The Pull of the Moon.

Wen Zawn with Caff on an on-sight attempt of Hardback Thesaurus. T-Rex takes the wide crack to the left of Caff and Mr Softy climbs the middle of the back wall.

Adam Wainwright a few years down the line and back in Wen Zawn.

The Pull of the Moon. (A work in progress) 

The sun wraps its warmth around Rhyolite. Shadows bend. Ferns fidget in the breeze.

Even though it’s early, inside the hut everyone has left. One fully charged Bluebottle is my companion. The fly jerks and buzzes and pops as it hits the window pane. I hate the bluebottle. On the outside of the window, in the top right corner, the fatly speckled spider, sitting in the centre of her web catches the breeze, the web contracts like a diaphragm. I wish she was inside.   

Ted Hughes is also my companion. Birthday Letters, a book given as a gift. Did she realise - I expect she did. 

The groove of Nexus Direct on Dinas Mot hangs high above the hut – it hangs high, as high as it has for my last eleven years. In the winter, water funnels between its rough rhyolite and in summer, the muck bakes to crispy bran flake. Until two days ago it had been just a groove – an open book – one possibly as raw as Birthday Letters. And if you had asked me where it was situated a day or two ago, I would not have been able to tell you. “Somewhere up there.” I would have said, “Somewhere up there, high on The Mot, somewhere in amongst all of those corners, folds, grass, slabs and sheep. “No I haven’t done it.” 

And if you had asked me its character, I would not have been able to answer. But, since Sunday, since I failed to unlock its dimensions and see the pain behind its smooth curves, I now know where trouble lies.

And now, like the moon, it looks down at me before I close the red doors and it welcomes me as I wake in the morning. And like the moon it is cold. I see its superiority, its subtle millimetres of movement, its savagery in the form of beauty, I see numb bleakness and I understand its difficulty and the damage it will inflict but I am mesmerised.

Today I entered and shared myself. I nearly backed off, maybe I should have but I wanted the experience, the feeling of becoming one.

And for a while we moved together.

*

Leaving the shady side of the Pass, Lee Dawg and I enter into the warmth and sit on the steep grassy hill beneath Scimitar. Scimitar holds so many memories. Most are good.

Jagged ramparts – overhanging calf cutters made from ripped aluminium – undercut razor edges, melted crystallised-quartz tacked to the smooth dolerite surface.

Generally there is no-one here apart from me, my climbing partner and the blood in the grass.

It was a vision from three or four days ago. King Wad Direct, climb the true line of the overhanging arête, do not move left into the groove, do not have the protection between the two pegs –  no chill-out and experience the big move at the top without a rest. A few extra bits of steep. Difficulty for the sake of difficulty, definitely? In no way disrespectful to Pritch and his first ascent, just a personal challenge.  Bloody genius – why has this not been thought of before? But of course it has and it was more than likely first climbed this way but I prefer to be ignorant of facts. It is less painful being ignorant.

*

“Low tide is at seven, we should be able to get on the climb at five.”

Will Sim and I follow the worn zig zag in the steep hillside and stop at the rocky edge overlooking Wen. Wen Zawn, the welt cut into the wrist of Craig Gogarth. Greedy invisible wind-fingers pinch and pull and snaffle and push. Grit is thrown in anger. Eyes blur. How dare you? Gulls pirouette and scream. A layer of paste-white cloud covers the sun. Pink Thrift lollipops headbang on fragile necks.

“It looks a little dark. The rock needs sun.”

With time and the gravitational pull of the moon the sea drains and the boulders in the base of the zawn reveal their boil-barnacle faces.

“Well, if you don’t shoot…” I think this is becoming my motto for life.

*

Will climbs the first pitch of Mr Softy. I belay and stare at the arch of Conan and its massive orange mullion crossing the sea to meet the corner of The Unridable Donkey. A grey seal pops its shiny head from the green pool and stares with sad unfathomable eyes. She must read minds.

The cobbled back wall madness of The Mad Brown. The ready mix of Rubble – I stand on my own and feel almost at piece in this quartzite cathedral. The wind pulls the ropes and a peel of sea water wrings the overhanging walls. A shaft of evening sun breaks the cloud. People, voices, images, flood my mind. Paul Pritchard stretches thin lycra legs across the rotting corner, but just as quick he is lying broken amongst boulders with the sea on the turn. Jonny Dawes repeatedly throws himself at Hardback Thesaurus. Adam Wainwright and Big George Smith wrestle with craziness. Jimmy Jewel solos the greasy off-width of T-Rex.

The Zawn is a cacophony of bird cries, crashing sea, wind and on occasion the deep engine throb from an Irish ferry. I imagine couples in the ferry bar, laughing and drinking beer. And here I am feeding out the rope with old conversation for company. 

The sea is a mocking mess of green and bubbles and white foam. Rock is sweating salt. Grasping quartzite fins and wrapping fingers, chalk strips as easy as tears cut a wavering path across pale cheeks. I thought I could flout the rulebook, but no, I am no better than those who have been before. Does love make a difference?

“Let’s bail, let’s get out on T-Rex.” I shout in an attempt to be heard above the wind slamming the door. But wearing the rack I know the first pitch of T-Rex, the slippery unprotected off-width pitch waits for me. Abseiling, I peel away the layers and I don’t like the answer I find as I tie-on beneath the wide fault.

What seems like a long time later, following the final traverse of Dream of White Horses, the blue rope, not clipped to any runners arcs above me. Obviously, it has had enough and wants out more than me but the wind plays tricks and for a second let’s go of the rope and it drops into Wen’s vacuum snatching at my waist before rising once again.    

At 10pm, in the dark, with salt smeared glasses pushed into a pocket and a skunks white stripe of chalk running the length of my blue back, I pull into that final chimney and then out onto the grass, out into the angry night with its bullets of rain.

*

Back at the hut, beneath strip lights, I make a tuna and salad sandwich and eat on my own while standing in the brightly lit  kitchen. The red quarry tiles beneath my feet are cold. 

Avoiding sheep shit, walking to my van, I breathe deep and suck the light of the moon, the glowing numbness will act like aspirin. Closing red doors, checking for a text message, I settle to the sound of sheep shuffling before turning the radio off on another day of the same song. 

 *   

Nexus Direct E5 6b, Pete Crew, Dave Alcock, 1966, 4 points of aid. First free ascent, D Roberts, on-sight, 1977. “Despite its benign appearance, this is a fierce and technical pitch with little in the way of protection.” Llanberis Pass CC Guidebook.

King Wad E5 6b, Paul Pritchard 1987. “As physically hard as indecent exposure.” J Dawes.

Mr Softy E6 6b, Adam Wainwright, George Smith, 1994. “Follow this (the second pitch) where angels fear to tread.” From the Gogarth Wiki description.

T-Rex, E3 5c, Ed Drummond, LE Holliwell, D.Pearce, J.Rogers (2pts) 1969. FFA Pat Littlejohn 1971.

 

 

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Island Life: Part 2. Pabbay & Mingulay.

 

The first evening on the way to Mingulay.

 

Last summer, for three months, I tried the Euro sport climbing thing. Sounds amazing doesn’t it – perfect weather, perfect evenings while camping and drinking cheap red wine, miles of pristine limestone – but to tell the truth, I find the climbing all a bit samey and if you get sucked into attempting the same climb repeatedly, it must become as similar as the drive to the same job, at the same place, to do the same thing, year in, year out with some form of release when you finally resign or clip the chains.  

Sport climbing is great for a quick fix, a holiday, cover some safe ground to get fit, chase a number, feel good when new numbers are reached, but it just doesn’t feed the soul. In that three month trip, the most memorable and the best adventure, and to be honest, the only climb I can remember the name, was Fiesta de Los Biceps at Riglos, a meagre 7a. Actually, there were two climbs, the second being Plenitude above Cluses down the valley from Chamonix, a nine pitch 6c+ which was possibly the most difficult climb of the trip with less protection and fewer holds from which to stand or pull than an E5. Plenitude was an emotional journey in a reasonably wild situation and because of this I remember the day and the climb vividly and with fondness – it certainly was not an ego boost or a number chasing exercise.

