Out of the ground.

nectarine

While writing the Nightmayer article that was published on UKC, I delved into the UKC logbook accounts, and in doing so was reminded of a climb Dr Jon Read and I had climbed the same day before heading to the Cromlech. Well, I say this, but in my non-ticking, non-recollection of climbs, non-recollection of moves and gear placements, non-recollection of partners and the non-recollection of the when and how, this is how I remember it. The climb Noah’s Ark also comes to mind, which we may or may not have climbed the same day, but who knows!

Dr Jon.  In my search for a picture to rip off (sorry, get in touch and I'll credit you!) I thought the least I could do was publish a credible and enhancing picture as Dr Jon put up with much when we climbed together!

Dr Jon.
In my search for a picture to rip off (sorry, get in touch and I’ll credit you!) I thought the least I could do was publish a credible and enhancing picture as Dr Jon put up with much when we climbed together!

I have written about my climbing partnership with Dr Jon a few times before, but it still surprises me that we got on because we are very different in character. But we did get on, and I still look back on those times and laugh. How he must have despaired and fretted whenever we climbed together, Dr Jon, precise and calculating, me gung-ho and go for it, and the day we slowly squelched the steep and boggy hillside towards Clogwyn Gafr (aka Craig Fach), near the top of the Llanberis Pass, took our yin-yang to a new, more intense and dangerous level. For someone who remembers little about climbs, to remember generally means bad, and I do remember that day (or a part it) very well.

My friend Tim who still puts up with me.

My friend Tim who still puts up with me.

It was possibly Tim Neil, who in his best sandbagging ways, pointed me at the climb called Nectarine Run, E5 6b (J. De Montjoye, H Sharp, 25.6.86). Tim is tall, about 7ft in his thick red hill walking socks, but most of the time he chooses to forget that on many of the routes he has ever climbed he reaches beyond the crux using his albatross span. I admit his fifteen stone (maybe more) bodyweight does have repercussions should he fall onto an RP or a micro cam, but this very rarely happens, because he is usually seconding routes of that ilk. Eighteen years ago I was psyched, so psyched I was unable to see a sandbag even if one was thrown full force and hit me square in the face.

That “Go and do Nectarine Run, one of the best E5s/climbs in the Pass!” was no-doubt how Tim would have delivered it. And it is one of the best, on very fine rock, but would he have also mentioned it is one of the scariest? I’m not so sure! I do recall someone (it may have been Tim, but more likely not), tell me how they thought Nectarine run was closer to E6 than E5, and I do remember someone saying how technical the climbing was. But eighteen years ago, full of drive and ego and ambition, this information would have spurred me arrogantly on more than put me off. What a pillock!

It must have been warm and sunny as we would not have been there if it had been any other, because Clogwyn Gafr is north facing. Dr Jon and I reached the base of the crag, and I’m sure we would have dumped gear on the same big flat rock as I have dumped gear on several times since. I’m sure we would have looked up at the pristine grey Rhyolite sheets smattered with pockets and cracks, separated by dark folds and overhangs. I’m less sure about whether we warmed up on another climb or just jumped straight on Nectarine Run. When I say we I mean me, because Dr Jon with all of his brains and intelligence and grasp and love of life would have looked up – he would have spotted the compact nature of the rough rock and the rusty stains weeping from the pegs, first placed in 1967 from the girdle traverse, and decided he didn’t need to put himself through the trauma. I on the other hand would have looked up and seen nothing, assessed nothing and started to gear up. What a pillock.

August 1999 is the date Dr Jon put into his UKC logbook for this day, which is a different date for the day we were on Dinas Cromlech working Nightmayer, that date was logged as July 1999, so either Dr Jon with his super-scientific mind logged it wrong, or, more than likely, me, with my slightly altitude addled and agricultural brain, remembered the day wrong. I’m pretty sure I know which it is. What I remember is setting off and reaching the base of a short overhanging groove about a third of the way up the climb with hardly any gear placed in the wall below. And it’s here what my forgetful brain remembers very well…

… Sweating, overheating, desperately chalking-up, I stand on small edges while staring at a few RP placements without any RPs on my harness. RPs are pointless, that’s what I used to think, but I now stood wishing I had a rack of them. There is also an old RURP at the base of the groove, but to clip it takes ingenuity because it does not have a hole large enough to accept a carabiner, but ingenuity takes time and fiddle and at that time in my life, my time was limited, so most of the time I wasted no time, preferring to save energy by going up with gusto. I eyed the RURP: it was flaking red scabs of rusty metal and it smelt corrosive. Best leave it alone.

Dr Jon was beginning to make concerned noises about my lack of protection as I wrapped my fingers around the sharp and shiny arete, and began to layback into the slippery green groove. Smeared feet, body tension – pushing body parts onto the rock. Glittering flecks of white quartz. No gear. Thutching, squirming. Another slippery green inch. No gear. Another inch… “GET SOME GEAR!”, Dr Jon shouted. But there wasn’t any, not that I could see. Thrutch. Thrutch. Feet pressed onto sloping grey. Green slippery slimy. NO GEAR. “GET SOME GEAR!” Sweating. Red faced. ThrutchIng. Grappling. I managed to wedge myself into the top of the groove before a last-ditch lurch left, where I hung from small holds. Time was not as important now and as I shook out I looked down to see ropes dangling, almost uninterrupted by gear.

A stretch to the left and small cam can be placed behind a hollow flake, but I refused to make the step across where I could possibly stand because it was off route. A crack above the flake will also take gear- really good, lifesaving gear- but this is in the E6 Satsumo Wrestler and definitely off route. Nectarine Run moves down and right from the top of the groove, and the gear in the crack will give a sideways top-rope, but is off route.

“Is there gear above you?” Dr Jon shouted sounding almost hysterical.

“Yes.”

“Well place it then!”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“It’s off route… and I’m too pumped to get there…”

Another of my philosophies from that time in my climbing life was that gear placements involving extra climbing would use extra energy, which may mean not getting up the climb without falling, so I would often forsake protection in preference to pushing on. Sometimes this philosophy even worked!

I could not hold on any longer, so exited the groove via a large hidden pocket in the almost vertical slab on the right.  A very stretched leg transported me to a small, teetering, toe-ledge on the lip of the overhang. The initial wall was somewhere out of sight, but I was sure if I fell I would clear this, the cam behind the hollow flake would pull, and I would hit the ground. I had gone and done it now. Fuck. Committed. Pumped. Terrified. Apart from the pocket and a weird but positive scalloped hold by the side of the pocket, and the small toe-ledge that I was now stood, there were no other holds. More to the point there was no protection. Why, oh why did I forego the gear in Satsumo Wrestler? I stared at the rock almost wanting to head-butt it. Idiot, idiot, idiot… It became obvious that I had to stand in the pocket that my hands were holding.

Like many people, I began rock climbing in a time when instruction and coaching and indoor walls were not as popular or widespread as today. Self-taught, no-one had ever explained the finer mechanics of a high-step and rock-over. It was only about four years ago, while bouldering indoors, when the person I was climbing with said: “place your weight over your foot before standing up, don’t get greedy by reaching for the hold too soon”. Before this, this is what I had always done: I had been greedy, I had never actually weighted the toe, I had always used strength, making a rockover extremely powerful, and so it was in this occasion. I placed my toe really high into the base of the pocket and, by using the hold by the side of my toe, pulled like a train. But there was nothing for my left hand (or so I thought) so pulling as hard as possible, before pushing as hard as possible, was the technique I employed. Shaking, trembling, the force was almost too much: my shoulder almost dislocated, but somehow I managed to stand, and just there, just in front of my face, was a nut slot that at that moment was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Sometime later I pulled over the top of the crag and once again, with the terror over, I forget…

… Dr Jon has written in his logbook, “Glad to be seconding”, although my recollection is that he was so traumatised he didn’t even second it. I suppose this shows how bad my memory is.

Fast forward 18 years to a June heatwave. Zylo and I visited Clogwyn Gafr last week intending to climb the two E3s Sacred Idol and Pulsar. After climbing Pulsar and finding Sacred Idol covered in muck we still wanted to climb, so we decided to drop a rope down Nectarine Run.  I was interested to safely see if it had become any easier and if the gear had improved. On a rope, and with 18 years climbing under my belt, I found the climb was still pretty tough, especially the groove, which would still be bold and committing, but not as bold or as committing with a few RPs, and even less so if the RURP was brought into play! The rock-over on the slab above the roof felt a lot easier with my more recently acquired skills, and with the gear placed in the crack of Satsumo it would feel relatively safe. So I returned two days later with TPM and after a warm up we both led Nectarine Run. I’m very pleased to say I did this without as nearly as much terror or trembling as the first time.

