Saturday, 20 December 2014

2014: Top 3

Another year comes and goes and we keep stumbling on.  Queue the annual reflective blog post.

2014 was definitely the year I grew up: getting engaged, turning 30, buying a house and finally getting a job that doesn't mean I'm always away from home.  I'm sure the 20 year old me would be deeply disappointed to see me now: a slave to the wage with a mortgage.  But it seems to me that unless you're very lucky, very talented or willing to live hand-to-mouth from other people's charity there's not much choice. Anyway, we've just bought a cool house in the sticks and I'm doing a job that 20 year old me would be proud of, so there.

In previous years I've listed my climbing, reading and musical highlights, so I'll follow the tradition, but this time I'm doing top three's (in no particular order):

Trad routes:
1. We the Drowned, E5 6b, Diabaig. The realisation of a long-held ambition: a tricky new slab route in the North West Highlands.  I was well chuffed when I heard that Jules Lines had on-sight soloed the 2nd ascent. Nutter!  He agreed with the grade and reckoned it would be 3 stars on grit.  I guess he would know.
Pretty Crag at Diabaig
2. Sumo, E3, Beinn Eighe. A great day out with Ian T who's almost ticked the crag so was happy to be my belay bitch.  Steep, positive, safe climbing and on a crag with one of the best views in Britain.
Sumo Pitch 2 (Photo: Ian Taylor)

3. Kachoong, 21, Arapiles. The only route I'd heard of before we went out to Oz.  I'd blown it up in my head as a must-do, so was pretty relieved not to take the ride.
Quality bumshot (Photo: Rob Greenwood)
Sport routes:
1. Primo (Curving Crack), 7b+, Am Fasgadh. Four years passed between first attempt and eventually clipping the chains, which is quite a long time for a 15m route.
Game face (Photo: Ian Taylor)

2. Giza Break, 7b/+, The Camel.  I totally fluked this on my first redpoint of my second session, three days after turning 30.  Happy birthday.
Starting up the 30m long potato field of The Camel (Photo: Nick Carter)
3. Wicked and Weird, 7a+, Kujho Crag. Spring in the North West Highlands: birds singing, sunny redpointing and no midges.  A punchy little route too.

1. Vapour Trail, 6C, Torridon. On the to-do list for a long time but I'd never plucked up the courage before this year.  Superb.
Getting high by myself.
2. Scatwell Massacre, 7A?, Scatwell.  A classic Richie Betts sandbag ('Betts 6C+') at  my new local boulder, tucked away in the woods of Strathconon.
Lamps out at Scatwell (Photo: Rich Betts)

3. The Link, 7c, Tom Riach.  OK, so it's a long boulder traverse, but I'm counting it.  My hardest link on anything to date, pieced together over a couple of months of summer after-work evenings.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.  Part one of Mantel's fictional biographies of Thomas Cromwell.  Uniquely written and about an era that it would seem GCSE and A-Level History skipped over. Poor old Catherine/Anne/Jane/Anne/Kathryn.

This is always impossible, so rather than thinking too hard I'll just pull up three from my current 'most-played' list:
1. Remurdered by Mogwai.
2. Marcos by Kan
3. Open Eye Signal by John Hopkins

All in all, not a bad year on the rocks. Merry Chistmas one and all!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


Trying The Catch 7B at Scatwell.  It's hard.
(Photo: Rich Betts)

I know you shouldn't wish your life away, but for the last week or so of our trip to Oz I couldn't help but think about the things that waited for me back at home.  As I've said many times on this blog before, I love the changing seasons and different activities they bring, and perhaps most of all I love the simplicity of winter bouldering.  There's something about the north and winter time that is a big part of me.  From the other side of the world, where it was late Spring and heating up to a balmy 30 degrees in the daytime, the thought of cold days and sandstone slopers seemed very distant, but I couldn't wait to get home.

Talking of which, the weekend after touching down on UK soil Sarah and I got the keys and moved into our new home.  It's the first time we've owned a place, so suffice to say, we're dead chuffed. Proper little country mice now. The board has yet to be built in the shed, but it'll happen. In the mean-time, two campus rungs screwed into the shed rafters are providing me with some good exercise.

In climbing terms, the best thing that's happened lately is the purchase of an XQ Lite FL1188, or in other words, a rechargeable lamp for night bouldering.  My relatively new job means that I'm no longer away from home in the week so having a lamp has revolutionised good weather evenings.  I'm still working out the best venues but so far Scatwell and Cummingston have come up trumps.

The Cummingston episode was a bit of a repeat of last season when I found rare amazing conditions on Gorilla. I got really close in a session but ran out of steam so, knowing how rare the combinations of cold dryness and tide are, I had to go back the next day to dispatch.  This time the problem was Fingerlicker, the desperate thin 7A traverse in the big cave.  Almost every time I've been there it's been humid and smeggy, even when everything else is in great nick, and I'd just about written it off as something I'd never do. On the Sunday it was better than I'd ever seen it, in fact, even the perma-smeg Cave Beast 6A was dry enough to finally do, so after a wee circuit I spent a fair bit of time piecing the moves together under the watchful eye of crag guardian "Buddha" Dave Wheeler. I got to the point of having proper goes from the start, but soon the skin was sore and returns diminishing so I bailed, frustrated. As soon as I got home I checked the weather and the tides for the next few days and put the lamp on charge.  Two days later I was back in the cave after work and it was still in good nick, so I fired up the lamps (I'd borrowed Rich's for some extra lumen power) and got it sent.  The next day the temps shot up and a warm wet front rolled in and the cave would have been back to smegsville.  You've got to cash in.
Dancing with my shadow on Fingerlicker.