After last summer’s bolt clipping I wanted to get back to tradition climbing, its where I’m at, it feeds my soul and in Britain, not only do we have the best traditional climbing in the world, we also have the most beautiful and wild places to experience it.

Donald’s fishing boat, The Boy James, cut the green. The large bow wave frothed white. I tasted salt and my glasses misted. It was past nine in the evening and twelve of us were heading, first to Mingulay and three days later to Pabbay, small uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. Kittiwakes, Cormorants, Razorbills and Fulmars flew alongside the boat and skimmed the sea. A fire filled the darkening sky. The Perkins engine growled and powered the boat through swell and waves and my nose filled with the smell of salt and diesel. Face skin tightened. The vast emptiness of water spread to our left and to our right, even smaller islands than Pabbay and Mingulay were silhouetted. Emptiness. Space. A void. Gripping the metal frame of The Boy James, the world felt untamed that Sunday evening.

A slab of dark Gneiss covered in slippery green sea-moss easing into the sea was our dropping point for Mingulay. Flocks of fat bodied Puffins, blurred wings, jet propelled, filled the sky, while others bobbed on the dark sea-surface. The Puffins chatted to each other. A lone Artic Skewer, the bad boy of the bird world slowly flapped by.

I was climbing with Guy Robertson. I had climbed repeatedly in winter with Guy and I would call him a good friend but we had never met outside this realm. I wondered if he had sprouted leaves for summer and became warm?

Guy Robertson, route one, Voyage of Faith on Dun Mingulay, day one.

Abseiling nearly one hundred metres into Dun Mingulay – grey scallops and ears, flutes and fins, swirls of cold lava – the finest weather beaten, sun baked Gneiss in the world. On occasion the dark grey was splattered with a patina of pink pegmatite, on more than occasion it was splattered with guano from the Razorbills which called the cliff home. Guy and I stood, heads tilted and we paid homage to this Salvador Dali canvas created for climbers and almost immediately began our pilgrimage, moving in upward paint strokes.

Seven pitches and several hours later I backhanded a large, but not quite large enough hold, it offered energy-sapping wet respite. Beneath a massive capping roof, I crawled. Toes were pressed to smooth rounded smears and the ropes arced between gear placements. Guy was a good way around the corner, out of sight. I regretted running pitch two and three of Perfectly Normal Paranoia together but below this roof and below my aching feet, the sea crashed a sunlit bubbling crescendo and the birds cried the theme and the voice in my mind added the lyrics… But this is it isn’t it, it was my decision to launch – it was my decision to place gear when I wanted, or not place gear and it was my decision to carry a rack of what I hoped I needed or didn’t need. And this is the difference isn’t it, it’s not looking up a blank piece of rock sporting fifteen bolt hangers that mark the line while wearing fifteen quickdraws, knowing once you get to one of those hangers it can be clipped and made safe – this is food for the soul, exercise for the mind – it is decisions made in an instant or at least before the arms wither and the mind fries and for me this is why it is memorable.

The shy and elusive but not quiet Corncrake.

The blue moon would soon be full and its silver lit the heather and its force dragged the sea up the beach and back down again – sand scars were evidence of the sea’s passage. A group of seals gathered on the beach each night, their haunting cries, as if sad for loss, were our mournful music that became a fusion with the warble of the Snipe and the creak of the Corncrake from which to fall asleep.

K&S Special on Creag Dhearg rejected me, not once, but twice – my tenacity is strong and the increasingly challenging personality and my ability to ‘stick it out’ lead me into believing I would stand the test of time but no, it had, had enough of me and I could not hold-on and the climb shook me off as easy as snow from a windowpane but rejection is life and for a memory and experience as good as this I have nothing but love. One day, when I am stronger I hope to return.     

Greg Boswell on the brilliant K&S Special.

I had visited Pabbay before but not Mingulay. I recall someone telling me that Pabbay was the better island for climbing and Mingulay was disappointing, but after three days I would disagree, Mingulay is wild and beautiful with better climbing and a more varied wildlife than Pabbay.

Donald arrived at 8pm on Wednesday evening; The Boy James taxi slewed the team across the sea to Pabbay where for two days we were shut down. Rain poured constantly through the night and spirituous mists enshroud the island. The old building without a roof stood sentry and the stream broke from a marshy chrysalis, turning into a butterfly of brown peaty water digging down into the beach, cutting a channel and carrying old fishing floats back to the emptiness of the sea. We put in a stash of gear at the top of Pink Walls and for the rest of the time I lay in my tent, reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping…

The weather cleared and so we sailed onto the Pink – Ancient Mariners and In Profundum Lacu and Amber Nectar and for the final day we transported into the Banded with its maze of roofs, bulges, spaghetti-spirals – Endolphin Rush and Ship of Fools and spring Squill

Myself climbing Jonny Scuttlebutt on the Banded Wall.

Mike Shorter climbing The Ancient Mariners.

Sitting and drinking wine, the sun set but it didn’t get dark and in the bay The Boy James gently swayed from side to side while waiting patiently to take us back to Barra at 7am and on to Oban and a return to the mainland way of life.

“Why don’t you stay for another week, climb with Jonny and me?” Sophie Whyte, part of the Sheffield team said who had turned up a day before.

“I would love to, but I don’t have enough food for another week.”

 “What do you need, we will have enough spare food to give you.” Greg and the others in our about to leave team said.

And with that the donations flooded and before long I had more food than at the start of the week.

“Guess I’m staying then.”

Sophie Whyte leading the first pitch of Big Kenneth, Dun Minulay.

Myself on the crux of Jonny Scuttlebutt, The Banded Wall.

The undercut Wall approach, Mingulay.

The Bonxie AKA, Artic Skewer AKA, The bad boy of the bird world.

Adam Brown on Suger Cane Country, Pabbay.

A great big thanks to everyone from both teams for the company and the food and the climbing, it was great :-)

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Island Life. Part 1: Burren and Fair Head, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Hallowe’en Arete, Fair Head. Credit Tim Neill.

A haunting layer of cloud trickled over the Paps of Jura. Flowing from the hills, driven by the breeze, it crawled across the North Atlantic. Rathin Island blurred. Wispy white tendrils of wet entered White Lightning Amphitheatre and butted Fair Head’s dolerite. And as I clung to the sharp of Hallowe’en Arête, I imagined tears forming on the ends of silver lichen.

The eight day trip was nearly at an end but above me there was still the crux moves. Dunking my left hand, chalk dust caught on the breeze. Lee Roberts hung below me, belaying, looking up, smiling. Lee had climbed the middle pitch of Hollowe’en – finger locks, hand jams, balancy compression – forty five metres of technical burley brilliance which topped the first pitch, a pitch of edgy green insecurity. At one point I thought about suggesting something else but at times, to get things done, to get through, to move beyond, you have to have resilience.

I took hold of a chunk of dolerite. Sharp, the shape of a ship’s hull, stuck to the surface of the right side of the arête, I pulled and matched and moved around the arête, into a groove. The white cloud swirled in a darkening sky. A crack ran the length of the groove and unlike much of Fair Head’s rock, the crack was dry and clean. The rock all around was crisp and grabby. I joked with Lee that a spider’s web was reason to take the slab around the other side but it was just a joke, I wanted to try hard for the last climb of the eight days, I felt I deserved it, I needed the difficulty. Trying hard, becoming engrossed, it eased the pain of failure from other aspects of my life at the moment.

A few days earlier, Mirror wall at The Burren in the south, glowed in the afternoon sun and in the afternoon sun the heat increased. My fingers greased from the one insecure lock in the forked lightening crack near the start of the climb, Refraction, while my feet, stuffed into small shoes, grew in size and paddled. Three times, up down, up down, up down. The large boulders at the base of the wall sat in the sea cooking like hardboiled eggs. The fourth time up, or maybe it was the fifth and I was through the gammy finger-lock but still greasing from the most secure placements ever. Lee belayed and Tim sat on one of the hardboiled eggs. They both shout encouragement and as they yell, I watch a hand slowly slide from a secure placement. My body and mind begin to wobble. But then some form of my younger self takes hold, a younger more carefree self and the memories and pain are left behind and I slapped myself up the wall, through the overlap, onto the crozzled tuffa’s near the top and finally onto the grassy ledge wearing a massive smile.

