“We all make our own lives, right?”

“We all make our own lives, right? We have made the choices that have put us where we are today.”

While watching a trailer for The European Film Tour, the above is the comment in the opening sequence. It’s a powerful and provocative statement – not thinking about the full impact, or who it was impacting upon, I possibly would have said something similar several years ago, “We all make our own lives right? We have made the choices that have put us where we are today.”

It’s a skill being interviewed and expressing exactly what you mean and hitting the target for whom it is aimed. It’s a bigger skill saying something that resonates with everyone and it’s a truly massive skill to be able to say something that inspires at all levels and continues, through time, to inspire — think Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr for this last one!  

I watched the European Film Tour trailer and I think I know what the person speaking was attempting to say, I think what was said is supposed to inspire but what I heard in my head was, “We all make our own lives right?”  and in my head the dialogue continued: Well, we do if we grow up with parents who love us, a safe and stable childhood, clean water, food on the table, an education, somewhere to live away from crime and drugs and abuse, good health and then, possibly we have a chance to actually make something of our lives and possibly rise above what is expected and deviate from the path, the path we have paved for us in a world where politicians and people with power want us to toe the line and walk along – that’s what he was trying to say I think and hope. But there are millions of people who don’t ” we all make our own lives right?” Certainly there are people who make it even though life has given them the shitty end of the stick and they should be given massive credit for this, these people are truly inspirational but for those who don’t, for those who end up in prison, addicted, falling ill, dying young, homeless, alcoholic, unemployed, outcast, well, I don’t think they should be made to feel even more shitty and they should be given encouragement and support. They certainly do not need ”we all make their own lives, right?” Their lives are made for them, right?

And as for “We have all made the choices that have put us where we are today.” Well, the privileged, educated, lucky, fortunate, children brought up in a safe environment, children given the correct support from young — these people possibly have “made the choices that have put them where they are today” and if they are unhappy with their lives, their choice, I agree, get out and do something about it but I’m sure children growing up on a deprived inner-city housing estate, or kids living in the slums of Lima, Delhi, Rawalpindi, Kathmandu, São Paulo, etc, etc, etc… will not have had any choice at all and if they were fortunate enough to actually see this trailer and hear this commentary, which they never will, I would imagine they may have another point of view from “we have all made the choices that have put us where we are today.”

It’s a very fine line we walk in our privileged lives when making films and writing, it’s a fine line between inspiring and insulting and sounding ignorant and it’s a line that constantly needs addressing ,because then and only then we will raise awareness and good will be done from what we do and lets not fool ourselves, what we do is privileged. .

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“It Takes a Big Day (Dog!) to Weigh a Ton.” Climbing The House/Anderson on Mt Alberta NF.

Just one of the historic and entertaining entries in the Alberta Hut book.

Since 2000 when I first travelled to a winter bound Canada with Bruce French, I have returned six times and with each visit my interest and knowledge of Alpine climbing in the Rockies has grown. For some reason, no not for some reason, but because of the stories, the characters, the wildness and the size of the rubbly faces, Canadian Alpine climbing has always struck me as being ‘more out there’ than alpine climbing in many other countries, lets face it, for starters it has bears that may eat you.

Canada is first world and because of this it is difficult to appreciate that it can be more intimidating and committing than in the Himalayas, but when Will Sim and I dropped onto the glacier after five abseils with only one belay plate between us, one night of food and a few bars, no sleeping bags or mats and absolutely no way to contact anyone and the car a climb, a walk, a col and another four-hours walk away and parked in the middle of nowhere – the one-thousand metre north face of Alberta looked and felt like what I imagine the moon might, but actually the moon, has had more people set foot upon it. To quote well known Canadian Alpine activist, Jon Walsh, “The north face of Alberta has only been climbed about five times since the 90′s.” And as big as it is, it only has four established lines, two of which have not been repeated.  

Hyperbole? I don’t think so, but climbing the second ascent of The House/Anderson on the North Face of Alberta [Jason Kruk and Joshua Lavigne climbed the first half of the route until going direct from the cave on day two] for me was as committing, possibly more so, than climbing The Slovak Direct on Denali where at least the rangers knew where we were and they had a chopper at hand or, also with Andy Houseman, on Chang Himal North Face in Nepal where we had Bhuddie our cook keeping an eye with a finger on the sat phone. But on saying this, people in the know and who have been involved in Canadian Alpine climbing have been sticking there necks out for years and this in my mind is outrageous and inspirational. At least Will Sim and I had a reliable weather forecast, modern clothing, modern climbing gear and the experience of others who had gone before.

