Friday, 14 December 2018

If Not Now: A story about completing a journey

November 2011: bumping along another forestry track in the work pickup with blue green pine plantation overhanging on both sides.  On rounding a corner the forest opens up and across a small valley we were faced with the vast confusion of a recent clearfell; raw trunks strewn at unnatural angles, piles of brash, discarded 'lop and top'.  And there, nestled amongst it all, silver grey, brutish and bulging; something I always dreamed about: an unknown boulder.

On that first visit to Strathrusdale, a long and lonely dead-end strath in Easter Ross, we were counting deer dung to allow us to calculate how many deer need to be culled if young trees are to survive.  On the second day of the survey I managed to engineer my survey route to take me past the boulder.  As seasoned boulder hunters will know, most boulders seem to shrink the closer you get to them, with potential king line highballs on the horizon ending up being shoulder height nothings when you reach them, but this rock seemed to grow, its strange silvery crystalline walls looming out of the felled chaos.  I made a mental note to come back with the cleaning kit to scout it for potential and moved on to the next survey plot.

A winter passed and I finally got back.  It was snowy and the river you have to cross to access from the main track was high. I'd somehow managed to persuade Rich that he needed to come and see this awesome rock and conditions everywhere else must have been shite because for some reason he'd agreed to it.  I fell in the river, which he managed to capture on video (at 10 seconds here), and we gave up early. Rich couldn't see any lines and went as far as to say that he would buy me a beer if I could do a single problem on it. I could see what he meant. For it's size it's pretty featureless, with smooth walls and a general lack of  things to pull or stand on.  But having found this thing I was pretty determined to see what I could do so went back again and managed to climb a vague flake, creating a rather forgettable problem, but earning me that beer:

Straight after this I spotted a faint groove that appeared to have some holds in the lower half, leading to a blank wall of crystals, perhaps bypassed by a big move straight to the lip? That would be wild! I pulled on, promptly snapped a hold, clattered my elbow and started bleeding profusely.  Game over.

More time passed and I failed to return.  Which is understandable.  It's at the end of a dead-end road, followed by a 20 minute walk (or 5 minute bike ride) and a river crossing.  If it's been dry you just hop across boulders, but if it's in spate see Rich's video. The next nearest bouldering is miles away in Strathconon, so I'm never just passing by.  Plus, carting cleaning and climbing kit all that way is a right pain in the arse and there's the risk that I'd be using up valuable climbing time to try to climb something that is either not actually possible, or, worse, isn't any good.  So, understandably, I spent my time going climbing elsewhere.  But then, as I've mentioned before, the arrival of our wee boy narrowed my focus dramatically and I decided to use my time to develop local bouldering, so six years later, Strathrusdale came back into the game.

On my first return visit it was nice to see that the brash from the clearfell was starting to decay and that heather and grass were taking over where bare earth and jumbled stumps had been.  Some tree planting had even taken place, with young alders poking their heads above the heather.  The wasteland was starting to feel a bit less raw.  I went straight back to that vague groove and found that fortunately the hold that had broken in 2012 had left a nice diagonal crimp. An obvious sit start to the crimp then lead into the blankness above. The crystalline rock looks like it might provide the odd micro-edge, but on trying I couldn't find anything. Ground up attempts ended here. From a rope I eventually saw that out to the right a small seam had enough shape to make me believe it was a hold for the right hand and it wasn't until a second or third visit that I found a tiny indentation that made a two finger half-pad sidepull for the left.  I reasoned that if I could get into these holds I'd then pop right hand up into a better seam (again, invisible from the ground and found while hanging on a rope) and from there a jump to the lip and glory. Having found the holds, it was just a simple matter of working out how to move between them. And here I hit a brick wall.
The project
Sessions came and went. Try followed try. Conditions got good, conditions got crap. Midges showed up, skin got ripped. The Process got pretty deep.  After a while I realised the shoes I used made a massive difference in my ability to do one of the moves; rocking all my weight over a small edge in a crack. VSRs were too soft, Magos and Boostics were too bulky to fit into the crack. In the end I had to break out the Instict Lace which are usually reserved specifically for my board.  These indeed were serious times.  Fortunately I managed to keep the spirits up by cleaning and climbing a few other easier problems on the boulder, making use of scoops and curves and random crystal clusters, as well as repeating The Original from back in 2012.
To Autumn, 6Bish.