Spider crabs, Black guillemot with fiery red legs, wild orchids, a jack Russell puppy called Cookie, Lee’s sharp wit, Tim’s fat fingers unable to fit into the pockets at the top of Ice Queen, A Wall of Fossils, A Fall of Wossils, Quicksliver, a school of Dolphins breaking the Atlantic surface and another fire-filled sunset – the Burren is a good place to accept and attempt to move on.

Bridging. The arête is now on my left and for the first time in weeks I open my mind to movement and possibilities of rock. A left-hand slaps. Under-clinging the arête, its shape is sharp and positive. I heel-hook the same sharp edge and stand in balance. What if life could be balanced with something as simple as a heel-hook? Arête climbing is close to being my favourite. All of those hidden possibilities that only reveal with courage and imagination and experimentation. I fiddle another perfect piece of protection into the crack running the length of the groove. Shaking-out, I savour this airy 9pm on a Sunday evening.

Last night, Saturday night – in the cow shed – crowds of climbers congeal – the Fair Head meet comes together. Outside the shed, under the stars, I stand by the fire, eating half of the biggest pizza ever while tilting a bottle of beer. I feel – well, I don’t really know what I feel, a true mix of emotions. Ricky Bell laughs and jokes and offers me a chug of the Jägermeister he has been offering around in the dark green bottle. I turn Ricky’s offer down but my stomach warms anyway with his infectious smile and effervescence. “It’s like Calpol.” He jokes and laughs – a large mouth full of teeth takes in the smoky evening air. “Let’s get out together sometime Nick.”  The evening was sociable and fun and poignant and sad but I came away feeling a part of something and a step nearer somewhere.

Pulling into the groove, a smear for the left foot on the front face of the arête and an edge for the right foot on the right wall of the groove, I stretch for the crack where it narrows and crimp a sharp edge and pull. Heel-hooking a rounded bulge holds my body and enables a left hand to reach for the same crack my right fingers crimp. This is it, this is the crux, this is what I’ve been working toward and now I’m here I’m damn sure I’ll give it everything to get through and continue to the top.

“There’s a big hold to your left on the arête.” Tim shouts from his viewing platform.

“Yes, I know Tim, I just have to get there.”       

Its midnight. Tim, Lee, John Orr and I sit around the fire; we leave for Wales in the morning. I tilt my half full of red wine, china mug, the mug with its coloured spots and watch the sparks, so full of radiance catch on the wind and glow and fly into the night and dim…   

Thanks to Tim, Lee and John for the pics and the belays and the great company and a big thanks to Paul Swail and Sean McBride for yet again pulling it out of the bag and making the weekend of the Fair Head meet brilliant.

 

Another Burren sunset.

Tim Neill climbing Fall of Wossels. The Burren.

Reaching the tufa’s on Refraction. Credit Tim Neill

Lee Roberts and Cookie.

Quicksilver on The Mirror Wall, The Burren. Credit, Lee Roberts.

Another one already. But I cant close my hands. Lee Roberts wakes…

Lee Roberts gets to grip with the Wall of Fossels

Tim Neill on the first pitch of Northern Exposure, Fair Head. Credit, Lee Roberts.

Loons on the Northern Exposure belay. Well it is possibly the best route in the world!

Tim Neill on the first pitch of X Men, Fair Head. Credit Lee Roberts.

Hallowe’en Arete. Credit John Orr

A happy Fair Head sunset after climbing Northern Exposure. Credit Lee Roberts.

The final night at Fair Head.

 

  

                     

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Bones and Barbed Wire.

 [James McHaffie at Dorys in the days he took a bottle of beer to the crag.] 

Bobok. 2004

Walking with James McHaffie along the top of Craig Dorys having once again left behind the dark quarried slate piled high above Llanberis and the rain in the cloudy mountains, the arid atmosphere of The Lleyn feels like illusion. But look out, over the large water worn boulders that balance on the tessellated rock-shelf, look out to the sea and the natural beauty and immediately you appreciate this is no illusion, this is real, this is now and of this time, of ‘your’ time… and the waves lapping the dark mosaic rock-shelf mark that time until the next wave moves in and washes your thoughts to sea and the clock moves forward once more.

Like many crags in North Wales, Craig Dorys is tempered by the mark of humans. Caff and I walked to the end of the buttress and down the steep track which sliced the steep hill. Feet crunched on small pieces of rock littering the hillside. The winter wind had easily persuaded the rock to leave the crag. Splintered bracken stalks blocked the track like barriers. Shins broke through the dry thatch. Dust billowed. Tumbleweed bundles of barbed wire poked from the bracken. Fronds of newly sprouting fern unfurled between old wooden fence posts and plastic sheeting and rotting animal carcass. The detritus of farming was scattered on the approach but I didn’t find the rubbish offensive, it reminded me of the area I grew up. I liked the juxtaposition between the beauty of nature and the effect of humans. I flicked a bleached sheep rib with the toe of my shoe. The blood had long gone.                 

I had climbed with Caff on and off for a summer or two but I had not zoned in to his dark side. I think I would be safe in saying not many people do as his demeanour and look – small round glasses, dark unruly hair, pale skin, reasonably short in stature and reserved – give the impression of school boy innocence. But to become one of the worlds most successful traditional rock climbers, repeatedly placing yourself in a position of danger while climbing in very good style takes serious dedication, mental fortitude, drive, self-belief, commitment and sometimes a dark side, a side with voices – voices that continually question and taunt and only dim after personal challenge. Where rock climbing is concerned I do not put myself in the same category as James McHaffie, not even the same planet, but I know about the voices and I recognise a person who occasionally has internal dialogue.

Bobok is a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘the chant of the dead people’ is how the story is described in the Climbers Club guidebook to the Lleyn Peninsular. Bobok would not be my recommendation for your first route on The Lleyn Peninsular. Bobok would not be a recommendation at all.

Caff pointed at what we were to climb. I looked up. The overhanging wall was a semi-circular scoop veined with orange and quartz.

 ”We are going to climb honeycombed chocolate?” I said followed by nervous laughter.

Caff dumped his bag in the dirt, pulled a packet of tobacco from his jacket pocket and rolled a small cigarette. Dabbing the cigarette with his tongue he looked up, “You’ll be fine Nick, it’s only E5, which pitch do you want?”   

The route consisted of two pitches, the first was seventy feet given a technical grade of 5c, the second was more difficult being 6a but slightly shorter at fifty feet. The guidebook description mentioned ‘chicken heads’ and ‘sneaking’ for the first pitch and ‘quartz snappies’ and biscuit footholds for the second pitch. I was tempted to say I wanted neither pitch but I knew this would not work, so eventually after much soul searching I opted for the technically easier first pitch, ‘sneaking’ after all was much more my style and sounded preferable to ‘snappies.’ Caff was by far a better rock climber than me anyway and this route had been his suggestion.

Stepping from ground took four attempts. The rock was like nothing I had ever climbed and the amount of gear clipped to my harness was holding me down. I eased once again from the ground pulling a vein of orange coloured munge, which I soon discovered was the rock type and the colour to aim. Caff, wearing long black shorts, wallowed in the dirt to my right smoking his second tab, sniggering like a schoolboy. He read from the guidebook,

“It says here, in the first ascents section by Ray Kay that the chocolate fudge colour works well for taking weight.”

What Caff chose not to read out loud was Ray Kay, master of all things lose, then went on to say he had had many ground up attempts to climb Bobok and had found the experience very very scary. He also chose not to read out the paragraph below this one which was written by Stevie Haston who had attempted to climb the line before Kay and Jones had made the first ascent. In this paragraph Haston described lowering off five equalised pieces of gear and on reaching the ground flicking them all out.

I climbed, wracked with paranoia. I had placed more gear than ever before in such a short distance. The rock – orange, white, brown, black – was laced with multi-coloured metal – nuts, cams, hooks – jewels of safety which offered no safety at all. And with so much gear I felt the pressure to continue. At around the two hour on the lead point I had climbed thirty feet, maybe less. I inched left and sat on top of a decomposing pillar afraid the whole pillar would tumble. I lowered a loop of rope and Caff clipped a second rack of gear onto the loop.

