and Rich's guide to the area there's been lots of checking of old classics and discovering hidden gems, so we had an explore.  Morning Wall warm ups, Celtic Knot, Conundrum, Chris Houston's new thing (fail by me), Slopey Ripples (classic!), Squelch, Tetra Pak, Bertram Dickson (team fail), Spaceship Right, Spaceship Left, Indian Winter (classic, but a team fail for the sitter).  It's good to be back.

Rich on Indian Winter

Monday, 26 August 2013

Nuts and Bolts

It’s been much the same as the summer has wound on: the odd bouldering session, the odd session clipping bolts, almost no trad to speak of.  Bah humbug!  I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I’m starting to think about the winter bouldering season already.  Even worse, the last few weeks I’ve had a funky index finger injury, something to do with ligament round the knuckle, according to the Highland climbing injury consultant Murdo.  It’s almost totally healed now but didn’t do much for motivation, since with my job one of my only training aids is dangling from rock rings on the few evenings I’m home in the week.  C’est la vie.  I’ve also picked up some soft tissue damage in my right foot from a combination of running in old crap shoes and hardcore ceilidh dancing.  I’m realising I don’t take being injured very well; it’s not something I’ve ever had to get used to.  Must be getting old….

It’s been interesting seeing the Farrletter debate rumbling on on UKC.  Of course, there’s no real new ground being covered, and the usual sweeping statements and entrenched views (of which I’m probably just as guilty) but it’s interesting to see it being used as a proxy for a discussion about the general placement of bolts in Scotland. Of course it’s not quite the same, as Farrletter is about retro-bolting trad routes.  With this and the long awaited publication of the SMC’s Scottish Sport Climbs guide it seems like the lid is being lifted on the lesser known Scottish sport crags, of which there are quite a few, and which I wouldn’t be surprised if some found a little controversial.

I definitely feel in the midst of an ethical quandary, and I’m starting to see how my own views have been shaped and might be different from others.  I only started climbing in 2004, and spent my learning years climbing with members of Edinburgh Uni Mountaineering Club.  As far as I was concerned it was all about trad, mountains, winter, exploration and dare I say it, danger.  Sport climbing was dull, safe and convenient.  With adventurous climbing you don’t have to be very good to still have amazing, challenging experiences.   As time passed and I got a bit better I started to realise that sport climbing had a place.  To me, easy sport is pretty boring unless it takes in stunning ground or covers funky rock formations, but battling hard on routes is great, and I’d probably list successful redpoints as some of my most rewarding climbing experiences.  And let’s not forget, punters like me need easy sport routes to warm up on! 

I’m realising this is a fairly out of date and idealistic view, but I still think trad should hold sway over sport.  If a new crag is being developed, I’d like to think folk would try to get some trad lines out of it before deciding it’s too hard, too steep or too bold and firing up the drill.  And if it is too hard/steep/bold, I’d like to think they’d have a quick think about what others might like to do – some folk love that stuff.  I might be wrong, but I’ve got the feeling that in some circumstances it’s been a case of finders-keepers, with who-ever makes the first move dictating the future of a crag, rather than the result of an open discussion.  Of course, as UKC shows us, an open discussion doesn't really lead anywhere.  So perhaps we’re all screwed!

I can totally understand the other side of the fence:  there are loads of quality established trad crags of all shapes and sizes and no-one is going to bolt them; if a crag hasn’t already been developed for trad, it’s probably for good reason; there’s clearly a growing demand for sport climbing.  My only concern (being a tree-hugging hippy) is that all these arguments are based on current demands and fashions, rather than the potential long-term effects.  Placing bolts is a pretty irreversible change to the nature of a crag, so my feeling is that it shouldn't be done lightly.

Finally, I’ll qualify all this by saying that I clearly don’t care enough either way as I’m neither involved in bolting or in chopping.  I'm the worst kind of arse that'll happily clip your bolt but then write about it on the internet.  I guess it would just be cool if those that are involved had a quick think about the wider effects of their actions before wielding the drill or chisel. 