Rich on a new problem in the Corridor at Cummingston: Feel the Lumens 6C+(+?)Apparently it has "the nicest hold to pull on in the whole district."  I suspect that means a minging rat crimp.
Photo: Rich Betts

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Ya Flamin' Galah!

Despite being fairly keen, I’ve always known that I’m not really a proper climber.  Since university I’ve opted to follow the path of a ‘normal’ life: 9-5 jobs, fiancée, house and all the trappings and commitments that come with it.  I’ve not spent months away on trips, I’ve not climbed around the world, I’ve never dumpster-dived and lived the dirtbag dream.  I climb when I can, but realistically that’s only on weekends and certainly not every weekend, and normally just day trips in the North of Scotland. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  I’ve made all my decisions consciously and gladly, but as we all know: one door opens, another one closes.  I don’t climb E5, and I still haven’t done Malc’s Arete, but I have the important things: happiness and security and a loving relationship.

But of course, sometimes you’ve got to feed the rat.  A few years ago I started to realise that the breadth of my climbing experience was really shallow: UK trad, Euro sport, Font boulders, that’s pretty much it. No Yosemite, no Squamish, no Todra, no Ton Sai, no Arapiles.  So, I decided enough was enough and started canvassing opinion among friends to see if anyone wanted to go away on a month-long trip somewhere, anywhere.

In steps Mr Energetic, aka Rob Greenwood.  He replied to my message saying he’d been thinking of a trip to Australia, to the hallowed walls of Arapiles and the Grampians.  Was I keen? 

Now, I didn’t really know Rob that well.  We’d met years ago when I lived in Aviemore through his then girlfriend Helena, who I knew from uni.  He’d stayed at mine a few times on winter climbing raids, and I’d stayed at his a few times on North Wales raids, and we spent a week together on Pabbay and Mingulay in 2011, but that’s pretty much it.  We’d stayed in touch down the years and I’d followed his escapades through various blogs, tweets and facetubes: Yosemite, Patogonia, Canada, the Himalaya, Alpine endeavours, and in the last few years his move to Sheffield, his gritstone wrestling and his fruitful quest for 8a glory.  Comparing his CV to mine doesn’t bear thinking about, but he’s a positive chap and seemed ignorant of my punterdom, so I agreed.  Australia!  Ya little rippa!

Leave was arranged, flights were booked, cars hired.  Other than a vague bubble of awareness of a photogenic roof called Kachoong and a beautiful orange wall full of hard sport routes called Taipan, I didn’t really know anything about where I’d agreed to go.  I bought some guides and surfed the web and very soon started to salivate. 

Life and weather meant that my prep in the month before leaving was almost exclusively shuffling sideways on the Tom Riach boulder, but I also managed my two hardest sport redpoints so felt vaguely positive.  Little did I know that 90% of my time in Oz I’d be trad climbing so really I should have been, well, going trad climbing.

I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but will try to summarise some highs and lows in bullet form:

·         Long flights = lots of films.  Brief review: The Railway Man (sad but good), Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson, therefore genious), Notting Hill (awww), Zero Dark Thirty (gripping), Les Miserables (catchy show tunes), A Million Ways to Die in the West (Family Guy in a cowboy hat), Edge of Tomorrow (meh).  I’ve forgotten the others so they must have been crap.
·         Camping in The Pines, legendary climbers doss.  A pole from our £70 tent from ‘BBQs Galore’ in Horsham snapped on the first day.  
·         Arapiles = sandbag.  Australian grades = arbitrary number. Ego = bruised.
·         Grampians: more striking lines, more scenic locations, but possibly fewer routes for punters like me.
·         Lots of amazing routes that start to blur into one.  On average you could sum up most Arapiles climbs as: steep, physical and very safe.
·         Surprisingly cold nights.  Should have brought a bigger sleeping bag.
·         Really friendly locals in Natimuk (the nearest village to Arapiles), with a strong ex-pat British scene.
·         Rest days visiting the swimming pool in Horsham for a shower, drinking coffee and eating cake in Nati Cafe.
·         Lots of the classic harder routes seem to go sideways, which were always ‘fun’ to second.
·         Pines life hanging with Rob, and Ben, Kath and May Bransby: cooking on the campfire, Ben reciting potty-mouth gangsta rap over breakfast, trying to make brews on the worlds crappest stove, 8 year old May singing all the way up the classic 13 Muldoon.
·         The crazy wildlife: kangaroos, wallabies, stump tailed lizards, possums, echidnas, koalas, wedge-tailed eagles, yellow-crested cockatoos, galahs, australian magpies, and a long-distance siting of a platypus (apparently).

May Bransby chillin' at Taipan, part way up a tree.
Ben Bransby chillin'  at Taipan, part way up Fisting Party.

It would be fair to say that from a climbing point of view, I found it pretty hard going.  It’s hard to know what on earth Australian grades mean and how they compare to British grades, but I’d be surprised if I climbed any trad routes harder than E2/3.  I did grow to really enjoy it, but to begin with I found the steep traddy style pretty intimidating.  C’est la vie. I came across very few sport climbs in the onsightable/holiday redpoint bracket but that was probably because a large chunk of the Grampians was still closed after a big fire.

