The smell of change… reading

Unknown climber having a kip on the floor, unknown climber on Coliseum, and another unknown climber on something hard, think its Gemenis 8b+ Rodellar, Spain.

I wrote The smell of change, a 4500 word piece published on UKC, in the week following my return from a climbing trip in Spain. A link to the full written version can be found HERE. When I’m in the UK, I’m a bit of a sucker for the PM programme hosted by Evan Davis on Radio 4. The Covid-19 crisis has become a big part of the programme, well, its all the programme (no surprise), and a new item that interested me was a 400 word written piece to be recorded by the author, and then played on the programme called Covid Chronicles.

After writing The smell of change, a piece describing leaving Spain and travelling through France as lockdown happened due to the virus, I thought it would be something to do, given the time I was now sitting on the sofa, to try to edit 4500 down to 400, and send this to the PM programme. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the original down to under 700 words, but sent it anyway, and of course, didn’t hear back (note to self, don’t ignore word count!). The piece was possibly a tad dark for 5pm, or maybe I need to face the truth, it wasn’t very good. Anyway, I thought bugger it, I’ll do my own reading, so that’s what I did, and in the process I incorporated my friend Mark Goodwin, a trained sound recordist (he will no doubt tell me this title is wrong, but what the hell, you get the idea!).

Now, as good as a person is, they can only work with what they’re given, and a recording on my phone, while shuffling about under the duvet, was never going to be brilliant, (at one point I thought I was suffocating) but Mark did a great job sorting it out, and I think it’s OK.

Here’s a link to the piece, its 8 minutes long…  The smell of change. (audio)

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Footsteps.

The Orion Face, Ben Nevis in great condition.

Lockdown has the occasional advantage over usual life (not many), but one is the lack of guilt and concern about the time I sit on the sofa staring at the computer screen. Trawling my documents, it’s odd going back to a piece of writing from long ago. It’s even more strange going back to an experience from long ago.

I don’t remember when I first wrote Footsteps, a piece that has just been published on the Mountain Equipment site, but it wasn’t immediately or even close to being after my solo of the Orion Direct on Ben Nevis, because the climb would have taken place in the winter of 95/96 (possibly), and I didn’t start writing until 2000. Twenty-four, or twenty-five years on, I still remember the experience vividly, especially going off-route and climbing the groove near the top of the climb. At that time, climbing the Orion Direct was a big thing for me, and given the poor conditions, it turned into an even bigger thing. It was the final climb of that winter season, I didn’t need to do any more after this experience.

Its crazy how experience, appreciation, gear improvements and conditions can turn something on the limit, to something reasonable. Several years (possibly ten or twelve, maybe more) after my first time climbing the Orion Direct, I walked again, on my own to the Ben. It was late March, birds in the bushes were bouncing around and singing, and the bushes themselves threatened to bounce into life. The weather and conditions were perfect – hard frost, hard ground, blue ice, blue sky. I soloed Point 5, then The Orion Direct and finally Zero Gully, before returning to the valley for a late lunch. Like the first time I climbed The Orion Direct, this was also the last climbing of the winter season, because not only was I keen to begin the rock season, but after climbing these three great climbs in a morning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything else in Scotland that winter, how could I better this experience? For many years I had held onto the dream that one day I may solo these three climbs on the same day and now I’d done it, it was another of life’s dreams realized.

We’re lucky as climbers that in times like this (pandemic lockdown) we can look back and remember, and after re-editing the piece about my first time soloing The Orion Direct, I feel especially lucky to still be around to remember!

The newly edited and quite raw version of Footsteps, which was published in Echoes as the chapter called Honesty, can be read on the Mountain Equipment site here 

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The smell of change.

Lowering from the top of Coliseum, Rodellar, Spain. Credit, Rich Kirby.

As mentioned in the previous post, here is the latest bit of writing, a new piece published on UK Climbing. It’s about being on a climbing trip in Catalonia, Northern Spain, when the Covid-19 crisis hit. It can be read HERE

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Crossing the Years.

Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Credit Ray Wood.

Crazy covid times means no climbing, which equates to writing. Although for some reason my mind doesn’t feel in the right place for new writing, (although I have done something  that will be published soon on UKC, I think?) so I’ve been looking at some old stuff and playing around. The first to be published is on the DMM website and called Crossing the Years. The time frame of the story is early 2000s, I couldn’t remember the exact year. I’d been staying at the CC hut Ynys Ettws in the Llanberis Pass, listening to some stories from the ‘old boys’. I had also been soloing loads that week, so I thought finishing it all off with something ‘traditional’, a solo of the 928ft West Buttress Girdle of Cloggy would be good. It wasn’t!

Ray Wood has included a few of his shots of Cloggy which are great, thanks Ray.

The story can be read here … Crossing the Years

 

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The hot air in between…

On the off-chance, Grimer got in touch, “Nick, are you about? I’m in Llanberis, do you fancy a chat for my podcast, I’ve been doing an interview with Hazel Findlay, a proper climber, I wondered about off-setting it by having a chat with you? (To be read in a Norther Irish accent) I told Grimer I was about, and to come over, what’s the worst that could happen?

Grimer took ten minutes, and in those ten minutes, I told myself there were two things I would not chat about, unfortunately for me, Grimer had other plans, and being a bit of a gob shite when I’m having fun, the two things that I told myself were out-of-bounds, were almost the only things we talked about.

I listened to the interview to see how bad it was, it’s pretty bad, but for those of you that feel like inflicting it upon yourselves, the good bits about it are; it starts with an advert for Grimer’s, Boulder Britain, second edition, and finishes with a really great Van Morrison track, the stuff in between is hot air, not to be taken seriously, but we did laugh a lot.

Be warned, there is a lot of swearing, mostly by me!

You can inflict the interview (term used loosely) on yourselves below…

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Not ferret food.

[I took this picture of a starling yesterday, it reminded me of a chapter from Tides. Below is a long and less edited version of what became chapter 34]

Please Queue Here

I sit on a stone wall and soak the afternoon sun. The newly constructed entrance of the Midi Téléphérique Station is in front – glass, metal, stone, wood – the structure proudly shines. How many times in my life had I sat and waited like this? How many nervous and excited minutes and hours, even days? But like a sharp stone rubbed smooth by the sea, I could not help think, some of the innocent mountain magic has been lost now with the passing of almost twenty two years.

I had driven from Llanberis to Chamonix at the beginning of December and on the way, I visited my parents who still live on their canal boat called Jasper moored near Northampton. As I stood to leave, my Mum handed me a Waitrose shopping bag of Christmas gifts – mint chocolates, dried dates, a Christmas cake she knew I liked to eat on bivouacs, a really good bottle of South African Shiraz and a birthday card containing cash she could not afford to give. Dad sat in his chair smoking and drinking tea. I took the hessian bag – a bag for life – from Mum’s painfully thin and arthritic hand and after a gentle hug, left the boat. I didn’t realise this was the last time I would see my Mum. 

Jack Geldard, my climbing partner for our attempt on a climb called Stupenda, had still not returned from the boulangerie and as I sit and wait – wait with the Chamonix hubbub happening behind – I watch two workers dressed in blue boiler-suits, chipping and spreading salt on a patch of ice that looked like the outline of an island. Pocked brown and jagged – water ran from the disintegrating edge of the island. The slow brown flow trickled and meandered and finally disappeared into a deep crack between paving slabs. Above, starlings look down while standing on the sparkling steel frame of the Midi station.

*

Heavy breathing and the rumble of rocks loosened by the late afternoon sun is the only sound now. Jack and I had skied the Valley Blanche – past The Tacul with all of the routes on the east face I had climbed in 2007 and past The Super Couloir where Rich, Boy Wonder, Lucas and I had climbed in 2004 and on through the Séracs du Géant, to eventually turn right and on to the Leschaux Glacier. On my left, a single ski-tip, old, and very slowly pushed downhill, pointed like a finger from the glacier. I check to see if it is an Atomic, one of the set I lost when airlifted with a broken ankle from the Petites Jorasses. It wasn’t, and with a dull ache in my right ankle, I continued toward the Leschaux hut.

I had stayed in the Leschaux many times and with many different partners including Tim Neill, my friend now for seventeen years after we had snow holed together on out winter mountain leader assessment. Earlier in the winter I had climbed a route with Tim called Fantasia per a Ghiacciatore…

Tim was up front, on occasion I saw his headtorch shine in my direction. We had left the Torino Refugio at six thirty heading into Cirque Maudit with the intention to climb Fantasia, an enclosed ice line I had climbed in 2007 with Steve Ashworth. My lungs crackled and I wondered if this was the same strain of infection that had killed Mum? In my mind’s eye, I saw her lying on a trolley in a hospital corridor tended by ambulance men. Lesley, my sister had been with her, she said they were in the corridor for three hours before being taken to the intensive care unit. My skis cut the snow and my breathing burnt and in the dark, all around, I could see my Mum lying on a trolley in a corridor.

It was light now and in the distilled red striped horizon were jagged mountains. Choughs circled, their wings spread wide to catch the breeze. The Choughs reminded me of the birds from my childhood. As teenager, to feed the ferrets, I would shoot starlings with an air rifle. As a fourteen year old, Starlings were scrawny scavengers, they had nothing to offer, no beautiful song, no beautiful plumage, no grace – Starlings were ferret food. Tim and I geared up, the same as I had geared up a million times, the same as I had geared up beneath this climb a few years earlier when Mum was still alive.