Mick Lovatt, (TPM) gearing up on the flat rock beneath the crag.

Mick Lovatt, (TPM) gearing up on the flat rock beneath the crag.

The following day I ran around Llyn Padarn, the large lake at the foot of the slate quarries near the centre of Llanberis. The heatwave continued and the small steam train pulled sweating tourists along the northeast edge of the water. Near the end of the track I ran towards a man walking his dog. The black and white collie barked and the man, leaning heavily on his walking stick, said something in Welsh to calm his dog. I called a hello. “That’ll save your life,” he said in a slow and strong Welsh accent. I stopped running and turned to the man and his dog. He continued, “I used to run every day. I would get on my mountain bike after running and do even more. People said I was mad, but it saved my life, kept me out of the ground.” I guessed he was about mid- to late-fifties with a slim build, but he leant heavily on his stick and the left side of his mouth drooped. “Had a massive stroke, my arm is useless,” he thumped his left arm with his right hand and I saw his left hand was a permanent fist, his arm flopping as he hit it. “I was so fit. Can’t do anything now, but running kept me out of the ground, you’re doing the best thing, keep it up, it’ll keep you out of the ground.”

I said goodbye, jogging slowly away. The heat was stifling. I thought back to climbing Nectarine Run and how it had nearly put me in the ground. Over the past 18 years there have been a few more climbs that have nearly put me in the ground, but many more that have kept me firmly above it.

TPM in the groove on Nectarine Run.

TPM in the groove on Nectarine Run.

A close up groove shot.

A close up groove shot.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Nightmayer cometh. (But not for me)

Nico Favresse attempting the Nightmayer.

Nico Favresse attempting the Nightmayer.

A few days ago I wrote a piece for my blog about the climb Nightmayer. When I finished writing I thought maybe it deserved a wider audience, so it has now been published here on UKC, including the short section of low resolution film of Nico taking the monster lob from the climb .

The Nico Favresse section from the piece has been lifted from my second book Tides which will be published by Vertebrate in October. (Hopefully!)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Driving north from Catalunya

The view while walking from Racó de misa, Montsant.

The view while walking from Racó de misa, Montsant.

I’m driving north from Catalunya, through the high pass of the Pyrenees, into France and on past a busy Bordeaux. Earlier that day Rich Kirby and I had climbed the last route of a six-week trip, El Zulú Demente, a 300m 7a+ at Riglos, and after a final brew together I had begun the long drive home. Eventually the thought of a shower pushes away all other thoughts and I stop in a motorway service station.

I’m walking from the service station feeling clean and refreshed, when a loud banging noise catches my attention. Across the garage forecourt, next to some fuel pumps, is a lorry with a cream coloured, double decker-double trailer. It’s dusk and the forecourt lights shine bright. Through slats in the side of both trailers I see large gleaming eyes. A car, headlights on, drives near the trailer, and as it passes the cows bump into each other, hooves skittering against the metal floor, some fall down and scrabble to stand. After a while they settle once again, before pushing their heads to the narrow gap. Brown eyes blink and look from their dark confined space onto an alien world. It made me think of images from the Holocaust.

I continue driving into the night with The Clash for company, but also with thoughts of what it would be like to be taken from a green field, to something completely beyond comprehension – the sound of speeding traffic, slamming doors, the clunking and whirring of petrol pumps, people. Headlights coming from the opposite direction remind me of the eyes looking from the trailer.

Unknown climber about to reach the cave on Coliseum, Rodellar.

Unknown climber about to reach the cave on Coliseum, Rodellar.

In Rodella Rich’s eyes had been similar to the cows the day we first approached and worked Coliseum, although mine were more so as I climbed out of the cave, a third of the way up the climb, while putting the clips in and fathoming moves between falls. It had been a few years since I’d first stood under this route, a 40m 8a, all corners, tufas, three dimensional and the most continuously overhanging climb I had ever contemplated. The description on UKC claimed: ‘No move is more difficult than British 6a, but every move is 6a’. “What a load of rubbish.” I said to Rich later that first night as I swigged a Voll Damm beer. “I’m not sure.” Rich replied. I looked over to see what he was drinking; Voll Damm do a 9% and I suspected he had quaffed a six pack of them!

After two days on the climb and following a rest day, Rich climbed Coliseum clean. And I was the one needing 9% to numb my battered body. Everything ached: fingers, elbows, knees, thighs, toes, stomach, back, head. After four days on, the climb it was getting easier, but not that easy. I had reached the last difficult section without falling twice before falling twice. What a route. What great climbing. 6a every move? What a load of bollocks!

On my last attempt, before we left, I managed to get through the bit I had repeatedly fallen from – a corner of slopers and fins with poor feet. Shocked to have reached the other side, I dropped a knee and threw some fingers for the pocket that would surely mean success… The wall, all yellow and orange with black streaks, blurred, and my fingers bounced from the rock to the side of the pocket before I was ejected once again. Game over. I pulled back on and began the job of getting my clips out.

blog 11

Day one done and the clips are in. Being lowered from Coliseum. Pic credit, Rich Kirby.

Riglos.

Riglos.

Later that same day, the conglomerate towers of Riglos came into sight. Vultures circled and the air became fresh and clear. The peace of Riglos was welcomed after the oppressiveness and the stink of piss of Rodellar. I could have stayed in Rodellar and continued to attempt Coliseum. It was going to happen soon (that’s what I told myself anyway…), but I really wasn’t that worried or even disappointed that I hadn’t managed to climb it clean. Hopefully I’ll get back there and give it another go; it came at the wrong end of a long trip and I had already screamed and pushed and laughed so many times on so many climbs.

The night before Rich had said, “Change your ferry, you’ll get it.” I explained to him I wasn’t that bothered, that after years of expeditions and all of the time and costs and failure, walking away from a forty metre rock climb didn’t feel like that big a deal. In fact it wasn’t a deal at all. The important thing was I had had a great experience trying – the improvement with each attempt was satisfying and thrilling, and on the final blast, I had so many people from different countries shouting and supporting, it was brilliant. I loved it.

Maybe I will never climb as hard as I possibly could while clipping bolts because of this lack of killer instinct, but that’s OK, because as I fall from another climb it won’t be the end of the world, it will just be the end of another attempt. And unlike the cows in the trailer I will live to enjoy another day.

Unknown climber at Racó de misa. Montsant.

Unknown climber at Racó de misa. Montsant.

DIY kneebar trousers. Chulilla.

Drying in the sun, DIY kneebar trousers. Chulilla.

Processional Caterpillars, Figols. Pic credit. Zylo.

Processional Caterpillars, Figols. Pic credit. Zylo.

Rich Kirby on our third pitch of Zulu, Riglos. We climbed the whole route in five pitches running two pitches together.

Rich Kirby on our third pitch of Zulu, Riglos. We climbed the whole route in five pitches running two pitches together.

The penultimate pitch of Zulu, Looking down on Rich.

The penultimate pitch of Zulu, Looking down on Rich.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Far too nice for that…

Unknown climber on Tequila sunrise back in December when things were a little more damp and the queues shorter!

Unknown climber on Tequila sunrise back in December when things were a little more damp and the queues shorter!

I walked the undulating track that weaved beneath the cliff. The sun-baked clay, pounded by a million feet, orange glaze. Below, to my right, was the slow-moving river. The river, wide and clear, formed the lowest point of the gorge. On the opposite bank was another cliff, a cliff almost as overhanging and as high as the one above me, and at the far end of the gorge a large dam with a smooth fan of grey concrete.

Chulilla, Spain. My third visit, although this was the first time I had driven, and what a drive. The journey began in Llanberis and had taken two days with a five-hour ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Caen. Two hours of sleep beneath the bright lights of the ferry restaurant, two hours of sleep in a dark aire on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Chulilla was a long way from Llanberis. The weather was also a long way from Llanberis, although the snow storm near Zaragoza had reminded me it was still March.

Mum always warned me about men in tight clothes.

Mum always warned me about men in tight clothes.

Half a mile from the crag, almost the end of the journey, I had met Rich Kirby on the road leading from the dam. Rich was attired in black lycra shorts and sat astride his black racing bike. A true to life, Northern Milk Tray Man. “Hey up mate, how’s it going.” Rich had said with all drawn out and elongated e’s and tha like… while surveying my new white van. “It’s going good. I’m knackered. I’ll meet you up the track above the dam.” I really didn’t want to be seen talking to a stick thin (Rich would prefer me to say slim and athletic but this just isn’t true!) bloke dressed in skin tight clothes a long way from town, this was something I remember mum warning me about when I were a nipper.