Eventually I made a breakthrough when I decided to trust one particular crystalline extrusion with my right foot and realised that with a jump I might be able to bypass a move I kept failing on and go all the way to the lip and soon I was slapping the lip on most attempts in isolation.  After about 5 session I finally had a sequence!  On the next session I was confident that the project would be dispatched, but the boulderer's best excuse came into full force: conditions.  It had been forecast to be cloudy with a light southerly breeze, but it was in fact sunny and still, and the south facing wall baked in the August heat. Not a chance. 

A week later I was back and it was dreamily overcast and breezy.  The holds felt good, I felt fit and my skin wasn't too shredded.  After a few warm ups and an inspection of the sweet spot on the lip I sat and gathered my thoughts.  It felt like I was nearing the climax of a very personal journey that had started all those years ago when I first saw the boulder from the track.  I'd had an inkling then that there could be something fun to do on it and it had burned away at the back of my mind in those intervening years.  After Ben was born in September 2017 I had specifically dedicated the year to developing local bouldering so I was never away from home for too long. In that time I had found and climbed a few half-decent problems but it seemed so fitting that now nearing the end of that year in September 2018 I was close to climbing the one I'd wanted to do for the longest. Taking a last look up at the wall I said out loud, half to the dog who was lying in the heather watching patiently, and half to myself: "if not now, when?"

Thursday, 7 June 2018


The year ticks by and I'm still chipping away at finding and developing local boulder problems in the hours squeezed between work and family.  I'm fully aware that I'm operating in an esoteric little microcosm, shutting out the real climbing world and concentrating on little chossy rocks that I'm sure no-one else will ever climb, but sod it, I'm having fun.  My little patch northwest of Inverness is never going to be a renowned bouldering destination, but I'm impressed by the amount of stuff out there now that I've started looking for it.

In less than ten minutes I can drive from the house to Rogie Falls just west of Contin, and a short walk takes me to my latest clutch of problems. Years back Rich peaked my interest by mentioning a chossy cave that might be worth a look. I went, I looked.  It was chossy.  But the amount of rock on show suggested that there might be something worthwhile lurking nearby, so I started hunting, eventually sniffing out a wall lurking among the larches and a steep prow hidden in plain sight next to a path. On inspection the wall looked like it would provide three easy problems and a harder highball after some TLC, but I wrote off the prow.  Too easy.

Over the last couple of years I returned to the wall a few times to dangle on a rope and dig out the overhanging moss cornice and brush off the accumulated larch needles, but I'd never got round to actually climbing there. The place sat in a to-do list in the back of my mind, waiting for the right time.
Rogie Wall before the facelift

So here we are: time poor but still desperate to climb. To begin with I re-visited the prow that I'd written off and realised that despite being easy it would give lovely climbing, so I scrubbed the top-out and lapped it up: Rogie Prow Font 4 or 5, or something.  While doing that I spotted another line to the left, scrubbed it and climbed it: Rogie State, maybe nudging 6B from a snatchy sit start.

Rogie Falls
Rogie Prow

Then over a couple of visits I climbed the three easier problems up on what I was calling Rogie Wall: the right arete at 6A+ (aka Right), the blocky central crack at Font 5ish (aka Middle), and the wall left of the crack at 6A+ (aka Left). Good names, eh?  The latter problem in particular climbs really nicely, and they're all high enough to make you not want to fluff the top.