Mum was tall and slim with dark Mediterranean features, but in that frame was strength and determination and as I sat on my rucksack, fitting crampons to my orange ski boots, I could see the deep scar in Mum’s leg where as a child, I had opened all of the draws of a steel filing cabinet, and as the cabinet toppled forward, she jumped in-front taking the force of the and supporting it as it pinned her to the floor with me underneath her fragile body. Someone eventually found us and lifted the cabinet away. SNAP, the crampon locked to my orange boot and the holes in the snow at my feet filled with powder. Arriving home from school once I found Mum covered in oil under her blue Hillman Minx changing the starter-motor, it was a time when cars with diesel engines were rare and this engine had been taken from a large van, it was old and the starter motor was big and heavy, “Pass me that spanner love, I’ll get some tea on in a bit …”

Tim set-off, wading deep snow and crossing the bergschrund beneath the stream of ice clinging to corners and flowing over rock overhangs until it hit the col beneath the summit of Mont Maudit. I followed, clipping to a belay by the side of the first steepening. 

There were many times I thought I would not outlive Mum, I thought she would be in that unenviable situation which, I’m sure, most parents dread, of outliving one of their children. I was wrong and as Tim and I climbed higher and the wind on the col increased, this time, for the first time, the situation felt different, I realised if I died, there of course would be upset and sadness from friends and family, but the one person who would have been truly devastated was now gone.

Mum always took a delight and interest in whatever activities my sister and I were involved, to the point that when I became interested in mountaineering and climbing, within months she could name mountains, mountaineers, Scottish winter climbs, summer rock climbs, Alpine climbs, Himalayan climbs, South American climbs – the lot, and she could enter into conversation about the subject with confidence. This of course was not always the best, because pulling the wool over her eyes was now impossible.

Leaving the sun, climbing into the shadow, into the confined icy corner – images and memories flow with every drag of the pick, every kick and swing and pull… I could see Mum totally worn-out, falling asleep in a high backed chair, with a half filled mug of strong instant coffee balanced by her side. Sometimes, so tiered, the mug fell from her hand. Strong coffee was certainly a big part of Mum’s life and she was seldom without one and it was generally partnered with a super long cigarette. It says something about her determination, that after nearly fifty years of smoking, one day she decided to give up…

… up … up, up above, the spindrift rips into the blue sky and swirls… like steam from a mug, like Starling murmuration, like smoke, like ashes… And either side of this slender ice formation, the granite mullions hem us, hem us the same as the strong skeletal Oak that stood either side of the wooden church gates as we wait, just a few days earlier for the hearse carrying my Mum.

Jack and I left the Leschaux Hut at 5am. We had crossed the glacier and climbed the approach slope beneath Stupenda, an overhanging and direct crack line in the Aiguille du Tacul. I was now deep inside a chimney at the beginning the third pitch and struggled to remove the gloves stuffed down my front, but the food in my chest pockets, and the bundles of blue 4mm tat, still bulged like a beer drinkers paunch. The Styrofoam Jack and I had read about in the Philippe Batoux book, The Finest Climbs in the Mont Blanc Range was nowhere to be found, instead, stuck to the dark, beneath the numerous overhangs, was meringue.

Stupenda is given a grade, V A2 M5+ WI6, I’m not sure what this means, grades in the mountains can often be superfluous. I climbed higher, squeezing deeper, deeper into overhanging granite, deeper into the mountain, to finally reach the pitch three belay. Jack seconded the pitch and I set off on pitch four. I swing through the overhangs directly above the belay. Certain I had just free climbed the crux I shouted to Jack, “Hashtag, first free ascent!” But as I pull through another overhang and into another crack and look up, I see flared and overhanging off-width. My hashtag hubris smacks me and I made a pact with myself to try to be more humble in the future.

On the smooth wall to the right are two, spaced bolts. I realise this must be the A2 section and the bolts had been placed for upward progression. I squirm and arm-bar and leg-bar and body-bar until I feel drunk and I can hardly bar no more. My stomach feels punched.

A few summers ago, one wet weekend in the Llanberis Pass, I was climbing with Dan McManus and we tackled a bunch of off-width test pieces in preparation for Dan’s trip to Yosemite. A body eating, E4 crack called Fear of Infection had me nearly vomiting. I slithered and swore and squirmed. Pushing up, pushing down, hanging in, hanging out… thighs, elbows, back, soles of feet, face… anything to stop me slithering and slipping and losing the millimetres that had taken so much effort. The damp rock rubbed raw the soft, sweating skin of my face and I eyeballed the individual grains of wet Rhyolite. Dan, belaying directly above, laughed, he laughed nearly as hard as I had when he first approached me.

“If ever you need a climbing partner, I’m keen; I lead E3 and will follow anything.”  I’m sure he must laugh about our first meeting – or maybe he doesn’t, maybe he is comfortable in his flesh and maybe I have learnt my valuable lesson.

The walls either side of this Stupenda were Fear of Infection, but this time I was wearing crampons, using axes, wearing several layers of clothing and the rain was substituted with spindrift, but the nausea was much the same.

My torso was above the highest bolt. I attempted to swing a pick into a clear slither of ice glued to the back of the crack, but each time, only a single tooth caught. I could not swing the axe because of the restricting crack and my body was balanced precariously – taught, extended, I needed to escape these constricting granite chains, but my left foot, shin, knee, thigh, failed to purchase and repeatedly I slithered back to the one foothold inside the crack. ‘You can do this.’ Suddenly I realised how important free climbing this stupid Stupenda had become and my younger determination was shocking.

I wanted to free climb Stupenda for the physical and technical challenge and because free climbing is more natural for me and my attitude – pulling on gear has never felt satisfying. But deep inside, as I climbed higher and higher, somewhere in the back of my brain, was a rusty nail driven deep into twisted grain. I wanted to prove a point to Philippe Batoux, the first ascentionists, because in the past he had openly questioned some of my climbing. There was also the thought of being able to instantly show and tell, show and swell, puff up my chest like a starling. A free ascent of this climb would do it, I would show all the others what a good time I was having in the Alps. But, but, don’t I look down on climbers for lack of modesty, being full of hubris and pushing their ‘great’ ascents repeatedly and forcefully down my throat? In Fact, I was so sick of the spray this winter I needed Milk of Magnesia. But deep, deeply driven was that nail and that nail wanted to be liked and accepted and loved as much as everyone, but that nail was corroded and it filled my brain with flakes of rust…

Knee bar, arm bar, squirming, battling… ‘first free ascent’… millimetres … arm bar …’look at me’… I take hold of the axe jabbed to the drool of ice. Thrutching. Sweating. A millimetre, a centimetre. ‘Still clean.’… Hunting. Hanging. Wedged. ‘Still clean.’ Held in-place by a twisted thigh, body tension. ‘Still clean.’

Level with my right foot was the higher of the two bolts which had a carabineer clipped. I stared; it was tempting for a front point, ‘who would know?’ But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, because of course, I would know and some of the less honest or should I say, some of the things I have said or done, that I am less proud, still haunt me and I have learnt that my life is more healthy without echoes or ghosts.

I stripped myself to skin and bone and sinew to make myself light. Ego, and the fear of failure, could, at one time, weigh me down but fortunately, not that often anymore. So what if I fall and the free ascent was lost, so what if I didn’t clamour to update my status – this fight is my fight and my fight alone. I match the axe with both hands – pull and squirm. Millimetres. Millimetres. The right leg flaps and scrapes. Millimetres. Squirming… but the ice grows tired and the axe rips and ice shards explode, hitting me in the face, and I fall like a Starling shot with a lump of lead, fired from a teenagers air-rifle. And as I fall, being scared hardly enters my mind, but for a second, just one plummeting second, being disappointed and even being angry does. But the disappointment and anger was only for a second, and by the time twenty-five feet had past, I was happy and in some way content.

“Are you OK?”

“Yep, I’m good ta.”

Learning to live this life and move through this life is often about accepting the contradiction within us…

I pull myself up the rope and this time, using a front point neatly placed into the karabiner clipped to the high bolt, I managed to find a hook and once more, begin to squirm and thrash and eventually reach the belay.

Three bold and technically demanding pitches follow but finally, finally, I’m stood in the brèche at the top of the climb. Exhausted. Enshrouded by dark. I had taken a claw hammer to my brain, my life is taking a claw hammer to my brain. Mum would have been proud…

A few days after climbing Stupenda, Jack and I were in the hills again, hoping this time to climb the Dru Couloir Direct, but unlike Stupenda, we knew this climb had been in condition, it had received four ascents earlier this winter. The Dru Couloir held a special place for me, it was one of my earlier, successful Alpine climbs, but it had not been a giveaway and the thought of returning fifteen years later, intrigued.

It was September 2000 when I had driven from Leicestershire to Chamonix with Paul Schweizer. Paul was a reasonably affable West Coast American with a penchant to rant – we immediately connected.  Old – older than me anyway – a tad crusty, goatee sporting, round wire frame glasses, straggly hair sprouting from a thinning – quirky, off-the-wall, intelligent, articulate – Paul was an Edinburgh University Lecturer in computer logic, and fifteen years down the line, I still don’t know what this is. To be honest, I think I’m incorrect by calling it computer logic, but this is my limited capacity for understanding the subject Paul actually lectures.

Heavily laden, stepping from the Grands Montets Telecabine, Paul, lumbered, a bowed six-foot something dressed in black with purple Scarpa Vega boots. His weight caused the snow-dusted wooden floorboards to sag. It was 4pm and outside, the wind and snow and cloud were swirling. This was the last lift of the summer; the téléphérique was now closed for maintenance before the winter season started in December. We added several layers and waited, planning to sleep in the toilet and approach the Dru North Face in the morning. A friendly guy from the café guessed our plan and handed us left-over food including cake; he then departed on the final lift of the season. The cake, eaten in the dissolving warmth of the long drop, lost a little of its French eloquence, but was still tasty.