The first climb was called Top of the Rock and it was not a warm up even if Rich called it as much. The undercut start was heinously strenuous and my shoulders complained. “Warm up, warm up, this is no warm up, I told you it wasn’t a warm up.” “But Nick, I said pull through the starting moves and warm up like…” But there is something deeply engrained within my wood, that once on my way, stops me from taking a rest on a climb I have not done before or is not hard enough to stop me attempting to climb it on-sight, even if it is!

The crag was quiet, as quiet as I had ever seen, which was a surprise given how dry and warm the weather, a lot dryer and warmer than my last trip in December where I wanted to attempt the climbs Tequila sunrise and El Bufa, but in December both had remained wet. A trio of Peregrine Falcons screamed above. I tilted my head towards the blue sky. The hen landed on an outcrop. The males, mid-flight locked claws and spiralled from the sky, spinning and twisting like a maple leaf.

“Right then, Tequila or El Bufa, which is the easiest?” Rich had climbed both and I was on the hunt for another of the worlds easiest 8a’s!

It was decided Tequila was the best to begin, the crux is low and once passed, the rest of the climb is OK. We stood beneath the climb, a very overhanging wall with a slithering tufa looking like a trunk of ivy. No one was on the climb and there were no clips in place. Perfect.

Over the last fourteen years I have done a reasonable amount of sport climbing, but I’m still a little old fashioned, (or is it just old) because I don’t like getting on a climb that has clips already in-place, a climb that someone is working. It could be a Brit thing, similar to the way we wait our turn and stand in line at a train station or at the newsagent. It could be an ego thing knowing I’m pretty poor at this sport climbing lark and it’s going to take me ages with someone else watching and waiting and drawing conclusions. I really don’t like making folk wait – I feel their pain and in turn I feel pressurised to be quick, but being quick is just not me. I don’t successfully climb, what for me are difficult routes, I go from rest to rest and when I get to that rest I milk it for all its worth. I take a long time. And because of this, I would rather not have the self-imposed pressure, of people waiting. But this is not the case for others, often it appears once the clips are in a climb, people, like Peregrines, swoop from the sky to try and snaffle that prime piece of flesh, even though an hour before, this very same morsel appeared to stink like a rotting carcass.

I climbed to the top of Tequila sunrise, hanging the clips from the numerous bolts, loving the air and the length of the climb and the shape of the holds and the way the edges, tufas, ripples, corners, pockets forced me to move in a certain way to maintain upward momentum. And when I reached the chains, I shouted to Rich, who lowered me. Even before I reached the ground someone walked across. “Are you getting straight back on the climb?” I would like to say my tone of voice was light and cheerful, but my reply resembled an owl coughing up a pellet full of mouse bones.

The second day on Tequila I worked a sequence for the crux and the crowd of would be suitors grew. Rich and I had a rest the following day, and as I sat drinking my morning coffee, I imagined the line of people beneath the route growing. I knew it was my problem, my idiosyncrasy, my crazy attitude, but I didn’t understand why people wanted to jump on a climb that someone else was working. Yes, I knew Tequila was a three star climb and had a reputation as an easy touch, so of course it was popular, our egos as climbers just snaffle up that 8 grade even if it isn’t, but I couldn’t get over the lack of imagination or the want to experiment or try something else. I really found it difficult to understand why other folk didn’t think the same as me and leave a person to spend their time alone without the pressure of others waiting?’ El Bufa to the left was also a three star 8a and not one person showed the slightest interest. I wondered if this would change should I move my clips over, I suspected it would and a part of me wanted to put my theory to the test.

I returned on day three, and warmed up on the start of Tequila before belaying Rich on another route called El agente naranja, which was across the way on Balcόn and as I belayed I watched in horror as the queue beneath MY route formed into a ruckus of Vultures. At a distance, everyone appeared to be having a nice time and getting on with each other and this made me wonder if I was weird thinking this way, maybe I should try to be more chilled, yes, that was it, definitely more chilled…

Rich sent his route like a wad, (he told me to write this) and as he packed up, I returned to join in the party beneath MY climb. A German guy was being lowered by a young woman whom I recognised from pictures of the junior GB squad members from a few years ago. I chatted to Matt Pascoe an Australian climber I knew and his wife Lucy and to their friends who were also from Australia, Matt and Annie. When the time was right, I called across and asked the British woman if she intended to climb Tequila, which she said she did. My gear and rope were still at the foot of the climb, it was obvious I had been on the climb. “OK, cool, how long are you going to take? If you’re going to take two hours working it, I would prefer to get on it first as they are my clips and if I fall I’ll come down.”  I said this in a voice that anyone who knows me would have understood was mostly tongue in cheek, especially as I knew she was possibly going to run up MY climb, but I suppose there was an undercurrent of my being disgruntled and being a tad deaf I do tent to shout!

It is my understanding of sport climbing etiquette, but I’m possibly wrong, to get on a climb with clips already in place is fine, but it is good manners to allow the person who is already on the route, to have precedence, especially if they are at a stage of red pointing, which I was. “I’m hoping to be reasonably quick.” She answered, which I was almost certain was correct given her history and I really wasn’t too worried or put out. Team Australia appeared to find my direct approach very amusing. Rich, who had now appeared also commented on the force of my delivery. The woman from New Zealand who was belaying on the climb to the right laughed as did Elliot, whom I recognised from his time of being a student at Bangor University in North Wales. “What!?” I asked, looking at the crowd who were guffawing. “Was that too blunt, was I rude?” “Well mate, you don’t hold back do you, may as well put it out there, say it like it is,” said Matt 2, which, coming from an Australian made me wonder if I had gone completely over the top. Again, I turned to the crowd, “Was I too blunt, did I come across as aggressive?” No, you were fine, Elliot said, who being young made me feel better as sometimes feel the world has moved on without me. The Kiwi woman turned to me and said, “That was fine, don’t worry about it, there are hundreds of climbs here without someone already on, they could have chosen one of them.”  Which made me feel much better as someone was obviously on the same wavelength.

In the time taken to have this conversation, the woman on Tequila had pulled through the difficult crux section and was shaking out. I shouted encouragement as did the rest of the crowd. Matt 2 turned to me and shouted, “Ha mate, how you feeling now, your climb is going to be flashed by a girl.” Which didn’t concern me at all, my ego is relatively under control nowadays and there are thousands of women, men, girls and boys climbing much better than me. In fact, as I sat watching the fine display of climbing going on above, I thought it said more about Matt 2’s opinion than my own? The next day Matt 2’s joshing continued, “Ha, mate, we were all laughing about how a girl almost flashed your route after you said don’t take two hours working it.” I explained to Matt my understanding of sport climbing etiquette about clips already in climb. Matt 2 replied, “If you had said that to me mate, your clips or not, I would have told you to go fuck yourself, I’ll take two hours if I want!”

I looked down, an insect the size of a large honey bee had buzzed onto my index finger. It had a white and furry back end, where if it had been a bee, there would have been black and yellow stripes. I lifted it and looked at its eyes, the bottom half were black and shiny, the top, a million white dots and from what I presumed was its face, a long spike that looked threatening, almost terrifying if used for attack or defence, but as I lifted and looked at this fascinating creature I didn’t feel scared or intimidated, it meant no harm it just looked a little fierce.

The woman on Tequila put in a great show falling from the final hard move just before the chains, it was a superb and inspiring effort and I really liked her attitude, which was one of disappointment, but most of all joy at having almost flashed the climb by putting up a marvellous fight.

When she returned to the ground I complimented her, she possibly thought ‘That showed you.’ But I suspect she was far too nice for that.

The new van Betty Blanc and a room with a view.

The new van Betty Blanc and a room with a view.

The Kirby contemplates.

The Kirby contemplates.

Chulilla and one of the locals.

Chulilla and one of the locals.

Rich climbing La boca del a voz with an assortment of climbing paraphernalia, including toilet roll to dry the pockets.

Rich climbing La boca del a voz with an assortment of climbing paraphernalia, including toilet roll to dry the pockets.

Myself on Tequila sunset. It was at the point the following day I knocked my glasses off, breaking and catching them, before replacing and somehow managing to climb the route. Pic credit, Matt 2.

Myself on Tequila sunset. It was at the point the following day I knocked my glasses off, breaking and catching them, before replacing and somehow managing to climb the route. Pic credit, Matt 2.