I had a great time, climbed some amazing routes, and had the pleasure of watching Rob and Ben climb some even more amazing-looking harder things.  For me though, and I know it’s a massive cliché to say it,  the best thing about the trip was the people and the places: getting to know the Bransbys; spending more time with Rob and trying to understand his wild positivity and unceasing optimism; being somewhere totally new: new climate, new plants, new horizons.
Rob on Archimedes Priciple, Eureka Wall.  Possibly the most perfect single pitch trad climb in the world?
Thanks Rob, ya flamin' galah!

Rob rather pumped after Have a Good Flight lived up to it's name.

Sierra Blair-Greenwood

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Uncle Tom

It's funny how knowledge cascades and fashions form.  Tom Riach, the conglomerate erratic boulder up near Culloden has been the flavour of the season for Inverness locals this summer. I blame Nick Carter, who worked out that he could fit in a good session in the three hour gap he has between dropping and collecting Lily from nursery, so he started going down and getting keen, and then he told someone, and they told someone, and they told someone, and so on.  I've not long started a new job so at long last have free evenings in which to train, rather than fester in strange B&Bs.

As a bouldering boulder it's not really very good, with no real lines and nothing above 6B+, but as a local's training venue to try and get some fitness it's pretty handy.  The traverses of the South West and North West faces are both good problems and contrast nicely in style, with SW being a bit steeper on bigger holds and NW being very thin and fingery.  Being on conglomerate it's pretty friendly on the fingers too, unlike Ruthven which has also become popular among sideways shufflers in recent times.

Another sweaty after-work lap.  Photo: Alpha Mountaineering
Over the last two summers as we've been getting more familiar with the boulder a number of Tom Riach challenges have emerged, so here's a rundown of the current classics.  Grades are complete guesses, but are based on an assumed consensus of the Stone Country and UKC grade of SW Face being Font 6C+. I've done it so many times it feels about 6A, so have no idea:

  • SW Face traverse R-L from a sit start, finishing up arete, aka 'There' - Font 6C+
  • SW Face traverse L-R from a sit start, finishing up arete, aka 'Back' - a bit easier, maybe Font 6C?
  • There & Back (SW face R-L then L-R, sit start) - F7a route grade?
  • There with Butcher Finish (SW face R-L, finishing up Butcher Lefthand, rather than easy arete) - Harder than original, so Font 7A?
  • NW Face Original (R-L, stand start, finish up arete) - Font 7A (route grade F7b?)
  • NW Face Deziree's backwards way (L-R) - Font 7A?  I've not tried it.
  • The Link (sit start SW face R-L into NW face R-L, finish up arete) - F7c route grade.  
  • The Knil (reverse of The Link) - F7b+? I don't think it's been done yet.
I was well impressed when Nick did The Link for the first time back in May, as I was still falling off NW Original.  But as the sessions kept coming I started ticking through the list until The Link was the obvious challenge left.  Murdo tried it when he was tired and reckoned it was hard, but then came back rested and did it quickly, mooting a route grade of about F7c.  For me it's about 45 moves long with a couple of pretty poor rests and the crux right at the end moving past a cool 2-finger edge. Brilliant power endurance training.

Before I go to Australia for a month of climbing I told myself that I had to do Giza Break at The Camel and The Link at Tom Riach.  I nailed the former on my second session in early August, but the latter held out over quite a few sessions in sub-optimal conditions until last night and the first breeze we've had here in weeks.  

Hopefully now I'll be partly ready for the ego-bruising sandbag grades Australia will throw at me.  Or not.    

Saturday, 6 September 2014


Way back when, on a showery day in March 2010, I clipped the chains of  The Warm Up at Am Fasgadh.  I'd been trying it over a few visits to the crag that winter - the first winter that I made a point of dropping out of winter climbing and knuckling down to all-year rock climbing. It meant quite a lot to me as it was my first 7b and I saw it as a personal justification of my decision to quit the winter game.

Later that day I had a quick play on Curving Crack, a 7b+ which is the first section of the 7c Primo, scooching off right to an intermediate lower-off.  It felt absolutely untouchable.  I think I made a comment on this blog at the time, saying that it was the first time I'd been on a route and not been able to do all the moves in isolation.  But something about the route attracted me and I decided to work at it as a project.  Like many of Am Fasgadh's routes it's short and powerful, intricate and technical and there's not really anywhere to rest. Almost all the hard moves are on sidepulls and layaways so it's all about footwork and body position.

Since then I've put quite a few sessions into trying Curving Crack.  I was briefly distracted in the 2012/13 season when I tried and eventually did The Shield, but in total I must have spent at least 12 sessions over the four winter seasons trying it - far and away the most time I've spent on one route.  It took me a while to pin down a sequence for the crux, and then the problem was having the fitness to execute the moves.  I could do it in overlapping halves, getting to the quartz jug and clipping and going for the next move, then falling off, resting and going to the end.  It's been like that for the last few years.

Today me, Murdo, Ian and Tess sneaked up to the crag while it was still in it's summer hibernation, tucked beneath it's blanket of bracken.  Showers washed over the West coast all day so this was the only dry rock for a long drive in any direction.  We're right on the cusp between Summer and Autumn now, still with some heat in the sun but the air is cooling and the hill slopes and leaves have a tinge of gold. We were all hoping that a stealth attack so early in the year would find the crag still slumbering, and with it's guard down it would allow for some rare successes.

