The Glowing… Dawn of the Dead.

Stanley Headwall. If Carlsberg made mixed climbing crags…

The email I received, which was sent in reply to my email informing Raphael Slawinski that Greg Boswell and I intended to go to The Headwall to attempt Dawn of the Dead, made me smile.

“The whole route goes on gear, you don’t need to clip the bolts. Just saying.”  

I replied…

“Every route Greg and I have climbed in Scotland goes on gear; we don’t need practice at placing gear. Just saying.”

“Well I don’t suppose you will be clipping any of those bolts then?”

“Oh contrary, we will be clipping all of them, being safe in winter is a novelty!”

My friend Raphael is something of an enigma; this is possibly why he is my friend. A few years back, reaching the point where he had climbed all of the routes on the Stanley Headwall, including many first ascents, he decided to take the challenge farther by climbing Dawn of the Dead, a one hundred and forty five metre M8+ WI6, (Scottish tech 10) without clipping any of the bolts. To top this, when abseiling, he made ice v-threads alongside bolted anchors while his partner, Steve Swenson, who is no slouch when it comes to bold and out there, reportedly looked on shaking his head.

I really like this story, it shows fortitude. It also shows massive OCD which warms the heart and goes a little to making me think I am reasonably balanced!

Raphael Slawinski from a previous climb. If Carlsberg made climbers…

The temperature leaving the car yesterday morning was -26, which warmed to a luxurious -18 while we were climbing.

At seven pm, having climbed Dawn of the Dead, Greg Boswell and I followed our own deep footsteps steps cut into the side of the snowslope beneath the crag. A Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep or even a Cougar had taken advantage of our steps. No, wind, not even a flicker and in the cold, the stars  are crackling silver foil and the full moon lights the iridescent ice candles that speak to us from high - the glowing is calling, calling us to challenge ourselves in some basic ancient ritual. ‘The route goes on gear.’

The temperature remained constant on the drive. The road was tyre wide strips of dry tarmac surrounded by a curtain of slithering snow. Parking at the Alpine Clubhut in Canmore, the temperature once again dipped into the -20′s. The route may go, ‘all on gear,’ but not today, every one of those bolts was clipped and very grateful we were for them all. Maybe our calling is for another day. Maybe not…

Dawn of the Dead.

Putting in a track, the day before. Credit, Greg Boswell.

Greg approaching the climb.

Greg on pitch one of Dawn of the Dead.

Me seconding the thin ice at the end of pitch one. A great lead, I think Greg was quite pleased to clip a few bolts here! Credit Greg Boswell.

Myself leading the ‘easy’ pitch. WI 4 this one. Credit Greg Boswell.

Me leading the third pitch. A great tuneful pitch in the present cold conditions. Credit Greg Boswell.

Higher  on the third pitch. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg leading pitch four.

Topping out in the dark once again. We really need to get quicker! Credit Greg Boswell.

Abseiling in the dark, we are getting it down to a fine art.

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Betty Battles The Ghost.


The Real Big Drip. The Ghost

Turning from the tarmac, onto the unmetalled and through the gates, Greg Boswell and I judder the cattle grid heading into the back of beyond. Driving the rented jeep, as it scutters toward the Ghost, I remember the last and only time I made this turn, through these gates and across this cattle grid, it was back in 2003 with Dave Hunter. On that occasion, as we juddered the metal bars, I looked left, and pacing the same direction, showing us very little thrift, was a Grey Wolf. He was huge, with feet so big, if they were islands, they would have had a population count. Sturdy legs propelled and dense fur shimmered silver grey. He swung his snout to lock us with orange eyes – eyes that glimmered intelligence, survival, ferral.

Dave Hunter and I were nearing the end of our three weeks of ice in Canada and had decided to take our small rented town car back to Calgary and request an upgrade, ‘we want to drive the Icefields Parkway.’ The upgraded was a silver Jeep that had chunky tyres, bash plates, diff lock and low ratio, but getting into the North Ghost to climb Hydrophobia and The Sorcerer still felt risky. Two days later the concern rattled through my brain as I swung  into steep ice, half way up Hydrophobia, because the silencing snow fell, making climbing the route, and driving out asap, paramount.

The 2015 rented Jeep, which I had christened Betty, had 4×4, but it was only that and the name Jeep which was common to the 2003 model. Betty’s tyres are M&S, which for the uninitiated isn’t a posh supermarket, it supposedly equates mud and snow, but in reality it should stand for mainly shit, only good for collecting the kids from their public school.

Driving into the Ghost. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg and I decided to drive the afternoon before the climb and check things out and Betty would second as our luxury bivi to allow an early start in the morning. A few days before it had dumped snow and the thermometer told us it was minus 10, Canadian winter had finally arrived.

Parking at the top of the ‘Big Hill’ and going for a walk showed Betty was going no farther. I can’t believe how bold I use to be, the thought of driving the Chelsea tractor, down this hill made me queasy. I don’t mean in case we crashed, I mean the cost to pay someone to recover us from this empty place. I’m sure I thought nothing of it in 2003. 

The Real Big Drip, Betty and Boswell all on top of the Big Hill.

Greg and I walked down the Big Hill and turned left following a rough track across the dried river bed until we stood on the raised bank made from small grey rocks washed by the river. The wind scythed the open plain. Snow devils kept us company as we walked the three kilometres, before the turning right into the woods and the track which would eventually led to our intended climb, The Real Big Drip.  We climbed a large bank formed by the cutting motion of the river hundreds of years before and between sheltering eyes from the  bullets of snow, there it was, our climb, still another hour or so away, but there it was cutting a white line directly up the back of a rock cirque.

Looking back to the Big Hill nearly from the right turn toward the climb.

Two weeks earlier there had hardly been any ice in the range, the temperatures were unseasonably warm, but a cold snap had shocked the water and lines were forming almost in front of the eyes. When we attempted to climb The Drip tomorrow, it would be the first ascent this winter, which excited, but also intimidated.

As Greg and I turned, heading off the platform and back to the track leading to the comfort of Betty, I couldn’t stop my mind picturing strings of chandeliered overhanging ice, ice untouched so far this season. The first pitch was also something unknown as a large flake had broken and the reputed grade of M7+ had increased to M9. Tomorrow would tell, but the one thing I was happy about was the drive back out of the Ghost, that would be casual, because Betty was staying exactly where she was…

Bivi in Betty. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg and I successfully climbed the route returning to Betty at approximately ten pm. The wind had gusted to almost gale and the temperature had risen from minus fifteen to plus five. The climb with its tons of hanging daggers had flowed water and at one point the wind gripped a huge dagger from the second roof and ripped it free. I was alongside at the time climbing the fourth pitch and as I teetered, battling the wind and cold and wet, I watched tons of solid water slice the air. When the ice connected, the cirque rattled, but I rattled more.


“Should be back in Canmore by midnight.” I said to Greg, but how wrong I was. Betty decided she didn’t do drifted snow and with the gardening spade loaned from the Alpine Clubhut, the crux of our day was just beginning…        

Greg climbing the first pitch.

Greg reaching thank god ice. “Shall I bridge onto the ice?” … “I would have about four moves earlier!”

Myself on the ice at the top of pitch one. Credit, Greg Boswell.

Myself setting off on pitch four. Look at the icicle, the wind is about to alter its looks… Credit, Greg Boswell.

Hiding after the wind had taken hold of the icicle. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg seconding to the belay behind the pitch four icicle.

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The Dream.

The Toilet Window…


Its half past midnight when I arrive in Banff, the last person on the white shuttle bus that had carried five passengers from Calgary Airport. I sit in the back of the bus in the dark. A freight train bullies its way through the centre of town. Red lights flash and an X marks the spot. The deep bass of the train blurts solid. A grey cat with white stripes skitters across the tracks. It’s almost twelve years to the day that I walked from the door of Leicester Prison for the final time.  That was the end of my fifteen year, self-imposed sentence. And in the twelve years I hope I’ve learnt – I know I’ve certainly changed.

I was about to spend four weeks at the Banff Centre on a writing scholarship which I would hopefully use to complete the first draft of my second book. One Fleck Scholarship is presented each year for one mountain culture related artist, and luckily this year that was me. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, I wonder when I’ll be found out and people will realise the imposter and make an example and I will stand, tied and head-hung, ashamed and lambasted, a bad joke for being a dreamer. Possibly I will wake and the cell walls will once again impose? I’m not sure of the two which would be worse.


