Monday, 6 November 2017

The day before

The day before. It was one of my Fridays off work; a mild September day with just a hint of gold fringing the still-green birch and bracken. The forecast was hit and miss, some passing rain was predicted, but when and where wasn't clear.  38 week pregnant Sarah had a day of pottering at home planned; I decided I'd head out with the dog to prospect for potential boulders.  There are still blank spots on the map; hummocky moraines, dense forests, river gorges, unvisited glens. There must be gold in them there hills.  Or tin.  I'm not picky.

When Ian T gifted me the Bus Boulder at Inchbae a year or two back, hidden next to a main road that I'd driven past hundreds of times but never seen, it opened my eyes to the other possibilities that could be in that area. Quite some time ago (over 11000 years, at least) a whopping great glacier deposited a load of granite lumps and bumps around the whaleback mountain that became Ben Wyvis.  The boggy moorland west of Inchbae is scattered with these remnant erratics - pink grey crystalline masses, pocked with black lichen - and I've found similar beasts lurking in the plantations of Strathrusdale on the east of Wyvis too.  Most of them are too small to yield worthy climbing, but every so often there's a gem among them.

Over the years of dabbling with boulder development I've come to learn how rare it is to find boulders that it's worth investing time and energy into.  Sure, there's lots of rock out there, but a good boulder problem has to meet a few criteria:

  • Rock - fundamentally, the rock needs to be sound.  No scrittly, snappy nonsense.
  • An OK landing - it doesn't have to be perfectly flat and dry, but it's got to be manageable.  No ankle snapping blocks or steep slopes. 
  • Approach - it's got to be a distance you're willing to walk with one or more pads, climbing and cleaning gear.  This seems to be proportional to the quality of the climbing.  I'll walk for hours through a bog if it gets me to a king line.
  • Amount of preparation needed - it's a fact, some rock types provide a better medium for mosses and lichens to grow than others. Boulders in a wood collect decades-worth of leaf litter. Is the amount of cleaning that's needed to make it a good climbing experience worth it?  Time might be better spent driving to Torridon and climbing clean classics.
  • Size - it matters (to me). Two move arse-drags are all well and good, but more moves means more interest. And nothing beats a tall, stand-alone line.
  • Quantity - a single problem on it's own is going to have to be pretty darn good to be worth the effort of cleaning and climbing, but several 'OK' problems grouped together might be worth it.
  • The X Factor - ideally, you want to find a problem that you're not sure if you'll be able to do.  If you cruise it first go chances are you'll never come back.  For me, I want to find problems that I'll have to keep returning for, that form a deep relationship with the stone and the place. I want to keep returning, testing myself, unlocking it's secrets.
On that walk I kept thinking that round each moraine hummock IT would be there. The one. But it was never quite right; too small, too easy, too dirty.  Then I saw something in the distance. A glimmer of grey standing proud. I kept trudging over the bog and with each step it grew. Potential. Straight away I could see three possible lines that would need fairly minimal cleaning; a layback groove, a thin wall and a tall vague arete. Optimistically I had been carrying my cleaning kit so I set to with gusto, flaking lichen from seams and brushing moss from top-outs, imagining hold configurations and piecing together moves.  

By the time I was done it was getting late and the drizzle was setting in, and as I walked back across the moor I flushed two black grouse feeding in the bog cotton.  A good omen.  My head was full of excitement, thinking about my new toy and the logistics of my next visit.  I'd have to return soon.

The next day Ben was born, and life turned upside down. 

Monday, 17 July 2017


The bracken was over head height in places.  A flourecent ocean of summer dampness choking the path, fibrous fronds a haven to the legions of midges, just waiting for their chance to unleash hell. No-one's been to this crag for a while then.  Really, Am Fasgadh is a venue for the short cold days, best approached over browned bracken skeletons, not through the living green mass in late June. It's short tests best attempted in winter-dry friction, not in summer smooge.  But here we were. 12 degrees, breezy, showery.  Where else was going to offer a day of guaranteed dry climbing? The clip-stick came into it's own as a bracken basher, and between that and a bouldering mat dragged about like a tractor-mounted topper we got the worst of it down, freeing the starting footholds from their submersion.

Now we're here, where to begin?