Throughout the climb, which took two and a half days from leaving the garden shed that is the Alberta Hut to returning, both Will and I could not believe Steve House and Vince Anderson’s audacity climbing the first ascent of this route a few days out of ‘official’ winter. And reading the old comments in the hut book with well know names or not so well know if you are from Europe, such as Dave Cheesmond, Alex Lowe, Sean Docherty, Barry Blanchard, Jim Ezlinga, Steve Swenson, Joe Josephson and some of the more recent comments from Jon Walsh, Ian Welsted, Chris Brazeau, Raphael Slawinski and Mark Westerman, it is almost as intimidating as looking down into The Black Hole beneath North Twin knowing you are about to commit.

Time has moved on and personally I feel that some of the alpine climbing we used to think was ‘out there’ in our European back yard and even some of the Greater Ranges areas has been reduced to holiday destination because of all that the modern world has given in way of reports, information, rescue possibilities and communication. I’m glad to say that alpinism in Canada appears to be way behind and the mountains give challenges that the more solid and closer to the lifts can not and because of this I take my hat off to you gents and ladies who practice going to the hills in Canada.

And on taking my hat off, it resoundingly gets removed for Will Sim on a sterling effort of studying the camera and descent description and getting us off Alberta which was no mean feat in the dark and in a white-out. OK, we did have one uncomfortable bivvy beneath a boulder in the snow on the second night while waiting for daylight but hey…

Here is a link to Steve House’s photo blog of climbing the first ascent.

Here is a link to Joshua Lavigne’s short of Jason Kruk and himself climbing on Alberta.

Big thanks to Jo and Colin Croston for the loan of loads of camping gear, friendship, Canadian Salmon and the doss in Jo’s Dad’s condo!

And once again to the ACC for the hospitality at their clubhouse in Canmore and to the locals who have given info and inspiration.

Will making the last of the five abseils onto the glacier beneath Mt Alberta. Yes, I know we were in the wrong place!

“Wow, have you seen how wintery it looks?” Says Will. I had but I was just trying to ignore it.

Will Sim getting us going.

Will Sim approaching the headwall.

Myself climbing the first M7 pitch of the headwall.

Will Sim on the second M7 pitch of the headwall.

Having battled through a very hard roof where, no mention was made of on the first ascent so I can only imagine it was ice, we were faced with this, hard steep glacial ice and an even harder pitch of really scary collapsible ice above where I tunnelled and cut a window from inside to escape. Will belayed beneath with his rucksack over his head but I don’t think that would have helped should a thousand tons of ice hit him. There was one overhanging mixed chimney pitch after this to reach the cave.

Will seconding the really scary ice pitch having escaped from the cave through the window.

The cave bivvy. Yes please.

Day two leaving the cave.

Not believing where the next pitch goes I belay and leave it to the 24 year old. Well, you don’t get to my age without cunning!

Getting there…

Reaching the summit ridge Will begins the masterful art of getting me back to the ground.

After getting a little lost in the dark and whiteout on the descent we bivvied under separate rocks in the snow and waited it out till daylight. We then retraced steps and found the correct way.

Back at the car Wednesday afternoon after leaving it on Saturday morning.

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Bears and The Raven and The North Face of Alberta.

All done. And The Raven asks, “Why is there always carrot.”

The Raven, large and shiny black, stood in the middle of the pile of vomit. All happy, he crawed before bending and scooping another beak full. I gagged and nearly threw up myself, which possibly was what the Raven wanted.

Sleeping next to the car the night before, the rain persistently pattered onto the bivvy bag, I was half in, half out of sleep and the thought of bears was having an effect like espresso. Rattling and banging brought me from my doze – the car door flew open and  it was then I heard the loud and terrifying growl. I ripped my bivvy bag open and jumped-up screaming, which is completely the wrong thing to do when faced with a Grizzly, but hey, try it out for yourself and see how calm you feel! It took a few seconds for me to realise that the bear was actually Will throwing-up and then throwing-up again with force. In a flash I felt relieved. Well I’m sorry, but I would rather miss some climbing than be eaten by a bear.