Right that was all a bit serious, I'm off bouldering.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Writer's Block

It’s taken a long time to come up with something to put on the Soft Rock pages.  Over the last month or so I've sat down and tried to write a few times, but every time I've come up short for what to say.  I've been writing Soft Rock since 2007 and I’m definitely finding it harder and harder to come up with interesting ways to write about the same things: I went to a crag. I climbed a route. It was nice. Adding to the trouble, I feel like my climbing has stagnated over the summer; poor timing, missed opportunities, a lack of confidence, a lack of momentum.  

I guess the opportunistic nature of trad climbing means you go where you can, when you can. You turn up, gear up, climb up, then move on to the next.  The focus isn't on the fine detail, it’s on the broad strokes.  It’s easy to write about projects – the deep experience of micro-exploration, the mental turmoil and the physical battle, trying, failing, trying, improving.  It makes for a simple narrative, the classic montage sequence in every movie.  Sure, on a taxing onsight there’s a constant inner-monologue going on and I’d love to be able to record it and regurgitate it on paper.  I tried with my last blog Fall of the Wild, and really enjoyed that, but it stood out over most trad routes as I took a big lob off the top.  The truth is that the inner story of most successful ascents quickly fades in the memory.

Anyway, here's a few photo's to remind me:

Brave New World, a brilliant E2 at Rolling Wall, Diabaig Peninsular (Photo: Nick Carter)

Chillin' on Pabbay: Murdo, Guy, Donald and Nick wait for Donald the boatman.
Nick seconding Sirens pitch 2 with big swell below Dun Mingulay.

'Pioneering' neglected rock in Strathspey (Photo: Dave Chapman).
More Strathspey routes: Dave in the wideness.
Pale Diedre on Beinn Eighe (Photo: Murdo Jamieson)

Monday, 20 May 2013

Fall of the Wild

Is it wet? Or is it my own sweat? Chalk. Chalk. Chalk.  Nervousness. Dry mouth.
Is the cam I shoved in above the stuck Friend over-cammed?  More gear.  Need more gear.

Move from the rest back up into the land of confusion.  Sideways holds.  Fight, wires in teeth, grating a bloodied knuckle, jerking and tugging, two happy wires sit firm.  Bubbles of security.  Back at the rest, I look down at Murdo, surprised how far I have to arch my neck to see him.  This has to be the steepest trad route I've been on for a long time.  No wonder I'm fatigued.  No wonder I'm scared.  Whipping around in the maelstrom of my buzzing mind is what I've recently found out about this route.  Folk I know failed on it, where it steepens, right at the last.  All good climbers.

I can see a crack, surely Friend 2 width.  And maybe slightly smaller just above.  I make another pass into the confusion, seeing more with each tentative foray.  The Friend goes in, I struggle to clip it, groaning.  Down to the rest again. Next time, I'll go for it.  The kit's good.  You're just tiring yourself.  Get up there and move right. The top of that black boss. It's a jug.

This time I'm passed the Friend, don't ask me how.  Thinking back, I can't remember what I did.  Reaching right to the flange I can bridge out and stuff another cam into the higher crack.  Clip and move.  Rightwards.  The top of that black boss.  It's a jug.  And it is. Swimming with the steepness, paste feet right and step in to rock up and rock round.  Rounded.  Rounded.  So, this is what the guide meant about laybacking rounded holds.  Feet up again, right toes on a sloping ramp.  Sloping down and down.  But it's too far right.  Trying to pull up, and in.  Slap the left hand.  Rounded.  Slap again.  Rounded.  The right hand is under my chest and I try to bring my weight into the niche.  Face pressed on rock.  Off balance.  Ragged breathing. The terror.  Becoming deafening.  Deafening.

And I'm off.

My first visit to Lochan Dubh Crag proved a memorable one.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Slow Beginnings

It's been a mixed few months up here.  I booked a couple of weeks off work in late April and early May, hoping to cash in on one of those amazing Springtime high pressures we sometimes get in the Highlands - warm air, blue skies, the glens infused with the sweet scent of birch sap as fluorescent buds unfurl, a cacophony of cuckoos and willow warblers making house, home after their long journeys.  Nature yawning and blinking into a new season.