Ben Silvestre making pretty short work of on-sighting Ramallar and after red pointing La boca del a voz and before on-sighting Los Franceses. A very nice guy who makes old men feel even older.

Ben Silvestre making pretty short work of on-sighting Ramallar and after red pointing La boca del a voz and before on-sighting Los Franceses. A very nice guy who makes old men feel even older and inadequate.

Ben on Ramallar.

Ben on Ramallar.

Ben, Rich and Tess cool down elbows after a day of elbow wrecking steep stuff.

Ben, Rich and Tessa cool down elbows after a day of elbow wrecking steep stuff.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The unseen sun.

blog mountainsThe small town of Parsons Pond on the west coast of Newfoundland is surrounded by water. The Gulf of St Lawrence is to the west and the nine-mile-long Parsons Pond to the east. The town consists a few small houses, nearly all covered with vinyl siding of various colours. Outside almost every house are skidoos, snow blowers and handmade wooden slays. There is a café, a bar, two old boats locked by ice, trucks, a bridge and the occasional dog. Parsons Pond isn’t big, population three hundred, but inside those small snow covered houses, with smoke streaming into a grey sky, live welcoming and friendly people with personalities so large they make this small place vast.

I like bleak, desolate places. They resonate deep inside me and the people living with this freezing hardship are almost always generous and warm. Parsons Pond residents are no different; if anything, they were the most generous and welcoming people I have ever met, which in a world where walls and division appear to be growing, gives me hope.

Blog 1.1Sounding like a bad joke, Bayard Russell, an American, Guy Robertson, a Scot, and myself, an Englishman, travelled from New Hampshire, through Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, to arrive seventeen hours later in Sidney, with only minutes to catch the ferry that would take us to Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. We had given ourselves plenty of time but a snowstorm in New Hampshire and the shotgun shells randomly scattered around the truck as we crossed the Canadian border slowed our progress.

“I’ve booked us on as a small vehicle for the ferry”, Bayard announced as we waited to get our ticket. What?! We were in the mighty GMC, a big silver truck with a black skidoo hanging out of the back: this was no small vehicle. “Look around Nick!” Bayard told me. Large flakes of wind driven snow smattered against a line of tractor and trailers, monster trucks towing skidoos, large vans, and the very occasional car, all with engines running, all with heaters turned to full. I suppose Bayard had a point. As we chatted with the woman at the ticket kiosk she didn’t look twice at our ‘small vehicle’, and we joined the line inching towards the ferry.

pic credit, Guy robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson.

Seven hours after boarding, we arrived in Channel-Port aux Basques. The snow and wind had increased. Exhaust fumes streamed into the cold sky, mingling amongst a stippled layer of thick black cloud. Most of the vehicles pulled straight into the Tim Hortons coffee house car park. I Imagined how well a person would do owning a café that sold coffee and not the dishwater masquerading as coffee would do here, but what do I know about business? A man wrapped in several layers of clothes ran past, pumping his legs like a rugby player warming up before a game, but he wasn’t on any kind of fitness campaign, he was just heading for the coffee shop.

Bayard was relaxed behind the wheel of his GMC even after hours of snow covered roads. The Atlantic was always nearby as we drove north. Skeletal trees heavy with snow and large frozen lakes blurred in and out of focus. I was struggling to stay awake, still feeling the effects of the sea sickness tablets I had necked before the crossing. At two in the afternoon we reached Cow Head, the town before Parsons Pond. Bayard had booked a cabin at Shallow Bay Motel: “Can you believe it, they rang me back after my original booking to tell me they give discounted rates to climbers” he said with his slow American gravel, laughing and shaking his head.

The cabin was warm and tidy. It had a fridge, a flat screen TV, a microwave, and the most horrible imitation log burner. We unpacked in driving snow that misted the road, heaving duffel bags that were wedged between the skidoo and the sides of the truck. In no time the tidy little cabin was cold and the floor was covered in snow. Bloody hell it was cold. The walls of the cabin creaked and the window frames, loaded with fresh snow, rattled, but with the thermostats turned to full, and the horrible electric log burner glowing, we were soon comfortable. The tacos Bayard cooked up were warming and delicious, and I had wolfed two down before stopping abruptly: “Oh dude, I’ve done you wrong, there’s lard in the beans”.

So far on the trip I had climbed a few days in New Hampshire, one day with Guy and two days with Kevin Mahoney. Kevin was the ultimate MOG (Man Of Girth). He made climbing thin ice and hard mixed look like an illusion: he hardly ever reversed, it was something to behold a frame so large continue moving up. Kevin and I had climbed four routes over two days: The Roof and Remission Direct Direct, on the first day, then an unnamed route to the right of Black Pudding Gully and Tripesickle on the second. I didn’t feel particularly warmed up or used to the cold. I was going to perish. I’m normally OK with the cold, but December in Spain had lowered my tolerance. How was I ever going to manage to climb?

Myself climbing The Direct Direct start to Remission. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Myself climbing The Direct Direct start to Remission. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Kevin Mahoney climbing Tripesickle. Black Pudding gully, New Hampshire.

Kevin Mahoney climbing Tripesickle. Black Pudding gully, New Hampshire.

The following day, one of the locals we met in the café, whom I later found out was called Pierre, pointed at the thin layer of clothes Guy was wearing and said, “You’re going to freeze!” I must admit looking at Guy with his thin frame and lack of layers, I felt better about my chances and somewhat smug. I was wearing so many layers I looked as solid as some of the locals. Yes, he was going to freeze. Pierre laughed a throaty coughing laugh between drags on his fragrant cigarette, before delivering further piss-taking in the Bristolian-Devonian-Cornish-Scottish-Irish-Canadian Newfie accent. His thick walrus moustache was made up of grey and ginger whiskers, some much longer than others, each of which appeared to have a life of its own. His red eyes, set inside a face criss-crossed with crevasses, glittered. I warmed to Pierre even though it was minus fifteen, knowing it wouldn’t be long before I became the centre of his savage piss take.

Guy Robertson, Myself, Brad Thornhill. Also from New England, Ryan Stefiuk, Alden Pellett and Pierre. Credit, Bayard Russell.

Guy Robertson, Myself, Brad Thornhill. Also from New England, Ryan Stefiuk, Alden Pellett and Pierre. Credit, Bayard Russell.

Tomorrow we would move to a cabin at the far end of the lake for three days. But today, we would skidoo the nine miles along the frozen surface of the pond to check out the area and the cabin before returning for another night in the motel. The cabin was owned by Lamont Thornhill who had been born and raised in Parsons Pond. He looked to be in his late forties and rode a powerful skidoo that would eat anything in its way; he said it was an impulse buy and way too fast for his nerve and age. I felt a pang of jealousy, the skidoo looked a lot of fun. Something strange was happening to me in this cold climate: I was looking longingly at skidoos. Lamont’s younger brother Brad, who would join us tomorrow, lived close by and, like Lamont, had lived in Parsons Pond all of his life. Later in the trip I asked Brad about growing up in Newfoundland and what prospects there were for younger people. He explained since the demise of the cod fishing industry, the oil industry and then the mining industry, there was little left for the younger generation, and most moved off the island. The unemployment rate in 2016 was over 14%, the highest among the provinces, and it continues to rise. Brad and Lamont both worked in mining, spending months away from their homes and families. It felt a sad situation to me that people so grounded in local tradition are forced to leave their homes and families to sustain their lives, and when they return they’re on a countdown to leaving again.

Terry and Lamont.

Terry and Lamont.

Brad.

Brad.

Helping Lamont was Terry, another Newfie born and raised in Parsons Pond and another Newfie who worked off the island. Terry made other locals look small. He wore a large fur hat with earflaps which looked very warm, and my jealousy spread from machinery to items of clothing. Pierre sped away, returning with a dooby hanging from his lips and clinging a jar full of moose meat that he presented to Guy. “That’ll keep ya warm boy,” he said between chesty hacks and laughs. Lamont seemed more serious and in better physical condition than Pierre (his moustache was trimmed and well-kept), but he also had that Newfie trait of generosity: “Stay in the cabin as long as you want. We’ll get you there and come visit, and get you out.”

Another local turned up on his skidoo. He wore what at one time would have been white matching trousers and jacket with some form of camouflage pattern, but they looked like they had a long history and could tell many a tale of moose hunting and fishing trips. He sported a goatee and a pair of wire framed glasses on his large face, and across his shoulder was a rifle with a camouflaged stock. He was reasonably short, but wide. He cracked a Molson Light even though it was nine in the morning, then lit a cigarette and looked a little threatening. But once I got to know Bevin Goosney, it turned out his heart was as large as the engine in his skidoo, and he pushed that engine as fast and as hard as he could.