In the bright optimism of Spring I foolishly sprayed a couple of goals I wanted to achieve before becoming a dad.  One was to onsight E5, which, in the reality of a full-time-working-midgy-drizzly-not-very-traddy-Highland-summer, I'm reneging on. Just not enough mileage in the head. The other was to redpoint a 7c sport route, a grade that I'd not climbed before.  This latter goal felt much more realistic, involving far more factors that I could control. I had a handful of routes that would potentially fit the bill and one that I thought I might have a pretty good chance at was Am Fasgadh's Primo. The first 5 bolts of Primo on their own are a fierce little 7b+ known as Curving Crack (AKA C.C. for the rest of this blog). Where perma-dry C.C. slopes off right to an intermediate lower-off Primo keeps going for another 6 bolts through the quartz roof umbrella to the top of the crag. After around 4 seasons of attempts I eventually did C.C. in 2014, boring it into submission.

So that's where I started.  Trying to re-aquaint myself with old friends on C.C. - evil old friends I had spent years battling: the quartz 'jug', the crozzly pinch, the stab into the crack, the delicate cross into the finger-lock. They were as stubborn as before, but at least I knew what to do and that would hopefully just be a matter of persistence to bring them together.

Then there was the top section.  I'd never tried it before but had belayed a couple of folk on it a time or two and had a memory of hearing that it was easier than the lower section.  The first time up that felt like a big fat lie to me.  There was a grim move pulling through a roof on a horizontal hand jam that as soon as you moved up and the hand was level with your foot bit savagely into my wrist, spitting me off in squeaks of pain.  Then the next move seemed like a huge span from a small undercut to an awkward diagonal hold. I went home with my tail between my legs - happy to have at least opened an account on a pre-baby goal, but knowing there was work to do.

A week passed. The board took a hammering and I even dusted off the running shoes.  Surely summer would return and Am Fasgadh would be back off-limits?  But along came the weekend and it was 12 degrees, showery and breezy again.  Back to it.

The C.C. links started to grow that day: ground to quartz jug, off, quartz jug to the crack. Tess' beta got me from C.C. into the quartz roof but then the horror-jam wasn't working so I was stuck.  I eventually unstuck this by a complete fluke, squeezing a toe under the roof to take weight off the jam and turn it into an undercut.  It was so satisfying, turning a stopper into a fairly do-able move.  But then there was the span.  It was infuriating.  Tess, who is shorter than me, pissed the move that day so I really shouldn't have been having a problem. Clearly I was doing something silly with my feet. I made some headway, but didn't feel secure. After that section I was pretty sure I could hold the rest together to the chain.

Suddenly success distilled down to three things: repeating a short 7b+ that I had managed three years ago, getting enough rest below the roof and sorting my feet to get high enough for the 'stretch'. Oh, and getting a notoriously midgy, sheltered, south-facing crag in good condition in early July.

Another week passed. Routes at the wall on Monday, circuits on Tuesday, boulder problems on Wednesday.  Friday I was off work, but their wasn't much wind forecast.  A potential midge-fest.  But then it was looking showery so no-where else was guaranteed to be dry. Mhairi wanted a re-match on I had a keen partner. Sod it, let's gamble.

The gentlest breeze tickled the green bracken sea. The rattling leaves on the aspen tree above the crag - the Am Fasgadh weathervane - gave a slight tremble.  The midges sat tight. I clawed my way through Curving Crack to the semi-rest, to the roof, shook out and shook out and shook out, and then: jam, step, toe, undercut, undercut, step, step, reach... Either I crept past as the Am Fasgadh gods were sleeping or they just got bored of me, but either way, I'm now one step closer to being ready for parenthood.


Monday, 5 June 2017


Goat Crag
Batman and Robin at Goat (Photo:Ian Taylor)

A few things haven't gone quite as planned lately.  Firstly, I wasn't supposed to be ill during the peak busy survey season - languishing at home watching Netflix while others did the work I'm supposed to specialise in.  Then secondly, at the end of May I was supposed to be away on a climbing trip with Nick.  That's right. Me. Away.  The first multi-day trip exclusively dedicated to climbing since 2014.  But a week before the off poor old Nick fractured his ankle while out running.  So that was that.