I'd hoped that by the end of my time off I'd have a decent list of battles under my belt and scars on my hands and I'd be starting to feel fit and confident. I'd have dusted off the winter of boulders and sport climbs, re-acquainted myself with wires and cams, fear and commitment.  Like nature's new arrivals; ready for the new season. I'd be lying to say I've done nothing, but it's definitely not been the festival of spring psyche I'd been dreaming of.  The stable weather we've enjoyed for the last couple of springs is yet to show itself and I've been dodging between soaking showers and tempting sunshine.  I live in hope.

A day at soggy Ardmair was salvaged by doing a damp E1 on Arapiles Wall and bettered the next day with my inaugural visit to Inbherpollaidh Rock Gym.  By the end of the day I started to feel the trad head returning - that strange cocktail of fear, intrigue and confidence that comes from pushing into the unknown.  Prior to this I spent a cold afternoon at the Camel and a showery day having good redpoint goes on Primo at Am Fasgadh (still no joy, and surely the season has closed by now?).

I've had a few bouldering sessions too.  After the Am Fasgadh day I had time to kill in Ullapool so spent a sunny hour at Ardmair Beach, the waves gently lapping at the pebbles as I spent the last of my strength and skin.  I finally got round to visiting Tom Riach, the Culloden conglomerate boulder, ticking everything but the traverse before rain stopped play.  I returned a week later for that one. This week I had a session back at Ruthven and decided to try White Russian, aka Mike's Problem.  It's a bit eliminate but is the only other 7A+ after Barry Manilow so worth a punt.  I managed all the moves in that session so looking forward to returning.  Strangely, I think it might be one of those problems that you don't want it to bee too cold for, otherwise slapping for the sharp holds would just be too painful.  A good summer project?
2 long held ambitions finally achieved - Suilven and Lochinver's famous pies on the same day.

Badbea Clearance Village in Caithness, not a happy place.
Blair in traditional Highland dress.

Blair on Tyrantic, E4 6a, Inbherpollaidh Rock Gym.

After Rich crocked himself on his road bike (look at this pic) I took Bronwen off to look for potential new crags, only to find someone else's old anchor round this rather insubstantial rock! 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Still snowy?

I've been on a few winter-sun sport climbing trips to Spain in the last few years, always to Catalunya, always in November or December.  By the end of a week I always come home feeling keen and confident, ready to tear up the local crags, only to remember that it's mid-winter in the Highlands and you just have to take what you can get.  So, this time Nick and I booked a holiday to Chulilla in Valencia in late March, in the hope that our return would coincide with the start of Spring and the pre-midge trad season.  The success of this plan is yet to be seen, as our arrival home has been greeted with continued cold weather, morning frosts, and more snow in the forecast, but we did manage a great short trip.  I've climbed with Nick a few times at home, mainly at our local suntrap of Moy, and knew that we climbed at a similar standard, so it was great to go out with someone who was going to be keen to try the same routes.

Chulilla itself is a wee Valencian village tucked into a hillside above a huge meandering limestone gorge.  Back in the 70s and 80s it was a real destination in the European sport scene, providing loads of long, technical wall climbs, but for one reason or another it fell out of favour and people stopped going.  Perhaps peoples tastes changed for shorter, steeper routes?  Regardless, in the last few years it's had a renaissance, with locals equipping loads of new routes and re-equipping the old ones, and the gorge is starting to echo with the clamour of climbers from across Europe again.
The view from the refugio