Bevan.

Bevin.

Bevin worked two weeks on, two weeks off in a diamond mine in the Yukon. He would be going away again in three days, but he was here and helping us transport ourselves and gear to the hut. “I’ll get you some moose steaks,” he said before pulling the tab on another beer and lighting another cigarette. I didn’t know how he would take the news I didn’t eat meat, so chose to keep quiet. It had been a long time since I’d felt intimidated by manliness, but watching these guys I felt somewhat inadequate with my soft ways. Eventually I ‘fessed up, but Bevin just shrugged: he didn’t care, each to their own, whatever boy… Psheeeet, another ring was pulled on another tin of Molson Light. I mentioned I ate fish and he said if he could find some he would bring fish steaks when he visited the cabin. At the time I didn’t appreciate the shortage of fish (it must have been a seasonal thing) but later found out Bevin had gone around town visiting friends until he found two halibut steaks, which good to his word he delivered to the cabin.

Bevin's note left in the cabin.

Bevin’s note left in the cabin.

“Guy has never been on a skidoo before”. Bayard told Bevin. Bevin crushed the empty tin of Molson and threw it onto the snow. Behind his glasses his eyes glittered. Pointing a large finger at Guy he said, “You’re with me!”

blog 1.4The wind came from the west. It blew directly off the dark North Atlantic Ocean. Chunks of ice lapped by syrupy white waves bobbed like fishing floats. The unseen sun provided shadows of sculptured snow that stretched along a frozen surface. A team of six set out on four skidoos across the frozen lake. I was behind Bayard on the Arctic Cat, a seventeen-year-old machine that Bayard had part-bought with two others back in New Hampshire. Guy was sat behind Bevin who was driving so fast he was now just a slightly inebriated speck on the frozen surface of the lake. “I’m not going that fast, this machine belongs to three of us, my history with snowmobiles is not so good” Bayard told me. “Whatdoyoumean, not so good?” I shouted while hanging on to Bayard and being sprayed with snow, terrified that we would hit a lump of ice and flip. “Well dude, the last time I drove a skidoo I set it on fire, burnt it to a cinder… totally destroyed”.

Most of us stopped for a break at about half way along the lake. Guy and Bevin flew past but Guy was driving now. He reminded me of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, although I’m sure Harley Davidsons didn’t travel that fast. Bevin lounged on the back, his gun slung across his stomach, drinking a Molson and smoking. In the distance the mountains were becoming bigger, taking form, they reminded me of the mountains of Norway, Yosemite, the Cairngorms. Grey clouds hung over whale back summits and in contrast, the ice and snow of the lake dazzled with their white. There was clearly a lifetime of climbing in these mysterious hills if only it could be accessed, if only we had the time. Twelve days is what we had, and in the land of notoriously poor weather twelve days was not long. I suppose it was a case of get what we can, when we can, and start thinking about future trips armed with the information gleaned. But coming to Newfoundland is much more than the climbing: coming to Newfoundland is about experiencing the land and the weather and the space and the ocean, and most of all it’s about meeting the people.

 

Thanks:

It would have been almost impossible to have climbed in Newfoundland without the help and support of the locals who are without doubt, some of the most giving and generous folk I have met. Below is a roll call in no particular order.

Brad, Bevan, BJ, Derek, Pierre, Terry, Lamont – characters all and generous to boot. In the future climbers will be able to stay in Lamont’s daughter’s cabins at Parsons Pond (once they are built in spring), where I’m sure a host of information and skidoo services will be available.

And as always, the hospitality and generosity of my friends in New Hampshire, especially Anne and Bayard.

Rick and Celia at IME in North Conway who always make me welcome, and Doug Madara for just being Doug.

The Arding Slot.

Guy and myself climbing the second ascent of The Arding slot, Western Brook Gulch. The first ascent of this climb was by the Newfoundland activist Joe Terravecchia and Will Carey. Bayard and I met up with Joe and his long term climbing partner for all things Newfie later in the trip, neither disappointed with the stories they told and their enthusiasm even after twenty years of climbing and exploration in Newfoundland. It was a great evening.

Guy and myself climbing the second ascent of the seven pitch climb, The Arding slot, Western Brook Gulch. The first ascent of this climb was by the Newfoundland activist Joe Terravecchia and Will Carey. Bayard and I met up with Joe and his long term climbing partner Casey, for all things Newfie later in the trip, neither disappointed with the stories they told and their enthusiasm even after twenty years of climbing and exploration in Newfoundland. It was a great inspirational evening. Credit, Bayard Russell.

Guy, pitch 1, The Arding Slot.

Guy, pitch 1, The Arding Slot.

Myself starting pitch 2 of the Arding Slot. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself starting pitch 2 of the Arding Slot. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson

Credit, Guy Robertson

Guy Robertson, pitch 3.

Guy Robertson, pitch 3.

Myself setting off on pitch 4, Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself setting off on pitch 4, Credit, Guy Robertson.

Looking up to Guy belaying on the stance of pitch 5.

Looking up to Guy belaying on the stance of pitch 5.

Myself seconding the fifth pitch. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself seconding the fifth pitch. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself leading pitch 6. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself leading pitch 6. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Got Me Moose Boy.

Western Brook Gulch.

Western Brook Gulch from the climb, Got Me Moose Boy.

Guy Robertson approaching Got Me Moose Boy. The first ascent of the climb was by Joe Terravecchia and Will Carey. When Will and Joe first climbed GMMB, the pillar at the base was not touching so the line climbed was by the ice fringes out right until a traverse was made to reach the main body of ice above the first big overhang. We believe this was the second ascent.

Guy Robertson approaching Got Me Moose Boy. The first ascent of the climb was by Joe Terravecchia and Will Carey. When Will and Joe first climbed GMMB, the pillar at the base was not touching so the line climbed was by the ice fringes out right until a traverse was made to reach the main body of ice above the first big overhang. We believe this was the second ascent and as the climb was in such great condition we climbed the initial pillar direct.

Bayard on the first pitch.

Bayard on the first pitch.

Guy leading pitch 2.

Guy leading pitch 2.

Credit, Bayard Russell.

Credit, Bayard Russell.

Fat of the Land. The Cholesterol Wall, Ten Mile Pond.

Fat of the Land, a Joe and Casey first is the complete ice line on the left above Bayard.

Fat of the Land, a Joe and Casey first is the complete ice line on the left above Bayard.

fat of the land

Bayard on pitch 2.

Myself on pitch 4. Credit, Bayard Russell.

Myself on pitch 4. Credit, Bayard Russell.

The way out…

Norris Point, Newfoundland.

Norris Point, Newfoundland.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A tempestuous look back to the future

Stob Corie nan Lochan 2017.

Stob Coire nan Lochan 2017.

 

It was dark as I drove my little red van towards Glen Coe. Matt Helliker, visiting from Chamonix, was behind in a hire car. Leaving Ballachulish, the petrol station and the Tourist Information Centre on the right, and then the Clachaig Inn on the left, the road sliced snow-covered hills. We steered the icy bends with caution, turning right into the lay-by near the top of the glen. I sat for a moment in the dark, with the wind gently rocking the van and the creak of the cooling engine. The night before, Matt had convinced me to set the alarm for five-thirty, an hour later than my usual time to rise when winter climbing in Scotland. I sat savouring the warmth, watching a procession of lights threading the steep hillside opposite. So many people. Saturday the 14th of January and my first day of climbing in Scotland this winter. Donald Trump refuses to believe that global warming is happening. God help us! But unlike Donald, who does however believe in God, I don’t, so I’ll just despair and accept we are doomed.

Matt and I were heading to Stob Coire nan Lochan, that snowed-up fortress set high behind the dark and damp of Aonoch Dubh. Stob Corie nan Lochan was one of the first places I winter climbed in Scotland, going on twenty-two years ago. That day I soloed SC Gully and Twisting Gully, and with younger knees jogged back to my car in the late afternoon. On the way down, I passed and chatted to a Scottish climber who – short, wide and a little overweight – reminded me of the darts player Jockey Wilson. As I sorted gear at my car he came across: “Here you go” he said, thrusting a tin of bitter into my hand, “the day you’ve had you deserve this”.

Matt and I began walking, the lights ahead almost out of sight. At one time in my winter climbing I would have felt panic that we were behind so many people. Growing older has definitely smoothed my sharp, although there are still a few winter climbing matters about which I feel passionate.