Over the last few months I've been trying to concentrate on endurance and fitness as I'm off on a trip to Australia in October.  Usually at this time of year I'd be starting to think about the approaching winter bouldering season and trying to get strong, but instead I've been keeping up the circuits and foot-on fingerboard routines from the summer.  I've noticed some good results over the last month or so, doing the long stamina routes of Giza Break (7b/7b+) at the Camel and The Clansman (7a+) at Moy pretty quickly, and getting pretty close to doing The Link (7c?) at the Tom Riach Boulder.  In addition to this a fairly regular dose of fingerboarding will hopefully have added some steel.

To illustrate, here's a photo of the door that I have the key for to Rich's board in his garage.  Clearly no 45 degree power bouldering for me this summer.
I'm not sure what it was, either my training or catching the crag unawares, or a combination of both, but something worked because earlier today, and I still can't work out how, I managed to climb from the ground to the lower-off without falling off. You absolute beauty!

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Perfect Day?

How do you know when it's the right time? Is there ever really a right time?  I guess if it ever was, it was now.
Deep breaths.  I try to pack some more chalk into the gouge in my fingertip, to hide it.  It's not there.  Helmet on. Eyes closed, I go through the sequence once more in my head.  When I open them I turn to take in the view, the deep green sea and the bay.  And then I feel it: rain. Surely not now.

Rewind a year and a half.  On a routine internet scouring session I stumbled across this photo on Neil Morrison's Flickr page:

The caption read: "a fine challenge for someone who likes blank slabs".  My ears pricked.

I emailed Neil to find out more and one rainy Friday a few weeks later I headed out to the beautiful coastal village of Diabaig nestling in it's sheltered bay, donned my boots and struck out.  Up on the hill above the peninsula's isthmus, beyond the honeypot Pillar and Main Wall, lie two amazingly contrasting and aptly named crags. Ugly Crag; steep, bulging, brutish.  Pretty Crag: slabby, smooth, short. Pretty Crag has a couple of VSs and an E1 on it, but an obvious gap in the middle where a hanging crack is guarded by a smooth wall of blank, pristine gneiss.
(Photo: Sarah Jones)
My love of slab climbing began with some of my first ever climbing experiences in the esoteric limestone quarries of Somerset.  Open, delicate movement, snaking the centre of gravity between minimal points of contact, and as a grade-chasing beginner I enjoyed the inverse relationship between protection and grade. I guess in the Peak District and elsewhere these kinds of short bold slabs are ten a penny, but up here in the Highlands, and more specifically the North West Highlands, they're few and far between.  Had I just struck upon the line I'd always dreamed of?

Initially I assumed it would be a top-rope rehearsal job, but then when I was there and looking at it I could see a thin crack that might muster a runner to protect the blank section before the safe top crack.  I changed my mind, and decided I should try to onsight it.  Time passed and 2013 came and went and the slab stayed in the back of my mind, but circumstances meant I never had a chance to return.  Finding a partner that would want to go out to this esoteric backwater was a bit of a struggle as there's not masses of other stuff that would keep them entertained.  Also, a selfish part of me didn't want to go there with someone who would clearly waltz up it after I failed, stealing 'my' route.  Childish, I know.  So, after weeks of favours, chores and bribery I managed to persuade my fiancée Sarah to come out and belay.

Now, Sarah has a complex relationship with climbing.  Actually, no, it's very simple.  She doesn't like it.  When we first started seeing each other, in the dark and distant past, she put on a good show of pretending that she did, and I dragged her up quite a few classic Scottish routes: Eagle Ridge, Agag's Groove, Ardverikie Wall, Cioch Nose and numerous horrid cold wintery things (which she enjoyed more than me).  But she doesn't need to pretend any more, she's got me. Hence having to resort to bribery and corruption to get a belay nowadays.
Psyched to be here!

Finally back at the crag at the end of May, it looked steeper and blanker than I remembered, but I'll just nip up the E1 to warm up then get down to business.  Or that's what I thought.  When I promptly fell off the top of the E1 I suddenly realised that I might be biting off more than I could chew. It would be easy if it was a couple of degrees more slabby, but it's actually too steep to just smear feet and rely on friction, it's proper face climbing.  So I realised three things: 1. I'm very bad at crack climbing, 2. the E1 is more like hard E2, but more importantly, 3. the potential new line would be significantly harder than anticipated.

An ethical dilemma arose: onsighting/groundup is good.  Top-roping is bad.  But then, as far as I was concerned, it would be a first ascent of a necky, tenuous route of the style and in the very place I really love. Regardless of how, doing it would be a special experience. Perhaps if it was elsewhere, where there are more and better climbers doing this sort of thing I would step aside and let someone else do it, but since it's in the remote North West that might mean it never actually gets done.  And perhaps if there was an obvious good gear placement round the crux I'd be happy to go for it and take the inevitable falls, but there's not and I think you'd be into ankle hurting territory. In the end I thought sod-it.  Headpoint project.  Wahoo!

That day I just abbed it as Sarah was getting bored, but I went back on my own with the shunt the next week and established just how thin the bottom 6 metres are.  The protection here is hard to see but OK: two No.3 Black Diamond Micro-Stoppers in a shallow crack, and although they've responded well to tugging from the ground I'm not sure if they'd take kindly to a fall from the last hard moves into the bottom of the hanging crack.

