Saturday, 24 December 2016


The annual retrospective blog post: what have the 2016 pebble-wrestling highlights been?

This year in particular the haul feels pretty insignificant - lots of bouldering, a bit of sport, very little trad.  It's strange that despite really loving bouldering, in my own scoring system I still attribute more personal value to climbing routes, and more for trad than for sport.  I mean, it's not about one being better than the other, I love them all, but when I look back on the memries, I do feel like I still get more reward from a good trad fight than a sport redpoint or a worked boulder.  I can't really put numbers on it - is an onsighted E3 more valuable to me than a redpointed 7b? Probably. So, because of this weird skew in my head, it feels like I've not really had a good year, when in reality I've done a load of really good things. Here's a single highlight from each month:

January: Clach Mheallan 7A, Reiff in the Woods
An unexpected start to the year. I'd looked at the obvious steep arete a couple of times before but the low start always seemed impossible.  The necessary change was Ian being there to give me the beta, so basically, I cheated.  Regardless, a top tick from one of my favourite bouldering venues.
Reiff in the Woods

February: Changed Days 7B, Kishorn
Chronicled here.  I'd actually gone to Kishorn to try The Universal but I never even got to it as this little number sucked me in.  It eventually took three sessions plus an aborted attempt when the road was blocked with snow. Totally worth it.
Changed Days

March: The Tippler, E1 5b, Stanage
I backed off this at about 8am one cold misty morning in March 2012, the last time I was at Stanage. So, on this trip it was imperative that I didn't get shut down again on a mere E1.  If I'm honest, it was still pretty touch and go but I somehow clawed my way to the top.  It was my first trad route of the year and I was confident that it heralded the start of a long spring and summer of battling, but of course, life intervened.
Getting horrifically pumped but somehow only 5 metres off the deck. Photo: Phil Applegate
April: Little Minx, 7b, Zed Buttress, Brin
April is always a tricky month for climbing. It's the peak period of capercaillie breeding so I go semi-feral and spend most of my time out in the forest counting them at their leks. Doing Little Minx doesn't feature in the list due to it's quality (it's good fun but fairly forgettable) but because it was a triumph of localism - a couple of quick sessions at Inverness' nearest sport crag, squeezed in between nights spent sleeping in cramped hides. Enough to keep the rat fed.
Brin - Zed Buttress

May: Town Without Pity, E2 5c, Ardmair
Going on pure numbers, in May I had one of my most unexpected successes when I somehow squeezed my way up Rich's The Scientist boulder problem at Brin, but going on that skewed value system I seem to have the fight I had when I did Town Without Pity at Ardmair definitely comes out as a more worthy victory in my memory. Strange, eh? To be fair, it is bloody brilliant.

June: Throw Lichen to the Wind, E2 5c, Ashie Fort
Another nod to localism and probably the most esoteric route on this list.  I'd never trad climbed on conglomerate before so was a little un-nerved by the whole process, but the rock was solid and clean(ish), the crag was sunny and the route was pumpy and safe. And then we drove to Dores Inn for ice cream by Loch Ness.

July: Over the Hills and Farr Away, 7a+, The Camel
I think this only qualifies as it's the only route I did in July that I'd not done before.  Not the best route at the crag, but to be fair it does pack a punch.  It was a typical July climbing day: overcast, mild, midgy and showery, trapped in that dark gully, belaying in midge nets and duvet jackets. One of those days when getting anything done is a victory in itself.

August: Pink Wall, 7b, Brin
If you'd asked me on the 1st of January what routes I wanted to climb this year, Brin's Pink Wall would have been one of the first on the list. There aren't many three star 7bs in this part of the world, but this is definitely one of them.  This probably marked a high period of my climbing year, as two days later I managed my Conon DWS project.  Within the week I was off sick with a viral infection.

September: Scorchio, 7a, Am Fasgadh
The weird viral infection hung around for a few weeks, affecting my balance and making me knackered, so September was a bit of a low point, but I did manage a fun day out with Tess to Am Fasgadh.  The three routes on the right side of the crag are normally wet when I'm there so I'd never tried them but this time they were in and I managed to come away with all three - resorting to doing the best one, Scorchio, second go.
Am Fasgadh