The following day we decided to stick it out in our pull-out at the side of the Icefields Parkway and while-away the day by watching the traffic, reading, eating, sleeping and waiting to see what happened the day after.

What happened the day after was a seven hour walk with big bags and sparkling rivers, lush green and golden leaves, scree, scree and more scree – rocks, ice and moraine. The view from Wooley Shoulder was, as everyone had told us, something special – the space, the vast emptiness, the unspoilt naked beauty and the mountains in the distance with fierce reputation and history. Looking at North Twin, which still appeared to be hours away and so far removed, it made me think that the Italian side of Mont Blanc seemed almost roadside in comparison. The isolation of North Twin also made those accounts I had read of climbing it and the established climbs, The Lowe and Jones, Blanchard and Cheesmond, House and Prezelj, come home to what real balls-out and bold ascents they were. Steve House and Marko Prezelj’s ascent and fourteen-mile descent along the Columbian Icefield in a white-out particularly made more of an impact than it had already…  

“Steve House and Marko Prezelj have made the coveted third ascent of the North Face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies—the third ascent in 30 years. The two chose to climb in early April to minimize rockfall on the notorious face. They followed a new ice and rock line between the legendary and unrepeated Lowe/Jones (1974) and Blanchard/Cheesmond (1985) routes. House and Prezelj climbed the 4,500-foot wall over four days.”   Dougald MacDonald  and Planet Mountain news info here 

The view from Wooley Shoulder with North Twin and Mount Alberta to name two.

Will and I walked another hour, dumped some gear at the small shed that is the ACC- Lloyd MacKay (Mt. Alberta) Hut and then went on another hour, over orange moonscape talus and hard baked glacier to the shoulder where abseil gives access to the north face of Mt Alberta.

Will approaching the hut with Mount Alberta in the background..

Our intended line was the second ascent of the Walsh/Brazeau  but looking at the north face covered in snow we had to re-assess – rock climbing would be impossible. Looking over the north face of Alberta, my stomach churned but this was not food poisoning, this was the thought of the commitment needed and the thought of abseiling onto the glacier beneath the one-thousand metre face with absolutely no way to call for help of any kind. This emptyness made the face feel more remote to me than a lot of the Himalayan mountains I have attempted to climb and most definitely than the very busy airspace and constant phone signal of the European Alps.

Approaching the shoulder from where to abseil. The ridge on the left is the NE Ridge.

A side view of Alerta’s North Face.

An hour followed, but we could not find the abseil point and with only a climbing rack and nothing to spare for abseil anchors I felt uneasy. The other ‘uneasiness’  running through my mind was the other line we would possibly try given the conditions. The face has only three established lines and the only one possible to attempt under snow would be the House/Anderson and this was by no means a romp. We had five ice screws on our rack  and some WI5+ bullet hard ice to climb and then the thought of losing gear on the abseil and a partner who was now running close to empty after hardly being able to eat anything since emptying his stomach the night previous, set my internal alarm bells screaming, and they were screaming the word EPIC… (This use of the word EPIC is in no way the modern use of the word EPIC, which means good, this EPIC very definitely means bad.)

Personally I find mentally working up to attempting a line that is hard and bold and committing takes time to get into the correct head-space. I  was almost there for the Walsh/Brazeau line but here we were looking at something different.

“I don’t think we have the gear and are ready for this.”

Will, reluctantly agreed and it was decided to try and climb a wintery Northeast Ridge the next day, I mean, how hard could it be?  Raphael Slawinski’s old blog

The following morning dawned clear and walking back to the stash on the ridge something was different. After bashing my knee on a rock climb five days before flying to Canada, which had been causing a bit of pain, especially when walking downhill with a rucksack, I was used to being at the back and following young spritely footsteps but Will was behind and on reaching the stash this made me ask,

“Tell me honestly Will, what’s going on?”

“Well, from here on this is a gear retrieval mission, I’m wasted.”

I had absolutely no feeling of disappointment from Will’s statement and a few hours later we were on our wayout but the gear is still up there waiting our return and I have several days to drink red wine, eat salad, sleep lying down and mentally prepare for something difficult and testing as long as the weather gives us a chance.