Rogie Falls 

But the main event was still to be done. The left side of Rogie Wall rears up higher than the right side, gently leaning in the top half and with holds petering out with height.  Annoyingly, there's often a dribble of seepage wetting the top holds and it's a bit higher than you would really want to be skiting off unexpectedly, but this long dry spell has sorted that out.  I knew that now was the time to strike and after a couple of sessions Awake but Always Dreaming emerged.  It's probably only about 6C, but as is the way with highballs, when fear starts to creep in it feels a bit harder. It's definitely one of the best problems I've done in this recent wave of local development.  If anyone fancies a shot, give me a shout and I'll send you directions.

Rogie Falls
Awake but Always Dreaming

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Gold Dance

If I could wish for anything in my new state as 'time-starved Dad who still wants to be a climber' it would be to find a load of brand new boulder problems close to home. In this ideal scenario the rock would be clean and quick drying and at least a few of the problems would be hard enough to take some serious trying. Well...

In the damp last week of December I went out for a drive to see what the conditions were like on the local boulders.  I wasn't climbing, but I'd been granted a pass for the next day and didn't want to waste it, so I was heading out to see whether Scatwell was likely be worth a try. I'd not been up Strathconon for months as all my recent bouldering had been spent trying (and failing on) the dreaded 'Hygge Project' on the Bus Boulder at Inchbae. I'd started to lose interest in the endless sessions of failure so fancied a change of scene. On rounding a corner a mile or so before the Luichart power station I saw that there had been a load of recent clearfelling on the slope above the road. Last time I drove down here there was an impenetrable wall of spruce right down to the road, hiding anything lurking beneath. Now, scalped, the bare slope might revealed it's secrets.  Driving a little further, I spotted a grey lump poking out from the top of a small knoll: rock!

The next day I forwent a climbing session and returned with the cleaning kit, spending a merry couple of hours scrubbing moss, digging out decades of accumulated spruce needles and trying to create some order in the chaos of fallen brash on and around the boulders.  In general though, the rock, a rough grey schist, was naturally very clean and didn't need much cleaning. By the time I'd finished I took a step back and admired, fairly happy that there was something here to return to with shoes, chalk and pads. 
How I found it
After a bit of T.L.C.

Over the following weeks I used my precious climbing passes to explore this little collection of rocks, emancipated from their sprucey prison.  There are 10 problems there now plus a couple of variations, mostly in the lower grades of 4ish to 6Bish, but there's a couple in the 6C-7A bracket and a still-to-be-done project that I suspect will be a notch or two harder.

 The best from day one: a nice easy arete called The Sleeping Lady (6A?), named after the skyline formed by the hills above our house, which looks like, um, a sleeping lady.

Sleep Thief (6C?) held out over a couple of sessions and provides a nice bit of slappy burl in an ocean of felled brash.
The pick of the bunch I've called Gold Dance after Andy and Lance's promise to each other in Mackenzie Crook's superb series Detectorists.  If ever they find gold when out metal detecting they tell each other they'll do a dance to celebrate, the gold dance. For me, finding these boulders at this time in my life is like striking gold. I've tentatively given it 7A because it took a fair bit of trying before I finally worked out how to climb it, but freely admit that I have no idea.  My grade calibrator is non-existent these days, having pretty much only climbed on my own problems for the last six months. I suspect that because I've not managed to train or climb as much as in the past I'm getting shitter but have no way of knowing it, so the grades may need re-evaluation...
Gold Dance (7A?) squeezes between the arete and the crack.

Strathconon is hardly a popular place for boulderers to visit, but between the Scatwell Boulder, the Meig Boulders, the lone (but quality) Super Beetle problem at Glenmarksie and now this, not to mention the deep water highballs beside the Conon road bridge, it's actually a pretty cool place.
The Last Great Project, climbing the arete of Gold Dance without the crack off to the left. I've failed spectacularly so far and am happy to hand it over to anyone keen enough to bother exploring this bouldering backwater.