I sent out a rumble on the jungle drums to see if I could find a Carter replacement, but the best I could muster was stringing together several partners up here, so I did that instead. On the plus side, it meant that I could keep a few days of leave to utilise if there's good weather later in the summer.  Despite not being away, it felt so nice to have multiple days climbing in a row, something that life just doesn't seem to afford these days.  Here's a tedious blow by blow account:

Day 1: Creag nan Cadhag with Murdo
Summertime sport (until the sun comes round at 4pm).  Drip, drip, drip, one of the original 7as who's name says it all, was dry so I had to cash in. Murdo described it as like an esoteric ice route that rarely forms, so when it's in condition you have to do it.  I very nearly didn't as the crux pulling onto the slab was a reminder that I've not pulled on small holds for a while, but it eventually gave in.  A class route.  Next up was The Greek Exit, a 7a that breaks out of Axe Grinder, the original 7a+. By then I might have been tired, but it felt as hard as it's parent route did when I did it last October.  3rd redpoint, last go of the day.  Got it by a ball hair, as the locals say.
Creag nan Cadhag
Murdo and Frankie jus chillin'.
Day 2: Work

Day 3: Seanna Mheallan with Tess
Despite really loving Torridon and bouldering on the redstone I don't have a good track record with routes there.  Today was no exception, falling off a route I backed off about 5 years previously (Mark of a Skyver, E2 5c).  Not great for the confidence, and a clear sign that crag classic The Torridonian will have to wait.  Tess did a couple of good routes (Crack of Ages and Edge of Enlightenment) and as I topped out on a pleasant E1 Left in the Lurch the threatening heavens opened and she had to follow in full waterproofs.  Game over.

Day 4: Heavy rain.  No dice.

Day 5: Ashie Fort and Duntelchaig with Murdo
I'm still not sure how I persuaded Tain's best all rounder to visit Inverness' premier conglomerate trad crag, but there we were.  Ruby Tuesday E2 5b was a nice start, but clearly not enough of a warm up as shortly afterwards I was slumped on a cam on Brain Damage E3 6a.  I guess 10 metre E3s that have 5 metres of VS at the start are bound to have hard moves. Deep down I knew I was lacking the trad grit required for such endeavors.  Then we went over to Duntelchaig so I could pay Murdo back for his patience. He had his eyes on Bett's Transvision Clamp. It was given E6 6b by a presumably on-form Rich after headpointing, so full marks to Murdo for trying it on-sight. Murdo's not exactly shit these days (he'll love this), but after a valiant effort he realised it was hard, techy and involving fiddly small gear.  In the end he decided that he'd need to come back and have a try on a rope. A day of unfinished business for both of us.

Ashie Fort
Me about to get flamed on Brain Damage. (Photo: Murdo Jamieson)

Murdo opening the account on Transvision Clamp, E6 6b (at least).

Day 6: The Camel with Murdo
My excuse is that I was tired from the previous day's spanking on a 10 metre route, but this turned into the low point of the 'trip'.  Stone of Destiny was no warm up, Inverarnie Schwarzenegger was ny on impossible.  The less said the better.  Manwhile, Murdo climbed a life's ticklist of routes in a few hours. Dick.
Murdo and Ubunto 8a at the Camel

Day 7: Work

Day 8: Work

Day 9: Secret Sport Crag with Ian
The heatwave struck and we had 2 options: Secret Sport Crag or the mountains.  We plumped for the former, one of the latest offerings from the beady eye of Andy Wilby and perhaps my favourite so far. I'm not sure how top secret it is, so I'll not witter on too much, but the routes I did were ace, and there's plenty to return for.
Andy & Sue's Crag
Me on Scatman Crothers 6c+/7a (Photo: Ian Taylor)

Day 10: Shelterstone with Mhairi
Day 2 of the heatwave, so we headed into the hills for Mhairi's first mountain route. It was so lovely to be back in the Cairngorms, over the back and dropping into the Avon basin, a reminder of the days I used to spend over there when I lived in Aviemore.  Super classic E2 Steeple had somehow been missing from my C.V. so we plumped for that, relishing 7 pitches from basin to plateau on a gorgeous blue sky day. Mhairi acquitted herself brilliantly, as expected, and not a bad introduction to climbing in the hills. The only problem is that it doesn't get much better than that, so she might as well give up and become a boulderer now.
Ashie Fort, or some other crag. They're all the same.

Day 11: rest, eat cake, paint the nursery.

Day 12: Goat Crag with Tess
It was a funny old forecast, supposed to be chilly with showers so we thought about Am Fasgadh, but it was actually pretty warm so we went uphill to Goat.  After another failure to warm up on a 6c+ and minor toy throwing out of pram session I decided to open an account on Batman and Robin, a route I'd wanted to try for ages (and one of the few dry routes that day).  After a working go I managed to power-out twice in a row with just one move to go. Then the arms gave up.  More unfinished business.