Our mates Rich and Lee were already out when we arrived so they were able to give us the lowdown on crags to visit and routes to try (or avoid - the new guide still uses the old school grades for the old school crags, beware!).  Like us, they were staying in one-time World Bouldering Champ Pedro Pons' nice new refugio El Altico, which is stunningly situated, looking out across the gorge.  Nick and I spent most of out time trying to onsight and flash routes, with a couple of specific projecting sessions thrown in, and ended up climbing almost exclusively at the three sectors called El Oasis, Pared de Enfrente and Sex Shop (not sure why it's called that...).  I think, for once, my attempted preparation for the trip paid off a little, as I seemed to be climbing better than I have done before - perhaps the long pitches are quite forgiving for the grade?  Regardless, it felt great to have the confidence to just step up to routes and try them, rather than going through the regular mental turmoil.  Highlights for me were the long 6c crack El Diagonal, the horrid-looking but amazing climbing 6c Presiscrack, flashing the lovely techy 7as Plan Z and Top of the Rock, onsighting the 7a Super Furry Animal, which has it's tough tufa crux right at the end, and redpointing the superb 7b Dale Duro Negro.  Nick did this last route on his first redpoint, but I had to plump for second go after falling from the very last move of it's 35m length on my first go.  Punter!

Nick's arse emerging from a resting hole on El Diagonal.

A very small-looking Lee on a very long looking El Ramaller, 7c+
A week has already passed since we got back, and between work, the cold and family commitments I've not been able to make use of my Spanish stamina.  However, a very early start this morning saw me at the Ruthven boulder as the sun came up and I finally dispatched the horrid grovel-fest that is Barry Manilow, the 7A+ mantel that I've been trying on and off for ages, and I was home by eight o'clock and ready for a day of family fun.  Result...

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Time Slips By

It seems that the tunnel-visioned focus of the winter rock season is starting to blur.  After months of obsessing over Malc's Arete - constantly failing on that final move and trying to work out how I can train for it (be better, be stronger, be longer, jump higher) - my attention is waning.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still after the prize and am still trying every so often, but as the Spring approaches it's not as high up the list of priorities.

As the season advanced I made minuscule increments of progress - having the start wired, jumping, hitting the lip, twisting and bending the knee, even holding the top for a millisecond - and I dared to dream that perhaps it might happen.  Then it started to go backwards, or at least the progress stopped and I was still hitting the pads.  My hopes were dashed and I felt cheated.  One particular day I went in a cold wind and could hardly keep my pads down and got pretty pissed off - with conditions, and with myself.  Then, the very next day I went to a different boulder, under a blue sky and snowy mountains and out of the obsessive project bubble.  I had a great day, possibly the highlight of the season, climbing new problems on perfect rock. As perspective returned I felt my spirits lift and the dark shadows pass.  I felt like I'd been passing through the stages of grief - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and now, finally, Acceptance.  I realised again that it's all just a game.  It really doesn't matter. If I ever do Malc's I'll be thrilled, overjoyed. But if I don't, I'll still relish the challenge of trying.

So, the focus has started to shift to routes and fitness.  I'm off to Chulilla in Spain next week so I've been trying to prepare for that, and hope that in turn it'll prepare me for the Highland spring. We've been fairly lucky with the weather up here and trips to the reliable weather-proof options of the Am Fasgadh Sunday scene and Moy and a sunny weekend at Goat Crag have kept me on my toes (and arms).
Am Fasgadh Sundays:
Andy Wilby on Black Sox Direct, 8a+.  After some determined sessions Andy did it this season. Effort!

Besides doing Am Fasgadh's The Shield in January, a few fruitful battles have set the wheels in motion for what could be a good year. First were Fidgey Muckers, a 7a at Goat that I'd failed on last Autumn during a period when I'd hardly done any climbing, and then The Combo, the 7a+ that links Mighty Atom into Too Old to be Famous.  At Moy I surprised myself by doing The Seer second go.  It's gained a pebble-hole on the crux span since I did it last winter so think going down to 7a+ is fair.  Oddly, it probably makes it a better route - less cruxy and more sustained at the same level.  Retro-flashing Constant Flux afterwards was a good reminder in hanging on and working things out when pumped - the aim for Spain.