Sitting still on my pillar, eying a crumbling crack, I imagined filling it full of gear and wrapping the rope around me like some Victorian climber and saying to Caff twenty, or thirty feet below, ‘on belay.’

“I’m sure this is the belay. It would make a great belay. Shall I belay?”

Caff had a pee, sat down, looked up at me, and rolled another cigarette. “Just another forty feet or so to go Nick, you’re doing great, I reckon you have probably got higher than what Leo Houlding did before he fell off and hit the ground.”

I sat on the wobbly pillar clipping gear to my harness looking down at Caff with horror.

“What else are you not telling me about this climb Caff?”

“If we climb it today it will be the third ascent.”

“Quite telling that given it’s E5 and was first climbed in 1988. Who climbed the second ascent?”

“Will Perrin and Ben Bransby.”

Perrin and Bransby were great rock climbers and very good at ‘specialised’ territory. I looked up at the remaining ground and it looked a long way.

Box of Blood 2014.

Here I was, ten years later and here I was ten years older and here I was sat on the same decomposing pillar wondering why? Boboks quartz seams cutting through the mud and fudge were to my right. The years had changed my opinion a little, but the fear induced by this crumbling cliff was still there. This time instead of Caff, Will Sim, another very talented individual belayed and the same as before, thoughts of being sub-standard compared to the other person holding my ropes ran through me.

This would be my second attempt to successfully climb Box of Blood and plant a flag on Dorys summit and this time I would milk the rests. Will wallowed in the muck the same as Caff had wallowed. Bet he wished he rolled his own I thought…

*

Box of Blood summary and further info here

 

[Myself entering into the overhanging and run out on Box of Blood... Pic credit, Ray  Wood]

[Will Sim in a similar position to that of most of my friends who belay me. Note to self, must get better, quicker, bolder.]
[Will Sim combating the fear and launching onto the orange balsa wood on Box of Blood. to make a great flash ascent.]

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The Wasted Lands.

[pic: Al Powell and Jules Cartwright looking in awe at Teng Kangpoche Northwest Face, Nepal. ]

 

April is the cruellest month.

*

The Great Orme poked into the troubled sea. The sky was solid grey. On the horizon a thousand newly constructed wind turbines turned.

Will Sim and I had finished climbing for the day. I drove my little red van, a van without a name, around the narrow one-way road. The road cut the grassy hillside. The limestone wall on our right, turned and twisted, following the pavement and the roads edge. The wall separated us from the dark green sea – such a long way below – mixing memory with desire.

The male Kestrel hung on the wind; he glided a metre above the top of the wall. I looked into the van’s wing mirror. There was no traffic behind. I stopped and opened the window.

Close enough to touch, or so it seemed, the Kestrel didn’t hover – his wings were taught and braced, tilted at the correct angle to manage this solo performance. Bernoulli’s principle or something along those lines, although the Kestrel, I’m sure, did not know about aerodynamics. The wind took hold of his small body and puckered the soft. Burnt red, black flecks, a blue tinge to the ruffle of long wing finger feathers. His feet, just visible, were bunched yellow fists pulled into milky down. Streaks of black ran from just above his feet to the speckling of his throat, they looked like the streaks that run from the eyes of a Labrador. And above the throaty speckled ruff, his head was stationary, frozen, unwavering, stock-still. Large dark eyes, eyes as big as a pomegranate ringed with yellow, locked the long grass.

A week before, it could have been two; the wind blew down the Llanberis Pass. It was the Saturday of Easter weekend. The Cromlech layby, opposite the boulders, was full of cars and in between the wheels, empty drink cans, plastic bottles, Mars Bar wrappers, newspaper pages, cigarette packets, carrier bags and other detritus danced down the road to a Caribbean soundtrack. Shit, blown by the wind, jangled west – west, the same as my thirteen month relationship.

*

“You’ve got it sorted.” One of the folk staying at Ynys Etws, the CC hut in the Llanberis Pass said a few days after the breakup. I wasn’t sure I had anything sorted, I had lost my friend.

*

May Day Bank Holiday weekend came, it was Friday. Unlike a large percentage of society, I hate Fridays, especially the Fridays of a bank holiday weekend. I lay in my van at 11.15pm listening to cars turning into the hut entrance and the barrier clanging and the gravel crunching beneath wheels. A VW Transporter parked next to my van, the van with no name. The occupants disembarked, talking, slamming doors and bumping into my van. I leaned forward, “Would you mind not knocking my van please?” I lay back but didn’t sleep for a while. In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing.

I rock climbed every day – King Wad, Chreon , Killerkranky, Romany Soup, Warpath, Big Boys, Centrefold, Mask of the Red Death, The Moon, Perygl, Oreole, Skylark, Mayfair, Contusion, The Enemy Direct, North by Northwest, Agamemnon. Climbing, climbing, climbing – the cold wind carried image and memories and conversation and sadness.  

*

Taking off from the side of the stream, a Heron folds and flops, all awkward angles and pointed elbows, her legs, an undercarriage yet to be lifted and her politicians sagging chin. The wind caught her canvas and she became a ballerina. And beneath the humped bridge crossing the stream a Dipper bobbed – rock to water to rock. Tears flowed. How do you do? I’ve been better actually.

*

Gogarth’s Yellow Wall – I sat on-top of the crag facing the choppy sea, buried beneath my hood while belaying. Tourists passed behind all wrapped. Turbo charged Great Black Backed Gulls wheeled and wailed. Fingers and feet were numb but my mind was active. Fifteen years ago, maybe it was a little less; I climbed The Moon and The Cow for the first time with Jules Cartwright. I had weak arms, not long from Peru. Not long from the pubs of Sheffield, Jules was even weaker, so I climbed both pitches of The Cow. Later, at the campsite near Holyhead, the one the paddlers use, we hunkered behind the yellow flowering gorse. The scent of coconut filled the evening.

Crafnant – sharp, angular, slippery, overhanging ‘tiger territory’. Phoenix, E2 5c my arse. I belayed John Orr as he battled into the v-corner. The wind blew cold and in the wind I heard Michael Tweedley and Jules complaining about how difficult getting into the corner was. I stood in this spot eighteen years ago and took the piss. I still remember Michael’s disappointment when he backed off an E2. Don’t worry Michael, my disappointment would have been more had I attempted. Jules didn’t give a shit; he hung in, fell off, lowered off and lit a tab.

*

Living for the here and now, with a head that collects images can, at times, be difficult. What if. If only. And the weight, so much weight and with that weight there is pressure. Recently a friend said “We ain’t getting any younger and we should stop relying on our bodies for fulfilment – it’s a fucking dead-end street!!”

Like the hermit crab with a crumbling shell, our minds still spark, but unlike the crab, we cannot move when our shell rots. But is this not the magic? Is it not good we don’t know how long we have? Although I suppose, if we did know, we could at least go to the supermarket and fill the fridge with other less physical but just as deeply rewarding experience without fear of missing out.

“What shall I do now? What shall I do? What shall we ever do?”   

*

Craig y Forwyn rises from the woodland. Over ten years ago, I escaped other walls but once again here is a wall – a dappled wall strewn with desensitising scallops and pockets and flaring cracks. Birdsong fills the valley and in the foliage I can feel growth. Dull roots with spring rain. I’m happy to say I’m fortunate, I’ve nearly always been a glass that is half full.

*

My inbox shows one new. “If you are not getting scared, it’s not climbing.” And I wonder if the same goes for life?   

 [Thanks to T S Eliot for the belay on this piece] 

[Great Wall, Craig y Forwyn, Wales ]

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Barriers in Time.

 

Ticking.

Locked inside bone, how is that voice to be quelled?

Talking.

For some the voice is quiet. For others it yells. Sometimes the voice yells helpful, positive. Sometimes it screams destruction. Sometimes it waits and whispers in the morning. Sometimes it chatters before sleep at night.

Ticking.

How much is enough?

Ticking.

How much is not enough?