Four weeks have passed. I have averaged forty hours a week writing, and I have been fortunate to climb five days. I sit at the desk in a room that I’m about to leave – my wooden hut in the woods once again stands empty. The red squirrels will no-doubt still scamper along the roof as if wearing Dr Martin Boots, but unaware that I am no longer in residence. The Nuthatch will continue to point his head down in search of spiders.  I shall miss that hut.

I have fifty chapters of a second book uploaded and when its published, hopefully it will always remind me of that hut and the generosity of the people at the Banff Centre.  

I cannot thank everyone at the Banff Centre enough, but especially Jo Croston who helped me apply for the scholarship and of course The Paul D. Fleck Fellowship which provided everything and more a writing climbing hobo can ask for. The fellowship was established by the family of the late Paul D. Fleck, a former President of The Banff Centre, in honour of his memory.

Below is a rough extract from my second book, Tides. (Working title) Chapter 1. Love & Hate.

I stepped outside – out through the small prison door and the sounds changed. There was the distant rumble of a lorry, and a snatch of a far-away police siren. Cars swished down Leicester’s Welford Road, furrows cut into the wet tarmac. I could hear the high dull whine of planes descending into East Midlands airport, the barking of dogs. I could hear and sense the wet clinging to branches in the trees. A few pigeons huddled in the shadow of one of the prison’s turrets, briefly mumbling to each other. I turned my face upward to feel the rain, and I imagined the stars beyond the sodium lights, fixed in a slowly spinning sky. The acidity in the rain felt cleansing. The exhaust-fumes in the air smelled of freedom. I breathed in deeply. I listened to the air enter and filter around my body. I could hear the mechanical creak of time.

I breathed out, turned and walked away.

Fifteen years. Fifteen years of aggression and violence and stress. Fifteen years to learn bitterness, prejudice. Loneliness. Fifteen years of building walls. Fifteen years. The Prison Service had given me all of these things, but in some way it also had given me life, it had given me health and fitness and climbing and the money to pay-off my mortgage. I was grateful for these things.

Looking over my shoulder, I followed the straight line of red brick. The prison wall stretched above. Rain soaked my shoulders; high level lights lit the street. Shadows clung to the corners as if scared.

I had done it. I was thirty seven years old and I had resigned from being a PE Instructor in the prison service. I had walked from the job guaranteed for life, the job which at some point in my life was everything I desired – security, pension, stability, regular wage. I had walked, and as I walked the water beneath my feet squelched and the stars, hidden behind the clouds were burning bright – close enough to grab and take hold, close enough for me to lock away, lock away almost like some of the people that were no longer a part of my life; Reggie Kray, Gary DeBasi, Hate Em All Harry Roberts, Bobby Dew, Rookie Lee, Houston, Bronson. I almost felt free. Almost.

Day Off 1. The Mitre.

Colin Croston on the summit ridge of the mighty Mitre.

The view from the Mitre summit.

Day Off 2. Snert’s Big Adventure on Yamnuska with Michelle Kadatz.


Making do, or being paranoid on Snert’s… some things have changed!

Yamnuska descent.

Day Off 3. The Lookout. World class sport held up by choss. Rock climbing with Jon Walsh.

The Lookout.

Day Off 4. Rock climbing with Raphael Slawinski which was so full there was no time for pictures. The crux of the day was avoiding these two. Ian Welstead and Brandon Pullen at their finest.

Day Off 5. A 6pm pick up at the Banff Centre from Michelle Kadatz, a four hour drive, a two hour walk, a night in the hut, a three to four hour walk, climb the Big Hose on Howser Tower, a five hour walk, a six hour drive with a few forced sleep stops, arrive at the Banff Centre at four thirty am ready for writing.


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The Life Around Life.

The carriageway passed through the middle of Saint-Étienne, a city in the south eastern central of France. Plastered walls painted a salmon colour and covered by graffiti, skirt the road. Large letters, tags, cartoons, sharp angle shapes with shadows, a multi-coloured aerosol mosaic… Cars speed past the graffiti and past my little red van missing it by inches. Tower blocks look down – some have broken windows and the graffiti blooms like confetti,  upward, up into the dark cloudy sky, up, a sprayed bark of red, blue, green, graphite…  letters cling to the building and flow out of sight around the man-made arêtes.

I was driving by myself from Chamonix to the Gorges du Tarn in the south west of France. Phil Dowthwaite was also taking the same journey to meet me and in a few days Rich Kirby, a Northerner with humour as dry as a washed up lump of wood was joining the two of us.

Three hours earlier, leaving Chamonix had been heart wrenching, I had clicked to the Guardian website and immediately I was punched by an image of a uniformed man on a beach carrying the lifeless body of a small child. The three year old had drowned while attempting to escape Syria, and what I can only guess an existence like the horror of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. I sat in my friend’s apartment looking at my laptop and all I felt was guilt. Every day pictures  appeared –  my newsfeed was full of images of people travelling and eating and loving and drinking and exercising and marrying and hashtagging and @’ing and I thought about how content and satisfied I had felt having recently returned from climbing the Brandler, Hasse on the Cima Grande in the Dolomites. How insignificant it all was in comparison to how bloody terrible some people have it. I drove through St Etienne and the walls and letters closed-in.  

The Nemo seriously outclassed on Tre Cima carpark.

The morning thatTim Neill and I had set off for the Dolomites, we had left Chamonix at about 11am. The drive was long and it was night when we parked in the rain and the damp and the dark. We sat in my van and waited for the people to leave the toll gate which would allow us to drive, FOC, the final two or three twisty miles to the car park. I took the chance to ring my Dad who lived on his own since Mum’s death last Christmas. “Hey Dad, you’ll never guess where I am?” He didn’t, but when I told him, knowing Mum and he had visited Tre Cima, he couldn’t remember when, or even if he had actually visited the area. People in a hotel opposite sat in the warm and dry. Through the glass I could see blurred images drinking and eating and laughing. After a brief conversation I told Dad to take care and ended the call feeling sad and a little empty.

Tim walking in to Cima Piccola the day before we climbed the Brandler, Hasse.

Myself following on the lower section of the B,H. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

Tim Neill on one of the lower pitches of the B,H.

Tim displaying amazing no handed skills on a free ascent!

Tim Neill on the final (!) hard pitch of the B,H.

Back at the car park after climbing the B,H.

Tim and I dossed on the upper car park nearly at the foot of Tre Cima. The heavy rain had stopped by morning and the chime of the bells around the necks of the cattle reminded me of Nepal and yaks. The mist and cloud hung in the valley below and clung to the orange spires. The sun cut shadows full with energy. It’s been a few years now since I climbed in the Greater Ranges and I was beginning to miss Asia but in the previous two weeks I had been in the Alps, Tim, Keith Ball and I had climbed about thirty pitches on the North Face of the Piz Badile, five pitches on a great route down the valley from Chamonix and five pitches of a climb called California Dream on Pointe 3038 de Trélaporte before bailing in the rain. When Keith left, Tim and I had climbed a five pitch route surrounded by high Alpine meadow near a hut with bunches of flowers in the windows and an old Toyota 4×4 parked beneath a wooden lean-to. The climb was called Xscream Limit, which given a grade of 7a was the limit with l’ Arve Valley grading. I had filled myself on more climbing than you would ever do in ten years of visiting the Greater Ranges but of course going to Asia was not just about climbing and summiting, I missed the people and experiencing a world and a people and attitudes to life very different than in the UK.  

Myself on California Dream. pic credit, Tim Neill.

The hut beneath Tours d Areu.

A cow.

I drove further into the heart of France, past disused steel factories – corrugation, concrete, rusting metal pipes, guilt… It had been my first visit to the Dolomites. Rock towers and green meadows and mile upon mile of forest – there didn’t appear to be any litter, graffiti, rundown buildings, stray dogs, homelessness… but what could I tell on my first visit, a tourist, someone dipping in – there was not the run down feel that areas with poverty and low income have. Where did all of the wealth come from in places like the Dolomites and what do people do with it all? I wondered if money made the local people happy? The park warden who moved us on from where we were camping the moring after the climb didn’t appear happy. “You cannot do this here, it is not allowed, ten minutes.”  