Leaving the cloistering stench of the toilet early, I don’t remember exactly at what time or anything about the approach or even anything about climbing the initial snowed up granite slabs, but I can still smell those toilets. Being American, I pointed Paul at the Nominee Crack… A1, no problem for a 70’s Yosemite Valley dwelling Septic, but Paul forgot to say, at that time in the valley, he was one of the new breed of climbers – living, smoking, drinking, partying, living free and climbing free, not with aid – he had as much an idea about aid climbing as I, and that was about as much idea as I had about computer logic.

Six hours passed, possibly longer and in that time I sat and willed and looked around at the sheer walls feeling isolated and exposed. Paul at last made it to the top of the Nominee Crack, a bowed overhanging crack, by fighting and back cleaning, he had left me little to grab and many years before big handled axes and no leashes, I attacked the crack in a free, thrash, grunt style and still wearing my monster rucksack.  Needless to say I struggled and in one moment of pulling-like-a-train desperation, an axe ripped and the massive adze of my straight shafted Grivel Super Courmayeur smashed me in the face with a sickening thud and the splatter of and taste of blood. I had ripped my cheek, making me think I’d smashed the bony, inferior orbit just below my eye and blinded myself. But I could see stars, so maybe not. 

Flopping onto a small sloping ledge alongside Paul, I was bleeding and bruised and exhausted. We stayed on the ledge and in the night it began to snow and the snowflakes were the biggest and most perfectly formed, they settled and covered our gear. In the morning the snow continued but we decided to climb-on. Following an old description and after most of the morning, Paul, on the sharp-end, and getting very close to the ice in the continuation of the couloir, was squinting and clearing condensation from his round glasses and looking at some desperation lying between him and the easier ground to his right. Blankets of powder fell regularly making the steamed up spectacles even more of a problem. “Fuuuucking hell man, this is shit.” Paul drawled while balancing, cleaning glasses and moaning, before being hit by another cloud and having to repeat the whole operation again. Eventually with avalanches pouring down around us, we bailed.

A few abseils from our high point, in the slabby open arena and on full rope stretch, I kicked into the snow making a small step and to save time, unclipped from the rope to allow Paul to come down while I set up an anchor. The ropes pulled through my belay plate, springing out of reach. Paul began abseiling and suddenly yelled, and for once it was not a laid back American Hippy drawl, his voice sounded sharp and intent, near manic. “WATCHOUT MAN, AVALANCHE.” Looking up, I had time to see an arc of white pouring from the top of the most beautiful and direct cut, cleaved into the mountain – a steep and overhanging darkness, a siren with a smattering of ice baubles and granite flakes like the fins of sharks – mesmerising – this was the mythical Dru Couloir Direct, first climbed by Tobin Sorenson and Rick Accomazzo in 1977, but coming from the tooth filled mouth was a wave of whispering white and as the snow hit, I reached up grabbing the dangling ends of the ropes which fortunately were now in reach with the weight of Paul. I twisted them around my wrist as the snow hit. My shoulder stretched as the snow built and poured over me. Hanging, tucking my chin to my chest, I managed to gulp air and after about two days, the snow slowed and turned to a trickle.

Reaching the Dru Rognon beneath the West Face, Paul and I stripped off layers in the warm sun. What had just happened? We had escaped another world – a dark and foreboding world where dragons live. This we had now, this was another life, a warmer, safer life. We began the walk downhill but soon collapsed and made a bivi in the damp, pine-needle earth, below trees with flitting birds that pecked cones and hunted insects. The next day we thrashed the giant rhubarb and down-climbed disintegrating rubble because we didn’t know about the ladders on our left that safely led to the Mer de Glace. Sometime, mid-morning, surrounded by sweet smelling people, we caught the Montenvers Train and returned to the green valley.

Armed with a more up-to-date route description, several days later, Paul and I returned to the Dru Couloir. We had a bivi before, a bivi on route, a bivi at the Brèche and a bivi on the Charpoua Glacier when we abseiled too low and missed the turning for the Charpoua Hut. But we had successfully climbed The Dru Couloir and we were happy.

Jack and I had a leisurely approach to The Dru North Face and we had a leisurely bivi on the glacier. We cut depressions in the snow to allow our blow up matts to sit, we chatted, melted snow with our efficient gas stove, drank tea, ate biscuits and at 4.30am, left to climb the Dru Couloir Direct. At approximately 3.30pm, we stood in the Dru Brèche, looking through a granite picture frame at a cumulous enshroud Mont Blanc. A leisurely return to our bivi by abseiling the line was uneventful and after a cold, but safe night, we prepared to boot back to the Grand Montets station.

Leaving the bivi, the same bivi Pete Benson and I had shared when we had climbed the Dru North Face in a bitter winter high pressure, 2008, the memories flood. We passed beneath a new line I had climbed with Jules Cartwright called Borderline, beneath a line I had climbed with Andy Houseman and Ian Parnell called Russian Roulette and we walked in the fifteen year old footsteps of Paul Schweizer and myself. The sun cast jagged shadows as we crossed crevasses and beneath my feet, I imagined the depth and age, the icy layers and history. My boot sank into warm snow and I remembered more recent events and the ski-out after Jack and my ascent of Stupenda.

I lay on a wooden bench looking at the stars. Jack lay on a second bench doing the same. There were millions of them, a Starlings chest of iridescence – black plumes smattered with silver flecks amongst an oil slick of green, blue, purple and red. It was half past midnight, Jack and I had skied the bottom section of the VB and walked the steep snow-slope, leading through the woods to the small wooden hut at the start of the narrow, and zigzagged, James Bond Track. The track would eventually lead us back to Chamonix. I sat up and looked across the orange glow of town, across the moving white headlights, the dogs and cats, the parties, the blue shutters, the frosted pewter cobbles, the cafes, the silver icicles hanging from gutters, the stationary lorries with smoking chimneys and on – my eyes moved on to the snow slopes of the Brèvent and Flégère and the piste bashers out on the hillsides, moving around like a War of the Worlds invasion – flashing yellow lights, powerful white beams, smoothing and grooming, hunting and searching.

“How you feeling?” Jack asked.

“I’m totally knackered,” I replied without taking my eyes from the moving lights of the piste bashers that were now blurred by the cloud of condensation rising from my mouth. “Bloody love this feeling, never want it to end.” And then it hit me, because of course, it will end. I had lost my Mum and I had already crossed the halfway point in my own life and as I lay on the bench looking at the stars, I knew this queue was the same queue as we all stood, and this almost made me weep, but it also made this time expanding, opaque, alpine life and the sacrifice to live it, even more worthwhile and wondrous. And as I lay in the chill, with thick steam rising from my clothing, I realise that I still cling to the alpine innocence, but with growing older, it needed more of a jolt. But with this growing older, other facets also became more important – the shared experience, the connection to the surroundings and of course the memories.

And in the branches of the trees surrounding Jack and myself, I imagine are Starlings, such gregarious and beautiful survivors.

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The hour before dawn.

Tim Neill seconding pitch 7, day two of Astrodog. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s South Rim.

Protected by a small green tent, wrapped inside my sleeping bag, I lie awake on top of an air matt. Outside it’s dark and cold. Clothes piled next to my head smell of woodsmoke. A diesel heater attached to the underside of van on the opposite side of the gravel track, kicks in. I turn onto my side in an attempt to block out the noise. The sleeping bag becomes a knot at my feet causing me to struggle. I don’t like waking in the hour before dawn, because any concerns I have, will choose this time to force their way in and repeatedly run on something akin to a reel inside my head. Generally, my early morning concerns are not as bad as they feel while lying in the dark, and usually by ten, they have been forgotten. It’s not a problem on this occasion anyway because I know my alarm will sound in a minute and I’ll get up.

Many people have heard about The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but loads haven’t, it could be described as one of climbing’s biggest, worst kept secrets. For those who do know about it, The Black has a reputation, especially with climbers from the States, and I suppose, rightly so. The canyon is about 2000 feet deep with a large river running through its length. In the base, at its most narrow, its 40 feet where the river butts the base of the cliffs, and the width at the top, is approximately 1000 feet. It’s difficult to see a climb before getting on it, never mind inspect, so it’s more often than not, a case of setting out, hoping the guidebook description is correct. There are very few climbs with less than six pitches, most have eight – twelve – fourteen – twenty… On the well-travelled routes, there will be suspect rock, on the less frequented climbs more so. The climbing is predominantly traditionally protected, there are very few bolts, in-fact, there is hardly any in-situ protection anywhere, not even for belays, and once you’ve started to climb, escape (should you discover the 5.9 you thought you would float up is actually really difficult), is a mission, and a big chunk of rack will have to be abandoned. If you do have to abseil, it’ll take a few hours, or longer to get out, and the sun will beat you for your lack of staying power. Even if you manage to get up your route, you’ll possibly underestimate the sustained nature of the climbing, the effect of the sun (or cold), or altitude, and top out in the dark, or maybe you’ll have an enforced bivouac, shivering the night on a ledge 100 metres below the campground or your car.

Tim Neill and I had been rock climbing in Colorado for three weeks. Apart from two days climbing near Boulder, all of our time has been in The Black, and we still had two weeks remaining. Tim and I had met many other climbers who asked us where else we are going to climb, but when we answer that we are spending the whole of our trip in The Black, they look a little bemused, you can see they think we’re a tad mad.

I dragged myself from the sleeping bag and into the dark and cold and after a quiet breakfast we left camp. A band of cold red on the horizon teased as Tim and I walked through the scrub looking for the cairns that signified the top of the Prisoner of your Hairdo Gully (by all accounts, a nasty descent with trees of poison ivy, and an hour and a half later, we reached the river. The canyon walls tower above us. It would be an hour, maybe longer before the sun would round the rim and warm would enter the confines of the canyon. We are here to climb a route called Atlantis, a 16 pitch 5.11, but with a slightly shorter get out clause; a massive ledge leading to an escape gully after 13 pitches. We are certain we will take the escape gully because we’re not climbing quick enough to complete all 16 pitches in daylight. A few days ago, we had climbed what we were told were the best three pitches from the ledge, the final pitches of a route called Lost Cities and they were three, exceptional pitches, (for those reading this that have climbed on the Main Cliff at Gogarth, think of the best pitch you’ve done and multiply by 3) so using a modular mindset, we consoled ourselves that escaping at the top of 13 pitches was fair enough.