Am Fasgadh Sundays:Tess off The Shield, 7b

Yesterday me and Sarah had a quick hit to Am Fasgadh while the sun still shone in the West and I had my best ever goes on Primo (or more specifically, The Curving Crack, the 7b+ first part of Primo).  I first tried this back in 2010 but it had never seemed like a reality until this year when I worked out how to do the last hard moves.  For a weakling like me it's a pure power endurance route, short and hard with no real respite.  There's a miserable semi-rest at what's known as the quartz 'jug'.  Jug!  Ha! I can do the route in overlapping halves to and from the jug but the redpoint crux is moving off it into a crozzly pinch.  For the first time I managed that twice yesterday, peeling off just afterwards, but there's a bit of me that thinks that if I can stick the next move it might just be do-able.  Where's that fingerboard?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Farrletter Debate

I heard through the jungle drums a few weeks ago that Farrletter Crag in Strathspey had been retro-bolted, or at least, some of it had been.  I went down for a look at the crag today, and it's true.  It's something that has been discussed over the years, not least on a couple of UKC threads, with strong feelings on both sides of the argument.  Now it's been done and the argument is pretty much over.

I'll start by saying I no longer live in Strathspey so accept that my opinions probably hold little weight, and that this post is just that - my opinion.  I don't want to implicate anyone else or piss anyone off, but I do think it's something that should be discussed and that people should know about - you might even want to go and do the routes yourself.

Farrletter is an odd little place - a steep, North-facing wall of very compact schist, similar to sections of nearby Creag Dubh.  It's very close to the road so easy to access for a summer evening's cragging (if the midges don't get you!).  It's got a handful of routes from E1 to E6, and the nature of the rock means they're often fairly bold (some rely on pegs) and pretty strenuous - again, similar to it's much more famous neighbour.  Some of the routes are fine though, including a very safe E4 crack.  The routes were developed in the 80s and 90s by locals, mainly from Glenmore Lodge.  Being short and close to the road, it seems it's always been treated as a training venue rather than a normal trad crag - as far as I'm aware most people top-rope the routes and they are rarely led, even rarer onsight. I guess this style of route isn't very popular nowadays, especially if you're just after a few laps to keep fit on a sunny evening.  As such, the idea of bolting it to create a sport crag has been mooted on more than one occasion.

As far as I'm aware, arguments put forward by others (taken from my own discussions and UKC 'discussions') in favour of bolting are:

  • To stop wear and tear to trees used as anchors for top-roping.
  • To provide a safe training venue for Strathspey climbers.
  • To make the crag more popular - it's a small, insignificant crag with only local interest as a harder trad venue, plus Creag Dubh, a haven for this style of climbing, is nearby.
  • The safety of old pegs is unknown - better to replace them with 100% safe bolts.

The right hand section of Farrletter, where 3 lines have been bolted. These are roughly the lines of Master Farrter (E5 6c), Yet so Farther (E5 6b), and The Art of Course Climbing (E5 6b).

When I first went there in 2009 I think I saw the crag quite differently to the locals.  Sure, there are some pretty bold looking E5s, a few E1s, E2s and E3s with spaced kit, and a smattering of dubious old pegs, but it just looked like a normal crag to me (all be it not a very pretty one).

Over the four years I lived in Aviemore I visited the crag a couple of times a year, onsighting most of the E1- E3s.  I attempted to onsight the very safe E4 Too Farr for the Bear but took the lob from the top and took it again on the second ground-up attempt a week or so later.  I've not been back on it.  I also dabbled in headpointing while it was briefly fashionable with a few locals in 2009, climbing the E5 The Art of Course Climbing after top-rope practice. A friend, who is a far better climber than me, then climbed this route ground-up after falling onto the peg on the onsight attempt.  During this time a new E6 start to one of the older E5s was climbed by Steve Johnston.  All these routes were spicy little challenges, requiring as much mental endeavor as physical to do them - the essence of trad climbing.   The point I'm trying to make is that to me, it's just another trad crag, with hard routes that I won't touch, and easier routes I'm happy to attempt onsight.  Just like Stanage, or the Shelterstone or Sheigra. There are hard or dangerous routes all over the place and if I don't feel up to leading them, I don't.  Perhaps I'm an ethical elitist, perhaps I'm an idiot.

Headpointing The Art of Course Climbing in 2009 - is that trad gear?