The carriageway had turned to an A road passing through the large market towns of Le Puy and Mende. I stopped at a pedestrian crossing, a sure sign I was from the UK. A young woman with a beautiful smile crossed the road. She looked at me, dark hair flicked across her face. I waved and smiled. She laughed. I laughed and for an instant the world was friendly and fun. I continued through the narrow streets of the busy town. On the side of a building a large mural of a woman with red hair stroking a cat made me think of an ex-girlfriend. I drove across a humped bridge made of stone with beefy balustrades; a river flowed beneath – swans, swallows, willows… leaves starting to turn.

Recently, after one of my more extreme pieces of writing on my blog I had been attacked on Facebook by someone who does not know me. They said I was obviously very unhappy and I should go back to work and begin to climb for fun again. It’s strange how people don’t see writing as work, I suppose in some ways for me it also doesn’t really feel like work as I enjoy it and its not locking people up. How little this person understood me. A sign of these times we live where personal attacks have become an almost daily occurrence for anyone whose writing is challenging or thought provoking or even has an opinion. As for being unhappy about my climbing, I enjoy it much more than ever in the past when ego and comparing myself to others frequently affected me and on occasion made me beat myself. 

I was driving to the Gorges du Tarn specifically to try and climb a route I had been on once before in the spring after belaying Lucy Creamer who on-sighted it. The climb was called Les Ailes du Désir Extension; it was fifty metres long with spaced bolts. The upper headwall was orange pockets with gaping Goldfish mouths, big airy moves, technical and very overhanging. Since getting to know Lucy and climbing with her I find it difficult to believe she isn’t more well-known and celebrated within rock climbing as her on-sighting ability and determination and boldness are remarkable. I suppose her under the radar may have something to do with the fact she does not self-promote via social media, a lesson in humbleness to many including myself I think? 

The excitement and freedom I felt on my one venture into that big open space on the upper wall of Les Ailes in the spring had left an impression and I wanted to experience this feeling again…

Myself on the 7b+ bit of Les Ailes du Désir Extension. I became quite good at climbing this section! Pic credit, Rich Kirby

Rich Kirby on Les Ailes du Désir Extension.

…and so I did, many times and many times I took possibly the largest fall possible until I desensitised and saw only the mouths of fish heavily chalked with hope.

Morning sessions on the climb before the sun worked for me. I would drive on my own down the zigzags from our van doss on the plateau, high above Les Vignes, the small village with its bridge and bullfrogs, before Rich and Phil joined me. Sometimes I stopped on a hairpin to watch the cloud clinging to the valley base and above the mist there were often groups of Vultures circling slowly on thermals, gaining height, slowly gaining height.   

Reaching the shelf beneath the climb, a yellow rock-band already warm, I would stretch and solo the first few moves of the climb before sitting and watching the slow moving river and the heron as she set her balsa wood wings before splashing unceremoniously.

Another day breaks from the grip of the early morning mist. In the previous weeks I have grown accustomed to watching the red kites hopping from orange crest to dark furrow in the ploughed field. The smell of earth and wet pine with the backtrack hum of insects. I have looked across a million sunflowers each bowing their brown heads in acceptance. I suppose this is it; this for me is climbing and the life I live. What attracts me is the space, the thrill, the challenge, the learning, trying to understand, the unknown, the feelings, the emotions, the life around life that is life, but as important as climbing is, appreciation that it is not and never will be horror and war and displacement. It will never be daily hardship and survival. It will always be privilege and play at whatever level, be it millimetres of intense movement or days out on a north face and I will always try to remember this and reflect it in my writing and I hope I will always carry some weight.    

A car in the medieval town of Saint Antonin, South of France.

Unknown Czech climber on Tennessee.

Rich Kirby climbing Mistral Gagnant, La Croix

La Croix. I took some persuading to leave The Tarn but it all worked out!

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The Vacuum.

Owain Jones, Jamie Fisher, Jules Cartwright at Tapovan BC on the Meru Shark’s Fin attempt, India 1997.

Keith Ball, Tim Neill and I stood in the col between Piz Cengalo and the Piz Badile. The space surrounding the Piz Badile’s huge North Face felt like a vacuum. The dark turned to grey and in the grey, we carefully climbed down – the space and the pull beneath the acres of granite were constant. I looked down to the col where, eleven years before, my close friend Jules Cartwright would have crossed with his client Julie Colverd. They had both fell and had been killed. I wasn’t sure how this mountain would affect me. The palms of my hands pushed down into dirt to take weight and my feet kicked steps. The dirt and rock moved hardly supporting bodyweight. Feral. Basic animal instinct. Survival. In the light breeze mist swirled, the mountain vortex, a minds vortex, a day, a week, a year… a split second … I thought of my friend who would have been forty years old now.

Keith Ball pushing down in an attempt to keep the slope in the place it should be on the descent from the col between Cengalo and The Piz Badile.

Tim had driven his well-used, black, VW Transporter from a stormy Chamonix the day before. Keith and I were packed beside in the front watching the windscreen wipers swish rain. We had walked three hours from the forested Val Masino in Italy, passing the Gianetti Refuge to gratefully – after hours on the move – relax and bivvi in the meadows beneath a massive sloping lump of shimmering granite, the south face of Cengalo. Boulders and grass and sheep and streams and red setting sun reflecting from behind the clouds – a heavenly haven.

The view from the Cengalo Bivi.

Tim and Keith were in front, kicking and pushing down. Rocks clattered and tumbled into the void, echoing and exploding. Dirt flowed like snow to cascade over the edge of the cliff and falling onto the rotten strip of snow hundreds of metres below. I looked across to the teams climbing the Cassin down below and to our right. We were aiming for the left side of the north face of the Piz Badile to attempt a seldom climbed route called the Peoples Direct. I hoped the climb would feel less intimidating than the approach.

Relief consumed as we made it to a point that followed a series of flakes heading into the granite wilderness. “That was fun.” “No, actually, it wasn’t.”

Tim Neill abseiling from choss to the base of the route, The Peoples Direct on the Piz Badile.

Keith tied on and started to climb. Seconding, wearing approach shoes and tied to a single half rope, my body twisted and turned, using smears while pulling flakes – high foot, rock over, pull. Pulling without first testing, I ripped the flake I was holding and then I was flying. The air and space grabbed. Quick. Quick. So bloody quick. I wondered if this is what it would be like? Fortunately the rope didn’t wipe Tim out who was above me and even more fortunate, Keith’s belay was bomb proof.  “Are you OK?” “Yeah, I’m fine.” I hoped the tremors running through my body did not extend to my voice. When I calmed, I continued, but now I would test every hold before pulling.

Keith Ball starting out into the wilderness. The Peoples Direct.

Creaking flakes and smears and cracks and streaks of water, old pegs with rings threaded through heads, faded cord. The cliff and rock and its history and the history of those who had been before were speaking. Clouds bubbled, but on occasion the sun broke from behind the cumulous and lit the face. The atmosphere lightened in the sun. Skin warmed.

Climbing in blocks, Keith led several pitches before Tim took over. The difficulty of the climb increased with height as the face barrelled. Undercutting a huge and booming flake, Tim moved fluently and confidently still in his approach shoes. It had been several years since we had climbed granite in Cornwall and on Lundy Island and I had forgotten how natural he moved across this rock type. I pulled close, “Tell you what, I’m struggling to get into the granite zone, the smears and the movement feel forced.” We both looked up to the overhanging crux corners high above, “Well, you better quickly get used to it”

Tim Neill on the start of the steeper stuff of The Peoples Direct.

I settled down with the first of my block while climbing a vertical corner and wide crack which consumed gear as well as hands and feet. I was more comfortable on lead, more focused, more relaxed on the steep, and I was less intimidated by the space while squeezed within the confines of my corner – but the second pitch of my block was the crux of the whole climb and it was obviously going to be more difficult as the angle increased, leading to an overhang near the top of the pitch. The grade of this pitch was reportedly 7a+, a grade, when rock fit, as I now was, should not be too concerning, but high on a mountain, wearing a rucksack with wet and grass and loose rock and with the pressure of time, I knew this pitch would be tough to climb free.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill seconding the first of my block of pitches on the Peoples direct.