More time passed and I did some proper climbing: Neist, Elgol, Super Crag, Lochan Dubh, but the route still nagged away as an enticing challenge.  I had to get back.  But who with? Everyone was busy.  Sarah? That would take some serious bribery.  But then I remembered the lovely new restaurant Gille Brighde that's opened in Diabaig. Perhaps if I offered to pay for dinner she'd acquiesce to another belay?  Hooray! She agreed! Surely this would be the last possible time I'd get her out there, so this had to be it.
The top of Pretty Crag and the end of Ugly Crag in the shade.

On Friday I went back and played again on my own and was shocked by how hard it still felt.  But slowly I pieced it together, and although I didn't link it in one go I felt that I had the best sequence and knew the gear well enough.  Sunday had to be the day.

We huddle in the open as the rain shower passes over but there's blue sky beyond and a breeze and other than interrupting the bubble of self-belief I'm trying to inflate around myself, we're unscathed.
I'm nervous.  But excited and energised.  And nervous. On my first go I get off lightly, getting through most of the crux and getting the wire clipped in the bottom of the main crack before a foot scuffs and I'm off.  3 seconds earlier and it would have been very different. A silly mistake, all down to nerves.

Strip the gear and go again.  The first committing step through to the smear, the razor crimp, the four foot moves, the finger tip in the crack, the second razor crimp, fumble the wire, clip, balance, good finger-lock, smear, better finger-lock, wire, and then the glory of the crack and it's cams of joy and I'm on top.

And then, of course, it's over, and the impenetrable wall you've built and couldn't see past is gone.

On the walk back to the village and dinner we disturb an otter down by the shore, a compliment to the black-throated diver we watched in the loch on the drive down that morning.  Back at the car, I look back across the turquoise bay and see Pretty Crag glowing white in the evening sun.


Pretty Crag, Diabaig Peninsula
We, the Drowned 10m. E5 6b**  
Gaz Marshall, Sarah Jones. Headpointed 14th July 2014
The blank slab into the obvious central hanging crack.  Gain the port-hole feature and place small wires in the incipient thin crack just above, then step right and tiptoe upwards to reach the safety of the main crack.

Of course, the grade is a guess.  It felt technically harder than Firestone, but it's only 10m high and the top 3m are very safe and relatively much easier.  I think you could hurt yourself if you fluffed the last few hard moves and I think the style of climbing would make it a very hard onsight.  But I'd love to be proved wrong!

Oh, and the pretentious name is after the brilliant book by Carsten Jensen.

Monday, 30 June 2014


Back in the winter Murdo spent a wee bit of time staying with Sarah and I.  It was fun having him around, a constant source of psyche hunched over his evening teapot, as he scoured the internet for conditions and gossip and the occasional loud exclamation of  "dick" whenever he discovered someone had done a route he hadn't.  It was particularly amusing seeing Sarah realise that we had a disciplined, single-minded athlete in our midst, with his carefully considered diet and training and endless climbing banter.  Before then she thought I was a motivated climber, but with him around I pale into a lackadaisical shambles.  She, understandably, failed to comprehend how anyone could be so singularly driven.

Anyway, the winter came and went and Murdo moved on and as the summer has ticked by I've not seen that much of him.  With Sarah away on a three week work trip to Malawi we penciled in a weekend to get out.  Having kept an eye on his exploits on his Flickr page it's clear that he's in what Test Match Special's Henry Blofeld would call "absolute mid-season form", and as our weekend approached a nagging fear started to grow.  What was he wanting to do? And how the hell was I going to follow him up it?  I really didn't want to have to make him compromise on his objectives just because I'm a weekend punter.  So, I prepared to swallow my pride. And dusted off the jumars, just in case.

Luckily for me, a chilly northerly and the threat of passing showers meant that plans for scary mountain E7s were binned and instead we both got to climb great routes at our own, somewhat lopsided, standards.  I won't bore you with the gory details but to summarise: in two days we climbed 8 routes and clocked up 32 E points, of which I lead 5 routes and added 11.  So, Mr Jamieson added the remaining 21 E points in just 3 routes. Fortunately, I didn't have to second any of them, as we'd probably still be there.

Super Crag:
Murdo onsighting the run-out Heart of Beyond, his first E7 onsight.
(Photo: Murdo Jamieson)

Lochan Dubh Crag:
Me in a re-match with Call of the Wild.  I took a memorable ride off the top of this last year, but this time round the laps at the Tom Riach boulder seemed to pay off.
(Photo: Murdo Jamieson)
Lochan Dubh Crag:
You can just about make out Murdo abseil-inspecting Welcome to the Terrordome. After two abseils, during which he sussed the gear and some of the moves he did it on his first try.  E8 6c in the guide, but all Murdo said was that the route him and Iain Small did on Carnmore was harder.  All I can add is that it looked about E3 the way he climbed it...  


Friday, 30 May 2014

The Woods

It's the sound of a coin spinning on a table top, a high-pitched speeding and slowing bubbling. A wood warbler. One of the small migrant birds that arrive to breed in our broadleaf woods each summer, adding it's ululations to the choir. Moving through the gorge, dappled sunlight and fluorescent whispering leaves and water roaring below, they're all around us. Blending with the willow warbler's laugh and the chaffinch's chirrup. At this time of year the Atlantic woods of the West Highlands burst with life.