Talking…

…Scimitar Ridge, concave like the inside of a wooden rowing boat tipped onto its side, is a slice of corrugated basalt cut from the steep heather of the Llanberis Pass. Twisting through the valley base below Scimitar, a stream of clear mountain water slowly flows and in that slow flow is the reflection of the sun and the mountains. The stream is a glittering artery feeding the dark boggy earth – earth made-up of lives – lives blown on the wind of years – desiccated skin, blood, bone, sinew – lives lived, lives lost.

Scimitar is the home of hard climbing, climbing made difficult by the nature of the rock. There are few crimps and holds to pull down – it is open hand, side-pull, smears for feet, palming – spotting protection from below is difficult and reading the rock, even more. Scimitar rewards the confident. 

Two years ago, or maybe it was more, I opened my eyes to the minutia while working a climb called The Trumpet Slappers. There was an empty space to the right of the Jonny Dawes route, The 39 Slaps. But of course this space was not empty; it was an empty space on a page in a guidebook – a picture space without a line. In this, ‘real life’ there was the smooth grey of Scimitar’s Basalt. And in places, glued to the surface of the grey were cumulous scabs with sharp bubbled edges of metamorphosed quartz. There was also, one very small in-cut, triangular crimp and one mini basalt column and an overhanging groove and an overhanging arête. Unfortunately in this space – this ‘none space’ – there was very little way to protect, what would be difficult climbing.      

So, two years ago, or more, I successfully climbed a strange hybrid, The Trumpet Slappers – The 39 Slaps into the top section of The Trumpet Blowers – and sometime afterwards, Graham ‘The Hippy’ Desroy and I dropped a rope into the airy space around this ‘none space’ and decided very quickly it would go, all be with a lot of effort and courage, (pointless stupidity some may say) and time.

The start, a savage boulder problem, did not suit me, it was technical and powerful with smears for feet, but the bold and overhanging wilderness above, a strange eclectic mishmash of features – features to be used in a million different ways – did. And for two years, or maybe more, I imagined.

Ticking.

Last week, or maybe it was more, crisp northerlies caught on the rhyolite boulders as the wind travelled through the pass. I returned to Scimitar Ridge with Katy Forrester. I had spoken about this ‘none space’ frequently and had in my mind to warm-up on established climbs to get into the Scimitar smears and side-pulls before checking the ‘none space’ to the right of The 39 Slaps. Katy was the secret weapon to unlocking the technical boulder start as she is a much more gifted rock climber than I will ever be.

It was Easter and the snow streak, a long thin line high on the side of the pass clung to the shade in Parsley Fern Gully. Cars, motorbikes, busses, people and cyclists joined the flowing northerlies but unlike the cool breeze, which turned Scimitar’s unforgiving basalt into something friendly, I could hear car horns, the squeal of brakes and the odd shout of an annoyed cyclist.

Climbing appears worthless and useless and stupid to many people and in a way, I understand this point of view, but there is something primeval and liberating for me, to become involved with a piece of rock and the movement required to successfully journey up that piece of rock, until there is connection and personal history. Hubris? Recognition with a small R? Maybe, but climbing, and the associated things which surround climbing, make my life more complete, complete and fulfilled in the same way as a piece of well written prose, a great film, music, poetry, wild weather, a tasty meal, a rugged landscape, a glass of wine or watching a rare and shy wild animal.    

Katy worked a sequence of moves that involved deep drop knees, smears and many exact toe placements and after a while she had unlocked the lower barrier. My plan had backfired, no way was this going to work for me, so I took a more direct approach pulling as hard as I could from sharp edges and putting one on for a large slippery side-pull. The side-pull had to be snatched with an open hand and a thumb pressed very precisely to a roughening on its front face. That roughening is orange with a millimetre deep depression and as I write I can see it. Minutia. Body tension – so much body tension and as I write I can feel that tension. And this snap of tension has to be timed perfectly with hitting the side-pull and leaning to the left and the pressing of a toe to a high sloping smear.

Ticking.

The body’s ability to adapt and the minds ability to upload never fails to amaze and I knew with time and practice, my body and mind would become strong and tuned but I know also the mind is very practiced at denial and much like that ever decreasing Parsley Fern snow sliver, I knew time was the greatest price.  

Ticking.

Two stacked micro wires, impossible to place on lead was the protection for approximately the first half of the climb. A small section of rock had already broken next to the wires. I did not trust the wires or the rock they were placed, or my ability to hit and hold the side-pull and successfully continue with the moves afterwards.

This climb into ‘none space’ starts from Agamemnon, an established E1 and follows this for a few metres. Leaving Agamemnon, a high side runner could be placed, which would not stop a crunching fall should the micro wires rip, but it would stop a continued journey into boulders and down the steep hillside.      

Ticking.

Entering into this new ‘none space’ unlocking secrets in the minutia of landscape I learn. Time, past and present is all around; time is carried on the breeze. History is encompassing. And somewhere, in amongst all of this time, this history, these images and memories locked inside my head, somewhere is the voice, ticking, talking, ticking, talking, ticking, talking… doors open, doors close. Ticking, talking ticking… frequently walked corridors echo with the footfall of many. Ticking, talking… while similar corridors remain deserted.

Options.

I sit beneath the crag on the steep slippery grass slope with the cool northerly breeze and look up to slowly moving people-specks silhouetted along the ridge of Crib Goch. Below, running down the white lines in the middle of the road, three sheep trot and baa. Traffic builds on both sides of the sheep. Hot cars with peeping horns. The Parsley Fern snow patch is now the shape of Italy.

Ticking…

 

Getting into the headspace on Purple Paradise, Craig y Clipiau. Pic, Tim Neill.

Epilogue:

Returned today to Scimitar with Tim Neill and climbed the new line.

North by Northwest. E6 6c.

Climb the first few metres of Agamemnon, place a high runner or two level with two Imps, pre-placed just below the triangular side-pull. Down climb until level with a down pointing spike on the left. Climb to the spike and make hard moves up and slightly right past the Imps to the a large slippery sidepull. From the sidepull climb left and then back right to a small Basalt column and under-clings. Good gear. Move up and right until it is possible to stand on the top of the spike of Agamemnon. Arrange gear before climbing into the base of the steep v-groove above which is level with a flying arête on the right. Pull onto the arête using a hidden hold on the right and climb it to the top.

Thanks to Katy Forrester, Will Sim and Tim Neill for the belays, couldn’t of done it without you. :-)

 

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The Cluster Theory.

Myself on the first bivouac of a winter attempt of the Colton/MacIntyre on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses around January 1998. This seven day, quick hit from Britain came about when Jules Cartwright heard that a few mates had climbed this route, so we hot-footed in my van, day one, and jumped on even though the weather was looking a little shaky and the conditions on the face were far from good. Hit by a storm on day three of the trip, we had a second bivouac where we both hung all night waiting to be plucked from the face. Day four entailed a memorable descent and a flounder to the hut. Day five was back to the valley and beer and day six was a drive back to Britain. Day seven I think was a rest and day eight was back to work as a PE Instructor in Gartree Prison. No summit but this still remains as one of the most undiluted and memorable experiences I have ever experienced  in the mountains. Today would we have been called reckless and idiots and castigated by the internet posse?

 

At times, things appear to naturally occur in clusters. I’m sure this phenomenon has also been noticed by some think-tank people, who no-doubt will be paid vast amounts of money to give this theory a title but I have not heard of one so I have called it the Cluster Theory. I’m also sure that many people will not notice these natural occurring coincidences and will continue oblivious with absolutely no effect on their lives at all. I am not one of these people. I notice these clusters and over the last three or four days I have noticed a cluster that has had an effect.

Five days ago, via email, I had a conversation with a friend, who for use in this post I will call Jon.

Jon lives in Chamonix, he is a very active mountaineer and on occasion, when I am living in Britain, I will send him an email to ask his opinion about the conditions in the mountains around Chamonix. Sometimes, when I contact Jon to ask about conditions it saddens me; it feels like I’m losing something, even letting myself down.

Several years ago I did not have friends who live in Chamonix and the internet was something of the future. There were of course, the Alpine bongo drums and the French whispers, which were often incorrect, making the adventures large and memorable.