Half way up the crux pitch, standing on a small edge, placing a cam and de-pumping while drying my right hand, unbeknown to me it was pouring rain. The rain was not hitting me or the rock but the crack and wall to the right of the crack was running with water. Smearing feet, finger locking and laybacking was going to take commitment and belief. I didn’t really think I had much hope to free the pitch, but as I began, the thought of pulling on gear didn’t enter my head. Finger lock in wet, half jams in wet, smearing feet on wet – I move up and up and up. For the first time on this climb, sweat began to bead. Shaking out, creeping, inching, placing gear, body tension – my Strawberries training had paid off. Every time I sunk and twisted fingers into a positive lock, I relaxed – my feet felt solid. Higher. Higher. The pump caught hold on the final pull over the roof, so, without placing anymore gear, I sprinted, laybacking until stood on a flat ledge.

Keith Ball seconding the first of my block of pitches.

After another hard pitch and one more long wet pitch, all three of us stood on the summit ridge in the mist and rain, there didn’t appear to be any other life, no birds, no animal noise. In front, Tim and Keith hopped, walked and climbed, we moved un-roped consumed, enshrouded, until finding the descent line down the south side.

Keith and Tim trying to decided where we want to go on the descent.

It turned dark as we stumbled back into our bivi where we spent a night zipped against heavy rain.

Visitors after the rain at the Cengalo bivi the morning after.

In the morning we reversed our three hour walk, sat in the sun with beer and pizza while joking about our language inadequacies with the waitress and drove the forty three miles to reach Bondo in Switzerland in the sunlit early evening. The river flowed against and around massive white boulders. Large pine trees butted the river and the track we were parked. Birds flitted, Jay’s screamed. The bridge where the path starts in earnest for the walk to climb The Cassin was a little way upstream.

The second parking up/bivi spot at the head of the forest track in Switzerland.

The alarm was set for midnight, but the rain woke me at eleven. I crawled under the van with my head sticking out from beneath the plastic bumper. At midnight Tim stepped from the back and nearly stood on my head. It was still raining so we delayed for an hour and a half.

Walking through the forest, along the steep zigzag track, my headtorch lit welts cut from muddy clods. Even though it was only just past two a.m., it was warm and humid. The wet pine-smell filled my head. I looked down and imagined my friend, Jules walking this same path, stepping the same muddy welts, stepping the same polished rock, grabbing the same links of chain that acted as handrails, smelling the same pine, while cheerfully chatting to his client Julie, while never imagining this would be his last walk-in. The Grande Jorasses, the Grand Pilier d’ Angle, The Cobbler, Savoia Kangri, The Sans Nom, Mont Maudit, The Sharks Fin, North Stack Wall, Wen Zawn, Beinn Eighe, Ben Nevis, Teng Kangpoche, The Broadfield Pub, The Heights, The Vaynol, La Terrasse – I had walked to these and many more with my friend.  

It was still dark as the three of us down-climbed and abseiled the notch at the base of the North Ridge. This was it; this is where Jules and Julie had fallen from. I felt air and space – solitude, emptiness, loneliness, despair, grief – my mind spun with all kinds of pain and regret and loss. This mountain caused a vacuum.  

I caught-up with Tim and Keith who were flaking the rope beneath the first tricky pitch of The Cassin. It was still dark but in the sky, there were signs of daylight.         

Tim Neill setting off on the first roped pitch of the Cassin.

Tim Neill higher on the Cassin.

Tim Neill climbing another one of the technical pitches of the Cassin.

Looking down at one of the Austrian team behind us. Chatting to these guys added to the day as they were really friendly with great banter.

Keith Ball in the chimneys near the top of the Cassin.

Keith Ball getting us to The North Ridge.

Big Tim, me and Keith Ball.

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The Sound of Bill Birkett’s Jaw Hitting the Table…

Annie Wilkes, aka, Rachael Crewesmith leaves a little note of encouragement on my van windscreen.

I sat in front of my laptop and booked a ferry for France. My finger hovered for a second before hitting the confirm payment. I felt the strength ooze from my forearms. That’s it, my Strawberry relationship is over. Move on, walk away, time for the mountains.

Later, sinking deep into the sofa, broiling in front of the fire at Ynys Ettws, the CC hut situated in the Llanberis Pass, my friends Mark and Nikki sat opposite planning their day for tomorrow. Also on the sofa was Rachael Crewesmith who was staying at the hut for a big chunk of the summer while cragging – well, that’s what she told people, but the main reason was to prepare for her mountain instructors award. I met Rachel for the first time three days earlier when she burst into the living room, a forceful bundle of, you will get to know me, energy. Rachel is one of those people you instantly take too – small in stature but big in character and presence – bubbly, a couple of bottles short of a six pack, self-assured, fun, confident – she made me laugh. She had bright eyes that said, ‘take me on if you dare’ and a big smile. She also appeared to have that enviable skill, one which has always eluded, the ability to introduce herself to strangers and continue the conversation like they had been friends for life. Don’t get the wrong idea, she wasn’t all fluffy – a hippy type who sees no wrong and loves everyone – there were certainly some who scuffed her skin, especially the type who felt the need to offer forceful advice for passing the MIA.

“Everyone wants to tell me what I should be doing.” I let her know she was in no fear of that from me.

Mark and Nikki decided they would be climbing at Tremadog the following day. My ears pricked. “Really.” After hours if subtle cajoling, well, no, in fact it was full on badgering, I convinced Mark he would love to stand on a ledge in the middle of the Vector Headwall and belay me on my millionth attempt at Strawberries. Mark is a Poet. This may conjure softly spoken bard, but in reality he is opinionated and tough. Scrape beneath that forty something leather-bound cover and there is also deeply sensitive (he is a poet after all) and as I sat bullying and cajoling, I could see the thought of holding the rope as I climbed to the edge of my ability, with big lob potential, was already causing him to fret. “But I’m not sure I can’t give a dynamic belay while attached to the rock.” “Yes you can.” I had turned into one of Rachael’s feared harbingers of forced information, but maybe I had been one all along!

Rachael does a bloody good impression of Annie Wilkes from the film, Misery. If she starts to call me, “Dirty ole birdy and brings a sledgehammer to the hut.” I’m out of there.

Apart from being eccentric, well read, at times scary and most certainly barking, The Poet is also very cunning, think something along the lines of Jason Bourne meets Professor Brian Cox and within minutes of agreeing to belay, he turned to Rachael and suggested she join us, making a party of four, which would give her the opportunity to climb with Nikki on a VS or two in preparation for her award. Win, win…

Arriving at a sunny Tremadog the next day, The Poet pulled his masterstroke. “I’m going to climb a VS with Nikki first then I’ll belay you on Strawberries,” said in a Brian Cox voice with underlying Jason Bourne menace. This was fine; I’m not so selfish to insist he spend the whole day strapped to the Vector Headwall belaying me… (looks shifty), and without hesitation, I happily agreed to belay and follow Rachael on a VS called Clapton’s Crack (looks shifty all over again). Everyone appeared to find it amusing that I was about to second a VS, not me though, I had climbed quite a few Very Severes before and all had been with axes and crampons in the Scottish Highlands.

After slithering in mud and fighting the undergrowth we arrived beneath a fine looking corner. No, really, it was – it would have been brilliant to torque with picks and the walls either side had enough in the way of edges for front points.
Rachael geared up while I discovered I had forgotten my rock shoes. “Oh well, I’ll follow in trainers.” This garnered a stern, instructor-y kind of glair, “That’s very rude, we have been told never to climb in approach shoes because it demeans the client.” “But I am the client?”

Following Clapton’s Crack in trainers, I found the climbing style was quite similar to winter climbing, all thrutch and body parts, which gave pangs of winter longing. After fighting the cornice of ivy we returned to my van. Mark and Nikki had not returned from their climb (no doubt a planned scenario from the undercover professor of poetry), so, as I had enjoyed myself in my imagined VS winter wonderland, I suggested to Rachael she lead another climb. When she picked herself from the mud, she happily agreed and a climb called Shadrach was chosen.

Following Clapton’s Crack. Oh, the fun! Pic Credit, Annie Wilkes, aka Rachael Crewsmith

Shadrack was even more like a burly winter climb and even more fun than Clapton’s Crack and not to appear rude, I remembered my rock shoes this time but forgot to wear them.

Everyone returned to the van. Nikki, The Poet, Rachel and me, and within seconds the Poet, now in his Bourne the Bard role threw his literary poetic grenade, “It would be nice to do another climb with Nikki.” And Rachael, obviously an undercover, deep rooted mole in this conspiracy joined in, “Yes, you two should do another climb, I’ll belay Nick on Strawberries.”