Guy Robertson seconding the first pitch of what became the route called Slenderhead, a three pitch VIII/8

Guy Robertson seconding the first pitch of what became the route called Slenderhead, a three pitch VIII/8

Guy Robertson climbing the second pitch of Slenderhead.

Guy Robertson climbing the second pitch of Slenderhead.

Compacted snow, stomped by the boots of those already ahead had turned black. I thought back to the last time I climbed in Stob Coire nan Lochan two years ago. On that occasion, Guy Robertson and I fell behind Greg Boswell and Will Sim, but after a while we caught up with them, but only because they had stopped. The four of us stood together, taking in the blocky steepness. The wind stirred white devils and numbed fingers.

“Are you looking at the Beyond Good and Evil line?” Will said without taking his eyes from the thin streak of ice.

“Yes.” I replied.

“RACE YOU!” Greg shouted, sprinting toward the cliff. The deep snow hardly slowed him. His bouffant, not as wild and crazy as before, a million damp curls. Greg laughed between gulps and strides before laughing some more. We all laughed, even Robbo who takes this winter climbing game very serious.

After gearing up, Guy and I climbed the Beyond Good and Evil line, three pitches of varied, sustained climbing, and we call the new route Slenderhead. We almost became lost while walking from the top of the cliff in a white out. Eventually we reached our bags stashed by a large boulder in the base of the coire. We meet with Greg and Will who have also had a good day, both having led a route called The Tempest.

The Tempest was first climbed in 2001 by Neil Gresham using a style that I’m glad to say has not become popular:

“The Tempest was born from the desire to bring a slice of the continental style of mixed climbing home to Scotland. I had gained so much enjoyment and learned so many new skills from the ‘M’ routes in Canada and Europe and I couldn’t see why the UK shouldn’t also benefit, providing no bolts are placed and that winter conditions prevail. Needless to say, there were critics, but the winds are changing in mixed climbing. The Tempest remains an exciting and fiercely technical challenge for the open-minded.” Neil Gresham.

I have only met Neil once, several years ago, immediately warming to him. Neil was interesting and cheerful and pleasant; if I spent more time in his company I’m sure we would get along. I respect Neil completely for his rock climbs and his drive and ability, but in climbing The Tempest with the style he chose (a long time ago now I admit) I believe he was misguided. Scottish winter climbing is an adventure into the unknown, but if this type of ascent – repeatedly worked, pre-placed, hammered gear – was to become common, for how long?

Winter climbing in Britain is very popular and the numbers of climbers on the crags are increasing. Scottish, Welsh and Lakeland crags are small, and the on-sight, ground-up ethic that has been followed, almost without question from the beginning, lifts the worldwide reputation of our small cliffs. More importantly, top-roping, pre-inspection and pre-placed gear should have no place in winter climbing in Britain, not least because of the damage to flora and rock that would be caused by the increased number of climbers ready to take to the crags armed with sharp implements. If one climber can flout the rules why shouldn’t any climb of any grade be fair game? Those who influence the climbing community have a duty to strengthen and enhance the preservation of our ethics by providing good practice, and by this I don’t only mean the movers and shakers in the UK, but also climbers visiting from abroad. There have been occasions I know of where visiting climbers, who talk about how they relish our pure ethics, go on to disregard the on-sight, ground up approach, which in turn weakens the very thing they say they come for.

By nature of the ethics we apply to ourselves we naturally limit the damage to the cliffs, and in the long run this will preserve our being able to continue, because our crags are for everyone, not just climbers. If we are seen as flagrantly destroying plant life, animal habitation, the rock, the natural beauty, we will be shut down and rightly so. We apply the self-imposed regulations by showing restraint, which in turn enhances our experience and protects the cliffs. This shows integrity and is something of which we can be proud.

Britain now has on-sight ascents of climbs harder than The Tempest. The Tempest itself has now been climbed in good style after Andy Turner removed all of the in-situ gear left in place from the first ascent. Leaving the gear in the climb was an oversight because with time, this gear became untrustworthy, stopping anyone else from attempting it. Neil made the point that no bolts should be used, and I completely agree, but at least if bolts were used the climb would have been available for future attempts. The very fact that hammered, pre-placed gear was used suggests that this is a style of ascent is more suited to countries where bolts are used and not Scotland. Andy Turner had the inclination and generosity to remove all of the rotting gear and he should be commended, but it should never have come to that. Get to the top or return to the ground to try another day, or leave the challenge for someone else.

At Kendal Mountain Festival last November, I was presenting a talk about Scottish winter climbing with Andy Nisbet, Mick Fowler, Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell. I think we all had a great time and enjoyed the get-together and banter, but there was one thing that immediately reminded me of the day in Stob Coire nan Lochan.

Greg Boswell is without doubt a great friend. I respect Greg’s superior climbing ability, fitness and drive, but I respect his mature and laid back personality even more. My Grandad used to say, “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders”, but I’m not so sure. Greg and I get on well, we understand each other even though there is twenty five years between us. We have spent many a cold hour in both Scotland and Canada. And of course, we share an intense experience with THE BEAR. But Greg said something in the lecture at Kendal that shocked me a little given his attitude towards winter ethics: “To advance the sport we need, at times, to bend the rules.” These may not be the exact words used, but this was the meaning and he definitely did say ‘to advance the sport’.

This reminded me of what I thought Greg was against, especially since the day both Will and Greg on-sighted The Tempest, Neil said, “The Tempest remains an exciting and fiercely technical challenge for the open-minded”. Climbed as Neil did, what The Tempest became is a fiercely technical challenge taken away from someone with the ability to successfully climb it in the style agreed upon by the general climbing community. And in doing this, the unique and untainted experience which comes from making a first ascent is lost, along with being credited in journals and guide books. The phrase it’s there for someone to improve upon is perhaps used too frequently by climbers who are impatient or selfish, as an excuse for poor practice. Once a new route is climbed it will never again be a new route, it will have lost mystique, the unknown, the ultimate challenge.

“British climbers will fall behind in standards if we don’t have the really hard technical bolted climbs of abroad or we only on-sight” is an argument I have heard over the years, and I think it is similar to what Greg was meaning by “to advance the sport.” Well, call me a dinosaur (something Greg does often) but I’m not sure pushing grades by whatever means really matters. Who cares about grades? Scottish winter climbing is not a competition, we don’t need to make bigger numbers, it doesn’t advance the sport, because winter climbing is not a sport. Winter climbing does not need to be advanced, if climbing bigger numbers is what is classed as advancing. I would say we advance by keeping the activity honest; we should give the cliffs a chance. For me and for many like me, the big adventure is brought about by the rules we place on ourselves, it is this that makes winter climbing in Britain special and different. Winter climbing should be hard, cold and uncomfortable. Winter climbing should be uncertainty at whatever level, it should be breaking down mental boundaries and pushing on, or knowing when to say enough is enough and retreating. Winter climbing should be shafts of light cutting through the grey clouds. Shimmering ice locked lochs. The pain and the heat of hot aches. An approach in the dark and (often) a decent in the dark. Close contact with nature. An unforgettable experience. Winter climbing in Britain should not be the number chasing activity that can be found almost anywhere else in the world.

However, winter climbing is advancing, and this advancement is almost organic, brought about through better gear and training, and yes, the ability to jump on a plane to go places like Kandersteg, The Alps or Canada, which gives us an ever-increasing appreciation of what is possible. And because of this, there are more climbs being opened at the top of the grade using traditional ethics.

A few mornings ago, I read something in the Guardian that reminded me of a conversation I had in the climbing wall which relates to what I have written here. The Guardian piece was an interview with Brian Eno, and written by Simon Hatterstone.  Eno, asked about the political impact of Brexit and Trump in 2016 says, “Actually, in retrospect, I’ve started to think I’m pleased about Trump and I’m pleased about Brexit because it gives us a kick up the arse [ … ] now, with Trump, there’s a chance of a proper crash, and a chance to really rethink.” I don’t agree with Eno, as I think Trump as President is far too big a risk, but after talking to friends in the climbing wall about winter climbing ethics I came round to a similar notion, that by having someone take the risk and throw the rule book away, on occasion, is needed for continued debate, which will then either confirm and strengthen what we have in place or radically change it. So with this in mind, I’d like to say an honest thanks to Neil for being bold in going against the ethics and to Greg for getting me to think about what he said, which led me to write this piece. And in writing this, I hope it will strengthen what we already have in place, which is something to be proud of and worth safeguarding. But if it turns out what we have is outdated, clung to by dinosaurs, so be it.

Matt Helliker climbing the first pitch of East Face Direct, Direct. 2017. Slenderhead starts on the left and the top corner pitch of the Direct, Direct, shares the same final belay as Slenderhead.