My rebuttlal to some of the points put forward above would be:

  • Fair enough, bolted anchors will put an end to damaging the trees at the top of the crag, but so will stopping top-roping!
  • It's not for nature to provide crags as safe training venues for local climbers.  To be honest, Farrletter would be a pretty crap training venue - between winter cold, summer midges and year round wetness you'd be better off a) building a board in your garage and buying a fingerboard,  b) going to the climbing wall, c) going to some of the reliable year-round sport venues we already have (Moy, The Camel, Am Fasgadh, Goat Crag etc, or d) go bouldering, there's some good stuff nearby, honest.
  • Trying to make a crag more popular by making routes safer is all well and good, if you find the crag and develop it yourself.  But if a crag is initially developed as a bold trad crag, that's what it is.  If people don't go there because they choose not to climb hard or bold routes, that's OK. A crag is just a lump of rock sticking out of the earth, it doesn't have to be popular.  Even if the people that first developed it are no longer as bold as they once were and would prefer to see it made safer, others might be up for the challenge   Should they have their scary routes denied them?  There's a reason we all go on holiday to Spain to sport climb, not Strathspey.  Spain has a prevailing ethic of bolted protection, Farrletter is (was) a trad crag.
  • I'll grant you the old pegs vs new bolts argument is a tricky one, but to my mind a peg is temporary and can easily be removed or replaced.  A bolt is permanent and instantly changes the nature of a route.  In this case I would rather all the pegs were removed, making it an even bolder trad crag, than it was bolted and turned into a safe sport crag.

So, personally, I think Farrletter is an already established trad climbing venue and shouldn't be retro-bolted. By not seeing it as a training venue but as a normal trad crag it has provided me with some great climbing experiences - spicy and serious but memorable and rewarding.  As a sport crag it will provide some pretty mediocre 10-15 metre long wall climbs on a north-facing, dark, dank crag.   But I guess that's pogress. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A New Day

After my soul searching day in Torridon I went out to a nice wee boulder I'd visited once before above Achnashellach in Strathcarron, gave it a wee scrub, tried hard on some lovely rock and had a jolly old time.  Funny how perspective can change so fast.

When I first went there a few weeks ago I couldn't for the life of me work out how to do one move on an otherwise really cool and obvious problem..  This time, however, I came up with a very peculiar and painful knee/shin bar, using an old tea towel taped to my leg as a makeshift pad.  I think it might be the future of hard bouldering.

In the past I'd be keen to shout from the rooftops about finding a new boulder and doing new problems, but this time I'm just happy to have been to such a cool place and to have my own wee tussle.  I put together this little film of the problems, and bolted on the thing I did in Torridon on Sunday.

Winter Exploration from Gareth Marshall on Vimeo.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Torridon Diaries #7

I passed up the chance to have a sociable day swinging from bolts at Am Fasgadh to go to Torridon on my own.  Malc's isn't going to climb itself.  But even before I left the house I knew nothing had changed and that conditions weren't likley to be great.  The seeds of doubt have started to sprout into seedlings and saplings.  I went anyway.  Between weather and other things I'd not been out to the Glen for three weeks. I've had a few quick blitzes on Rich's board and at Alien 2 in Edinburgh, and a few deadhang sessions in the brief spells back at home, but doing more days in the field at work and the lack of contact with rock left me feeling sluggish.

So, arrival at the Ship. A cold, strong Easterly is determined to steal my tarp before I can pin it down with rocks and pads.  I've tried to warm up but the wind robs any heat straight away.  I have a few goes but it feels terrible.  I feel terrible.  The head games change up a gear.

Why am I here?  What am I trying to prove, and to whom?  This piece of rock is clearly way beyond me.  Always has been, always will be.  Frustration. But I'm not sure where it comes from.  Is it not being able to do it? Or is it for kidding myself that I thought I might?  Injustice.  What do I need to do?  Haven't I tried enough?  I feel like I've spent enough days and enough day dreams on this.

I pack up and move off.  There's a huge list of things that I'd like to do in Torridon, some new, most old, but it's always felt like I'm missing the point if I concentrate on them before doing Malc's.  Maybe now it's time to move on. Before I start to head up the hill Ann and Nigel arrive.  They've both been working on their own projects for months and are obviously psyched for another day of battle.  Their motivation brings shame to my self-obsessed pity.