The dark wrapped me. I felt alone. We had climbed all day to reach this point, but this point felt significant! There was supposedly a single peg, but I hadn’t found it. I was climbing pitch 13, the one that leads to the massive ledge and the escape gully. The description for pitch 13 is wander through the pegmatite band. Wandering is OK, until it comes to wandering in the dark. Wandering through pegmatite in the dark with only headtorch light is not OK! I scrapped crumbling rock fifty feet above two tiny brass placements, when the beam of my headtorch picked out a 4ft sling with a carabiner hanging from something, I climbed a few tricky moves and then a few more thinking it was the peg. I wanted that peg. Small flakes of rock rained from my toes. I really wanted that peg… Locking-off, I clipped the carabiner and for a second my dark became bright, then I tilted my head and the beam lit a small blue cam poking from a shallow crack. The cam wobbled, held only in place by two lobes. Above, now on the edge of the light was a dagger of rock, so I continued to climb and when close enough, grabbed it. Dirt poured from behind the fang and a hollow ringing noise echoed as I tapped. In the dark, alone, my breathing condensed as I grappled and eventually placed a single wire behind the dagger. Cramp and pump and terror wracked my body. Eventually I forced myself towards an even more overhanging groove on the left, but as I did, a square handhold ripped and I was falling. I screamed, and my scream bounced from the walls on the opposite side of the canyon, but the scream was cut short as the single blue offset, wedged into dirt behind the hollow dagger, held. Tim shouted asking if I was OK. I replied I was but in reality, I wasn’t!

Pulling back up the rope, I almost laughed like some demented person but I was terrified my laughing would cause the single offset to rip-out. Tim suggested lowering me to the ledge and waiting until the morning, but a pretty bad cold beckoned, and didn’t fancy the ledge so continued up. I reached the blue offset and crammed another three pieces of gear behind the same dagger, before tensioning left while expecting everything, including the dagger, to explode. Grappling. Slipping. I jammed a microcam into a crack and grabbed it. Placing another cam alongside the first one, I grabbed the two and attempted to control my breathing. I shut out what would happen if the cams ripped, and attempted to gain some form of composure before free climbing once more. The groove was yellow and mossy and dirty, it was overhanging, but at some point, I pulled from the top and stood on a ledge knowing we were now going to get out tonight.

The pool of light provided by my headlamp lit the rock in front of my face. Numb. The ledge I was stood was large and flat, and just above my head was the massive ledge that would be our escape. I was attached to five pieces of gear, each one was perfect and strong, but at that very moment I wanted to be clipped to all five pieces. The moon was almost full, the canyon and the river at its base was bathed in eerie light. Bats flitted around my head. I took in the ropes as Tim seconded the pitch, and wondered if he was enjoying himself?

Tim and I climbed one more route in The Black before we headed back to Denver, the route was a climb called Astrodog. Astrodog was another long climb, 14 pitches, but it had a perfect bivvy ledge at the half way point, so being old and slow, we took the approach we would go prepared and split the climb over two days. Even so, when we climbed Astrodog, we still didn’t finish the second day that far ahead of the dark.

*

The rain on my return to Llanberis was a bit of a shock, but considering it was the 25th of October, the rain wasn’t that much of a surprise. I trained indoors at The Beacon over the weekend and arranged to go outside with TPM, (Mick Lovatt) on Tuesday. I don’t enjoy rock climbing outdoors in the British winter. I suffer with Raynaud’s Disease, which makes rock climbing in the damp and cold miserable, plus, I have always hated wasting time, and a lot of rock climbing in the winter is about being shut down even before you begin, but maybe that’s a lack of effort from me. I’ve also had my toes frost nipped, and stuffing cold toes into cold rock shoes feels like punishment. To top all of this, I had a cold that had begun when I was on Atlantis. The cold became worse while climbing Astrodog and got even worse while climbing in Eldorado Canyon near Boulder before catching the flight home. Since returning to Britain, the cold had turned into one of those horrible winter things, I had a daily dose of nausea to compliment the feeling of crap. Anyway, that’s enough excuses, I don’t like winter rock climbing in the UK.

TPM suggested I go over to his back yard, the Llŷn Peninsula, and go to look at a climb called The Apprentice. The Apprentice was climbed in 2007 by a long-time friend, Dan McMannus while accompanied by another friend, Pat Littlejohn. When Dan climbed the first ascent with Pat, he climbed it on-sight, a great and bold effort. Pat had attempted it before, but backed off, saying it was too difficult for him. He then offered it to Dan. Dan gave it a grade of E6, but Pat said it was E7, and knowing them both, I was more inclined to take Pat’s take on it than Dan’s. Back in 2007, Dan didn’t realise how good a climber he was. At the time, Dan told me it was a good climb, but since then, it had not been on my radar. What I mean by not on my radar is, given the short amount of years I have left to climb, time is becoming more valued, and with what’s remaining, I prefer to maximise the climbing I do. But more than just climbing any old climb, I wanted to climb good quality routes and I’ll do this by using whatever style I feel is best given the situation and the climb. Having a feeling of time slipping away has always been a thing with me, even when I was younger, and finding climbing late in life has added to this feeling. I’ve never been the best rock climber, not by a long shot, but I’ve always enjoyed my rock climbing, it enhances my life, and almost always surprises me when I manage to get to the top of a climb by whatever style adopted on the day.

I began rock climbing properly when I was transferred, as a PE Instructor in the Prison Service, from Suffolk back to Leicestershire. I was thirty years old then. On my days off I would stay with my parents, who lived in Cheadle, Staffordshire, before driving on my own to the Roaches, and on-sight solo routes, or hastily down-climb or on occasion fall off! As time went by, my knowledge of ropes and building anchors and self-protection increased, so occasionally I would throw a rope down a climb and work it before soloing it. I managed to scrape my way up quite a few grit E3’s, E4’s and E5’s this way. I even manged Piece of Mind, an E6 on the Roaches Upper Tier, which was terrifying. I can still remember pulling the final moves and sitting down, my body almost locking up with shock and terror. I almost took the same philosophy to winter, because I was psyched beyond belief. More often than not I didn’t have partners, so on-sight soloing up to Scottish VI became usual. It took a few years before I found regular partners to climb with, and when I did, it became even more scary because I threw myself at anything thinking it was now safe. Fortunately I survived those early years, but I have always taken an attitude that my time is short and I will use all techniques and methods to get the best out of climbing for me; so there are climbs I will save for an on-sight attempt, there are climbs I will ground-up, there are climbs I will never be good enough to on-sight (but I can work and lead, generally placing all gear as I go), and there are climbs I will never be good enough to climb, no matter the adopted style chosen. Some climbs I work and use as a stepping stone, so I can attempt others in a better style, some climbs I don’t care what style I adopt. Being old and more scared now, I mainly top rope routes of an E7 grade that I still want to lead and it gives me a lot of personal satisfaction to do so, I still get scared and physically they still challenge me even though I’ve worked them. I still attempt some other, safe climbs, on-sight, because I love the battle and the psychology of it, but in North Wales there isn’t much for me to go at safely, or routes that inspire me having spent the last 18 years climbing in the area, so usually I do this on trips to other areas.

Walking across the hillside above the sandy Porth Ceriad Beach it feels a stolen day. The sun is shining, there isn’t any wind, its eleven degrees and it’s great to be out. Mick has a knackered shoulder and I feel like I may vomit, but it’s still great to be out on this grassy headland.

Mick had looked at The Apprentice before by peering over the top and knows the way, so we are soon throwing gear about and having a laugh. Since this is Llŷn, with poor rock quality, and the wall has a coating of lichen, Mick suggests cleaning and throwing a lap or two on a top rope. If we have chance for a lead, great, but the clocks have just changed and it will be dark by five. I agree, like I said, the climb has not been on my radar, it didn’t mean much, but if I get a day of exercise, given the way I feel, I’m not bothered. Mick has had a great summer, he had climbed loads of routes, and he said he didn’t feel like scaring himself today. I can empathise with this, especially as I was still quaking after the pegmatite pitch in the dark on Atlantis.

“No worries Mick, I can’t be arsed to scare myself today either.” I replied.

The sun is shining; it’s warm and peaceful. Below us there were boulders and towards the edge of the boulders, a calm sea. The sand of the beach turned from an orange dark-damp to yellow. Mick had placed gear in the climb so the rope followed the line and brushed off the lichen before climbing back out. I abseiled over the edge. The climb consisted two pitches, the first being short and overhanging, leading to a large ledge, the second was a gently overhanging wall made up of snappy red rock, cracks, crumbling edges. Neither Mick nor I climbed the first pitch, we decided to climb the upper section to see how that was, and a decision could be made whether to practice the lower section, or try to lead it without practice whenever the time came. Leaving the ledge, although relatively straight forward, the climbing was spooky and pumpy because of the quality of the rock. The middle section was technical and difficult, but on lead would be well protected, and the final section was pumpy as hell due to the lack of good foot placements.

I pulled over the top of the climb with mixed emotions. I was happy that the climbing was mostly good quality and challenging, or at least the upper pitch was. I was happy we would be getting the best out of a short day. I was happy that I wasn’t terrifying myself, and I was happy that I was in a beautiful place with a friend. I did have a bit of regret that we had not attempted to have a go ground up, but we had made the decision to go in from the top and so be it, this decision felt the best for us on the day, and there were many more climbs and experiences to be had when the situation felt more suitable.