The sun soaked the ledge above the Vector Headwall. The fields opposite, no longer resembled the Maasai Mara, they were boggy with furrows full of water, more paddy than Wildebeest. Rachael’s instructor experience came in handy. I tied-on and prepared to be lowered for a top-rope, warm-up, while feeding the rope the wrong way through the Gri Gri… “What do you mean I’m the hand?” Her paranoia, something I find in equal measure, be it instructor type or mountain guide, was already a bit too honed. “This block moves and the tree you have slung is a twig.” “Its fine, it’s well tested.”

The warm up went well; I managed to top-rope Strawberries in a single push and after sorting the gear for the belay, abseiled to the ledge beneath that other three star classic, Cream. Waiting to abseil, basking in the sun, Rachael practiced her dynamic belaying running back and forth on the dusty ledge above while rehearsing short roping scenarios and lapping the rope techniques. Her phone rang. “Hi Iain… Yes I found someone to climb with … no, just some bloke I met in the hut…. We are at Tremadog; yes I’ve led two climbs… I’m about to belay him… Oh, just something near Grim Wall.”

On lead – huffing and puffing, climbing at my limit – inches from the slim, but you’re never going to let go of rail at the end if the difficult climbing, I let go, and as I let go the image that ran through my mind was a person practicing dynamic belaying…

“BASTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARD… “Rachael’s dynamic belay practice on top of the crag must have paid dividends; she was ripped from the stance and closely inspected the top pitch of Cream while always considerate, apologising to the climbers on Grim Wall Direct about the noise I was making.

Game over for another day, we all trooped back to Ynys Ettws.

The hut was warm. Fug swirled. Everyone sat in the living room. Around the large wooden table Rachel made new bezzy mates including Bill Birkett the Lakeland legend. Bill, gnarled and staid, was already hooked, he turned to Rachael, “Where did you go to today?”


“What did you climb?”

“Clapton’s Crack.”

This caused raised eyebrows, “Clapton’s Crack, hmm, tricky, that first pitch is difficult.”

“Yes, I thought so and the top was very overgrown and had ants.” (Cheeky smile for effect)

“Did you climb anything else?”

“Yes, we climbed Shadrach.”

Eyebrows already raised, flicked even higher with the mention of Shadrack and the whole table now joined in with the mention of this burly VS (if a VS could ever be burley!). There was much murmuring and discussion and nodding and shaking of heads.

“So was that it, did you climb anything else?”

“Ah, yes, well, randomly we finished the day with… (pause for effect), Strawberries.”

The room went silent; the only sound was the bump of Bill Birketts jaw hitting the table.


Here is a link to a film of that day on my attempt at Strawberries with Annie Wilkes belaying. Thanks to Nikki Clayton for the film, next time it would be great if you held the camera in the correct way ;-)

Strawberries attempt by some old guy from the hut, belayed by Annie Wilkes

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Anger Is An Energy.

Since returning from Fair Head I have worked almost every day on the Echoes sequel with the working title, Tides. When I write, I read, but not climbing… At the moment I’m reading Anger Is An Energy by John Lydon and I will warn you now, this blog is heavily influenced. Friends often say to me, read this climbers blog, or this piece of climbing writing. And they look shocked when I reply that I very rarely read climbing blogs or writing by climbers because, generally, they bore me. There are a few exceptions, but even so, it’s still rare as I would just rather read and be influenced and enjoy something completely different from climbing and see things from another perspective.

Climbing, once a sub-culture, is now, officially, main-stream. It is full of folk who appear to want to follow and conform and fit in with mediocre. Which is fine if that floats your boat, but it jars a tad with me and is not really what I got into climbing for. There are so many climbers nowadays that appear to want to be accepted and a part of some big corporate run of the mill circus, something that John Lydon calls the shitstem. It also appears posting on Facebook and filling a newsfeed about your amazingly fun life – every climb, every move, every amazing ‘adventure’ is the way forward. I really wonder what has happened to humility and being humble or even just getting on with your thing without sharing everything to the world. Maybe it’s an age thing and I’m a grouchy old bastard and I have not moved with the time, so be it, guilty as charged, but If you want to tell me something interesting, or write me something that is crafted and gets me thinking, great, power to you, but if you just want to line up in a queue of people joining the climbing gravy train and finishing every one liner you write with a bunch of shots of you doing your thing with multiple @’s and #’s, then don’t be offended when I don’t give you the big thumbs up. If I was technically gifted, I would invent a big erect middle finger button for Facebook, now that would be fun, but the only problem then is a lot of climbers would be too afraid to push it in fear of tarnishing their profile and losing marketing opportunities and upsetting a few folk.

I’m not talking aggression here, I actually hate aggression, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being compassionate, caring, loving, supportive and I do understand some people need the attention that social media gives but the lack of humility in climbing and climbers today flabbergasts me. When I boasted about something or other as a kid my Dad would cuff me around the ear and say, “Don’t be a bighead, no one likes a bighead. Come on people, dare to be different, follow your path and don’t worry if folk don’t get it or even – shock, horror – don’t see it on Facebook, it is still happening honest.

In between writing I have been having a pop at climbing Strawberries at Tremadog. This climb is the antipathy of anything I usually try to climb. It is short, solid, powerful, physical, bouldery, painful, well protected. There are no shake-outs, no ledges, no crumbling rock. It is also in full view of everyone and if being seen failing ain’t your bag then rule this one out.

After about seven visits I have yet to plant a flag by cleanly by climbing in a single push on lead and even on a top rope. In fact, after going ground up on the first visit and top roping the route on the second visit, I have attempted to climb Strawberries on lead on all of my visits because the experience of setting off knowing you have to give it everything and never knowing when the impossible may happen is electrifying. I love taking that fall. I love the position and the air. I love the effort and the static crackle. I love the internal dialogue. I love the microcosm and millimetres of improvement. I love the banter and yawping from everyone who is climbing nearby. I love the fact that everyone asks if I have done it and the confusion in their face when I say I’m not bothered if I get to the top clean because I’m enjoying the process so much. And this is it isn’t it; this is where the Facebook society in my mind is wrong. It’s all look at me, I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’m successfully getting to the top, get this people, I’m so wonderful. Too much focus in our society is about the end goal and not enough is about the actual getting there and importantly not much is about enjoying the getting there. Take the film recently on UKC about Emily Harrington climbing Golden Gate on El Cap. Was she having fun, not really, well, not at all. She was totally focusing on the end result and the time she spent getting there, the five days or whatever it actually was appeared to torture her. I watched that film and my heart sank because there was a person having such a terrible time. I think climbers today focus more about the ‘successful summit’ because this is Facebook newsworthy and fits with a sponsors spray, or what a climber thinks will help them ascend the corporate climbing ladder. Celebrate the experience for what it is and put it out truthfully, it’ll make you feel better in the long run honest.

I worry about how the Facebook thing is affecting mental health and what the long term affect will be. At one time climbers only had an edited version of events by the top folk who you did not resemble or judge yourself and compare your life. If they were out having fun while you were getting through in your daily job of getting on with life, then no problem, but nowadays we have it pumped like foie gras and we see our friends and peers posting repeatedly, every little bloody thing, every summit, every visit, every move, every pull, every smile, every bloody climb and after a while, unless you are some kind of android, it will have an effect, it will have you thinking what a shit life I lead because I’m not doing this stuff all of the time. But I have some news; a lot of the folk posting their amazing life are more scared and unhappy than you and in between standing on that pointy summit and taking that selfy, there is, on occasion, rain. 

Strawberries is such a great climb for so many reasons, it has so much history and so many idiosyncrasies. It is one of those climbs that you have to decide what works for you. Placing the gear, all five pieces for me, is as important as doing the actual moves. In some ways it’s what makes the climb. Putting aside all of the bullshit is also another great thing about the climb. In my mind, placing the gear, all of it, makes the climb about 7c+, placing the top wire in the right hand crack is almost as hard as the crux move and I’m not stopping to try to place the higher piece in the left-hand crack, preferring to take the air because I know my limitations and I have taken that air so many times now, those molecules are friends. Push on, run it out, safe air, excitement and the tingle… Yes, that does it for me every time. Leave one or two pieces in place reduces the grade and the experience which, of course, makes no difference to anyone apart from me, and If I wanted to climb Strawberries as a sport route I would go to the Gorge du Tarn and if I wanted to climb it for a trophy, I would leave the gear in and become a football player.