It turned out to be a pretty good day in the end, doing a cool new (?) problem up on the Stokes Croft level, and finding lots of stuff to come back to.  On arrival back at the car there was a note under my windscreen wiper from Ann and Nigel.  As I read it, the motivation started to return...

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snow Week aka Torridon Diaries #5 & 6

Rich's garage on Sunday morning, cup of tea steaming, fending off Bronwen the dog who's after the socks I thought I'd hidden in my trainers.  It's sleeting outside. My hot breath hangs in the cold chalky air.  Black undercut to yellow crimp, grey crimp, step through, paste the feet, push to take the shift in weight, launch, miss, fall.  Just another session on the board.

My phone buzzes into my attention, it's the boss.  Do I fancy taking the week off - lieing snow is going to make surveying deer dung pretty tricky?  I scan a few forecasts.  Cold, high pressure, blue skies, sunshine.  Yes please!

Monday: A wet day before the good stuff arrives.  Admin in town, drink coffee, buy a shoe rack, build a shoe rack.  Head to the wall in the evening with Sarah.  Another day of the dream. 

Tuesday: Rich has taken the day off.  Will the forecast deliver?  The initial plan is a tour of the Coire nan Arr boulders, below towering Sgurr na Choarachain in Applecross. Everywhere else is cloudless blue, but here a band of cloud hangs round the hills.  Arrival at the first on the list, The Universal block, tells us that it must have rained last night as this north-facing beast is still damp.  I slide off the warm-up a few times before it succombs while Rich does laps. The next dry thing turns out to be a cracking little problem, somehow pulling into and out of a corner.  It's actually not that hard but it takes me ages to work out, especially when I watch Rich do one move that I have to do in about four.  Typical bouldering.  I eventually beach myself on the top and we sack it off to Torridon where it's sunnier.
Despite the sun, the breeze has picked up and it's baltic, but the grips on Malc's feel sticky so I set myself up again: tarp, pads, brush.  Is this it?  No, of course it's not.  Still, another small improvement as I actually manage to hit the top and hold myself for a split second a couple of times, before pirouetting off.  It's enough to keep the flame of hope alive.

Wednesday: Am Fasgadh.  The other project for this winter is The Shield, the 7b route at the winter sport crag du jour.  I had two quick sessions on it before going to Spain in November and it felt do-able, but since then it's been wet.  Weekly texts from Ian and Tess have kept me updated with the state of the seepage on the headwall. The seemingly endless mild dampness made me start to doubt that I'd ever get back on it this winter, but then came this cold dry snap.  I got the shout from Andrew that a team were going over so jumped aboard, fingers crossed.  Snow flurries on the road sparked the fear of the dribbles, but on arrival it was plain to see: game on.
My first go on The Shield back in October (Photo: Ian Taylor)
Last week, doubting that I'd be on the route in the near future, I wrote down my sequence for the crux on the back of a receipt.  On re-acquaintance I was amazed how well I had remembered it, despite not trying it for two months.  It felt reassuring to see the configuration of holds: the sharp ear-shape crimp, the wiered finger-lock that I can just reach into, the little edge out right that unlocks the move to the final crozzly crimp.
It was cold.  No sun and a light breeze meant for a real struggle to keep warm all day, let alone warm enough to pull on small holds.  Fortunately, The Shield has a ledge at half height where you can stop and take off both hands and get the blood flowing again.  Mid-redpoint hot-aches is a new experience, but I guess that's the price of winter rock climbing. 
First redpoint I blagged my way into the crux having dogged past to get the clips in earlier.  I knew what to do but didn't have the holds well enough to shift rightwards and pop for the last crimp.  Second go, the left thumb on the last sidepull was the difference and I felt tight and strong as my right foot moved out and I went for the crozzly crimp, adjusted on it, pushed with the right foot to move the left higher up the crack and reached for the jug and success.  Another project dissolves into happy memories.