While we had been on the climb a few families had arrived to spend time on the beach. As I sat at the top someone shouted up. It was a person I know reasonably well, a climber that I enjoy meeting and chatting with. Later in the day Mick and I shuffled down the hill side and the person spending the day with his family came up. We sat in the sun and talked for a while before I staggered back up the slope for a final climb. I thought about the conversation we had been having, which was about geology, nature, climbing and a large jellyfish that was washed up onto the beach. I enjoyed the interaction and the shared experience. I like connecting with people, and enjoy the company of someone I respected.

Later, in the evening I went onto Twitter and on the top of my news feed was a picture of myself on The Apprentice and the comment with the picture was Beautiful day at Porth Ceriad today, family beach scenes enlivened by a couple of top-ropers. Now, I’m a sensitive soul, I know I am, and at times I have to take a step back and think about things to arrive at a balanced opinion. At times with my sensitivity, I know I take things to heart. I realise this is my thing, and because of this, I always attempt to look at myself first before reacting, but even after reflection, I felt upset, deceived and let down. I’m not saying the term ‘top ropers’ is derogatory per se, because it isn’t, but in this case, it was being used as some form of insult; he knew both our names, so, could have used them, or he could have just said climbers. Did he need to comment on the style of ascent being used, no, not unless he wanted to make a point. The reason he used the term ‘top ropers’ was because he had a problem with the style of ascent we had decided to use that day. We had chatted and had a pleasant conversation, and at no time had the style of our climbing come up in conversation, and he chose to wait until he had an internet audience. If he had brought up in conversation the style we had decided to incorporate on that particular day, he may have heard why we had decided to top rope the route, and possibly for a more rounded and balanced twitter post, could have included this, but in general, that’s not the way of the people who like to seek mutual approval on social media, people who get something out of turning people against people. In the past I have possibly done a similar thing, but I think I’ve become more understanding and tolerant, I’ve certainly become a more compassionate person. I prefer now to look at my own inadequacies and write and learn about myself without damaging, bullying or being aggressive to others. I think, and hope, I have now become a person who favours people instead of an ideology.

The situation for me got worse, because a good friend, whom I have spent great and valued times, added to the conversation by saying, Hope it wasn’t Bullock. It’s got good gear that. The original poster replied, Who else? Fresh from The Black. Yeah they had loads of gear in. Is that how they do trad in Wales now? If I had any doubt about my initial understanding of his post, it was certain to me now, he was making a point, and the point was he didn’t like the style we were adopting. It was also clear (in my mind) he had a problem with me alone, Mick didn’t get a mention. Not wanting to defend myself too much, but on this occasion, I feel its justified, I think I’ve done a few bold things in the past, so the comments felt unfair, and I really don’t need to defend anything. I’m always honest about the style I use on climbs, and most of the time, I talk about my shortfalls and inadequacies. Top roping is a form of climbing many people, at some time or another, have adopted since the start of climbing, and in all areas, not just Wales. Even our top ‘trad’ climbers of today and of yesteryear, people who climbed and climb a lot harder than myself, people who were, and are, a lot younger and more talented than me, top rope routes, so why is the Twitter condemnation aimed completely at me, but on saying this, the question I suppose, when this sort of thing happens is, why should it be aimed at anyone?

I’m allowed to choose to climb in whatever style I wish. I’m always honest and open about the style of ascent and it shouldn’t concern anyone, unless they have a motive or are zealots. I was never going to spray across social media about climbing The Apprentice, because I don’t do that. I struggle to big myself up about most of the routes I climb. While in the Black Canyon and Eldorado Canyon, Tim and I climbed about 90 pitches over 5 weeks, all trad, all on-sight. One of those pitches was one of the most terrifying bits of climbing I have ever done, and that includes in winter, on mountains, on rock, anywhere. I took hundreds of pictures over the five weeks, and placed four of them on Twitter, and on all four occasions, I felt I was letting myself down, but I’m a sponsored climber and feel the need to somehow pay back a little for the support I receive. I’m never going to work a route and then shout about how good I am, and I think most people understand this about me.

At times, on social media, I get annoyed with the lack of honesty when climbers post pictures or a short, hyped description of a climb, because often the true difficulty, or the style being adopted is not talked about, and the whole thing lacks integrity. Sometimes friends post things I would never post, but I wouldn’t dream of going to social media and attacking them, they are my friends. I will sit with them and chat about my feelings, or send a private message, their friendship deserves more than whatever it is I’m trying to prove by going to the crowds. Shouting to a crowd, attempting to rally support against people I care for, people I value, attempting to discredit and cause pain, is not my way, there might have been a time in the past I have attacked people but I regret this. Social media has an air of the lynch mob and its nasty when used in this way, it destroys lives, I can see this now.

My good friend then added #lame. I was really upset by his comments, more than the original posters comments, he was a close friend. I felt bullied by the whole thing, it had an air of aggression and superiority.

I think a lot about social media and the effects of social media on the individual. There has been much reported about the stress it causes to individuals, and I think its valid. When someone chooses to go to the airwaves and write derogatory remarks about an individual, in many cases, they really don’t know what affect the things they are saying has. I consider myself emotionally strong and reasonably well balanced (ha, OK, I know there is a whole crowd laughing at that one!) but this twitter episode had me awake at night and in the hour before dawn. I was thinking, almost constantly, about how unfair it was and how I felt victimised. I really didn’t like the deceit from the person who published the original post, this upset me as much as anything. I had conversations running repeatedly through my head. I decided I would let my friend, who had added his comments to the original post, know how upset I was, and I did when we met in the Beacon. I’m pleased to say he looked shocked when I told him how upset I was, his reaction showed that he never intended to hurt me, he messaged later and apologized, he said it was just banter, but this proves how damaging and how cautious we should be when dealing with social media. My friend is a great climber, he has a large following and anyone reading his comments would not know he was joking, they would take him serious, I did, and before you know it (maybe not on this occasion), but a person’s life and health can be seriously affected by ‘banter’.

I don’t like social media, I struggle with the aggression, the bullying, the intolerance. I don’t like the way the world is becoming more abusive and aggressive towards people who have similar views or very different views than those of my own. I believe intolerance and abusive language and aggression cause more intolerance and abuse and aggression, and I worry where it’s all going.

People will always have a different opinion, a different way to do things, that’s fine, but as climbers and friends, let’s talk face to face, lets solve problems and differences with compassion and understanding and empathy.

Tim and I climbed 15 routes in The Black over 4 weeks, and alongside the climbing, the people we met and hung-out with, were friendly, supportive and helpful, they enhanced our trip and our lives. The camping was quiet and relaxing, and the wildlife we encountered, enriching. The low-key nature of the place made for a wonderful time and with no phone signal and no internet, there was of course no social media… Peace.

[I would prefer anyone reading this not to go to Twitter and try to find out who I’ve been writing about, it’s not important and please dont attack anyone on Social Media after reading it, thats kind of missing the point. Cheers 🙂 ]

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Salem…

Inbound storm over the Irish Sea. We stood watching and taking pictures and then decided to pack bags and run!

I’ve (almost) exclusively been a rock climber in 2019, and the continuous time on rock has resulted in the obvious: fitter, (a bit) stronger, more confident. But an unforeseen advantage of this rock only diet is, its made me a tad less selfish (I hope).

On the occasional weekend through summer, my partner, Zylo and I, have been climbing some of the big Gogarth classics; A Dream of White Horses, Left-Hand Red Wall, Mousetrap. Zylo has climbed loads, and is a good climber, but she has, until this summer, had an obvious gap or two, and these gaps are because she climbs with me at the weekend, (her only time off apart from holidays) and I don’t want to spend the whole day climbing a relatively easy route I’ve climbed before. We still have a good time, and climb great routes, but I’ve always thought I’m being selfish. In the past, I’ve wanted to use the time to climb a route I haven’t done before, or at least maintain my personal fitness, delay the oncoming mountain weakness. So, when it comes to deciding where to go that day, I’ll suggest crags where we can both climb short routes, and I’ll get the opportunity to climb something I haven’t been on before, or at least, get a work-out on a climb I know well. I have always felt guilty for not going on big classic routes, because I know Zylo wants to climb them, but not guilty enough to do them!

Anyway, like I said, an unforeseen advantage of purely being a rock climber for a long period is, I’m not as selfish, (hopefully) and it’s been great to experience these routes again with Zylo. And in climbing them, it’s easy to see how in the pursuit of fitness, or pushing a grade, or the need to continue climbing routes you have not done before, something can be lost. It’s easy to fail to appreciate the other stuff that makes climbing so good – the surroundings, the wildlife or just how fantastic these climbs really are.

The day Zylo and I climbed Left-Hand Red Wall, Chris Parkin and Mike Pycroft were across from us. I yawped and asked what route they were climbing. Chris yelled back, “Salem.” Until that point, I thought I had climbed every route on Left-Hand Red Wall, but when Chris yelled Salem at me, I realized I hadn’t.

A week or so later, alongside Lee Roberts, we both stood at the top of Red Wall contemplating whether to commit to the abseil. The wind was blasting up and over. Crispy ramaliner caught on the wind and spiralled into the salty air. Gulls circled the large swell capped with white. The sea washed noisily around the base of Red Wall. It had been pouring with rain for most of the night, and we questioned, maybe the soft red rock would be sticky putty? Red Wall is like that, it always feels a tad committing and once in, you know, no matter what, you are in for a memorable time getting out – but more often than not, the most committing part of the day is the slide down the abseil rope, and the problem often becomes one of overheating!

The thing I like about trad climbing at Gogarth is, many of the routes have history and a story, and many of the first ascensionists are people that inspired me. Salem was first climbed by Paul Pritchard in November 1987. Paul definitely fits into this inspiring category, a bit of a nutter, but an inspiring nutter! I’ve always enjoyed ‘experiencing’ Paul’s climbs, and in the old Gogarth guidebook, there is a picture of Paul climbing the first ascent of Salem, which, in my mind, is the best picture in the book.