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Steve’s Wisdom. AKA Humble Horse. Diadem North Face.

Diadem Peak North Face. Canadian Rockies

It was midnight and I lay at the side of the Icefields Parkway, that long strip of tarmac flowing through the Canadian Rockies. I was on my own, one hundred kilometres from Jasper, the nearest town, listening to the vast emptiness. Or was it having survived the last twenty-hours, I was listening for bears. It would be such a pisser to drag my body up and over my first Canadian alpine summit only to be eaten now by a bear having successfully returned to the road. Will Sim, my climbing partner had borrowed my muddy and wet running shoes and set off to collect the car, the car was parked six kilometres away where we had left it at 4am, (he was half my age!). I recalled the conversation  from the evening before as I sat in my sleeping bag leaning against the car and staring out at the valleys and trees and mountains which we would soon be experiencing,

“Bloody love all of this – the climbing, the thrill and even dossing here at the side of a road in the middle of no-where,  I’m getting old but at the moment this still works for me, bloody love it, give it up… never.”

Climbing a mountain by walking-in  up one valley, topping-out, traversing and then down-climbing and walking out of another valley is aesthetically pleasing, but when the valleys to be walked are in Canada it makes aesthetics and style totally knackering. Where are all of the telepheriques?

Humble Horse on Diadem North Face was supposed to be a warm up for bigger things but as I lay in the dark on the side of the road – shuffling jumpy legs, squirming in the gravel – I wondered if I had possibly pre-ejaculated on the alpine front. I was knackered and I wasn’t sure the three weeks we had left was long enough for recovery!

And as I lay and mulled the last twenty hours, the five hour approach, the climb, the traverse of the mountain with views of Alberta and the six hour descent, I didn’t notice a battered pick up rumble past my prone form. Brake-lights starburst the lonely-dark and the deep, many cylinder burble, changed to tick-over. Red turned to white as reverse was engaged and the pick-up burbled back until level. “You OK?” The deep Canadian gravel nearly matched the tone of the pick-up engine. “Yeah, I’m good thanks.”

I walked over to the open window to be confronted with a well-worn face, a peak cap and a big smile.

“What you doing out here?”

“Been climbing up there.” I gesticulated to the million acres of woodland somewhere over the other side of the river.

“Hell yeah, good on yer, want a cigarette, some whisky?”

I turned down both, the thought of glugging whiskey would have finished me and my lungs felt hot enough.

“Where you from, Australia, New Zealand?”

“I’m from England.”

“Hell yeah, I’m from England originally, a place called Derbyshire, left when I was one. I’m Steve, pleased to meet you.” A paw thrust from the open window and took my hand.

“Well Steve, you’ve done alright living here, I bloody love the place, the people are great and the climbing is the best – only country I’ve travelled too that I would live.”

“Hell yeah, that’s awesome, I used to climb but I’m way too old for all of that now.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m forty-five.”

“Hell yeah Steve, totally agree!”

****

Thanks to Jon Walsh for suggesting Humble Horse as a starter for this trip.

The night before THE day. Not a bad patio really.

Diadem Peak. The route, Humble Horse takes the obvious central ice-line.

Will Sim crossing the shrund beneath the route.

Starting on the pitched climbing.

Overhanging ice-offwidth. Will about to experience his first taste of Canadian steep mixed. I think this pitch could have been a bit fatter for the grade.

The second to last pitch of Humble Horse was on good ice with little gear. Welcome to Canada!.

Myself climbing the final pitch to the ridge.

Will on the ridge with the road and the car and the valley we walked in the background.

Choss to the summit.

Alberta. Yes please but maybe not tomorrow.

Will beginning the six hour walk back to the road.

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The Underground Mountain Soundtrack.

The London underground train rattles through the night. This is the soundtrack of the mountains. An empty vacuum. Rocks and ice follow deeply carved tracks and echo. Red brick walls topped with gothic turrets scrawled with natures graffiti, hem us.

The deep blue glacier cracks beneath. Stretches like polythene. Sleep. Awake. Sleep. Awake. And as we stir, stars slice through dark sky leaving trails. Life… life lived, lost life; love lost, lost love – vast empty space is consumed in a single breath and exhaled in a cloud of condensation. And in that evaporating cloud is choice. And at times, in that choice despair cries.

