Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Road

Today, something very strange happened.  It's something that I've been working towards for years; an ambition that has taken me on a long and winding road, and finally, somehow, today I brought it to reality.  I still can't quite take it in. 

I first set eyes on Malcolm Smith's Arete on the Ship Boulder in Torridon on a muggy Sunday in July 2008.  Blair, Jenny and I had been midged off a day of trad climbing on Seanna Mheallan and were kicking our heels in the glen, not wanting to call a premature end to the weekend and have to drive back home to start the working week.  We ended up strolling round the Celtic Jumble, the chaos of boulders where Liathach falls into Loch Torridon, and straight away were drawn to the most aesthetic feature there: a curving arete forming the righthand prow of a rippled pink block, soaring above a perfect flat landing.  It screamed out to be climbed.

Of course, those of you that have read this blog before will probably know that the seed that was sown on that day germinated into a giant's beanstalk that I've been trying to reach the top of for years. I'd love to be able to quantify the energy that I've expended on it - not just attempts on the actual problem, but every time I trained with it in mind, every time I talked about it, every time I tried to envisage success, even the times I dreamed about it.  I strongly recall a time while a priest was saying prayers at a friend's wedding (they will remain nameless) when I escaped into my own spiritual reverie and tried to work out a new sequence for the crux.  It didn't work.

In those first few years it was clearly an objective that was way beyond me, but for some reason I decided to keep trying.  The first breakthrough came when I learnt how to use the sidepull crimp (Rich's advice to face Applecross is right), but then I couldn't reach the slopey shelf.  Then we worked out a way to use a heel to lock you in rather than jump, and with two small intermediates I could just about bump to the shelf.  Then came the long barren years of reaching the shelf and getting no further.  THE MOVE: a throw to the sloping lip at the very apex at the top of the arete, feet popping off, pirouetting backwards.  I recall reading a blog from Mina Leslie-Wujastyk in which she described failing on a move almost becoming part of the sequence.  That definitely happened for me. For about three years Malc' Arete meant jumping, slapping, spinning and hitting the pads. 

The inevitable pirouette. (Photo: Rory Brown)
I've always tried to keep going with good humour, but along the way there have been a few black days when I've seriously doubted myself and toys have been thrown around.  Why was it so hard?Why was I so weak?  What did I have to do to get up this bloody bit of rock?  Why had I sacrificed so much time and energy on something that was so clearly beyond me? Who was I kidding? For a while I genuinely thought I'd never do it, that there was something about that move and the geometry of my body that meant it was fundamentally impossible.

However, something kept dragging me back.  There are a load of reasons why it's such an enchanting line - the history of the legendary first ascentionist, the prime location in pole position in one of the most beautiful bouldering venues in the country, the holds, the landing, the height, but most of all for me, I think it's the visual appeal of the line.  It's just a beautiful regular curve that stands out in a landscape of jagged edges.  Added to this, the positivity and seemingly blind faith of the small band of Torridon devotees who kept telling me that one day it would happen.  I couldn't let them down. 

Positivity from Anne and Nige

I guess it would be fair to say that I've been pretty motivated for it this season and I've been trying to be serious with sessions on my board.  I'm probably slightly stronger than before and now able to use a slightly higher foot that had been no help in the past, which meant I could push further with less likelihood of the foot cutting.  Straight away it felt better and I got a flutter of hope that a new door was unlocking. I set a problem on my board to replicate the move and went from not being able to do it to doing it almost every time - each go learning a bit more about how I was positioning the rest of my body around the holds I was using.  

After I wrote my last blog, I had a session in good conditions and had my best go yet - the last of the day as I held the lip for a millisecond, the foot cut and I spun off, missing my pads and landing ankle-deep in the bog.

Well, today it was the end of the road. This happened:

A huge, huge thanks for all that have helped me along the way, but in particular to Rich for the shared psyche (and the video), to Anne and Nige for the note they put on my windscreen when I was going through a dark patch, to Dan for his beta while I tried to onsight the top-out, and to Sarah for listening to my babbling about a little rock in a glen on the west coast for the last six years.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Biding Time

No matter which choices I make, when it comes to climbing they often seem to be the wrong ones.

Being a lonely misanthrope I decided that my wedding in mid-September would mark the transition into the bouldering season.  In past years October has brought periods of great cold and dry conditions. Last year I was away in Australia getting pumped on sweaty trad routes and missed all the happy social scenes in Torridon, so this year I decided I'd start preparations early so I could be steely fingered as soon as the weather changed. Of course, what actually happened was we had the warmest October for years and all the sensible people have been climbing routes while I've been greasing off my projects.  Still, its been fun getting back into the swing of things.

I barely tried my arch-nemesis Malc's Arete last year so I'm engaging it once more with renewed vigour.  This must be at least the 6th season of trying, which smacks of desperation, but the old minx keeps teasing me. The one time I've been there in OK conditions this year I had some pretty good goes with a slightly different sequence than in the past, leading me on to hope that there might be a way to do THE MOVE keeping a foot on, rather than an all out jump.  Watch this space (again).

In the interim, I'm still amazed at the number of problems in Torridon that Rich and co. have done in recent years that I've still not done.  One of the benefits of being a punter is that you have to project everything, which eeks out the joy.  On the last couple of visits two great problems in the 6B-6C range have really stood out and deserve more acclaim.

A few years ago I remember sniffing around a boulder to the west of Torridon village when I was doing some survey work in the glen. I never got round to climbing on it but Rich did the obvious arete a year or so after and gave it one of my favourite names around: Sticky Damph. Conditions were suitably warm and damp when I did it.

Sticky Damph

Even more years ago I remember pointing out a cool looking highball wall in a bay hidden behind some lovely old birch trees on the level up from the main jumble.  As per usual, Rich did the obvious problem quickly and called it Bay Crack. I didn't doit and then forgot all about it.  Last year Rich did a harder sit start into the original and gave it another quality name: 50 Days of Grey.  Reminded by this, I went back and did the easier original last week.  The highball rounded top-out felt a bit committing on my tod, but at least our new addition was there to spot me.

The day we found Bay Crack (photo: Murdoch Jamieson)

On that note, I finished the last blog entry with a cliff hanger about road-testing a dog.  We took the plunge and are now busy teaching her the dark arts of spotting, as displayed here:

Photo: Anne Falconer