There is not enough honesty or openness with our climbing society. Tell it how it is and do stuff for yourself. Climbing Strawberries has opened another thing for me, how much climbers compare themselves to each other. How did this person do that move, how many pieces of gear, how many goes, who has done this and that and the other. It’s not a competition people, its life, it’s your life, your experience, your way – be strong and live your life and don’t be embarrassed to be like that. Living the life you think will make others happy by comparing yourself against the crowd is a downward spiral and if you fall when others have not, so what, who cares, it gives you another go, it strengthens the bond, your history, your experience. Don’t conform, be quirky and different and dare to shout, “YEAH I FELL OFF AND FUCK IT, IT WAS GREAT.”


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The Times They Are A Changin’


Ricky Bell, a ,man with a big moustache, a van with character and the ability to hold hard and pull down. No change necessary!

For approximately twenty years I have climbed rock. And after this time you would think nothing new could be learnt. In reality, the opposite is true, especially for someone who did not ‘pull-on’ properly until his thirtieth year.

I had a good grounding. I began weight training aged nine and at the age of eleven, I became a gymnast. Years later, I benefit still from both of these activities. Muscles, joints, nerves, neurological pathways hold-on – hold on like fingers gripping small edges – my body clings to movement instilled from very young. Automatic, it’s like hitting the keys of a computer and watching the words move along the screen.

In my time, I have shared overhanging and slabby, walls and caves and corners, cliffs, some clean and some not so clean, cliffs formed of Rhyolite, Quartzite, Dolerite, Slate, Shale, Mudstone, Limestone, Quartz and Granite with Seabird and seal and Pippet. I have also shared the same cliffs with many top-end rock climbers and almost all, without exception, have started climbing from a young age. Over and over, I witness a flick of the switch, they change into a bird of prey; eyes spot formation which transfers immediately to brain. Brain sends information to the joints and muscles and a conditioned body strikes. I pay out rope in admiration and awe. Twist, turn, stoop, press, tighten, strike, relax, extend, flex, contract.  More often than not, the outcome is successful passage. Of course there are other nuances. The ‘head-games’ for one, but that is another story.  

I have always found my movement on rock, more mechanical than intuitive, more levers and strength, more straight-on plain – pull-down, reach-up, grab-hold, step-up, pull-down…  that natural flow I see in others, is at times, forced. I put this mechanical anatomical monotony down to weight training and gymnastics from early years combined with being a late comer to climbing.  I can almost remember the few occasions over the last twenty years I have completely entered into a state of natural flowing progression on climbs at the top of my ability. A state where I do not have to stop and think, I do not have to move-up, climb-down, move-up, climb-down. And it is these times that have been the most rewarding.

There is another factor to my mechanical and this is the self-taught, no climbing wall factor. Approximately at the age of thirty, when I began to climb I did not have a local climbing wall or a climbing partner, so I took myself away and on-sight soloed routes. At that time, climbing routes was what rock climbing was about. I didn’t watch others or experience steep ground in the safe environment of a climbing wall. There was no drop-knee, flag, twist, gaston, heel-hook, knee-bar. I didn’t learn subtle movement while bouldering and I did not learn to pull really hard or push down and continue pushing down when the shoulder reaches the same height as hand. I did not learn to rock-over with the bodyweight directly above a toe or heal or to turn a knee inside or out. I did not appreciate the footwork is as important as the handhold.

Only recently, twenty-two years down the line have I begun to learn the art of really seeing a hold and using it in the best available manner. Only recently have I begun to grip a hold and really bloody hold it. Trying exceptionally hard when rock climbing is not so natural, years of teetering above marginal protection have installed caution and shoulders, strong from weight training, have given me the ability to reach, teeter, reach, inch, inch and finally at full stretch, pinch. You would think this has brought about a mind-set to not let go and really fight, but it has possibly produced the opposite, when that extra inch of effort is required, something slightly extraordinary, I can’t see it, it feels impossible, unless practiced first, like a gymnastic movement and so falling is often the outcome.

I have taught my body to climb on rock successfully at a standard, but seldom push into a higher level, a level incorporating specific skills. Trying hard  also brings failure and for a lot of my climbing, failure spells serious injury or the feeling of, well, the feeling of failure, and this  brings about other aspects of climbing from my earlier years that have also affected performance, which is this fear of failure, or at least the fear of being seen failing, which I suppose is about ego and acceptance and wanting to feel good about yourself.

“You’ve changed.”

Over the last couple of years I’ve often heard this, because of course I have, I’ve become older and a tad wiser for sure. Since beginning to rock climb, I’ve shuffled, crawled, crept, minced and on those marginal weather days, I’ve hunted dry rock and when dry rock could not be found, I’ve slithered. But over the last couple of years, with a massive amount of climbing logged, instead of scratting on marginal days, I’ve started to train and boulder with specific goals and in doing so, when returning outdoors, I have, for the first time, actually gripped like I mean it and when the climbing becomes difficult my brain has at last realised you have to try really hard and definitely concentrate on weighting that foothold.        

Fortunately I now feel OK about myself and I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Some of this I’m sure is brought about by experiencing so much, but it is also about growing up and growing older and realising I’m human, just the same as everyone else… I flail, fail, fall, trip and at times my mind questions and becomes scared but the ability to push on is still there, but it is more about confidence now in new found fitness and skills and less about trying to prove myself to myself and to others. Yes I’ve changed; I’m older and happier and more content and certainly climbing rock better than ever.     

John Orr on the spectacular first pitch of Maiden Voyage, a climb that requires technical skill, stamina, and the ability to bone-down hard and then give that little bit extra… No shuffling here, no siree

Lolo,The Belgian, approaching the crux of Maiden Voyage.

Lolo on the crux of Maiden Voyage. 10 out of 10 for effort and persistence and trying over and above what you think is possible.

Myself on Hells Kitchen Arête. The first of the three routes I really wanted to climb this year at Fair Head. Pic credit, John Orr.

Myself on Hells Kitchen Arête. Pic credit, Mike Hutton.

The main event of the week. A four pitch beast which required a whole load of skills to get-up clean on a bloody cold day. This was the climb of the week and deserves to be up there with the very best. Technical, strenuous, sustained, magnificent. The second ascent. Well done to John and Paul for putting this one up.

Abseiling into Un-Jour-Peut-Etre. Pic Credit, John Orr.

Myself on the first ‘easy’ pitch. Pic credit, John Orr.

John Orr on the second pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre.

Myself before entering a world of overhanging three dimensional on the third pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre. Knee bar and burling de-rigour. Pic credit John Orr

John Orr having pulled out of the overhanging of the third pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre.

John Orr on the fourth pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre. Don’t be fooled by the 6a grade, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings!

Heather Florence proving that starting young helps while smoothly seconding The Mask.

An old dog incorporating some new skills. On-sighting the Pat Littlejohn and Eddy Cooper uber classic, Above and Beyond. Pic credit, John Orr.

More proof that its good to start young. Tom Livingstone on the crux of Primal Scream.

Cheers to John Orr for a great trip and use of the pics.

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The French Connection.

The woman, I guess, was in her seventies. Her hair, which had been straightened and dyed blond, hung in a long bob from beneath a black leather cap which matched her black leather trousers and her black leather boots. She leant on a wooden walking stick while inspecting dirt covered vegetables stacked in pine boxes. Only in New York could pensioners look like rock stars while vegetable shopping. Looking out of the other window in the yellow cab, to my left, The Empire State Building busted from beneath the New York undergrowth, injecting the grey cumulous with a shot of smog. The taxi drive, directly through the centre of Manhattan was, I must admit, a bonus in a whole catalogue of travel fuck-ups.

The evening before, while sitting in the tranquillity of The Canadian Alpine Clubhouse, situated above Canmore in Alberta the realisation that the return journey back to Blighty was going to be near impossible, hit hard. Will Sim and I read, with growing disbelief – the itinerary that Opodo had sold us and we had unsuspectingly hit the buy button on months earlier was crazy. In our ignorance with travelling procedure  while entering the USA from Canada via Toronto and New York we hadn’t realised how much time was needed and where the exact location of the airports in relationship with each other were. “Surely they have not booked us on connecting flights from different airports and on different carriers with only a couple of hours to get across New York?” But they had, and this was after they had expected us to successfully navigate an hour’s transfer between flights in Toronto where the USA immigrations and border had to be cleared and a visa for entering the USA, all be it just for transfer, had to be bought. Needless to say, I missed my connecting flight and in doing so, lost all of my baggage. Will, having just scraped on the designated connecting flight, was now travelling somewhere an hour or so ahead. Neither of our phones worked so contact was impossible – freestyle, free-for-all, let the best man get home – and after filling a lost baggage report at LaGuardia Airport, here I was on a whistle stop of Manhattan via a $124 yellow taxi cab, certain I would miss the final flight as the suggested, arrive three hours ahead for your flight time, had begun as my plane took-off from Toronto.