The underground passes through back yards, between fences, beneath windows, below roads, behind lives. The continued jointy rattle.  At times I wonder what it would be like to fall. Red lights never change for some

Cold rock beneath a thin mat is comfort. The wheels scream as the hour comes close. The stove boils and chugs. Mystic vapours swirl. A blurred face stares into nowhere from a moving window of an empty carriage. Minutes are worth hours. Hours are worth days and a lifetime can be worth nothing.

The headtorch cuts the cold. Quartz ignites. Noisy trickles of water furrow through the glacier and slow until blackness and silence. It’s nearly time to catch the final train but I’m not sure yet from which station to board or depart.

Because this is the soundtrack of the mountains.

 

The Argentière Basin. The Droites is on the right and the climb, The Richard Cranium Memorial Route first climbed by Mark Twight and Barry Blanchard is on the right side of the face. .

Following Tim’s footsteps on the lower section of The Richard Cranium Memorial Route.

Tim Neill seconding one of the steeper and more difficult pitches.

Just below the summit ridge.

Tim Neill on the Droites summit ridge setting up the first abseil of many down the south side of the mountain.

A flat rock with a great view is too good a thing not to bivvy.

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Seventeen Year Hiatus on The Grand Pilier d’ Angle

Jules Cartwright on the Grand Pilier d’ Angle bivvy studying ‘what next’ seventeen years ago.

Last night, I lay in my van which is parked outside Tim and Lou’s place in Servoz, France. The rain thumped the thin metal skin and thunder bounced from the mountains which surround the village. And as I lay, wrapped safely, the one thought which continually returned was where did the last seventeen years go?

Tim Neill, Keith Ball and I had just returned from climbing the Bouchard into the Boivin-Vallençant – a combination of ice climbs on the Grand Pilier d’ Angle. It’s possible that both Keith and Tim got fed up with my recollections, but the last and only time I had climbed on the GPA, was in October 1998 with Jules Cartwright. On that occasion Jules and I had returned from being blasted by gales on the North Face of the Matterhorn only to drive into a perfect five day  weather forecast for Chamonix.

“Only one place to go.” Jules said and the ‘only one place’, was the Grand Pilier d’ Angle, but Cartwright being Cartwright that was not enough and as we both sat a night and a day later beneath a massive overhanging gendarme, just beneath the summit crest of the GPA, Jules studied the guidebook and proclaimed,

“Its not often you get to somewhere like this and after all of this effort we may as well do something else.”  

It was the way he nonchalantly said it that still makes me wonder at his tenacity, he may as well have been talking about climbing another route on Tremadog in North Wales, but he wasn’t, he was talking of the one-thousand metre, Right Hand Pillar of Frêney and we had already walked across the Valley Blanche, crossed the Fourche Ridge, over to Col Moore and down to beneath the Grand Pilier in Italy. Jules and I  had climbed a combination of routes to arrive at the bivvy and yesterday, as Keith, Tim and I left that same bivvy to climb the upper section of The Arête de Peuterey, I marvelled at how seventeen years had passed since my last time here.

Keith, Tim and I had gone reasonably heavy because I still vividly remembered climbing the enchainment with Jules in 1998 and suggested we do similar. Unfortunately the intended second route, The Innominata, resembled Patagonian ice cream instead of rock ridge and as we sat in the sun at 11am on the same ledge I had sat seventeen years before after climbing the GPA, we decided to forego the second climb for a bash up the Arête de Peuterey after a long lounge and a reflective evening.

Sitting in the sun the following day, the same sun I had sat seventeen years before outside the Nid d’Aigle tram station and surrounded by tourists, I looked at the bench, the same bench Jules and I sat drinking a Kronenbourg after three nights out and once again I was on my own with Cartwright waiting for the tram and rejoicing in the cold October sunshine.

Almost every year since 1998 I have wanted to return to the Grand Pilier and at last, here and now, with heavily fragrant tourists turning their noses, I have returned and how fitting to return with great friends Tim and Keith, it’s such a shame I never had chance to return with my friend who is still in my thoughts regularly.

Tim Neill and Keith Ball walking toward The Col de Fourche.

Study from The Col de Fourche hut.

The Grand Pilier d’ Angle.