October: South Groove, E1 5c, Trewavas Head,
I'd not placed a wire since July, but a family holiday for my Mum's 60th in Cornwall offered the opportunity to blackmail a belay from Sarah ("we can't come all this way...").  Trewavas Head fitted the bill for a non-tidal crag within a short drive of our accommodation, and it was a beautiful spot ticking all the Cornish cliches: golden granite, turquoise sea, wind-clipped heathland, an old tin mine and chattering choughs overhead. I only did a couple of routes, of which South Groove was the more memorable due to it's non-hold granitey weirdness crux, but both were well worth the trad faff, reaffirming my trad> sport> bouldering value system.
Trewavas Head

November: Teasel, 6B+, Bus Boulder
When Ian gifted me the Bus Boulder for development back in the Spring I had concentrated on looking for a way up a steep wall and hadn't paid much attention to it's vague left arete.  But then one day, with a slightly tweaked perspective, I spotted that there was a line to be done but that the top needed a serious clean. I eventually got round to getting on a rope on a horrible wet day and did my best to clean it up but then didn't go back for a few weeks.  Eventually I got there in the middle of a really good spell of cold high pressure, when the trees were white with rime, the rocks by the river were shiny with verglass and Ben Wyvis resembled a giant meringue. I'd originally envisaged a sit start, but that seems pretty futuristic for now. However the stand is a cracker. The day before, Teasel the family's 16 year old Jack Russell terrier was put down, so the name seemed like a fitting memorial.
Bus Boulder

December: DIY, 6B, Stanage  
Similar to March's top tick, on that trip to Stanage in 2012 I tried and failed on a lovely highball called DIY, so it was on top of the to-do list for another quick trip in early December.  It's possibly the definition of my perfect climb: just off-vertical, high enough to be exciting, short enough to be safe above pads.

So, all in all not too bad a year.  Here's hoping that 2017 brings more, and hopefully a bit more trad. But there's a winter of bouldering still to come...

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Ticked Off

Another Soft Rock hiatus.  It probably reflects where my climbing is these days: kind of aimless, wondering, opportunistic.  This time last year I’d climbed my six year project and was floating on a cloud of egotism, well into a productive winter of bouldering . This year I feel like I’ve not even got going yet.

In a bid to change things, yesterday I had a great day out circuiting with Rich in Strathnairn; my first time out in that direction for a long time, and my first day out with Rich this season.  Brin was pleasant enough and we managed a few problems between falling down holes and losing dogs, including the dubiously named Celebrity Leg Penis. Despite telling me he’s not had much form and not been training much, Rich still burnt me off on everything.  It’s good to know your place.  Farr was in much better nick with a cool breeze and, frankly, is a much nicer place to climb; far better and cleaner rock and fewer holes in the ground.  If only there was more of it.  As the light started to dip we raced up to Ruthven for a nightcap.    

Throughout the day, between falling off and throwing tennis balls for dogs, the conversation regularly turned to the increasingly evident impact of boulderers in bouldering areas and in particular the mortal sin of not brushing off tick marks.  It’s a funny old thing, and certainly something that seems to be increasing in frequency, both at the crags near me and everywhere else, and documented with righteous indignation in the brilliant Hall of Shame thread on UKB.

Fair enough, you might feel the need for a line of chalk pointing to where a cryptically camouflaged or hidden hold is, but not everyone does, and not everyone will use your sequence so might not even use that hold.  If it’s an obvious hold, what do you need a tick mark for?  And is a line 3 inches long really necessary? After considering all that, if you still need a tick mark, just brush it off when you leave.  It's not hard and we all carry a plethora of expensive brushes with us these days.

Brin: Remind me, where are those holds? (Photo: Rich Betts)
It’s hard to know exactly why it irks me so much, but I think it shows a massive lack of respect for whoever comes to the boulder after you, an assumption that they’re happy to climb in your mess and embodies a wider selfish attitude where the boulders and places we all love are just there to be consumed: leave your mark, move on to the next, repeat.  Is it a symptom of more climbers graduating from walls, swinging between brightly coloured blobs, into the real world where you need a bit more skill and experience to spot holds?  Maybe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t brush them off afterwards.

Ruthven: What is this even pointing to? (Photo: Murdoch Jamieson)
It’s something I know Rich wrestles with. Having co-authored a guide to one of the best but least-frequented bouldering areas in Britain, is he basically opening the door for the hordes to come and trash it? I guess it’s inevitable that the more people that come to an area, the greater the impact they’ll have, but by acting responsibly there’s really no reason why those impacts need to be significant and to impact on other’s future enjoyment. 