Sunday, 25 February 2018


Ben's five months old now.  We can't quite believe how fast the time goes.  Surely it was only yesterday that I came home on my own that first night, leaving Sarah and him behind in the hospital?  That was the strangest feeling: eight hours together sharing the most intense and wondrous experience that life can provide and then, by dint of hospital policy, sent home alone until visiting hours the next day.  How can life continue as normal after what we've just been through? Signs and headlamps a blur on the road back to an empty home when all my DNA is telling me it wants to be back there with them.

They tell you your life will change. You get the knowing jokes from the card carrying dads that you don't quite get. "When'll you be auctioning off yer rack then?".  All that.  But it can't be that bad, right? You just assume you'll find a way round it. It'll be different for you.

Five months in, Ben's just come through a particularly stormy patch.  His four month jabs seemed to coincide with the classic four month sleep regression and then about four weeks of colds that culminated in a bad cough that threatened to affect his breathing and precipitated a night in hospital for him and Mum.  At exactly five months to the second he was back in the same building where he was born.  Things seem to be subsiding now, only I've just been down with his same virus, caught at a low ebb of sleep loss and Dad-worry.

They were right, those card carrying Dads.  It's not different for me.

I always knew this winter would be a much more paired-down time for my climbing, but I was confident I'd still get something done: a bit of training on weeknight evenings and the odd weekend day out. I'd chalked up three problems on the west coast that I really wanted to do and if I did two of them and tried the third I'd consider it a success.  Well, it's nearly March and I've not been anywhere near any of them yet and there's no sign that things will change. A part of me despairs; mourns the loss of what I was and what I had. To be a climber, and that simplest comodity: time.

And so, adaptation. I've just had to shift my frame of reference. What's available instead? While my heart will always be with the red sandstone of the west I've put that to bed for now and have been making discoveries on the grey schists and granites of the east, compiling a list of unfound or unloved boulders within a 30 minute drive of home and slowly cleaning and climbing my way through them. It's a slow process, this development, when you only get a few hours on occasional weeks but it's keeping me focused and inspired to keep trying. There's something special about exploring your local patch, getting to know it better and better on each visit.

Red kites have soared overhead on every visit I've made to one venue, there must be a roost nearby.  And from the boulders I've heard the chat of dipper on the river below.  On the first visit a golden eagle passed high, heading toward the snowy sunset skyline and on arrival last time a merlin shot past as I slipped out of the car on the frozen layby. What do they make of my comings and goings?

As it stands, since Ben was born I've cleaned about 15 new problems, some of which I've climbed, some are still projects. A bunch are pleasant romps in the lower grades but my guess is that the hardest might get into the 7B range, which is the hardest I've ever managed so fine by me.  That's on top of the 15 or so problems I'd already found in the last few years of exploration, again, some climbed, some projects, some still needing a clean.  They probably fit into a similar grade range again. Among them are one or two genuinely good lines that I'm sure people would be keen to repeat so I'll get round to writing them up one day.

So, while time is tight and sleep is fleeting I've got my new climbing focus: make the most of what's local and hopefully one day I'll look back on this period as the time when Ben taught me to appreciate what I have to hand.

Sleep Thief, 6Cish

One of several works in progress...

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


It's the final day of the festive holidays: the visitors have all gone, the decorations are coming down, the mountain of chocolates is slowly eroding.  I always feel a tinge of ennui at this time of year - the fun is over, the excitement and promise has come and gone, normality resumes.  It's was a lovely Christmas this year, wee Ben's first, (although at 14 weeks he's not really shown much interest) and as a gift to his parents he had his best ever night of sleep on Christmas Eve. It returned to crap shortly afterwards, naturally.

Before the first day back at work tomorrow it seems a fitting time to reflect on the last year one more time, so here are my monthy climbing highlights from 2017:

January: Routeburn & Caples Tracks, New Zealand
We spent most of January in New Zealand so I didn't do much climbing, so this month's highlight is the next closest thing. Four days of our trip were spent 'tramping' in the hills of the South Island, linking huts on these two famous tracks.  It was great to see such big forests growing up to the natural tree line - something we totally lack in Scotland.

