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.