It's been years since I last walked through these woods, and each twist of the path brings a half familiar scene. Old acquaintance reunited. We stop, Blair and I, and he points out some geological nuance, a subtle vein of granite bleeding through the brown schist. An echo of long-dead unspeakable forces.

It's funny, this association.  If climbing didn't take me to these places, would I love it so much? 

Destination: Wave Buttress above Steall Meadows in Glen Nevis. Time is short so there's only time for one route each, no warm up. I'm mildly terrified but positively elated as today is the day to do Edgehog, the classic of the glen and high on my must-do list since forever. 

Racked up, tied in, chalked, I step on and the woodland choir falls silent...

Monday, 28 April 2014

My Climbing Spleen

Dear Diary,

As well as providing somewhere to vent my climbing spleen, one of the good things about writing a blog is that it gives an opportunity for reflection.  In climbing, and life in general, it's so easy to get carried along with the tide, going where the weather's good or where your mates are, and before you know it time has flown by and you've not actually achieved any of the goals you were originally aiming for.  Sitting down to write gives me a chance to take a step back and be a bit more objective about where I've been, and where I'm trying to go.

As I alluded to in a post last summer, I sometimes find this time of  year tricky.  I switch from being a winter boulderer with very specific aims (e.g. get stronger, go to Torridon, do Malc's Arete) to being a route climber, in which my aims are more general and opportunistic (e.g. go where the sun is shining and do the good routes there, do more E3s, redpoint more 7bs).  Basically, after the rigidity of the bouldering season I feel a bit like a headless chicken when the route season starts.

It's been over a month since my wee trip to Siurana with Murdo, and in that time we've been pretty lucky with the weather.  I've enjoyed fun times on the boulders, sport and trad crags and am just loving being out and riding the waves of glorious spring in the Highlands: willow warblers and fluorescent bud burst, hanging on and getting pumped, squeaking oyster catchers and redshank, laughing with friends.  It's not all doom and gloom.

After getting back from Spain I got myself down to the Tom Riach (aka Nick Carter) Boulder quite a few times to try to keep some fitness in the arms.  The South West face traverse is a sustained 20ish move sideways shuffle that makes for a good local there-and-back pump-fest.  It's been a while since I was last there, but I've been busy:

The first trad foray of the year was a morning at Jetty Crag at Gruinard with Murdo where I belayed him on a respectably smooth ascent of the thin and rarely repeated E5 Gogmagog before doing Gaffer's Wall, an early season gift at soft-touch E3.  We topped the day off at Goat Crag where I nearly did Mactalla (which I've still not repeated since first doing it on Royal Wedding Day in 2011, oops).  Next day out was shower-dodging at Moy with Tess, of which the highlight was almost falling off the top of the warm up Little Teaser and then almost being sick due to monumental hot aches.  The 7a Silver Fox was a pleasing addition to the ticklist too, as it's one of the few there that I'd still not done.

Next day it was nice sunny but super windy oot East so I joined the Betts/Bronwen team for a Cummingston boulder session.  A few of the old classics, a good new classic (KinkyBitch 6C), a few embarrassing failures.  The usual.  In the week I was working down in Galloway and crept out one sunny evening to find the Rankin Boulder and had a lovely hour or so on it's rough granite.  At first I got all excited by doing Retroclaim 7A+ really quickly, but then when I made it back to the land of the internet I watched Roddy Mackenzie and Fiend do it and I'd used a hold they'd missed. 7A+? 7A? 6C? Who cares.

Rich on a new thing (?) at Cummingston
Next weekend my old mate Luke, who I very first started climbing with 10 years ago was up visiting, so we did some bouldering at Ruthven (surprisingly close to doing White Russian aka Mike's Problem) and went out to explore some of the wee sport crags near Poolewe.  A sunny day was spent on the beginner friendly Clown Slabs and easier routes on Kuhjo crag, and I squeezed out a redpoint of the hidden gem Wicked and Wierd, a 3 star 7a+ lurking in the trees.  Despite climbing up here for a while, I'd never heard anyone mention this route and was surprised by quite how good it was, and how much of a punch it packed!

Luke on Don't Kick the Bolt 6a, Kuhjo Crag

Right up to date, I had a cold day at Ardmair with Nick in the wind and cloud and threatening drizzle and only came away with a brace of HVSs, bloody hands and a bruised ego.  To reverse the misery I got back on the horse at the friendly Road Crag in Gruinard Bay yesterday and did the remaining E2 Trojan and E3 Mongo that I'd not done there, before lying in the sun on the beach.

So, as an exercise in reflection and planning ahead, all I'd say is: more please!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Rest Day

Siurana day 4: Wednesday.

At least, I thought we’d discussed taking it easy on Wednesday:  A trip down to Cornudella, the café, a perusal of shiny kit we don’t need in the climbing shop.

As with every other day, Murdo’s up with the lark, breakfasted and brewed before most folk in the campsite have even thought about thinking about waking up.  Bleary eyed, I stagger to the washroom and play the hot shower/cold shower lottery.  I lose.  I join cheery Murdo as he lights the stove for brew number two.  My back aches.  My fingers creak.  My shoulders ache.  I think I’m getting old.

Yesterday was a good day for me.  I’d onsighted Terra d’ Om, a 7a groove at Ca L’Onassis,  then did the 35m 7a+ Cop de Roc at Can Codolar second go, and rounded the day off by flashing the 7a wall Secallona at Siuranella Central as the sun started to dip towards Monsant.  But maybe now I’m starting to pay.