Lee was keen, so after hanging over the edge in an attempt to see if the rock was dry, I thought, ‘ah well, bugger it’ we’ll get out on something!

I wrote about the picture of Paul climbing Salem in Echoes, or was it Tides, I’m not sure which it was now…

Paul Pritchard on the first ascent of Salem, taken from the old CC Gogarth Guidebook. Picture credit, Richie Brooks.

I stare into the Gogarth guidebook and look at the pictures. One stands out more than the rest. Paul Pritchard’s eyes burn into the rock. He peeps from his duvet jacket, focused only on the solidity of his immediate future. Thin, black-striped, lycra-clad-legs poke from the oversized jacket. The leggings are tucked into socks pulled high – Pritchard is literally clinging to life on a cold wind driven day. The South Stack lighthouse glows yellow in the background, lighting the way with methodical, mesmerizing regularity. The sea below is in turmoil. Stare long and hard and be there with him. Listen long and hard – hear the gull’s cry and the crash of the sea … listen to his heartbeat … feel your own heartbeat.

Salem is number 17. Topo from the new Ground Up, Gogarth South guidebook.

The day that Lee and I climbed Salem we abseiled into the stance at the top of the first pitch of Pagan. I’ve climbed this ‘5b’ pitch on numerous occasions and thought it was justified not climbing it, but hanging, and looking across, I felt we had missed out as its full value for 5b, and would have made the day even more memorable. Suppose getting old has made me either sensible or scared, maybe a bit of both. Wish we had climbed it!

The hanging belay at the top of the first pitch of Pagan. 2 rusty pegs and a bolt placed in clay, presumably from the first ascent of Deygo 1968 or Pagan 1973 … bomber!

Lee on the first Salem/Deygo pitch, looking a tad more warm and Euro, than Paul did on the first ascent.

I pulled the lip of Red Wall having climbed the final pitch. Lee seconded and soon we were stood side by side, in the same place we had been a few hours earlier. A storm was heading our way, the wind had picked up again, hammering the coast. Waves charged and smashed, spray and clots of bubbles flew into a blackening sky. Bands of rain were lashing the surface of the sea. For a while we watched, but then, as if coming from our Red Wall haze, we realized we were about to be hit. Lee, quicker than me, was off, hot-footing toward the van parked not far away on the side of the road. Slower, I grabbed handfuls of gear and clothes and ropes and attempted to get into a jacket that resembled a kite. The rain hit then, big fat blots. I threw a badly packed sack onto my back and ran up the heathery hill. Pushed on by the wind and rain, I reached the van gasping. Rain thumped into the side of the van, Lee was hunkered down on the other, more sheltered side, we laughed then…

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Trumpet Blowing…

Scimitar. Ray Wood pic.

In October 2003, at the age of 37, I resigned from my job as a PE Instructor in the Prison Service. I walked out of the gates of HMP Welford Rd and began a life of climbing and writing. No direction, other than towards the cliffs or sitting behind the keyboard of a computer. In the following 16 years one of the most rewarding aspects of this choice has been the time to pursue all genres of climbing: Alpine, expedition, ice, sport, bouldering, Scottish winter, traditional. I’m fortunate, and I recognise that I live a privileged lifestyle – a lifestyle that enables me to spend a chunk of time pursuing one aspect of climbing, and when the time comes for change, I can dedicate my time elsewhere.

I hardly sport climbed before I left full time employment; I preferred to trad climb, winter climb in Scotland, Alpine climb and expedition climb, but since 2003, since gaining more control of how my time is spent, I go on sport climbing trips most years. Recently, my sport trips have grown in frequency and length, visiting new areas and new crags, but when I return to Llanberis in North Wales, I’m generally keen to take my fitness to the traditional cliffs, and on occasion, this ‘sport’ fitness even helps, although it never appears to help as much as I think it may.

One of my first sport climbing trips was in in the spring of 2005 to Gorges du Tarn. I think I hit the heights of 7a+, maybe 7b. When I returned to Llanberis, Dougal Tavener and I headed up the steep hillside to the Cromlech, I wanted to ‘throw a lap’ on Lord of the Flies. I had led Lord twice at this point, but a good few years before, and from what I could recall it was sustained and a bit scary, but sort of OK, and because I had just climbed 7a+, (maybe 7b) what could possibly go wrong? I didn’t have the stamina at the time to hang around and place too many pieces of gear, (sport climbing does not help static muscle endurance and it certainly doesn’t prepare the body for carrying a rack of gear) so in the style of the younger person I once was, pushed on. The ropes ran a good way without protection, but on I went, hanging, fiddling gear, hanging, not fiddling gear. Dougal, all blond and Germanic, all muscles and bony angles, had recently climbed Lord, or at least, more recently than me, and in his concern that he may not have time to lead a climb of his own, looked up, hit me with his shark eyes, and directed me to hidden gear placements hoping it would speed up the proceedings. Wrapping fingers to edges, smears for toes, I sweated and strained, while fiddling bits of gear. Fingers began to cramp. Toes pushed into tight rock shoes, burnt. Cars, a long way below us, sailed around corners, the drivers unaware of the revving engine that was my forearms. Two hours later, I pulled the top of the Cromlech, a cramping and sweating, toes screaming mess. Dougal had been bored stupid and as he followed, he complained about missing out, about not being pumped, but he put a brave face on my ineptitude and I told him I’d belay him on whatever he wanted the following day. Maybe having a little sport fitness didn’t completely translate to trad, (this is, perhaps obvious to most folk, but I’ve never been the brightest cucumber in the barrel) and a ten-day trip in spring was never going to completely kickstart arms wrapped in winter cobwebs.

But sport climbing does help trad fitness, and, as the years have passed, I’ve dedicated more time to clipping bolts in spring. I love on-sighting climbs, but having almost climbed (or fallen from) everything in and around North Wales, my trad objectives generally take the form of working climbs that are too difficult for me to on-sight or ground up and lead them, or, in the case of Nightmayer, not lead them.

Esgair Maen Gwyn, or for those like me that struggle with the correct Welsh name, Scimitar Ridge

Esgair Maen Gwyn, or for those like me that struggle with the correct Welsh name, Scimitar Ridge, is a fine, southeast facing slice of slippery, hard to read rhyolite, (but it may be dolerite with a bit of slate and quartz thrown in for good measure). Scimitar, high on the north side of the Llanberis Pass, blends into the hillside and is home to some of the best climbs around, having loads of quality E5’s and four brilliant E7’s. I always wanted to try and on-sight, or at least ground-up, a route first climbed by Paul Pritchard called Surgical Lust, so with this in mind I decided to take a, let’s get fit by working a climb I knew I would never be good enough to on-sight, or even ground up, called the 39 Slaps. The 39 slaps is a Jonny Dawes route stuffed full of sidepulls, smears and sawn-off pegs. I loved the process of working it, and getting close to a small section of rock, (yes, weird I know) and after about five visits, led it. I then thought, ha, I’m fit and in the zone, so I’ll drop a rope down an Adam Wainwright climb called The Trumpet Blowers. The Trumpet Blowers has a technical grade of 6c, one up from the 39 Slaps, (although since that giant Joe Bertalot pulled a hold off the 39 Slaps that is now also 6c) but the same E7 adjective grade, ‘Can’t be that much harder’ I thought, but as is often the case, I was wrong, I couldn’t touch it. I couldn’t even see where it went or how to climb it, so as the spring turned to summer, I gave up and went elsewhere. I returned later in the year to attempt Surgical Lust, and my on-sight dissipated almost as quick as the blood in my forearms, falling from the well-protected crux. On another visit, I tried Surgical again and made it through the crux, before reaching a tricky section of undercuts and smears. I hung from undercuts, while staring longingly at the old peg away to my left, the difference between me and the ground. I was pumped out of my brain, (a usual scenario) and with the possibility of exploding into the scree at the base of the crag, reversed, and threw myself off to continue with the ground-up strategy. A third visit with the Hippy, and in much better conditions, saw, at last, the fruition of my Surgical Lust ambition.

The original Trumpet Blowers pegs. Like folk, you’re never quite sure what’s going on beneath the surface.

The following spring, and after another sport trip, I (once again) threw a rope down The Trumpet Blowers, and, (once again) couldn’t do the moves, or work out the moves, or see the moves. I did see a bold section in the lower half of the wall and two large rusty pegs above, but after the pegs, apart from a couple of large and slopey, open-handed sidepulls, (if they were handholds at all!) that were a mile apart for any normal human, (and no footholds other than smears) I couldn’t really see much more, so I moved one place over and took the weak persons option of a Jack Geldard E7 called The Trumpet Slappers. I’ve known Jack for many years now and I like Jack a lot. Jack’s a good friend, a good writer and a great climber, or at least he was a great climber until he became a mountain guide and took up brewing beer, but let’s just tell it how it is, Jack is no Adam Wainwright! Jack’s route was a combination of the 39 Slaps into The Trumpet Blowers, that, crucially, (for me) came into the Trumpet Blowers a good way above the crux. This combo had some new and bold climbing, it was very good, and after about three visits I climbed the second ascent [Film of The Trumpet Slappers here] In the hunt now for the full set, (OCD) I threw a rope down The Trumpet Blowers, certain in my greatness, I was now fit enough, but no, not a chance, not a bloody hope in hell, I still couldn’t even work it out with loads of rests.

