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)