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?