February: Tia Maria, 7A, Torridon
Back to business.  This Mike Lee classic is such an obvious line standing over the lower tier at Torridon. Despite a few attempts it had evaded me for a long time and I only really managed it this time round after Peter Herd unlocked some beta that worked for me.

March: Super-Pittance, E6 6b, Torridon
I'd seconded Ian T on the F.A. of this back in 2016 so it was always in my head as a possible headpoint.  I'd not headpointed a route for a few years, but I liked the idea of climbing a route at a place I normally associate with bouldering: a new dimension to the Torridon experience.  I had a few sessions on a shunt before Lawrence dropped by at the end of a day that formed part of his Annatomist Saga, captured brilliantly in Eadan Cunningham's great film 'The Mission'.

April: Fly Tip Link, 7A+, Scatwell
Somewhat telling of my climbing these days, the April highlight was repeating something I'd first done in March.  Scatwell is one of my locals so it's only natural that I've started making link-ups of some of the original problems. I started trying to link Fly Tip Lip into Alcove Lefthand back in late 2016 but spent five or more session powering out on the last long move, until finally sticking it in a cold March lamp session.  On my next visit in April it went down easily on the first go. Funny how things click sometimes.

May: Steeple, E2, Shelterstone
I did quite a bit in May, but a glorious day in the Cairngorms stands out as the highlight. I'd wanted to do Steeple for years and was really lucky that Mhairi was happy for me to do almost all the leading.  That corner pitch!
June: Ring of Bright Water, 6b DWS, Erraid
A week on Mull wouldn't be complete without a trip over the sands to Erraid.  I did the original sea-level traverse with Jules' additional finish looping back over itself to add a bit of spice. Blue skies, turquoise sea, golden sand: cliche ahoy!

July: Primo, 7c, Am Fasgadh
As previously written about on this blog, as a grade-whore I'd wanted to redpoint a 7c sport route before the arrival of Ben in the Autumn.  A combination of lucky conditions, patient belayers and a forgiving wife lined up over consecutive weekends to allow me to eventually climb Primo at Am Fasgadh. I'm not sure if it really counts as I'd already done the 7b+ lower half as Curving Crack back in 2014, but it fed the rat and allowed me to take it a bit easier and just boulder for the rest of the year.

August: His Imminence, 6A+, Torridon
As the baby's due date approached I decided to jack in climbing routes and to just boulder.  It was partly because I didn't want to be strapped to a crag in the back of beyond when Sarah needed me, but also because I didn't want to let down partners with last minute bail outs.  August isn't exactly renowned for good bouldering conditions in the north of Scotland but I scraped a few things together, including finally getting back to finish off this easy but high slab in the glen, seven years after first seeing it.

September: Blue Fish Prow, 7A, Primrose Bay
A couple of weekends before Ben arrived, a heavily pregnant Sarah and I spent an afternoon on the beach at Primrose Bay on the Moray Coast. As she snoozed I pottered about bouldering and was pleased to come away with this fun little problem.
Primrose Bay

October: The Day Before, 6Cish, Inchbae
The day before Ben was born I was out looking for new boulders at Inchbae and came across a cool granite block with a few obvious problems on it.  I gave them a scrub but didn't have any climbing kit with me so vowed to return.  A few sleep deprived weeks later I was back and did a couple of them, including this one, a nice thin wall on flakes and crimps.  It's probably been done before, but until I get the retroclaim I'm calling it The Day Before.

November: There's Something About Diana, 6C, Cummingston
Most of the Moray coast bouldering comprises lowball traverses or jump-off-at-a-jug type finishes, which can be really useful when looking for places to climb in crap weather but isn't very satisfying.  This problem is totally different, combining a proper top-out with a spicy height. More like this please!

December: My board
Fatherhood, work and weather meant that getting out in December was pretty non-existent, but I've been on the board a fair bit and it's been keeping me sane and I can see slow gains creeping in.

Roll on some better weather in 2018, I've got projects to climb...