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.