Day 13, The Last Day: Goat Crag with Mhairi
Predictably, I managed to persuade Mhairi that she wanted to go to Goat (which, to be fair, she did). After warming up on the actual warm up (rather than the local's warm up), Batman and Robin went down first go after putting the clips in. Phew, first 7b for a while. Or is it 7a+?  Regardless, another gratuitous tick and just in time to massage my ego through the dark days back at the office.

Ian on his way to smashing The Prow Direct, 7c+, at Goat

Thanks to all the folks I climbed with.  Perhaps next trip I go on I'll actually leave the house.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Seismic Shift

This is the fifth day in a row that I've been stuck at home feeling sorry for myself.  It's that time of year, the capercaillie lek time when I'm supposed to turn semi-feral and sleep out in the woods night after night to be up early to count the birds strutting their stuff. But instead, part way through proceedings my Judas body has turned on me and crashed and I've been jibbering at home with a virus instead, marshalling the survey team via texts from my bed.
Mr Caper at twilight, photo through binoculars.

I've attempted to start writing this blog a few times while killing time but keep packing up because there's not been a whole lot to report lately. Work, work, family visits, a wedding, work and more work. Except, I guess, for the seismic-shifting news that Sarah and I are expecting a baby later this year.

But what about my already stuttering and minimal attempts to be a climber, which is what this blog is supposed to be about? What indeed. I already seem to have very little time to get out, and now with the imminent arrival of a bundle of laughs and vomit time will be even tighter. I'm doomed!

I'm seeing it as a two fold opportunity: In the short term before the yoof arrives I've got a clear deadline by which I want to try to achieve a couple of long held ambitions. In the long term, when we're in the midst of nappies, sleep deprivation, toddling and teething I reckon I'll have to be pretty organised and disciplined to keep getting sessions in on the board and to make hay when the rare opportunities to get out present themselves, so I expect I'll become very project-orientated (which I kind-of am already). Although trad headpoints are a bit of a cop-out, for the time-starved I can imagine that they might feed my rat admirably.

As ever with these things, I'm a bit nervous about setting my ambitions out in a public space like a blog, because then if I fail it's for all to see.  But conversely, it should act as a driver - I've said these things, now I need to do them. With a due date of 30th September, I've got 5 months.

Short term ambition number 1: redpoint 7c.
I've done a handful of 7b+s around these parts but never once tried a 7c, so it's a logical step. It's always seemed like a magic and unattainable grade, but I'm realising that I'm really bad for putting restrictions on myself like that and never just having a go.

Choosing the right route will be the initial issue, as it'll need to be somewhere other's are regularly going otherwise I'll never get a catch. I don't imagine this will be a one session project. Potential contenders would be Prow Lefthand at Goat Crag, the north's most famous at the grade and at one of the most popular and reliable crags.  Then there's Primo at Am Fasgadh, which I've done the first part of as Curving Crack, but Am Fasgadh isn't generally a summer venue.  More locally, Brin It On at Brin would be available for after work evening sessions, or maybe something at Zed Buttress perhaps.  Or what about Loch Maree's Super Crag?  Thinking outside the box, something at Dunkeld might be an idea, but it's a fair trek to have a project. I'm also on a family holiday to Yorkshire for a week in July, any soft touches at Kilnsey?

Goat Crag

Short term ambition number 2: Onsight E5.
This is the one I'm far more nervous of.  I've only done a handful of E4s and still not that many E3s really, and in recent years my trad climbing has stuttered to stagnation with just a few routes done each year.  With trad, confidence is key and confidence comes with mileage, and trad mileage just comes with lots and lots of time at the crag.  In general, that's not something I have a huge amount of. But hell, if not now, when?  I've got a 10 day trip booked with Nick C at the end of May in which I'll hopefully make a good start to clocking up the mileage, and then hopefully I'll be able to keep plugging away with days here and there over the summer.

It's much harder to be specific about what routes I want to do as I think it will really depend on where the sun ends up shining.  If pressed, in the north I'd say I probably have more chance on something long and gneissy rather than short and sandstoney, but I'll take each route as it comes, and build up a base of fitness and familiarity with the trad faff.

Any advice or route recommendations?

Above all, I'll have to try to remind myself that it's all just a bit of fun in the end, and if I don't achieve these things it's not the end of the world.  By having a go I should get to some cool places and climb some good routes along the way.

Just thinking, there are 3-star E5s and 7cs at both of these crags, they seem like good places to start...