Breakfast: Time, Tide and Murdo wait for no man...
There’s no talk of rest as I chew my muesli, and before long bags are packed and we’re heading over to Ca L’Isabel by the village.  Well, I might as well try.  I’ll warm up on a nice little 6b.  Except, it’s desperate blind grey rock and it’s all I can do to claw my way up.  Then I failed on the  6a+ next to it.  Not good.  Murdo casually warms up on a 6c+ corner, then after some work on the boulder start does Boys Don’t Cry 7c smoothly.  Hmm.  He’s psyched.  There’s a change.  So it’s down to Piqui Pugui  ‘just for a look’ at Anabolica 8a.  He gets distracted by Souxie 7c+ first, but it’s a stamina beast’s nightmare: burly mono action precipitates  swearing and a retreat.  I try again up a long 6b+ traddy groove thing, just about making the chains but I know when to stop.  Now it’s a rest day.  Anabolica’s free so he gets on it.  More burly pockets.  More swearing.  Another retreat. Maybe now we can pack up and eat cake.

Just one more?  Down to Ca L’Onassis.  I only take my harness and gri-gri to the crag, as a show of solidarity with the cake.  Murdo hops on a good looking 7b but lobs off so he’s got to redpoint.  Second round is a charm.  The boy looks tired now though and is happy to call it a day there.

“Un café con leche y un croissant por favor.  Muchas gracias.”

Pink tips
Next morning he’s up even earlier, keen to catch the morning shade on Memorias de una Sepia, an 8a down at Siuranella Central.  He creaks on the warm up, then gets shut down on the crux.  That rest day is catching up.  Meanwhile, fresh armed (for now) I see off the cracking 7a+ Si vas niquel fas tard.  Who’s the winner now eh?

Last day, he does L’Escamarla 7c+ second go.  He is. Bastard.

About to take big air of Lo deje to blanco (Photo: Murdo Jamieson)

Friday, 14 March 2014


Off for a week of sunny sport climbing in Catalunya tomorrow.  The bags are packed and Ropegun Jamieson locked and loaded to warm up on all my projects.  Mind you, he'll be weak and feeble after a winter spent shuffling between ledges, while I'll be strong like an ox after months of bouldering.  The routes are only a few moves long, right?  Perhaps not, but it should be a good pre-season arm-stretch for the inevitable long hot Spring and Summer that await. Ahem.

I've been seeing this trip as a book-end to the winter bouldering season proper.  It's been okay, and I seem to have managed a steady trickle of quality problems, but without success on Malc's Arete it can only be considered a failure.  To be fair, good conditions and weather have been hard to come by so I've not been having consistent sessions on it.  But, despite feeling stronger than last year I've not made any progress at all on the move.  C'est la vie.  I think that trying and training for Malc's brought some of the year's successes within reach, so that's cool.

Here's few video clips from trips out this year:

Highland Boulders: Winter 2013-14 from Gareth Marshall on Vimeo.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Soggy socks

Most of the time, it's hard to see the wood for the trees.

On a few occasions lately I've come away from a climbing session feeling pretty despondent.  Despite upping the training effort this year I don't really feel any different.  I've not broken into any new grades and, most frustratingly, my long-term projects are still long-term projects.  But then, every now and then something happens that makes the grind seem more worthwhile.  Today was one of those days.

There's a problem of Rich's over the back of Duntelchaig called The Dagger.  It's a bugger.  The approach is a pain in the arse, over a fence and then a stomp through swampy bog, heather and bracken.  The landing consists of a load of boulders jammed together over a stream.   It's OK with a couple of pads, but there's a pointy block right below the final stretched out mantel moves, and big holes just waiting for your brush, keys and phone.  The rock's good, solid steep gneiss, but as is the way with most of the stuff round Inverness, it's sharp and off the beaten track is pretty dirty.  Rich showed me The Dagger a few years ago, introducing it as something I might be able to flash.  Great, a soft touch.  Game on.  Except, of course, I failed on the flash attempt, and failed on every other attempt from then on.  I don't know how many times I've done that horrible trudge over there, and despite sorting most of the moves pretty quickly - crossing through a line of perfect edges on a mega leaning wall and then a big burly throw to the lip - I never once managed to top it out.  In the end I told myself I just wasn't tall enough to make the massive lurch over the top of the final slab and binned it, relieved never to have to go there again.

The first session of too many... (Photo: Richie Betts)
But today I went back.  It's not somewhere I'd normally think of going, but after bailing from Ruthven due to icy top-outs, and warming up nicely at Farr, it seemed like a good idea.  It must be at least a year since I last tried it, so if nothing else it would be a good measure of my current standing.  Getting there hasn't got any better, but after ringing out my socks and arranging the pads over the Jenga-pile landing I got involved and finally saw it off.  I think maybe I'm a bit stronger than previously so can put a bit more oomph into the final lurching slap.  Or perhaps it was a combination of conditions, rest, skin and confidence.  Whatever it was, I'm mainly happy that I don't ever have to do that walk in again.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Ticking Along

Cummingston, that slippery little minx.  On the face of it, what's not to love?  Wave sculpted golden sandstone, pocketed pillars and caves.  The sea lapping on the beach, the fulmars chuntering away on their ledges.  On a clear winter day the white pyramid of Morven stands out across the Moray Firth in Caithness. The problem? There's always a problem. The coastal humidity, and the north-facing beach of rocky nooks and crannies is often sheltered from a drying wind.  I've been burnt too many times: arriving to find a coat of sea smeg on everything.  So, pick your conditions wisely.  Falling temperatures, a brisk westerly and low tide in the early afternoon, and you should have a day of it.