Matt Helliker climbing the first pitch of East Face Direct, Direct, 2017. Slenderhead starts on the left and the top corner pitch of the Direct, Direct, shares the same final belay as Slenderhead.

 

Myself climbing the second pitch of East Face Direct, Direct. Credit, Matt Helliker.

Myself climbing the second pitch of East Face Direct, Direct. Credit, Matt Helliker.

 

Matt, pitch three, above the roof after leaving the belay. Verglass made protecting the roof and the tricky moves above it a little interesting.

Matt, pitch three, above the roof after leaving the belay. Verglass made protecting the roof and the tricky moves above it a tad bold.

Myself on the final corner of the Direct, Direct. Slenderhead takes the left arete and the face to the left again and finished with the same final moves from the pinnacle as the East Face Direct, Direct.

Myself on the final corner of the Direct, Direct. Slenderhead takes the left arête and the face to the left again and finishes with the same final moves, from the pinnacle, as the East Face Direct, Direct. Credit, Matt Helliker.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Chulilla Epiphany.

blog-4

4am. Friday 6th January, 2017. Chulilla. Spain.

In the shadows cast by streetlights, Zylo and I walked the cobbled piazza in the centre of Chulilla. A wash of white confetti circles swirled, butting against stacks of metal chairs outside the shuttered cafes and piling against the stone of the font. We were leaving to catch an early plane after a month of climbing rock.

Steep and narrow streets. Three story houses. Cats and dogs and succulent cacti. Spider plants in ceramic pots creeping from deep window sills. And above the town, the dilapidated castle and its walls. Last night, as we dumped bags in the minty-green Fiat 500, the town had been lit by strings of light swinging in the breeze. Fiesta de Los Tres Reyes Mages, Spanish Epiphany – children, groups of adults, climbers wearing bright down jackets. Packs of dogs. A choir singing Silent Night. The chime of the church bells.

I was sad to leave. Deserted, dark, almost post-apocalyptic. It almost felt like we were steeling away in the middle of the night in an attempt to outrun something sinister. But maybe we were, because isn’t this what climbers do – we keep running, training, driving, flying, pulling, lowering, hanging, stressing, crimping. We try to eek-out every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year. We scream as we try so very hard and we scream when we fail. We run around ticking lists, comparing, thumping ropes at the base of the rock as we take our place.

Deserted. Silent. Illuminated by ornamental street lights. We walked, brushing confetti into cracks between cobbles before the breeze caught it once more stirring it to a whirligig of white circles. The chill of a January night in Spain.

The day before, our last day of climbing, we had climbed Sendero sinuoso, a three star 7a+ that weaves its glittering course of orange crozzles for forty metres. To the left of Sendero sinuoso was Animula vavula blandula, also a three-star climb, but a little more difficult at 7b. As I stood on a ledge half way up my climb, furiously shaking life into numb fingers, a man sprinted past and lowered, barely giving himself time to appreciate his success. For a second, while hanging and shaking out, I thought of saying hello and having a laugh at my ineptitude, but he didn’t look like he would appreciate the banter so I remained stum. The man didn’t appear to be enjoying himself, he didn’t smile once, maybe he had just received some bad news? Later, another climber in the same group, a big guy who smiled and laughed even though he had struggled and fallen on the same route, told me his friend was unsatisfied because he had not climbed any routes that challenged him, even though every day he climbed three star routes in this magnificent setting.

Later, as I stood belaying, two more people appeared to my left intent on climbing Animula vagula blandula. They looked around hawkishly before thumping their rope at the base of the route. One of them squatted as close as he could to the rock while flicking the pages of a small note book and writing. Occasionally he stopped from his study and lifted his head territorially. He reminded me of a raptor on a carcass.          

Just before climbing the final route of the trip, Zylo and I hauled ourselves up the ladder of metal rungs until stood on the large dusty shelf beneath the orange tufa dripping overhang of El Balconcito. We had come for a look because until now neither of us had seen the wall up close. A month of great climbs in beautiful surroundings, a month of good food and wine and comfort and challenge, a month of play. And as I stood on this final day looking up I wanted more, I wanted to launch onto this wall with all of its unknows, all of its slim fins of fine grey porcelain and decorations of rough orange squares and its dark, cool pockets, and with this wanting, a judder of unsatisfied chilled me. I had climbed and climbed and battled and climbed and tested myself almost to the limit over the month and here I stood daring myself not to be satisfied …

… Not satisfied…

… But the climbs I had climbed had been so good, so brain-twisting with their technicality, so fulfilling that every time I returned to the ground it felt as if I was still high. On occasion, on several occasions, I had struggled and tried and tried. What more can a person ask of themselves? While belaying and in between climbs, I had watched friendly groups of Alpine Accentors with their pristine and pippety blue-grey plumage walking and pecking almost at my feet. We had stood on the wooden bridge looking down on the large brown fish, its broad body and fan-tail swishing against the flow of in spate water while its head remained blindly snurfling in mud unaware of us looking down from above. The early morning cormorant sleek and swimming underwater in the river narrows at the bottom of the canyon. The black and white blur of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker rattling its brain while digging deep into the soft wood of the yellow poplar. A tiny Firecrest. Gangs of choughs mobbing the cliffs above the climbs and tossing sticks on the climbers below. I had made friends of the village cats and fussed a million dogs. I had met old friends and friendly new people, and on Christmas day, after working myself on Kataplof, a wild and crazy 40m 7c, Zylo and I sat on a large orange boulder, sharing a river-chilled beer and enjoying the calm as the day cooled. Jupiter appeared first of all, bright in the darkening blue. I was a year older and another year was almost done…  

Reaching the steps on the far side of the square, a wake of paper spindrift washes against the concrete of the first step. Time moves one way only and chaos will ensue. But there is rhythm amongst this chaos, amongst these turbulent tides, if we can only allow ourselves happiness.     

blog-5blog-1

Unknown climber passing the final roof of the brilliant 35m, 7c Los Franceses. This is the point the climb turns from an E4 into 7c!

Unknown climber passing the final roof of the brilliant 35m, 7c Los Franceses. This is the point the climb turns from an E4 into 7c!

  

Zylo celebrates the end of the four days rain by showering in an 8a. In the month these four days of rain were the only days of rain.

Zylo celebrates the end of the four days rain by showering in an 8a. In the month, these four days of rain were the only days of rain.

   blog-8

blog-6

Josh Wharton cruises my Christmas project Kataplof adding inspiration for me to try hard and get it next go... Cheers Josh ;-)

Josh Wharton cruising my Christmas project Kataplof adding inspiration for me to try hard and get it next go… Cheers Josh ;-)

blog-2

Unknown climber from the USA fighting a few wet holds on Tequila Sunrise.

Unknown climber from the USA fighting a few wet holds on Tequila Sunrise.

A Christmas Day beer at La Pared Blanca.

A Christmas Day beer at La Pared Blanca.

The end of another great and memorable day.

The end of another great and memorable day.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Time. The Paymaster General.

Myself after clearing rubbish from around the prop on my dad's home/narrow boat on a recent 50 mile journey to take my dad and his home to a new mooring. Pic credit, Nikki Clayton.

Myself, five days after returning from Tibet, clearing rubbish from around the prop on my dad’s home/narrow boat on a 50 mile journey to take my dad and his home to a new mooring. Pic credit, Nikki Clayton.

 

I was asked recently by Sarah Stirling to be a part of an article she was writing and collating for Summit Magazine. The article is called Living the Dream. Below was my take on the questions she asked.

 

Living the Dream?

I’m a person, who after having made certain sacrifices and unusual life choices, has for the last thirteen years been a full-time climber & writer. By the way, being a full-time writer-climber is a proper job and does come under the definition of work…

Climbing for me has always been about testing myself, but above all it is about pursuing freedom and trying hard to have fun, and getting away from being bound by rules. I would not call myself a ‘professional climber’ because to me that word ‘professional’ connects too strongly to regulation and conformism, and of course is bound to the trap of having to be paid money for what we do. I work against this trap constantly, and of course remain in it. But mostly I do what I do because of passion. I do not have any time limits put upon me … apart from the one inevitable limit we all share, and will all have to face. This time-freedom is the only kind of ‘payment’ a person such as myself can expect. Time is the most valuable possession I have (until of course time finally possesses me!!) Time has become my only real pay-master, and I am delighted and deeply contented to say that I have been top of Master Time’s pay scale for the last thirteen years.