Loch Maree Crag

Goat Crag

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Back in January, Sarah and I took ourselves off to New Zealand's South Island for a 13 month overdue honeymoon.  It was never going to be a climbing trip, but we'd budgeted a couple of days of our hard-won annual leave at the famed limestone boulders of Castle Hill.  However, fate, or more accurately Qantas Airlines, conspired to scupper those plans and we were delayed in the transit hell-hole that is Dubai for two days. While sitting in a strange hotel ballroom with 300 other stranded passengers waiting for news of our flight we started re-working our holiday plans and it was natural that the two days at Castle Hill got the boot. Sarah doesn't climb and two days was never going to be enough to feed my rat. Bye bye boulders.

Faced with three weeks of holiday with no climbing, as we travelled and played our way around the beautiful South Island I couldn't help but think about the winter rock season slipping by at home - all those projects, all those days of perfect friction, all those Torridon sunsets with the sun slipping behind a snowy Beinn Damph. Fortunately, sporadic checks of the MetOffice app reassured me that the weather at home was crap and I wasn't missing anything. This was verified by the lack of uploads on the Highland scene's Flickr pages - no FOMO. But with three weeks of no climbing I knew if I was to get anything from the shortened season I'd need a plan of action on my return: some serious time spent on the board and a ticklist of routes and problems to aim for.

I've now been back from New Zealand for seven weeks. To begin with the board was mean.  The warm ups were hard, the classics were projects. But by sticking at it I started to feel better and get back to being able to do last winter's classics and then I started to feel even better and even some of last winter's projects started to go.

The ticklist is still with me.  Some of the things on it I've not tried, some of them I have but are still incomplete, but there are a few that I've managed to see off.  The last couple of weeks have been particularly good, with my three 'list' succeses all going down in that time.

The first to fall was an arbitrary local's link-up at the Scatwell boulder.  It's a version of Fly Tip Lip, the right to left lip traverse which I managed in March 2016, but for some inexplicable reason I couldn't repeat the last long move when I tried it this autumn. So instead I started trying to drop down off the lip into the last moves of Alcove Left Hand, turning it into a bit of an endurance issue and opening my eyes to the possibilities for other link-ups for the myopic local. I've no idea what grade it would be. Font 7A+?  It took much longer to do than I thought it would, about 4 after-work lamp sessions before we went away, dropping the last big move back up to the lip about 10 times in a row before managing it on the first session there in 2017.  In the end it was a relief to see off.

Next came a rare success at Am Fasgadh. I've not been there much this winter, but the project du-jour was Pillar-Up, which links the start of The Pillar into the top of Warm Up at around 7b+. The Pillar section has really intricate climbing; about 15 hand moves for about 5 metres of height gained before joining Warm Up and having to keep it together for it's heartbreaking clip at the lower-off.  I didn't really expect to do it that day, I was just going to be a fun day out climbing, but I managed a few beta tweaks and refined a clip that seemed to make the difference and before I knew I was at the chain. The only problem is that now the next obvious route to try there is going to be one of the hard ones.

Two days later I was in Torridon, geared up and dry-mouthed underneath Ian Taylor's Super Pittance, a pokey little trad route that climbs the steep wall above his original boulder problem in the pit at the Jumble.  I belayed and seconded Ian on the first ascent of this last winter, catching him when a hold broke on an initial direct finish attempt. He reckoned it would probably come in around E6 for the onsight. Knowing that it was pumpy but safe (Ian's gear held!) and feeling a tiny amount of ownership in the first ascent process, it seemed like a good choice to have as my first headpoint project in years.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly it all came together.  A few weeks ago I had two days bouldering in the Glen in quick succession and halfway through the second day my skin was in tatters.  It seemed like a logical time to stop bouldering and to inspect the route so I abbed it to check the gear.  A couple of weeks later I went back again with the shunt and worked out the moves. Then along came this weekend.  I managed to blag a belay off Lawrence Hughes who was projecting on the other side of the Glen.  He came over to the Jumble after his session so I'd had plenty of time to re-familiarise myself with the gear and the sequence.  Few people are as positive as Lawrence and with him holding my rope I didn't even question whether I was ready - he was psyched and so was I.  All went roughly to plan, including the pumpy downclimb to the rest that you can't rehearse on a shunt, although I did manage to punter a cam placement and drop it.

The remaining projects on the ticklist are all sandstone boulder problems so will require good cold conditions if I'm to stand a chance.  Lets see what the weather brings...

Topping out into the sunshine on Super Pittance (Photo: Lawrence Hughes)