Torridon: That's a starting hold you can reach from the ground.(Photo: Rich Betts)
Last weekend I had 3 days in the Peak, at Stanage, the Roaches, Cratcliffe and Robin Hood’s Stride, and was appalled at the state that some people leave some of these boulders in – massive tick marks pointing to obvious holds that aren’t brushed off, excessive loose grains of chalk plastered on every conceivable hold (including the ones you really don’t need), yellow chalk stains everywhere and, inevitably, the signs of broken holds and erosion that come from climbing on wet rock.  If you then include the soil erosion under the landings and around the footpaths you’ve got to accept that a sport that’s been in existence for less than 40 years is starting to trash places that have been around for millennia.  Forget the annual furore about crampon scratches on a distant mountain crag, where's the anger about the state of our boulders?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Get it while it's hot!

I buckled under the pressure and spent some time trying my little DWS project on a shunt.  All ethical scruples go out the window when there are only a handful of days each year that I'm willing to fall into a river.  Majorca this aint.

Pleasingly, there are some pretty meager grips up there and the easiest sequence I found was still pretty hard. I still couldn't link it on the rope, so although I knew what to do a nervous air of mystery remained.

Last night my motivation was pretty low.  After a day at work the grey skies and breeze didn't make the thought of another watery plummet particularly inviting.  I checked the forecast in the hope that tomorrow would be nicer but it wasn't looking much better. Shit. Maybe that was the window. If I don't go now maybe I'll have to wait another year. Shit.

Knowing what I was in for, I knew I would have to be well warmed up to have half a chance; one of the many reasons I love having a board at home. I slowly started the process, going through my list of warm up problems: Juggy Circuit, Undercut, Left-hand Yellows, Left-hand Yellow Mirror, Moon Pinch. Eventually, as the mists of the work day started to part, I started to feel the psyche arrive. That bubble in the gut. That burning. I dived in the car and turned on the tunes.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Potterer

"Call this summer?"

It amazes me how short the collective memory is.  For a nation that's supposed to be obsessed with the weather our obsessions don't seem very grounded in reality.  So many people I talk to seem to have a rose-tinted view that the summer months of July and August should bring picture-postcard long hot sunny days, mountain crags, nights under the stars, sea cliffs, bronzed bodies frolicking on beaches - the dream sold to them by social media and marketing - and feel cheated that in the Highlands it's generally two months of humid, midgy, bracken-choked rain.

Goat Crag.
Video: Ian Taylor

Photo: Tess Fryer

For me, I've lived here long enough to realise that it's better to write these months off for big objectives, to keep ticking over in anticipation for the cooler months ahead and then to consider any climbing that happens as a bonus. The summer seems to have consisted of pottering about at local crags and boulders. Fortunately the hard work of a handful of folk means there are a few great routes round here that are well worth doing over and over again. I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of doing Little Teaser at Moy, scraping through those last metres to the belay using different holds every time. Then at the Camel Stone of Destiny never feels like a certainty and is pretty stiff for a warm up, and then The One and Only at Brin is just superb, straight up the middle of the wall.

There's also a ready-supply of routes at these crags that I'd still not done. Ian's Little Squeezer (6c) at Moy is aptly named but well worth it, filling an obvious gap on the Big Flat Wall. Neil Shephard's Over the Hills and Far Away (7a+) at the Camel put up more of a fight and wasn't helped by the midges and passing rain. Up at Brin I finally got round to redpointing Andrew Wilby's classic The Pink Wall (7b) over two sessions. Despite only being 8 clips and 15 metres long this packs in quite a bit of climbing, and for a scaredy-cat like me it feels pretty airy up there. Another one bites the dust.

Having written all that about the crap weather, this last week has actually shown signs of summer and the local pottering has continued in force.  I've been back to the River Conon where there's a cool steep wall above a deep pool to try to do a fierce micro-route that Andy Moles told me about last year.  I'd previously abbed it to check for holds, but have been trying to climb it ground-up and have now taken the splash-down from the same place 7 times.  Dry chalk bags and shoes (and midge tolerance) are becoming a limiting factor - not to mention warm sunny days that make the thought of falling in a river attractive - so I think I'm going to have to try it on a rope.  Watch this space.



Monday, 13 June 2016

Spring 2016

A typical Highland day in June. The sweet damp greens of summer unfurled; leaves and flowers and fronds uncurling. Brilliant yellow broom, bluebell blue; swallows and swifts and martens race each other through the drizzle.