I pleaded my ticking clock with the cabbie, a fifteen year NYC veteran and larger than life in character and waist-line and he informed me we had no chance to reach Newark Airport in time to board the third plane, but then he transformed to become a superhero and proceeded to give it a go. Road signs and places, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, places engrained in my memory from Martin Scorsese films blurred along with the names of the films – Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas – we weaved across several lanes of traffic, jumped red lights and suddenly the North Face of Alberta paled and the real adventure was here, here on the packed streets of the Big Apple and I was a character in the central role of an all-time favourite film, The French Connection, I was the obsessed Popeye Doyle racing adversity and trains and along streets and fighting traffic with an impossible final objective and all I wanted was to pull my service revolver and stick it up the nose of the idiot from Opodo that had booked this near impossible and costly itinerary.

Time, what is it about time? It never stops and it’s the same for everyone and, at some point, no matter who you are, it will end.

Fast forward a few months and here I was once again racing the clock, and once again thoughts of the film, The French Connection were strong. Jeff Mercier, the very talented French mixed climber, Alpine Guide, Gendarme and member of the small and highly professional team of the Chamonix PGHM, lounged on a ledge somewhere below and I was starting to think my first impression after he savaged me on the internet in 2009 was correct.

My arms were a time bomb. I hung from axes battling the pump, battling the clock. The overhanging icefall of the Argeantiere Glacier to my left exploded. “You French Bastard.” Jeff looked up, smiled and gave a small but decipherable Gallic shrug. My racist yell bounced from his sturdy shell appearing not to concern him at all.

I was attempting the second ascent of a route in the Rive Gauche Jeff had climbed for the first time two weeks previous. The route was called Sanction Stylée and the grade he had given it was M9, making it one of the most difficult of the Rive Gauche routes, but unlike most dry tool type of climbs, to keep the Rive Gauche routes in character, or at least the routes on the Rive Gauche that Jeff and I had been involved in putting-up the first ascents, there were no bolts – they were all traditionally protected.

Earlier that morning, after walking from The Lognon Ski Station, we stood at the end of a pisted track above the crag and the more well-known climbs of Nuit Blanche and Tequila Stuntman. The climbs on The Rive Droit opposite, Shiva and Icelander were holding in, but only just, and by the end of the day they would be gone until next winter. The unshaven and deeply suntanned Mercier had passed me a handful of hardware, “This is zee geeer.” I grabbed the handful of metal. “Merci.” Then clipped a double set of cams and two quickdraws to my harness. “Are you sure this is zee geeer Jeff? It looks a bit light on quickdraws and nuts?” “Qui, zat iz exactleee what you require.” As an afterthought I clipped a double set of nuts and three hooks I had brought along as a get out of Jeff’s jail.

Sanction Stylée is three pitches with the second pitch being the very sustained and highly technical crux, this was the pitch I was now attempting and at about the half way mark my arms, shoulders but most of all my mind were on the edge of implode. This was one of those moments on a climb when you feel you’ve done enough to warrant the grade and you deserve an easy ride, but this pitch was as tenacious as the small French man who had first climbed it and who lay basking like a shark on the snowy ledge below – it just kept coming and coming and my mind was becoming a pan of pasta on the point of boiling-over.

Myself on Jeff Mercier’s superb Sanction Stylée pic credit, Jack Geldard

I hunted and found another marginal hook with the left axe. Weighting, testing, weighting, pulling. The left axe blew – I held the swing and the panic and once again tried to relax. My hefty British body had to heave and pull. Taught. Tense. The foot holds were not footholds, they were orange peel. I looked at an in-situ peg and wondered what I had to clip it as my two quickdraws had been used below and years ago. “What a bastard, what a bastard – two quickdraws, two fucking quickdraws…”  I removed and clipped a bulldog hook into the peg and clipped the rope.

I was angry, but not with Jeff, with myself. I should have known better, but time and time again I made the same mistakes, when will I ever learn, or maybe this is a part of what keeps life interesting, we don’t always learn, which sometimes means we are ready to move-on and forgive, and the continual re-learning is what keeps us sharp.

In 2009 when Jeff had written his scathing piece about me on the internet I never imagined we would climb together, but here we were, and I was enjoying his company and his sharp understated humour. I placed a perfect number 7 nut which slotted into a keyhole crack; it was as good as a bolt. “What the fuck, look at this Jeff, it’s as good as it gets and I don’t have anything to clip it with you bastard.” “I don’t know how zose thingz work, so I don’t uze zem.” I moved on without clipping the nut as the single rope – another mistake – would have resembled a cat’s cradle and the last thing I needed was a cat’s cradle.

Jack Geldard and Nick Brown who had arranged this outing with Jeff and myself, swung above and to the side filming and I could tell they were both expecting or even hoping for a monster lob to increase the click count on their website UK Climbing. I was determined to try as hard as I could not to give a grand finale, but I wasn’t sure I could, this pitch did not let up.  

As I inched higher, the placements became more marginal and difficult to find, and my arms were burning and the fall potential was increasing and the last time I placed a cam felt like yesterday and being one of Mercier’s cams, I just stuffed and hoped as the sizes were all over the place which I didn’t recognise. I was losing patience slightly quicker than the ability to hold on. The fall, should I decide to let go, was going to be big and bruising, I would certainly resemble Robert de Nero after a fight in the film Raging Bull should I take the ride and to top it, I was now battling a whole series of ticking clocks and the loudest one was the thought of failure after trying so hard.

Several hours later, Jeff pulled another four bottles of beer from the fridge. He passed a Heineken to Nick Brown, a Hoegaarden to Jack Geldard and a Leffe to me. What a truly great and surreal day. Here I was getting flash pissed, surrounded by coppers, while sat in a bar in the back room of a police station in the middle of Chamonix. Everyone had told me I would get on with Jeff and they nearly always followed this by saying; he’s a French version of you Nick, really opinionated and vocal. I would have preferred them to say, “Nick, you’re an English version of Jeff and climb as well,” but they didn’t and I don’t.

Jeff Mercier and a Leffe blurred me in the police pub after climbing. Pic credit Jack Geldard


My final climb of the alpine winter was yet again a countdown and yet again it was with larger than life characters but instead of the glass and concrete of New York and OAP’s in leather and my imagined scenario of Robert de Nero beating Opodo executives with baseball bats, this time it was granite and ice surrounding Jack Geldard, Tom Ballard and me.

Jack and I had climbed together several times this winter and I really enjoyed being on the hill with him so when he invited me out to join himself and Alison Hargrieve’s son Tom Ballard, I jumped at the chance.

Earlier in the day, the three of us had stood beneath The East Face of the Tacul and decided Scotch on the Rocks would be our climb as there were four parties queuing for Pinocchio. Unfortunately there was one short step to reach both climbs and we were at the back of the queue. Unperturbed, we waited and chatted and eventually the queue curtailed and we headed-up. “Headtorches?” “No, whenever we reach the point that we’ve done enough or it’s an hour before dark we can abseil.” Said Jack, but he hadn’t taken into account the Ballard and Bullock effect. Tom had not climbed Scotch before and I, having climbed it twice, was of course Popeye Doyle, obsessed and driven.

Jack Geldard seconding the second pitch of Scotch on the Rocks.

Tom Ballard leading the crux of Scotch on the Rocks dragging a large fishing net float for extra training!

After four pitches of great climbing and banter, I hung from a belay having just led the fifth and penultimate pitch. The point of an hour before sunset had arrived. I looked up at a massive plinth of granite making a bridge across the top of the chimney above knowing this was the end of the climb and knowing I wanted to go there again. Tom reached me and it quickly became obvious he did as well. Abseiling in the dark without headtorches it would have to be and as Jack rolled-in to the belay, he didn’t have a say a word and accepted we were in for another late one.