Keith Ball soloing the start of the Boucher Route on the GPA.

[Tim Neill fighting spindrift on the Boivin-Vallençant]

Slightly more awake. My second visit to this ledge with seventeen years between. pic credit, Keith Ball.

The second day high on The Peuterey Arête.

On the summit of Mont Blanc for only my second time.

Keith and Tim, in amongst the crowds at the Nid d’Aigle tram station.

Here is a link to Tim Neill’s Blog about the climb.

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Reigniting Memories. The Tournier Spur, North Face of the Midi.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill, my climbing partners on the summit ridge of our warm up climb, The Tournier Spur of the North Face of The Midi.

Tim Neill, Keith Ball and I walk the steep path - a brushed boot track leading toward the North Face of The Aguile de Midi. This is almost my first time in the summer months among mountains that are so familiar in winter.

I look left towards the sheer Aiguille du Plan walls and see Houseman and me climbing The Grand West Couloir – a direct line straight up the centre of the face. Walking higher, my breathing becomes heavier and deeper and Cartwright is up there – up there in the deep fault soloing Sylchris – the depths of a cold winter and a chopped rope his only company. Five days later he returns to the Chamonix Valley, frost bitten and knackered but truly alive. Fil a Plomb at the back of cirque on The Rognon du Plan, an intricate but fairly easy ice-climb I soloed, takes me back to my first full winter here in Chamonix in 2004.

For a short time, I’ve left these mountains alone and returning now with Tim and Keith feels good – it feels the right thing, but how the mountains challenge even the experienced mind after being left alone.

It doesn’t take long to discover the old flow, but summer conditions are certainly different than that of the frozen winter. Rubble and booming flakes show the way -  Canadian Alpine training I think while loosening another boulder. Keith appears happy being above and ahead of my carefree transition from summer rock climber to Alpine climber. Tim, fully acclimatised after weeks of guiding, leads the way on our warm up, hopefully this will lead to more challenging things later in the week.

After five hours, the three of us step from the vertical to the well tracked Midi-Plan Traverse and again I picture Houseman and myself staggering in the dark after being on the go for eighteen hours having successfully climbed the Grand West Couloir. Each step is forced but each step draws both Houseman and me close to the wine and cheese and the big sleeping bags we stashed the day before in the Midi Station.

The final steep pull up the Midi Arête brings more imagery – Kenton Cool and me crawling and pitching what really is a path but in one-hundred kilometre an hour winds after climbing Slave to the Rhythm on The East Face of the Mont Blanc du Tacul one January, the arête path felt more challenging than the climbing. I remember slumping next to Kenton in the dark Midi tunnel, at last safe and out of the wind and never feeling so close to him having shared this serious situation.

The Tournier Spur, the first climb of a short trip that will hopefully include one or two more climbs has once again fired my imagination and re-opened memories and imagery that have been buried. And for these feelings alone, it makes the mountains and the climbs which we venture, well worth the effort.

Starting off at approximately, 7am, on climb number one, The Tournier Spur.

The North Face of The Aiguille du Midi.

Tim Neill at the beginning of The Tournier Spur.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill low down on The Tournier Spur.

At the abseil point which leads to the ice flow on the left.

Tim Neill climbing the ice-flow.

The traverse leading to the more technical ground higher on The Tournier Spur.

Tim Neill climbing the crux section of The Tournier Spur.

The Midi-Plan on the summit ridge after climbing The Tournier Spur.

Kenton Cool at midnight in The Aiguille du Midi tunnel after climbing Slave to the Rhythm and returning in one-hundred kilometre an hour winds.

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Back on the Wagon.

Keith Ball sucking it up on the top of West Central Gully, Beinn Eighe, winter 2014.

British traditional rock climbing addiction is over. Hello to the mountains and all that comes with it – waiting-out conditions, weakness on rock, (although some would say I have never been strong) and a tad of suffering.

Sitting here in Chamonix with fellow co-conspirators/sufferers/obsessives, Tim Neill and Keith Ball plans are being hatched – will the weather give us a chance?

I climbed with Keith last winter in Scotland, hopefully we will get some better weather than experienced on that occasion.

Here is a link to a short film Keith made after the Scottish week we had together where we climbed Centurion and West Central Gully.

Scottish winter week with Keith Ball.

 

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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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