The feeling of excitement and anticipation on the drive, or sometimes the flight to the Alps, regularly threatened to explode from my friends and me, something similar to the avalanches that we often experienced rumbling down the cliffs all around us, after we had become involved with an out of condition climb, combined with a shaky forecast. Even now, especially when I am living in Chamonix for the winter and sometimes when I’m not, I will just go and try a line without anyone having climbed it that year, the year before or maybe for several years. I will go on gut instinct, not concrete evidence from the internet or by badgering friends. I will take a chance with what I get and use my judgement and experience to make an educated guess or accept that an adventure, or maybe even an epic is about to unfold. This, I’ll readily admit, may be the realm of the more fortunate – I have lived five winters in the Alps and I have made choices in my life that give me this opportunity and the time available. I understand this is not possible for everyone but I have long had the opinion that in today’s society of instant information, a large proportion of climbers are becoming followers and it appears, this need for a nearly certain outcome is becoming the norm.

In my opinion this cry for as much information about conditions on certain climbs leads to a less satisfying experience. Going into the unknown, opens the mind and electrifies the senses and the absolute joy when taking a chance turns to success, gives a feeling of euphoria. This, stepping into the near unknown for me and some of my friends, has been one of the main reasons to climb in the mountains and to be a mountaineer over the years.

Speaking to Jon, who had just returned from two attempts at a difficult and seldom climbed route on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, he was in total agreement that not every climb has to have a furrow made by a multitude of avid internet scanners or be in stonking condition before attempting to climb it. In fact, Jon said, attempting the climb at the moment, in difficult, ‘out of condition’, condition, was the challenge, this is what he was looking for and because of the difficulties involved, the climb became more memorable and rewarding.

I returned an email whole heartedly agreeing and continued by saying, that although a cliché, it is the journey that is the most important and nowadays there appear to be too many people who want a trophy or the kudos or the Facebook status and Jon’s ‘failing’ has actually given him connection with the mountain and long lasting memories, more so than he would have had if he had just romped to the summit climbing perfect névé, while following in footsteps of those who have gone before with a queue chomped at his crampon heels.

Three days ago – sitting in Wetherspoons, I watched the rain hit the herringbone flags in the centre of Fort William and people run down the street wrapped tightly inside their rain jackets. I read a report in the Guardian by Philip Hoare with the headline; Ladders on Everest are just the latest step in our commodification of nature. In this report Stephen Venables was quoted:

“The mountain has become a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other, we humans have come to expect the natural world to come commodified, negotiated, shaped to our needs. From high to low, there’s nowhere we can’t go, nothing we can’t do. In this age of the Anthropocene – the era of human manipulation heralded by the industrial revolution – it is a given that we have tuned the environment to suit ourselves. Dominion is all; human ingenuity has encompassed the planet. Now pass me the phone: “I’m on the mountain.”

Hoare went on to write, “What mystery is left when the roof of the world resembles your loft conversion?” Well Philip, there is actually no mystery left whatsoever in climbing the South Col Route on Everest and anyone who is a climber knows this but ‘the followers and trophy collectors are of course not concerned by this.

What I am concerned about, is the increase in the lack of mystique in climbing as a whole. This concerns me I suppose because I feel people are losing out on the true essence of climbing. I know this is my problem and I also know there are many people out there that will say having an adventure and deep rooted memory, is irrelevant to them and standing on the summit is the be all but it is this uncertainty within climbing that distinguishes it from sport and makes it very special. It is this stepping into the unknown, the un-measured experience in a time when so much is controlled and regulated – I would say this is the truly rewarding and deeply soul satisfying experience that a large percentage of the climbing community appear to be moving away from. The more this guaranteed success is embraced the more the experience is diluted and the more climbing becomes sanitised and regulated by people who have never had this experience and the more climbing for adventure will suffer.

In twenty years’ time, will climbers be arrested for not wearing a helmet or not having a valid rescue insurance policy?  And will these laws come to pass because the people making our decisions for us do not understand that climbing really can be stepping into the unknown, it can mean having the freedom to attempt to climb something not in the best of condition or at least, the best of condition for the masses? Even now, people are forced to stand internet trial and defend themselves when the internet posse bay for blood if a climber has been so stupid to make a mistake or attempt a climb that has not been in pristine condition. Certainly on occasion, people have made a bad call or been plain stupid, but we don’t all need to have, or in many cases, want to have, perfect, forgettable, following the crowd conditions and a plethora of information. The conditioned climbers out there should remember this and accept we are not all after the same thing. There are still people who want to challenge themselves and have an adventure.        

I utched my high chair closer to the table and sipped espresso and went on to read a second Guardian report, this one was written by Jason Burke with the headline, Everest may have ladder installed to ease congestion on Hillary Step, but unlike the first report, which was telling me nothing surprising, this report was shocking and it was shocking because of the comment, which I’ll admit may have been reported out of context, by Frits Vrijlandt, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), who said the ladder (on the Hillary Step) could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain.  I would say take down all of the fixed rope and the ladders, stop using oxygen, a performance enhancing drug and let people who want to climb Everest, actually climb Everest and then, a solution for the traffic jams on the Hillary Step would certainly be found. An even more shocking comment from Vrijlandt followed, “It’s for the way down, [the ladder] so it won’t change the climb,” This must have been taken out of context as I do not believe anyone who knows the slightest about climbing, seriously believes placing a ladder on a mountain will not change the nature of a climb? 

This Cluster Theory bouncing in my espresso infused brain then began to flash like a meteorite shower and extend to an episode from earlier in the winter here in Scotland. I was accused of FOMO (fear of missing out) by someone who does not know me. This spurious accusation, (as if J) came from a friend of a friend on his Facebook status after I had cried in dismay when he posted a picture of a crag and a few words about attempting a seldom in condition and even more seldom attempted climb. The climb was one I was very excited to try myself and I knew it looked in reasonable condition because Katy, my girlfriend and I, had taken the two-and-a-half hours to walk into and two hours to walk out of the crag in quite harsh weather. Katy and I climbed Umbrella Falls that day and very good it was too but a part of the day was to check-out other possibilities for later in the week.

I did not begrudge my friend an attempt to climb the route – which actually, I think he was only attempting after he saw a picture Katy posted on Facebook of the crag, which, after I moaned so much, she took it down to shut me up – not at all, he had every right to be there and try the route. I would have been pleased for both him, and his partner, had they successfully climbed it and proudly told the story but they didn’t. In my mind, opening up this climb without a story to tell, to people who had not used their imagination, judgement, leg power and suffered the discomfort to check out possibilities for themselves, devalued the experience and lessened the adventure for those who had and wanted a wild, un-hooked and challenging time – possibly something similar to that of the first ascent. On a personal note, I also hate the stress of racing people and competing to be the first to reach a route and so would rather not bother if it comes to doing that but maybe that is my problem.

I am aware for some people this makes me sound selfish and they will not understand my feelings, and that’s fine, we can’t all be the same. I don’t think I am selfish and I don’t think holding on to some information about an in-condition climb is selfish either. When did it become law to report to the masses about conditions? I would argue that once a climb has lost its mystique, it loses a massive part of its character, well, at least it does for climbers who find the adventure side of climbing very important and sometimes it may be worthwhile holding back or at least holding on to some of the finer details and pictures to spare others who, like me, want an un-diluted and un-crowded experience which is becoming more difficult to receive in today’s instant access society. So FOMO, no … more FODE, fear of diluted experience.

I also know there will be people reading this who say, ‘don’t look at the internet’ and I would answer by saying in a lot of cases I don’t. I rarely read conditions reports, as most of the time, I would rather go and check for myself and not be swayed by the judgement of others. I do not scour the internet for up to date pictures of crags or read blogs that heavily feature condition reports. But why should I not be free to chat with friends via Facebook and see what friends are up to? Why should I be penalised from highlighting stories I’ve read in the press that I want to share? Why should I have interesting writing kept from me and why should I not be able to advertise a piece of my own writing I wish others to read? The internet is here to stay and it is part of modern society and I love it, it is such a great resource, but for climbing, and especially reports and pictures of climbs and conditions, I think it is changing the essence of what climbing is about.       