Another year, a bit more sport climbing and another try at The Trumpet Blowers and another fail. Another year and my sport grade reaches 8a and can I do the Trumpet Blowers… no. But I did do a few more moves than previously, and maybe, just maybe, I can see what I need to do to climb it, and bloody hell, it’s all super long powerful moves and throws with smears for feet and slaps and flicks to undercuts, and all above two old rusty pegs, I’m never going to be good enough to climb this route, this isn’t trad, its sport in disguise and for people much more talented than me.

The Hippy having had a snooze and finding he wasn’t on the golf course.

Another year, well, in-fact, this year, I decided to dedicate a good chunk of time to rock and I’ve had two long sport climbing trips, plus a few early season trad hits, so of course, at some point, the steep and heathery hill was going to see me, and a few weeks ago I dragged the Hippy off the golf course and went for a walk. Now, I know you’re expecting me to say, and hey presto, I at last saw where and how to climb The Trumpet Blowers, and it was easy, but I didn’t, it was still as much a mystery as before. I climbed the bottom half, the tricky, bold (not bold because I was top roping) section which had quite a punchy bit to reach the first of the two pegs, where I hung and tried to fathom, because, as it happens, the previous year, when I thought I had it sussed, I hadn’t. The thing I’ve discovered about sport climbing and bouldering is, not only does it get you stronger and fitter, it also opens up the mind to movement and possibilities, and armed with this, although when I say armed, think more peashooter than bazooka, I found a way to move from one peg to the other. I had a long look at what the possible sequence passing, and above the pegs may be then, and after a while, I think I had it, although I couldn’t do it, and wasn’t sure I ever would. At the top of this section, (about 10 hand moves and a thousand foot shuffles.) I had a look at the top of the climb, which was still a tad sparse in gear and difficult, although compared to what is below, easy! Well, that’s it then, game on I thought, although I also thought this game was definitely going into extra time and penalty shootout, maybe even a few seasons.

Since living in Llanberis, I’m honoured to say Adam Wainwright, the first ascensionist of The Trumpet Blowers, is now a friend. Knowing Adam reasonably well, I’m sure he is embarrassed to find out he was once one of my heroes, and, in-fact, still is. They say never meet your heroes, well in Adam’s case, this is incorrect, I always enjoy spending time with Adam and hearing his stories of the old days which is funny because Adam is quite a bit younger than me. I asked him about the name, Trumpet Blowers, and, as you can probably guess, it comes from what you would expect. Adam told me in 1993, the year he climbed The Trumpet Blowers, he had been spending his summers in North Wales and winters in Sheffield, and a fair bit of that time was in the company of Ben Moon and Jerry Moffatt. To cut a long story short, he said, in comparison to these two, and how they climbed and trained, he would have been on the substitutes bench, which if anyone who knows anything of Adam’s climbs, will appreciate is unfathomable, as many of Adam’s climbs are so difficult, to have only seen a few ascents. Adam said at the time there were folk about a lot less talented than Ben and Jerry, but who appeared to play their trumpet like they were Miles Davies, and that is how the climb was christened. (Adam still climbs, and given the tide of trumpets being blown on social media today, if he were to climb and christen a new route, I’m not sure there is a loud enough instrument in the brass section.)

Adam also told me the story of placing the pegs. George Smith, (another hero of mine, all be it a very annoying hero because his routes are too hard and under-graded) gave him the pegs, but would only give him one peg at a time. Adam repeatedly guessed the wrong size of pegs, so it took five rainy visits to eventually get them placed.

Another visit, this time with Zylo, and my new found sequence wasn’t going to work. I looked again and after much frustration, found something that may work if I could get fit enough.

I decided I had to do something radical. I had to involve someone with as big an OCD streak as myself, someone who would dedicate as much time as me, someone strong and technically gifted, someone who may find an easier sequence. But I needed someone older and more easily scared than me so they may take as long, if not longer.

TPM checking out the crux section of The Trumpet Blowers.

Another visit, this time with Mick Lovatt, the perfect man, or at least, the perfect man for the job. At the end of the first session together it was interesting to find that Mick, who is very talented and who has climbed hard sport routes for years, (and years, and years, and years…) had not discovered a better sequence than the one I had, and he had struggled, so maybe this route was as difficult as first thought. But he was hooked, my plan had worked.

TPM blowing imaginary trumpet about to go on a peg testing mission (I hoped).

We had another visit, but in the time between visits, I had done an Adam, and visited in the rain, on my own, and replaced both pegs like for like. Mick and I had decided we would do this, but when Mick snapped the right-hand peg by pulling on it, it made the decision for us. So, with the new pegs in, a lead was on the cards, and by cunning and strategy, the like that has not been seen since a game of chess between Stephen Hawkin and Brian Cox, Mick was on lead. I belayed, comfortable in the knowledge that if my peg placing skills were unsatisfactory, it wouldn’t be me plummeting to the ground. Mick led the bold bottom section, slow, controlled, before reaching up, clipping a quickdraw to the new shiny red sling and clipping the rope. He was looking good, but I didn’t shout encouragement, it wouldn’t help my plan if he actually did the thing, I really wanted the pegs to be tested. He traversed right, puffing a bit, but eventually manged to install quickdraw and clip the rope on the second peg. Good job I thought, but he was beginning to look a tad red in the face and you could tell what was about to come was playing on his mind. Good I thought, it really wouldn’t do if he didn’t test those pegs! He pulled, he threw a somewhat spindly, but golden leg up, and smeared a toe. He pulled again and then slipped off. What a poor effort, he had hardly tested the pegs at all!

Poor effort.

“What a great effort Mick, well done, you should have a rest and have another go from there to see what it feels like to do those moves on lead.”  I said.

“No, I’m knackered, think I’ll come down and give you a go.”

“OK, no worries, good effort.” What a wanker!

I had a go and fell from a couple of moves higher than Mick, the pegs held, so I had a rest and went again, almost getting through the crux sequence, before plummeting onto the pegs which held. Open season on The Trumpet Blowers.

Another visit and it was this visit that my plan to get Mick involved payed dividends. On the previous visit, it became apparent how difficult placing a quickdraw and clipping the right hand peg was, which in turn made significant inroads to energy levels. Mick checked out a different sequence for placing the draw and clipping it, and it made a difference. With this in mind, I decided to let him off for the poor peg testing on our previous visit.

Bloody hell it was hot and humid, but hey, take it while you can. Mick again went first, and nearly reached the crimp, but flew off. I went and greased off even lower. Mick went again and fell at the pegs. We sat around, I brushed off the ticks crawling all over my ankles, and then, (because I’m not very good with insects that like to burrow into my body) had another go, and before you can say bitey little buggers, I was once again beneath the pegs.

No chance. No chance. Too humid, too warm. I screamed and lunged, and somehow manage to hold the open-handed thing. Smearing feet, screaming. Stand up, screaming. Throw for a hold, screaming. Readjust, screaming. Teeter, screaming. Flick into an undercut, screaming. Pop for the crimp, screaming. Match the crimp, screaming. Move toes, smear, screaming. Big openhanded sidepull, screaming. Left foot onto crimp, hang, chest heaving, and… silence. I imagined people coming from Pete’s Eats in the middle of Llanberis to see what the noise was. It would be easy to say the rest was a path… it wasn’t, but at some point, I gibbered to the top of the crag before returning, (still in shock) to the ground. Mick had another go, but fell level with the pegs so we ran away.

We returned the following week and Mick climbed it, perfect scenario really, well, maybe not, hello Dorys season!

Myself on a day at the seaside with my old mate Tim Neill, sampling the delights of another Adam Wainwright route, (and Dave Towse) Head Strimmer, Mousetrap Zawn, Gogarth. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

The crux of Head Strimmer. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

 

 

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Ignore the woodpecker because in reality it’s a fieldfair!

Every boy-racers dream.

The stripes running along the side of my Citroën AX GT were white. The colour of the car was red, a bright, fiery red. The interior was black. On the hatch-back, near the roof, was a small spoiler. The wheels were silver alloy crosses. I loved that car. I loved everything about it, I loved its looks, its dexterity, its fuel economy, but most of all I loved its excitable 1400cc engine that combined with a body weighing something similar to an empty sardine tin, made it as edgy as a teenager, and to use a phrase stolen from my dad, it stuck to the road like shit to a shovel. I must have grown up by the time I bought my AX GT, because I never crashed it unlike my cream coloured Alfasud that I crashed three times, the final being terminal, fortunately though, only for the car.

In January 2000 the Citroën was getting weary. I had bought it in 1992 after qualifying as a PE Instructor in the Prison Service, and the eight years and 100 000 miles, had taken a toll, but another form of risk had taken over my life and tired or not, I was adamant my Citroën would be transporting me to La Grave in the Hautes Alpes region of France, to meet Bruce French for a week of ice climbing. This was my first trip abroad to climb waterfall ice, I had been on expedition to India and Pakistan, climbed in the Alps above Chamonix, and climbed ice in North Wales and Scotland, but never had I climbed pure waterfall ice, but I was sure it would be pretty easy.

My Citroen broke down on the outskirts of Lyon when a water pipe split, but after a recovery and a night in a hotel, it was fixed and I continued. It’s difficult for me now to comprehend my absolute determination to climb, and climb, and climb as much as I could in those early days. I remember lying on the hotel bed distraught because I was going to miss one day of climbing, a frustration to trump all frustrations, or so I thought.

I arrived and met Bruce the following day, he had booked me a room in the Edelweiss hotel that was at the top of a steep flight of steps in the centre of La Grave. The cold in the centre of the sunless town was intense, almost as intense as my fervour, and not even the cost of the hotel, (which made me smart nearly as much as the chilly temperature) could dull my excitement.

Early the next morning, Bruce led the way to my first Euro waterfall climb of my life. I can’t remember the name of the climb, but I think it was WI 4 which equates to Scottish 5, a grade of climb I had soloed many times back in Scotland, but I had never seconded someone on a steep climb of pure water ice where they had protected the pitch with ice screws, ice screws were just not Scottish!