Half an hour later (I’m being very optimistic with my time keeping here) the three of us sat beneath the plinth and watched the sun set on a glowing and deserted Valley Blanche. I memorised ski tracks and where the slots were for our night time ski descent that could not happen soon enough now we had finished the climb. The four teams on Pinocchio had long gone, I’m reasonably sure none had gone to the top of the climb in preference to a train ride back to the valley, ‘lucky buggers’

Tom Ballard settling with the realisation that this is as slow as it can be when using a rope!

One by one we began the descent and after the first abseil it became dark and the feeling of isolation grew. By the third abseil we were using Jacks mobile-phone for light and it was quite amusing. Eventually, after all of the abseiling, the final snow-slope presented and somewhere there was a deep bergschrund. Not knowing where it was, I shouted to Tom for directions and Tom nonchalantly shouted directions which were obviously, nonchalantly wrong, because he really didn’t give a shit as he was so desensitised to danger, so used to moving around the mountains by himself, he could not see why reversing into a deep slot would be a bad thing.

At last we were all stood together and clipped into ski bindings. The night time VB emptiness and dark always amazed and excited after how crazy it was through the day with its hundreds of people.   Skiing, Tom took-off as fast as Gean Hackman had in that famous car chase and after I caught him I said, “You’re pretty good at this skiing malarkey then, when did you begin?” “I was five years old and yes, I’m good.” Later as we skied through the Geant Icefall, I stopped again as my legs were screaming. “You’ve probably noticed, strength is my friend, my technique is not so good.” Tom’s reply was once again less than measured, “Yes, I’ve noticed you’re not very good.” I laughed and set off, avoiding slots and battling the burn. Tom was certainly very talented and confident but I did think that living for so many years in a van with his dad had made him a little lacking in social skills. ‘Can’t have everything I suppose!’ And at least you know where you stand having someone that tells you the truth and holds no punches.   

Time paled and lost importance as the three of us walked the Montenvers Railway tracks back to the valley. Chamonix below was a flickering map of roads and buildings. I had done this walk many times and I was actually enjoying and savouring the conversation with Jack as this would be the last time we spent together this winter and I had grown to really enjoy his company. I laughed and joked with Jack that we had brought down one of the quickest climbers in the Alps and dragged him to our level. “One day The Colton/Macintyre in three hours, the next, Scotch on the Rocks and walking the train tracks back to the valley in twelve!”

A week later I was once again travelling, both physically and mentally. The winter for me was over, but instead of returning to North Wales I headed south to Cataluña in the hope that clipping bolts would kick start arms that hadn’t crimped since the end of November… time as they say, will tell and If I have learnt anything over the latter half of 2014 and the winter of 2015 it is this; we can all make mistakes, even Popeye Doyle shot a good guy. Good can often come from bad. Always be prepared to give people a second or even a third chance as there is often underlying issues that make people act in a less than positive manner. No matter your age, you can always wear leather and finally do yourself a favour, never book a flight with Opodo. 


There will be a major article later this year on UKC featuring Jeff Mercier and me which will have interviews and film of the ascent of Sanction Stylée amongst other stuff.

Thanks to everyone mentioned in the above for a great and memorable winter :-)


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The Free Bullock Definition.

Al Powell holding his frost-nipped toes after a three day push on Quitaraju.

I was approached a while back and asked if I would write “a couple of sentences or more,” to be included in an article about the changing face of British Alpinism.

The first thing that came to mind was how is it possible to put into ‘a couple of sentences,’ and give a true and reflective answer to such a grand and subjective topic and the second was, if I am to be quoted in a couple of sentences and then my words are to be surrounded, dissected, possibly pulled apart, I may as well write the article myself, or at least, I can give my opinion and the message will not be used out of context. I’m sure this will not happen, but it’s difficult to be approached and then only give a very short answer. Below is a serious but slightly tongue in cheek look at the question, what is and what is not alpinism.        

My immediate reaction was to answer a question with three questions of my own:

Is there a changing face of British alpinism and if so, when is it changed from and what has it changed onto?

In the time I have climbed in the European Alps there has only been a small group of people involved in what I would call alpinism and it appears to be similar now. In my experience there is possibly an even smaller group of people at the moment than when I began climbing in the Alps, but this number of course will fluctuate. But, to really get to the heart of the question, or for me, the more interesting question should be, ‘What is Alpine climbing?’


The climbing of the Alps or any equally high mountain ranges

(The Free Dictionary)

What is alpinism? A subjective question and one that will mean many things too many people and because of this there will be many answers and of course who is to say which answer is wrong or right – there is no definitive answer, the true answer remains with the individual. The glitch comes when one person sees more value in their take of what is alpinism and possibly feels a less worthy style is receiving unjust credit. This also brings about other questions; why should this affect people, why should people getting credit from a different style of ascent concern and annoy?

What I see as alpinism is a lot deeper than The Free Dictionary definition suggests. Alpinism to me suggests certain ethics, or it could be called self-imposed restrictions which add to the challenge and experience and make the activity, in my mind, and the minds of many, much more rewarding. Alpinism for me is the activity of approaching via walking or skiing or paraponting, to the base of a large mountain face, climbing a route in a single push – going from the bottom to the top without returning to the bottom until what is designated the top is reached. The climb will finish on a summit ridge or a summit while everything you need is carried on your back. The descent can be down the line but it is more aesthetically pleasing to descend a different line and into a different valley than the one used for the approach and ascent. Generally the line chosen will require at least one night sleeping at the base of the face, on the face, on the summit or sometimes in a hut before or after. There are some very fit and skilful Alpinists that appear to be operating on a different level than almost everyone else; these people are able to climb big routes very quickly without needing to bivouac, this also counts!

Under my own definition, Alpinism is not any of the following, but let’s make it clear, I’m not saying I don’t take part in some of these styles of mountaineering, what I’m saying is, in my mind it’s not alpinism in my understanding.

Bolted clip ups.

Bolted clip ups are glorified sport climbs at altitude. Undoubtedly fantastic technical and personal achievement and very worthy of recognition, but this style of climbing on alpine faces is as far from alpinism as love is from spending the night with a prostitute.

Fixed rope ascents.

Ascents where hundreds of metres of rope are fixed and beds, sofas, fridges stocked with a week of food, big sleeping bags, big jackets and all of the comforts of the valley are transported to the cliff-face and pitches can be redpointed is not alpinism and the reason it is not is because alpinism is the ticking clock, the countdown, the time-bomb. Alpinism is the shift in the weather and the internal psychological battles that comes from looking up and seeing a mackerel sky reflecting from stipple cloud. Alpinism is a flip of the stomach when out on the horizon a flash of lightening flicks the switch. Alpinism is the seemingly never ending night and the seemingly shortening daylight hours. Alpinism is uncertainty and worries and fear of becoming crag fast and deep routed thoughts of escape. Alpinism is dwindling mental strength and depleted physical energy. These factors are almost deleted by fixed rope – it’s a game changer, it takes away what for me is the true essence of Alpinism, being committed. My old mate Al Powel always used to say if jumars are taken its not alpinism.  

Alpinism is not cragging.

The main concern and constricting factors for someone climbing in true alpine style, and the worry about getting up and over are not really an issue when cragging in the Alps and often, even the top of the route is forsaken in preference to catching the last lift. Not only is this not alpinism, it’s certainly not climbing the route!       

Internet Alpinism

The internet has changed alpine climbing and I suppose it has made the way for quick alpine hits where the outcome is almost certain. For a large percentage of modern alpinists, it appears there is no longer a mind-set or a willingness to take a punt with conditions, the weather and their own gut instincts which in my mind is a great loss. Sticking your neck out and taking a chance and pulling one out of the bag, for me, is one of the most rewarding aspects of alpinism. Maybe this is a reflection on a change in society as a whole where modern technology has dumbed down climbing and taken away much of the challenge?

Helicopter Alpinism.

Unless injured, catching a lift in a chopper to or from the mountain is not Alpinism.


Alpinism has changed and so have Alpinists. For many now it appears a nicely wrapped and guaranteed ‘adventure’ with a nice set of images to post to their Facebook profile or a super difficult and newsworthy, but super safe technical achievement without much in the way of discomfort and uncertainty or commitment is now considered the way forward. Call me a dinosaur, and many do, but the loser in all of this I feel is the participant but, there is of course a different alpinism to be found for the individual if it is chosen and the imagination is opened.             


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