What is climbing becoming? Well, more adventurous and imaginative, it certainly is not!

The Cluster Theory continues…

Yesterday – Waking at 5am, the stars flickered in a clear sky and for the first time in this winter, I had to clear the windscreen of ice. Guy Robertson and I went to climb on Carn Dearg and, as for the whole of this strange winter, judging the conditions and the weather and deciding where to climb was nearly the crux of the day.

I had been staying in the CC hut, Riasg, at Roy Bridge and knowing how severe the snow storm had been on Saturday – when Tim Neill and I had failed to leave the Aonach Mor car park – my gut was saying, ‘try Cairn Dearg’. It also helped that a few guys from the hut had been to Ben Nevis the day before and had taken a couple of photos of the crag, which at that time, looked wintery but not at all a certainty. The fact that these guys, experienced climbers had bailed, due to the amount of snow, also did not bode well, but as stated above, at times you have to go on instinct and experience and have a punt.

Also, over the last few days, I had been on Facebook and in my newsfeed as normal; I could not fail to miss the odd picture and conditions headline for Ben Nevis. I did not read any of these reports but it was obvious the amount of snow on the hill was a debilitating factor that was stopping people in their tracks.

6.30am – Daylight, and like my frozen van windscreen, for the first time this winter, walking to the CIC Hut with the alpen glow warming the white summits made up for much of the battling. We were still heading for Carn Dearg, but with open minds and a monster rack of gear which would hopefully cover all bases.

9.00am – Gently, I flicked an axe. The pick curved in the cold air and penetrated a thin skin of ice. Gentle, the second axe-pick connected but with downward dragging force, the pick puckered and wrinkled the frozen water until it caught and held on some hidden obstruction.  I breathed deep and stepped from the snow. Above me, the steep corner with a continuous stream of thin ice beckoned. And above this, the two hundred and eighty five metres of Fowler and Saunder’s, thirty five year old climb, The Shield Direct. Flakes, chimneys, rock-overhangs, snow-fields, overhanging-ice, history, reputation, connection, surprise. What was going to happen, well of course I didn’t know because I had not even read the route description, we didn’t even have a guidebook and we were here on a gut instinct, not an internet report?

OK, enough said, I’m off now to tweet and Facebook this blog post and drink more coffee and wait for the next cluster!   

 

Nick Bullock on the first pitch of The Shield Direct. Did they successfully complete the climb or did they bail? Was the ice continuous or did it peter-out? Did the snow and wind stop the ascent or not? Did the attempt of this climb come from following reports on the internet… No. Was this climb a step into the unknown and because of this a much higher quality experience… Yes.

    

 

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In the Rucksack Straps of Mick.

In the winter of 2009, as high pressure sat firm and fixed over Scotland and low pressure dominated in the French Alps. Pete Benson and I, both resident in the Chamonix Valley, took the unusual decision to fly from France to Scotland for the week. The final climb of the week, a snatch in thaw conditions, was what we thought at the time Mick Fowler and Mike Morrison’s wild and only once repeated in twenty two years, West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe. Pete showed some pictures to Guy Robertson and it was discovered we had actually climbed a new variation, passing right around the large overhang instead of left. Pete Benson supplied Simon Richardson with the information about the ascent and named it The Bullhorn/Benson Variation

****

Hood up, head bowed, torch glowing – I chuntered. The rain slapped into the saturated earth and the sodden snow sponged up the moisture. The steep heather hillside, to reach the summit ridge of Beinn Eighe, was not the place I wanted to be in this deluge – in this wet miserable morning at 7am but Keith Ball was in-front and try as hard as I could to catch him, he remained far enough away. And the reason he remained out of shouting distance was because he knew this was rubbish. The small streams running from high on the hill could have been canoed and thick black bands of clouds covered all of the summits. Not half way up the horrible hill, my feet slewed like greasy chips in a bag.

An hour later and the summit ridge, clagged in cloud and swathed in sheets of spindrift, turned my nightmare into white buffeting reality. Any heat that had not been sucked from my soul blew away on the body juddering gusts. Large wet flakes of snow slapped into both Keith and my face.

After going around in little whiteout circles for a while we found the top of West Central Gully and decided to take a look. I abseiled the line of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. The steep overhanging walls drooled blue strings of ice and out of the bruising wind my world turned pink. And as I abseiled my glasses became rose tinted and in some moment of madness, I suggested to Keith, when we both stood in thigh deep snow in the base of the gully, that we change from the cunning plan of a quick wiz up the Central Buttress, for a quick wiz up the Fowler/Morrison route, West Central Gully.

“It’ll be quicker than plodding around to the central buttress, its only two pitches and I’ve done the first one before, it’s easy… how hard can it be… we’ll be up and out and back to the van, dried and fed and set up and ready for something more-tricky tomorrow.” I said, quicker than you can say the word epic.”

“OK Nick, I’m psyched, but we don’t have any ice screws, do you think that’ll be a problem?”

Keith looked up, up into the depths of the mountain, to the back of the gully, the line of the climb. A cave, a third of the way up was capped by a massive roof and to the left of the roof, blossoming from the overhanging corner, were two ice drips marking the way we would climb. After the roof thicker ice led to another overhang and after this steep continuous ice flowed to the top.

“Naa, we’ll be fine, it’s got all of that rock around it and let’s face it, its ice up there, who needs screws to climb ice in Scotland – ice in Scotland is never more difficult than WI4 and WI4 is piss.”

Keith thumped a track – knee-deep plunges into unconsolidated snow – and as I followed, I saw the temperature increase and in my worried wallowing, I watched the steep towering walls, walls that had suddenly turned into our cloistering prison, begin to cry with laughter.

In 2009, when Pete Benson and I climbed the fowler/Morrison line, my contentment swelled – this climb was one of those that had engrained itself beneath my skin – it was everything about it – the line, the first ascentionists – but most of all it was the story written by Fowler of him being on the edge, pumped stupid – pumped and slumping and hanging from a chord leading from his axes attached to his rucksack strap. When I first read the account of West Central Gully I had imagined and pictured, I could see him dangling from rucksack shoulder straps with legs kicking and now I had shared the same ground, or so I thought at the time.

Keith and I were surrounded by an armadillo of orange quartzite. Lumps and ears and bulges that shed their frozen skin and the two frozen drips blooming from beneath a large flake-roof poured clear water from the tips of their fragile formations. I pulled into the cave from which Keith had belayed. The gully had become dark and the cave, in which we now sorted gear, was darker still. Spindrift carried on the wind, rumbled from the top of the gully, it cut a trench in the rotten ice and launched into space pouring over our horizon to thump into the snow packed gully a long way beneath us.

Before Keith had started on the first pitch, I said I didn’t mind who climbed what and if he wanted to climb both pitches that was fine, but as I pulled into the cave, Keith had said that he thought it best if I climb the top pitch. I was honoured that Keith had so much faith in my abilities, I wasn’t that certain myself. Braced – feet on one wall and my back on the other, we sorted gear and on occasion I stole a glance to the dark wall I was hoping to cross.

Oh yeah, just can’t wait to get at it!!

“I’ll use those sloping footholds to get out to the ice and see what happens. Got a feeling a few ice screws would have helped, there doesn’t look to be much in the way of rock kit.”

Three trips in and out from the belay resulted in a small cluster of rock gear, a pumped right arm while hanging from small edges and placing gear and a whole lot of nervous tension. On one of the soirees I had leaned back from a torque that could easily rip and cleaned the large fringe of icicles before attempting to make a placement in the ice above. The ice being in a delicate state decided to fracture and shatter and break and explode into the deep snow below. The gully reverberated. Another swing and another fracture line… I reversed a move or two and doubt flooded into my mind.

“This is going to be stimulating, the ice is all melting.”  When I get scared I do have a habit of stating the obvious.

Once again I leant-out from beneath the roof and the ice drip and swung and once again the ice cracked. I imagined the whole lump cutting loose with me still clinging to both axes planted firmly into it.