Last weekend the stars aligned and I had a rare chance to do the oft-damp Gorilla, a funky 7A prow of heels and slaps (and one of the few at the grade that go up rather than sideways!).  After knackering myself working out how to do it I spent the rest of Saturday failing. Knowing how rare it is to have it dry I had an express re-match on Sunday and did it 1st go.  The importance of rest.

Cummingston's Gorrilla 

This weekend it was back to Torridon for the first forays of 2014.  Friday's highlight was doing the full version of a brilliant wall of Rich's called Indian Winter. When he originally did it he must have been feeling strong because he gave it 6B (the Betts 'go-to' grade), but then couldn't repeat the sit start when he showed it to me back in October!  The stand start is a brilliant 6A on it's own, on some of Torridon's best rock, but there are obvious good holds for a low start so a sit makes sense. I had a try a few weeks later and got no-where, but this time a little more perseverance and sensible rest saw me through.  There was some magical winter light when I was trying it so the camera came out:

Indian Winter - Torridon from Gareth Marshall on Vimeo.

And finally, the line of the season so far.  On one of my first ever visits to Torridon I watched heart in mouth as Murdo repeated Rich's uber-highball Vapour Trail.  I was impressed.  It's not really that hard, 6C in the guide and with the crux throw at the start, but it is pretty tall, and with a few blocks in the potential fall zone. It's more of a grit route than your typical boulder. It's a proper striking line though, and perhaps for that reason alone it was always on the to-do list, but I've always had a soft-spot that psychological realm where boulders meet routes. Realistically though, I never knew when I'd ever feel ready.  I'm still not sure what changed this year, perhaps becoming better acquainted with the place, perhaps feeling a bit stronger and more confident.  Regardless, I tentatively tried the start back in November and did it quickly.  Game on. Now I just needed a crew with a big stack of pads.  Oddly, this isn't something that happens much in the Highlands, so I had a go on my own with my three but just couldn't bring myself to commit.  I gave up and held out for another day.  Today I went back out with Rich, padded the landing and offending leg snapping blocks and strapped it on.  So good.

Photo: Anne Falconer

Having it.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Managing Expectations

Every year it's the same.  Along comes the festive season and we pack the car and head south to our families.  The long A9 blurs into the longer M6, with obligatory stops at House of Bruar (the World's Poshest Toilets) and Tebay (the World's Poshest Services), and perhaps somewhere depressing like Charnock Richard (where?) depending on the caffeine levels.  Bleary eyed and bladders bursting we finally arrive, and festivities begin.  Luckily for me, Sarah's parents live about an hour from the Roaches, and mine live a similar distance from Dartmoor, so for a couple of days each holiday I take the pads and sneak away from the families and feasting and fine ale and get some time to myself.

Weeks in advance, around the time Sarah starts making lists and buying presents, I start to think about my Christmas days out, where I'll go and what I'll do.  In my daydreams it's always dry, always perfect conditions, always cool and calm and sunny.  It's never too cold or too windy to keep the pads down and there are never massive puddles under the problems.  And of course, in my daydreams I'm always going well and feeling bold.  I've got the pick of the Roaches and Dartmoor to go at.

Hen Cloud from The Roaches
Naturally, the reality of rock climbing in winter in the British isles rarely matches my daydreams, and the hitlists that I excitedly put together in my head end up being radically re-drawn.  This year's Roaches list included such optimistic ideas as trying the 7B slab Boba Fett.  I did the 7A C3PO next door on Christmas Eve a few years ago, so surely this would be worth a try.  In reality I couldn't get off the ground and got my pads drenched and covered in bog.  Fail.  Then I thought I'd try the Undercut Dyno but it was damp, and when it eventually dried I couldn't do it.  Fail.  I also wanted to solo Chalkstorm, but 1; it was baltic and I could hardly feel my hands, and more importantly 2; I was on my own and scared, so I scuttled off into Prow Corner. Fail.

Down on Dartmoor the big 2 problems I wanted to try were Dancing Queen at Saddle Tor and The Wave at Bonehill, but on arrival I could hardly stand in the howling gale.  Both problems were catching the full force of the wind so keeping the pads down while trying to keep warm and trying to keep all my kit dry and trying to pull on shitty sharp granite proved too much.  And then it started to hail.  Fail.

Luckily, the story has a happy ending.  Both days ended well, with clear skies and golden sunsets and drives home passing in the warm glow of success.  At the Roaches I managed Too Drunk, a feisty little 7A at the far right of the upper tier, ignoring a 9a wad's toe-hook tech for straight up burl.  Tick.  On the Moor I deployed the emergency tent pegs for long enough to keep the pads down and do the highball Bjorn Again Extended Start at Saddle Tor.  Although it's not hard, onsighting the high top-out on my own in a gale with freezing hands felt pretty fruity.  Tick.  After the hail passed I went over to Bonehill and did the sit starts to the arete and the prow on the Cube, both of which I'd failed on last Christmas.  Tick tick.

Bell Tor from Bonehill Rocks on Dartmoor.

So, not the glory I'd hoped for, but significantly better than nowt.  Happy New Year.