Thursday:  Being not very good means I have a huge list of boulders and routes that I still want to do - more than I could ever have time for.  On top of this is a list of new places I want to go to and develop.  Finding time to visit these is even harder as they take much more effort.  So, a week of brilliant weather, feeling tired but happy after two good days, I thought I'd head to a boulder I'd seen last year when out hillwalking.  I won't go into too many details yet - it's a work in progress, and normally I show my new toys to my friends and they do them before me.  In the end, an 'easy day' turned into a full day working a problem that I still didn't manage (it requires some body geometry that I couldn't fathom).  I did one good problem (pic below) and the stand-up version of the one I couldn't do. Brilliant rock and a lovely forest location.  Looking forward to a rematch.
A new thing in the woods
Friday: So much for a rest yesterday.  Despite the rest of the UK floundering under snow, the North West is in glorious sun again.  It's too good to miss so I head back to Torridon, hoping that the Malc's obsession might be nearing an end.  A few text exchanges tell me it's really windy, but I can't think of any good excuses not to try so keep going. 
Arriving in the glen I begin the see their point.  The fire-stunted pines by the road are rocking in the roaring gale.  I warm up doing a new thing on the left edge of Angel Walls, the rock feels amazing.  I don't.  I head to the Ship and sort my kit out, pegging down the tarp and standing on my mats to stop them blowing away.  It feels like hard work, and I can already tell that it's not going to be a good day.  A few goes confirm this.  Tired arms, sore skin.  Boo hoo.  I'm joined by a couple of guys that had slept through their alarm to go winter climbing (sounds sensible).  I'd met one before, John McCune, and show them some stuff on the Ship and they try Malc's.  I decide that I'm better cutting my losses for today so head up to Another Level which is out of the wind.  I've still not done Rich's Worry Bomb - a plumb vertical wall on small holds.  After John show's the way on the long top reach I take a while losing skin on the sit start but eventually get it, holding it together for the top out.  A good consolation prize. 

Later, home and showered, I look at my grazed hands and pink fingertips.  I can feel the building tightness in my left quad after too much heel hooking.  I can feel the red wind-blasted glow of my face and my heavy eyelids wanting to close.

Rest day tomorrow...

Monday, 14 January 2013

Torridon Diaries # 4

This wasn't my fourth trip to Torridon this season. It's more like the 5th or 6th, but the last few just involved sitting in the car watching the rain, sitting in the cafe watching the rain, walking round the boulders in the rain and driving home in the rain.

This time was different, for a nice change.  Freezing fog in Inverness eventually petered out on the Strathbran Autobahn near Achnasheen, giving way to a blue sky punctuated with whisps of high cloud. Sarah dropped me at the boulders then went off for a run from Diabeg.  Walking to the Ship I could feel the dry crispness in the air - that perfect combination of atmospheric and human factors aligning, being here, now.

I warmed up at Angel Walls and on North Wall on the Ship, taking my time, enjoying it.   I then went up to a lovely slab of Mike Lee's called Straition Slab.  I'd seen it on a wet walk back in December and got all excited about a hard looking slab problem (something fairly lacking in Torridon) only to discover Mike had done it and given it Font 4.  After a few joyous smeary laps I guess he's about right.  A few degrees steeper and it would be a different kettle of fish all together.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time until I was down at Malc's for the usual ritual: laying out the tarp, weighing down the corners with pebbles from under Squelch, aligning the pads, brushing the holds.  On my first go I popped off the right hand crimp scar but every go after that was solid to the slopy rail.  Of course, that bit's not the problem, it's what comes next.  The move.  Ann took the photo below of one of my better goes of the day, my fingers curling over the top before the momentum from my right foot coming off rips me backwards.

Ready for another rapid dismount... Photo by Ann Falconer
As far as I can work out one of two things needs to happen for me to hold this move. Either my right toe stays on,meaning I'm more in control and can get away without catching the hold perfectly (this isn't likely unless I grow a bit, but I could work towards it with a mega strong core), or I catch the top perfectly in true mint conditions, meaning I can cut loose and stay on.  The latter option seems more likely, at least I can work on the jump, on my core, on my contact strength.  The thing is though, I could honestly imagine trying this move forever and still not getting it.  I guess that's why I do it.