I ran back to the embracing arms of the belay cave. Why did we have no ice screws, what the hell? The climbing was overhanging and the ice was melting and all of my experience told me that the moves above my highest position were going to be even more committing as the ice would no doubt be rotten and mushy. I blamed Keith for getting me into this, ‘what a bastard, I would not normally have left my bed in weather like it had been, he was to blame, he did this to us, he had let us down.’ But after a few seconds I got a grip and remembered who had suggested this climb and remembered that I was a grown man who could have said no, so instead of complaining I decided to get on with it.

Nick Bullock building the courage to pull into a world of melting unprotected.

Trusting one pick into the ice blob I leaned-out, and leaned out some more and eventually I pulled. Eyes darted – footholds, gear placements, ice condition, the height I was above the cluster of gear, in a flash I took it all in and in that same moment, once that barrier has been crossed my mind quietened and focus was everything. Small edges for the left front-point were crucial, I pushed my shoulder to the right wall relieving weight from the axe-picks which were placed in mush and attempted not to think about what would happen if the left front-point slewed and I shock loaded the axes. 

Inching, inching – mush, no gear – inching – melting ice, no gear – inching … I was past the first drip beneath the second more continuous flow… fifteen minutes… fifteen minutes, maybe more, planning and digging and building courage and planning and digging. I changed feet several times to try different inching up combinations that would put the least amount of force on both axe placements. I’m useless at crosswords and puzzles but this was a puzzle I had played before and eventually, after much thought and many mind twisting combinations of feet and axe placements I made a decision and pulled.

****

Stood at the side of the semi-circular snow gutter, just beneath the summit ridge on a flat rock step, the same place I had belayed in 2009, shards of snow exfoliated my face and in between sinking into the depths of my jacket, I looked around and in that looking around, into that pale blue sky, that electrifying wind, once again I felt the same bursting glow of contentment which was filled even more when Keith pulled into the gully above the overhang and was continually pounded by spindrift. ‘Ha, that’ll teach you Keith Ball, getting me out in such rubbish weather.’ My day was now complete!    

Keith Ball getting his just deserves!

Glad to be out…

The eyes of old men who should know better!

 

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Centurion

Climbing in Scotland – especially in Scotland this winter -  it is something similar to being Keanu Reeves in the film The Matrix – you have to believe to be able to make that leap of faith.

My alarm shouted at 4.30 am as the beads of condensation dripped from the roof of the van. The rain had been playing a thrash metal beat for the whole of the night.

I breakfasted and left the CC hut at Roy Bridge. The rain continued and if I had been up on thrash metal it may have been Slayer, but I’m not so who knows!

I met Keith Ball who was also in a van but a van I could have parked my van inside with enough space left to have a concert. “What’d you reckon?” I was certainly looking for a way-out, in the words of some female crooner, which I also have limited knowledge so I can’t name, but Keith being of stronger, Plas y Brenan, out in all-weather stock, wittered on about it not being so bad and made me question my drive. “OK, let’s head to the dam, but I’m telling you now, if it’s raining I’m not walking.”

At the dam it was raining. “OK, I’ll put on my boots and if it’s raining I’m not walking.”

Head down, head torch on, the rain pattered against my hood, “OK, if it’s raining at the CIC, we turn around, I’m not climbing.”

The snow, driven by the wind, caught in the lee of the sastrugi and hissed and sloughed. “OK if it’s still this grim at the CIC I’m turning around.”

Keith and I stepped into the dark damp of the CIC entrance, into the quiet, an escape from the maelstrom of driving snow outside. The snow was being blown so hard, I wondered if it was being test driven by Jeremy Clarkson.

“Keith, this is shit, we should save ourselves for a big push, we should re-group, re-think, re-do anything – going out there in that, is utter madness.”

But then after some smaller climbs were mentioned the word Centurion entered into the conversation and in an instant the snow stopped, the damp stopped being so damp, and the world turned into a lovely friendly place.  And in my ear, Don Whillans whispered ‘You need to man up and get on with it… ‘

Keith Ball on the first pitch of Centurion.

Keith Ball getting involved on pitch two.

 

Nick Bullock following the second pitch.

Nick Bullock higher on pitch two of Centurion.

Keith topping out pitch three of Centurion. In my normal style of being unable to follow a route description, I climbed direct, as I’m sure others have before and instead of traversing to the left and climbing grooves on pitch three I pulled through a roof. Definitely worthwhile and good climbing but the rock is a tad concerning in a few parts.

 

 

 

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Northerlies… Creme de Violette (FA) and Umbrella Falls.

The opening spread from Ian Parnell’s superb Alpinist Article. Bruised Violet in yellow and Crème de Violette in red. Credit Ian Parnell.

 

Seeing the pictures in Alpinist Magazine, the angles, the steepness, the flakes and cracks and then reading the account of Ian Parnell climbing the first ascent of Bruised violet, I have always wanted to share his experience. The West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe is such an atmospheric place – the lines are striking. History drips from the steep walls. Even the name Bruised Violet is fitting and evocative.

On Friday afternoon, Tim Neill and I stood at the top of the crag with wide smiles watching the sun dip and looking at the Torridon mountains – ancient white-hat wearing sentries. The route we had just climbed had been one of the most sustained and fulfilling outings ever. Well done Ian for putting that one up I said, enthusing to Tim, but I’m not very good at following complex descriptions and the line had appeared a tad undergraded.

I texted Ian as we drove back to Roy Bridge and said Bruised Violet was one of the best routes I had ever climbed in Scotland, top five for sure… “Ian must have been going well at the time of climbing Bruised Violet,” I said to Tim and continued, “I would have graded it 9 for technical climbing and maybe IX for the overall grade.” I continued, that I thought the route we had just climbed was better than Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears, the four star outing to the left. Don’t get me wrong, I think BS&FT is a great route, I just thought this route was better and harder and more sustained.

****

Run-out –  a steep groove above a roof, about 15 to 20 feet above a bulldog placed in ice while tentatively pulling one tooth pick placements and balancing on tiny footholds focuses the mind. And the climbing, it just kept coming, which was following a wide and bulging crack line.

The second new pitch had me pulling through a steep roof into a bottomless corner with  knees pressed to a wall and no footholds. Back-footing, burling, locking off … arms cramped. I wanted gear, but I couldn’t stop with feet smeared and locking the torqued axes … the fall was not very inviting – the gear was placed in the bottom of the corner. Pick placements became baggy and I didn’t want them baggy, I wanted solid – a front point on an edge – burl and pull… body tension, control, lock off… And there was still more…

After a phone call to Ian Parnell and Tim, and much study, it looks like Tim and I have climbed a new route and the best route yet of my winter 2014 by mistake and the in ability to follow a description, or as Tim put it in an email,

“Good work Nick….strong image! (Alpinist follows strong line in off route/new routing shocker :-O “

Crème de Violette. IX/9 FA.  West Central Wall, Beinn Eighe. Nick Bullock, Tim Neill. 7/2/14

A direct on Bruised Violet, culminating in two new long and quite serious pitches. Super sustained, burley and on occasion, rather emotional!

1 30m Chop Suey pitch 1.

2  40m Climb cracks up the right wall of the groove (as for Chop Suey) to the upper girdle ledge then pull through the roof and follow the committing groove, (past in-situ pecker of BV,) where Bruised Violet goes hard right, continue direct until beneath a roof. Carefully pull right around the roof and climb the even more committing groove above without thinking about where the last piece of gear is or even what the last piece of gear was. At the top of the grove continue direct following the wide bulging crack line. 

3 30m Climb direct to beneath an overhanging corner with a thin crack. Pull into the corner and climb it to the top to a rest and a wide crack. Climb a few moves right before continuing direct via small overhangs to the top. 

 

Ian Parnell’s topo from Bruised Violet, Crème de violette is the blue line.

 

 

 

On Saturday I returned to Torridon with Katy Forrester and we climbed Mick Fowler’s Umbrella Falls on Liathach. We were thinking of Poacher’s Fall but so was everyone else and with loads of lines we couldn’t see the point of queuing … a rather pleasant and relaxing day after the previous day.

 

Thanks to Tim Neill, Ian Parnell and Katy Forrester for the pics. And thanks to Ian for the info and the Alpinist pic and the inspiration.

 

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