Months have passed without a word. You've probably forgotten the cobwebbed pages of Soft Rock.  I know I have.  I think I left the last installment with a vague promise that bouldering would cease and ropes would be used. I've tried to keep my word, but on quite a few occasions in the last months I've had to resort to the easy default of the loner; bumping pads and brushes and cleaning paraphernalia to the big blocks, scrubbing new climbing into existence and resurrecting unloved old gems.

Ian pointed me to the Bus Boulder, an Inchbae erratic perched by the Blackwater river, 10 seconds from the road.  It's too far from Ullapool to be in his patch and only 20 minutes from home for me so he gifted the development duties (it's got nothing to do with acres of West coast quality he's still got to unearth). Leafy summer dank has now postponed activities until the Autumn cool returns, but before the midge ended play I'd squeezed out a couple of good lowball 6Cs. Hopefully there'll be more to come later this year.

Bus Boulder

As Spring wore on I managed a few trips to the likely sport crags Am Fasgadh and Zed Buttress, fluking my way up the crimpy 7b Little Minx at the latter and power shrieking my way up Super Warm Up (7b+) at the former and kidding myself into believing that I was getting fitter. A later date at Goat on a high humidity day took me back to earth with a bump when I barely got up Ian's new Sun Rays (7a) second go and then ungraciously failed on the 6c+ Bamboozle.  Arse.

Trying Little Minx at Zed last Spring (Photo: Ian Taylor)

Tradding? Once my raison d'etre, now a rare treat.  I've done so little these last years and with so little consistency that I think I've gone backwards.  I listened to a podcast with Stevie Haston the other day and he talked about the hardcore traddies of the 80s having 'head skills'.  That's definitely something missing from my repertoire.  For me, I don't think there's a way of short-cutting the path to confident trad climbing, you've just got to put in the hours. Faffing with ropes, weedling in wires, running it out. The odd day here and there just doesn't do it.  After bleeding my way up Town Without Pity (E2) at Ardmair I started to feel happy with my jamming abilities, but then last week I followed Murdo up the top pitch of Mid-flight Crisis (E4) on Stac Pollaidh and realised that I am still really shit at it. Failing on Seal Song at Reiff yesterday confirms my belief.  Maybe I need to try something that isn't a steep sandstone crack.

So, the odd bit of roped climbing lately but, depressingly for this time of year, my biggest tick has been a boulder problem.  A high gravity morning at Brin sent me and Murdo down the hill to Richie's long-forgotten cracker The Scientist 7B.  It's a proper good line, and when Rich first showed it to me years ago I was pretty inspired to try it.  I think I had one quick session and gave up without linking any moves. Roll forward 6 years and somehow I managed to do it in two sessions, with an interim visit in the rain to clean up the top-out.  Thoroughly recommended and big respect to those early pioneers back in the day...


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Witness the (un)fitness

The days of cold bouldering conditions must surely be numbered. It's been a great season. My best ever without a doubt, with a pleasing list of completed projects and fairly quick ticks. The last time out in Torridon I finished off one of the last problems that I'd had on my season's optimistic ticklist by slapping my way up Wee Baws. Regular use of the board in the shed has definitely paid off. And with that I'm pretty content to put the boulders to bed and start thinking about ropes and harnesses and all that faffery.

Within half an hour of topping out Wee Baws my transition was in full swing and I was slumped on the rope, straining to fiddle out wires while trying to follow Ian up a punchy new route he'd just done on one of the short walls above the boulders. There's work to be done.

I followed up with a pilgrimage to the ever-dry Am Fasgadh the next weekend with Murdo. Despite it being the first time on the sharp-end for the best part of 6 months I just about hauled myself up the Warm Up and tickled the chains on Curving Crack so felt fairly happy with my endeavors.

In a bid to start injecting some endurance into my one-move wonder arms I took Frankie the dog down to Tom Riach for the year's first after-work sessions. After getting reacquainted with There, Back and the Butcher Finish on the SW face and with the trickery of the NW face I started working the Knil, the traverse of the NW face into SW going left to right and the obvious next thing to do after doing the original Link. I was surprised to fluke my way through it on my second visit, so now I need another local project to keep me busy.
Pete turning the arete on Tom Riach's Link.

I kicked off the 2016 trad year with a three day trip to the Peak District.  Here I am getting horrifically pumped on the The Tippler at Stanage. (Photo: Phil Applegate)

The last route of the short trip, the legendary Right Unconquerable. (Photo: Rob Greenwood) 

Saturday, 6 February 2016


Last time around I tried to capture something of the bizarre, irrational and selfish game of projecting boulder problems in the cold of a Highland winter. I captured some of my battling on camera for posterity and have stuck it together in the wee edit below.