“Don’t wear your mitts.” Bruce shouted down from the belay at the top of the pitch.

“I can peel oranges in these, I’ve climbed loads of routes in Scotland wearing mitts.” I called, certain that WI 4 was too easy for me, and knowing a big pair of Gore-tex mitts would not slow me. At the first screw, I grappled and thrashed, tugged at the axe leash with my teeth, floundered, I couldn’t get the leash to slide because it was frozen, I couldn’t get the mitt off because of the leash, I couldn’t grasp the screw because of the mitt. Pumped. Eventually I removed the first of several screws, pushed the mitts down the front of my jacket and continued with bare hands. Bruce hung from the belay laughing at my ineptitude, maybe he had a point, I needed to wear gloves to do this waterfall ice stuff. That first day was an eye opener; we started late, had a short walk, climbed some stuff, climbed some more stuff, and returned to the hotel in time for a shower and a beer, although at that time I’m sure I wouldn’t have drunk the beer because my body was a temple, although looking back, my mind was less temple, more outdoor market selling fruit and veg on a busy Saturday afternoon!

A few weeks ago, I drove Betty, my white Citroën Dispatch van through La Grave on the way towards Briançon. This was the first time since 2000 I had been to La Grave. There were a few differences, this time I was on a rock climbing trip and I dawdled, content and relaxed in my diesel van. The sun was shining along La Grave high street and I would certainly have a drink of wine, whenever, and wherever Zylo and I ended up that evening. A few minutes earlier we had passed the wood yard with a waterfall gushing down the rocks behind. “That’s the Grande Clot, the first grade 5 icefall I ever climbed.” I proudly said. It wasn’t many days into Bruce and my ice climbing holiday when we climbed it, so I guess my learning curve had been steep and the gloves I borrowed from Bruce must have worked.

We passed through La Grave, slowly climbing the steep road – hairpin, hairpin, tunnel, hairpin, until we crossed the Col du Lautaret and began the decent towards Briançon. A thunderstorm obscured much of the view, giant splattering raindrops exploded onto the windscreen, but in the valley to our right, I could see meadows filled with flowers and in the base of the valley, a river cut the green.

In my red Citroën, Bruce and I travelled this road on a day-away from La Grave to climb in the Fournel Valley near the town of L’Argentière-la-Bessée. The car didn’t have snow tyres and I didn’t own snow chains, but the roads were clear. We reached L’Argentière and turned onto a road heading up the Fournel Valley. The icefall we hoped to climb was described as 5 minutes from the parking, but the parking was at the head of this narrow and steep road, and the road had no barriers to stop a car tumbling into the valley below. I carefully negotiated the bends and of course desperately wanted to climb, but a sense of panic that my Citroen and I were out of our depth was rising. On occasion we drove across sheens of ice where the streams running off the hillside to our right had frozen. The car managed OK, but these had been on flat sections of road and the frozen flows were narrow so the car never had both front and rear wheels on the ice at the same time. For some reason Bruce decided to walk. Driving around a corner I was faced with a frozen flow on a section of road that was not level, the road was higher on the right, and the ice tumbled off the roadside and down the hill to my left. Without stopping I drove onto the ice and immediately the Citroën began sliding sideways towards the drop. I braked, the car slid, but stopped short of going over the edge. Bruce pulled his crampons from his rucksack and fitted them to his boots. I sat inside; the air was clammy. Bruce crunched onto the ice and stood at the side of the car pushing. I removed the handbrake and reversed. The car wanted to slide, but Bruce stopped it from slipping, and in seconds, that felt like hours, the car was back on gravel. I parked up and we began the two-hour walk, to a climb that should have been a five-minute approach.

Unknown climber at sector 2 of Falaise du Grand Bois.

Even in a heatwave, rock climbing around the Briançon area is possible – go high and climb north faces, I can’t recommend it enough, the cliffs and surrounding areas are beautiful and peaceful. I carefully drove Betty, my lovely white van, up tracks, down tracks, through rutted fields, even to the top of a red ski run to a 2000m, north facing crag called Pimaï, everything was fine, but memories of the little red Citroën and its near demise were always in the back of my mind. Zylo and I visited a crag called Falaise du Grand Bois several times. The cliff, situated above the small village Puy-Saint-Vincent is a surprise of overhanging orange and grey limestone, that springs from dense woodland. To reach the crag, a drivable track from Puy, heading towards the Col de la Pousterle is followed and after parking, a walking track through the woods leads to the cliff. After climbing we drove onto the col and spent the evenings in solitude apart from the gangs of greater spotted woodpeckers, parents and juveniles, hopping and flitting, climbing and agitating the trunks of the pine. As dark took hold, ravens skimmed the tree tops making no noise apart from rasping flight feathers and the occasion cough. The track continued over the col leading down to the Fournel Valley where years before, Bruce and I had our near miss on ice. I told Zylo about the Citroën ice epic and hoped to get the chance to drive down into the Fournel to see where I had almost copped it.

Betty and Zylo on the Col de la Pousterle…. Not a woodpecker in sight.

Zylo climbing Feu follet, Sector 1, Falaise du Grand Bois.

Myself climbing Un terrien en détresse. Sector 1, Falaise du Grand Bois.

My chance to revisit the Fournel Valley came near the end of the three-week trip.  Given the hot weather, we decided to visit Falaise du Grand Bois for a few more days before finishing the trip at the lower crag, Rue Des Masques near the town of Guillestre. This time we climbed on sector one, a less travelled sector than the cliff we had climbed previously, but in my mind, even better. Possibly the brushing, the mossy wet pockets and the more out there feel suited? Once again, we slept in Betty on the Col, and once again the peace and tranquillity almost overwhelmed. On the final night, after a day of great climbing, we pulled onto the col and parked at the wooden table and benches. A family of six greater spotted woodpeckers ruffled the pine fettling for grubs. In the morning Zylo set off on her bike, we arranged to meet at the car park by Les Mines d’Argent, which is close to the outskirts of L’Argentière-la-Bessée, part of the way up, (or a long way down) the Fournel Valley. I’m sure the last time I had passed the mine I was walking, because Bruce and I would have abandoned the little red Citroën before this point, but given the 30 degrees centigrade and clear weather, I was confident nothing today would go awry.

A bird worthy of driving down a hole.

The sun pierced the canopy and dazzled. I drove slow along the rutted track, taking in all of the flowers and the scenery for the last time,. A bird took off from the grass before landing on a branch. I really like woodpeckers, and sure it was one of the family we had watched the night before, I strained my eyes attempting to pick it out amongst the green, and in doing so, didn’t notice the track narrowed as it passed over a large concrete drainage pipe built beneath the track to carry a water course. Taking my eyes from the bird that I decided was a fieldfair, (a good bird, but not in the same league as a woodpecker!) I spotted a large rut on the right. To avoid jarring Betty, I turned left to avoid the rut, it was hardly anything, a minor detour, but because I’d been watching the bird, (a fieldfair, not a woodpecker) I hadn’t noticed the narrowing of the track or the great big hole excavated to accommodate the large concrete pipe. BANG, Betty’s front left wheel dropped into the hole and the front bumper smashed against the concrete structure holding the pipe. I sat behind the steering wheel looking forward but actually looking at the ground such was the depth of the hole we were now firmly planted. FUCK! I opened the door and jumped down, I had to jump because Betty was in the air, the right-hand back wheel was off the ground. FUCK! Shakily I walked around to the left-hand side and climbed into the hole. The left wheel was suspended in the air, the front of the van, with the caved in bumper, was rammed against stone and concrete, what the hell, I was never getting out of this by myself. FUCK! And it wasn’t even a woodpecker!

I’m a member of Green Flag and I have European assistance. I imagined the phone call, “So Mr Bullock where exactly are you again?!”

I decided I had to wait and hope a truck or something big would come past, hopefully they would give me a pull, but over the course of the trip, we had spent several days up here and there had hardly been any traffic. FUCK!

I went around to the back, the doors were facing the sky, but I managed to open them and pulled out boxes to lighten the load. I’ve no idea why I did this, because the back wheel was in the air, if anything the load needed increasing to act as a counterbalance. I couldn’t get the image of Michael Cain lying on his back in bus in the film, The Italian Job, “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea.”  But I didn’t have a great idea! I returned to the hole and had a look at the wheel. It didn’t appear that any pipes had been damaged and the suspension and steering looked OK. FUCK! And it wasn’t even a woodpecker! The stream bed had large rocks in its base, so in a flash of inspiration, (or was it desperation?) I began to build a platform. When it was touching the tyre, I built backwards until it met the top of the track. No way would it work, but there was nothing better to do while waiting for someone to come along. I climbed out of the hole and up into the driving seat, started the engine, put it in reverse and let out the clutch. On the right, the tyre was on a good surface, it didn’t spin, but the left tyre did, so I pressed the clutch pedal in, had a breather, and tried again. The left wheel caught on a rock this time and the van went back a little, but the tyre spun again, the smell of burning rubber wafted into the cab. I engaged the clutch and the van went forward, but this time instead of coming to a halt, it rocked backwards and as it did, I released the clutch and the tyre caught and the van moved back. I revved even harder and the tyre caught and in one fluid movement, Betty popped from the hole and onto the level…

“FUCK YEAH YOU FUCKING FIELDFAIR!”

I got out of the van, checked it was drivable, (which somehow it was) and set off down into the Fournel Valley to find Zylo. Hopefully there would be no more woodpeckers.

So, the moral of the story… when visiting the Fournel Valley in winter, take snow chains, and if summer, ignore the woodpeckers as beautiful as they may be, because in reality, it will be a fieldfair!

Zylo about to cycle away and leave me to drive into a bloody big hole!

Psyching up… !!!!!

Beauty and the not so beautiful!

 

 

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