On the subject of footage of bouldering up here, Rich has unearthed some gold buried deep in his hard drive and stuck it together in his film The Archive below.  No names, no grades, no locations, but the sheer number of different problems and places speaks volumes about Rich's voracious appetite for the game. And yes, that is me that falls in the river.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Inside the Bubble

It's hilarious when you look in from the outside.  What a preposterous way to spend a weekend.  The coldest weekend this winter too, with a clear forecast saying that the weather would be better in the east.  But I'm inside the bubble, and I don't care.

I've been seduced into another project on the sandstone of the West.  This time I'm in Applecross, or more accurately, Kishorn; trapped on the slope tumbling down from the chicanery of Bealach na Ba where a handful of boulders are strewn across the heathy hillside.  A blunt arete, Dave Macleod's 7B Changed Days, points towards the leaden sky above as I lie back on the pads and apply another layer of tape and superglue to my bloody fingers, then, shivering, hat, scarf, gloves, gilet and downie are pulled close.  I can hear the burn pouring from Coire nan Arr and a distant car on the Lochcarron road, perhaps on their way to a cosy cafe or a log fire and pub lunch. My flask will do for now. They're outside the bubble, I'm inside.

Slapping and scraping, a guttural oath pierces the air as I hit the pads again.

It's hard to explain what drives the motivation.  Right now I'm cold, I'm uncomfortable, my ripped fingers sting, my bloodless toes are crying out for release and I'm trapped on my dry island of pads in a sea of snowy heather.  I've driven for over an hour to be here and already I know that today isn't the day of success.  Yet, I can justify it all to myself so easily - this is where I want to be.  Inside the bubble.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Home for Christmas

For the first time ever, we spent the festive season at home rather than traipsing the length of the UK to visit parents and friends.  It's been bliss.  I don't think I'd realised just how much I needed a break; 2015 really has been a busy year.  We had family here for Christmas and then friends for New Year, but amongst all the eating and socialising I've managed to get a good few days out bouldering, a couple of runs (first in ages, ouch) and even a session scrubbing new problems.

So far, I'm really happy with the way my bouldering has gone this winter.  It feels pretty rare that I'm satisfied with my climbing, but this year I'm content with my little haul.  After doing my long-term nemesis of Malc's Arete in November I've been free to explore elsewhere and have slowly been ticking through some of the other Wester Ross classics that had been shoved to the back of the queue.  Below are some of the highlights from the last couple of months.  Hunt them out!

The Crack 7A+, Reiff in the Woods
The day after doing Malc's I managed to pull this out of the bag having failed on it on three sessions last season.  An innocuous looking thing but surprisingly burly.

Ian's Problem 7A, Ardmair Crag
A long throw to a hidden hold. Lawrence's Crack is by far and away the better problem here, but this is still pretty good.  I couldn't do it when I tried it in the summer, so it was nice to see it off. Helpfully, this whole wall is almost perma-dry.

The Prow 7A, Balgy Boulder
Year's ago I tried this and got absolutely no-where.  This time it was the salvation of a freezing wet day in Torridon when almost everything else had a veneer of verglass.

McBonzai 7A?, Torridon
Having failed on both my objectives for the day I wondered over for a look and managed to trick my way up it pretty quickly.  I found a kneebar that I can only assume Dan Varian and subsequent repeaters hadn't, because it aint 7B this way!  7A is my guess, but regardless it's a great little problem.

Sparrow Legs Wall 6C+/7A Reiff in the Woods
This always gets overlooked by it's (admittedly better) neighbour Haven, but this also epitomises the style of technical Torridonian sandstone walls - crimpy, balancy and high enough to have a hint of spice.  I tried it last year and couldn't get off the ground but the New Year easterly gales had it in cracking nick this time.

Clach-mheallan 7A, Reiff in the Woods
When I saw Ian trying this a few weeks ago I wrote it off as the start looked absolutely desperate - a teeny crimp, a sloper and a heel impossibly close to the groin.  However, inquisitiveness got the better of me and I had a few goes, and with Ian's handy beta and a very welcome spot it came together nicely.

Romancing the Stone 7A, Reiff
I'd never bouldered at Reiff before but Ian gave me a tip off that this was a handy venue in an easterly gale so I fled there on the last day of the festive holidays.  Another techy sandstone wall, a good height and lovely to be down by the sea.

I captured a few of these ascents along with one or two others for posterity:

Here's hoping 2016 continues in a similar vein.  Happy New Year!