Worst day scenario? Actually I’ve come to realise that I can’t have worst day scenarios, how could I? There are people every day being killed and abused and living in poverty all around the world. My life is privileged. I am exceptionally fortunate. When I wake in the morning I have plentiful food and clean water. I have no fixed abode, so sometimes I have to use club huts, and when I want a little peace and quiet to write and the space becomes busy … this can be difficult, but I know it’s a minor niggle – at the end of the day I will not be trying to go to sleep wondering if I will be bombed that night or if I will be able to eat tomorrow.

Pension plan? The way things are going, I’m not sure people who have paid into a pension plan in Britain will actually have one. I came to climbing late in life, and after working almost full-time for twenty years, I was in the position to pay off the mortgage on my terrace house and even bank some savings. My house is rented, and this is part of my income and gives me something of a security blanket for the future. Added to the rent from my house there is income from my writing, lectures, and some work for my sponsors (generally in the form of lecturing in the UK and abroad) and then two of my sponsors pay me a small retainer, and all of my sponsors of course provide me with all the kit I need. Combining this modest income with a streamlined lifestyle paying no rent or mortgage means that I am actually exceptionally comfortable. It also helps hugely that I have never craved material goods, I don’t feel a need to buy things, unless I really need them. I don’t feel smug about this; I really do feel genuinely concerned for people who have slaved away only to be let down in their old age. It really scares me to think I could have gone on working hard doing something I did not enjoy for the best part of my life only to finally realise what I had worked for was a delusion.

My advice for people, and not just younger people, would be to try so very hard to do what feels correct for you at the time. Be completely honest with others, but above all work hard to try to be honest with yourself: find your own genuine passion, follow it, be it needle-craft or brain-surgery, and then try extremely hard to not worry too much about failure … it is just trying hard that is most important. I know that everyone simply cannot follow a passion like I have, many in the world only hope for the next meal, but really, if you have tried to be true to yourself and those you love, then that is all that counts. And then there’s education, proper expanding of knowledge, but above all there is experience, which will then hopefully bring you to compassion and a better understanding of other people. Whatever you do, whatever path, as they say, you take, or whatever job you have to undertake, if you are honest and focus on compassion and understanding then your life and the people in your life will be happier, and whatever happens in the end, when time finally stops all the payments, you will feel free ….

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Nyainqentangla South East via the North Buttress.

The North Buttress of Nyainqentangla South East first ascent by Paul Ramsden/Nick Bullock. 1600m. ED+ Descent via the East Ridge into the South Valley. October 2nd and back into the valley, 8th.

The North Buttress of Nyainqentangla South East first ascent by Paul Ramsden/Nick Bullock. 1600m. ED+
Descent via the East Ridge into the South Valley. October 2nd and back into the valley, 8th.

I sat in our tent and blue stripe tarp, our makeshift home. Paul Ramsden sat nearby. To our left the fast flowing glacial river pounded grey rocks – rocks rubbed smooth by the constant grey flow. To our knowledge we were the first Westerners to explore this valley on the North on the Nyainqentangla peaks. “No, that’s not the side to climb from.” That one always makes me warm. “No that’s not the side to climb from, it’s too steep, no one has climbed from that side. Truth be told, hardly anyone had climbed from either side, the small sub-range range, which holds the four highest mountains in the whole of the thousand-mile East and West Nyainqentangla was an enigma, an unknown, a very difficult to get permission, a magician’s trick, but the Yorkshire man who was sat on my right had somehow managed it.

 
A few days had passed and it was now time to acclimatise and see what the range revealed, what would unfold. Until now we had only seen a few long distance photos taken by Tom Nakamura, great shots that opened the imagination but none truly undressed the range, they teased with possibilities, but we would need to walk the seven or eight miles to become involved and begin this relationship.

 
There was obviously the ridge on the pointed Nyainqentangla I, but there had to more? In emails before the trip Paul had often mentioned the big North Face almost hidden in all pictures, but on Google Earth he had scoped and suggested there might be opportunities.
We left BC burdened with packs large enough to stay away for several days. Easy does it, BC was at a height of 5000m, so we stopped in a small grassy fold behind a prominent moraine ridge with a stream and Yaks at 5400m. Looking across at the four 7000m mountains, two of which were reportedly unclimbed, the anticipation heightened as ice runnels could just be seen in the bottom half of one of the unclimbed monoliths that the locals knew as Nyainqentangla South East and it was this face that Paul had shown much interest.

blog6Day two of the acclimatisation came, we stumbled a little higher sending rocks splintering while large birds passed high overhead before eventually setting camp in the afternoon. The mystery face opened, it was dramatic, triangular, overhanging, a wonder… The charge between Paul and myself crackled. This face, this unclimbed face on an unclimbed mountain was almost impossible to describe without using superlatives, it was a dream, it had runnels, ice, fields of snow, arêtes – the face twisted and turned in some warped massive monster Matterhorn way and we fathomed, from our position, that the climbing started at 5400m and the summit was a reported 7046m, making the face a mouth-puckering 1600m. Paul and I stood and weaved imagined lines, we didn’t need to look any farther for our objective.

ngt-blog-1The weather in the range was complicated. Most days had sun, rain, snow, wind, sleet, cloud, storm, hail. No day was the same and mostly the weather of the moment only lasted for a little while before some other form of meteorological bruising took over. This climb was not going to be one of those wait for a perfect five-day forecast, which was OK, because we had absolutely no form of contact from which to get one, we were on our own. This climb was going to be a get involved and sit out the not so desirable until it hopefully passed.

checking it out on the acclimatisation. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Checking it out on the acclimatisation. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

After the five days acclimatisation, some bad weather, some resting (for me), Paul and I walked up the valley with bags packed. Being camped beneath the triangular face made the word, insignificance, have meaning. The face was huge. In the night it hailed and snowed several inches. We had time, so we left all of the gear and ran away, but remember, this was a Ramsden trip and Ramsden does not really do waiting well, so after only one day of rest, we were again camped beneath the face. On this day of walking we had been granted our first full day of sun and dry since we arrived, it had to be a sign, a pointer from the gods, a good luck gift, but of course it wasn’t, it was just another card, an incitement pulled from the bag of weather tricks this range had in its pocket.

Day one was deep powder, post holing, some steep, some run-out, some exploring, but always dramatic and thrilling. We were on our way and once again the weather was holding tight, although it had to, and it had to hold for at least for another day because looking up at the steep and technical to come, on what we had already christened the crux day, the thought of been in those steep, sometimes overhanging ice runnels with powder pouring was too much to contemplate.

Myself putting in a track the evening before... pic, Paul Ramsden.

Myself taking the turn to put in a track the evening before… pic, Paul Ramsden.

Paul on day one.

Paul on day one.

Myself, day one. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Myself, day two. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Day two, an open bivvy encouraged us to set off reasonably early. Luckily the steep nature of the ground we climbed now had formed névé and did we needed it.
Several hours later I pulled from the top of what first appeared to be an ice romp but what was in fact one of the harder pitches, which turned into a rotten, overhanging, lung straining, gut busting. Paul joined me looking a tad haggard for a Yorky and agreed we needed to bivvy.

Myself approching the steep stuff, day two. pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Myself approaching the steep stuff, day two. pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Paul on one of the steeper sections day two.

Paul on one of the steeper sections day two.

An excellent night was had by all! Paul happy with his tent and hammock.

An excellent night was had by all! Paul happy with his tent and hammock.

Day three was a short one and decisive. We had originally spied a line joining the three ice fields to our right but after the first and physical two days, looking right filled both our heads with doubt, it just wasn’t certain enough even for gamblers and looking to the left, at a snow shelf leading direct to the prominent rib that was a direct line to the summit, caught our vote.

Paul traversing to my position, day three.

Paul traversing to my position, day three.

We finished early and dug a portion of fine snow arête which was enhanced by a cradle to catch the snow and enlarge the ledge even more. Paul happily pitched the tent enthusing the sowing skills of his Mother-in-Law, Di, who had constructed and sewn the sheet from which it was now was anchored by ice screws and supported extra snow to form a larger ledge. In the evening it started to snow, sleet, hail and gust, our sabbatical was over.
Day four felt a long one, we left our arête camp and pummelled all the way to 6700m and another ledge supported by the blue tarp constructed somewhere in Nottingham. The snow chucked at us what it could through the night.

Paul on day four.

Paul on day four.

Day five. Day five. What can be said about day five other than it snowed, and then the sun shone before the wind picked up before both Paul and I stood on the summit at midday.
I will admit to being very happy. Paul was also happy. The weather wasn’t too bad and the idea to descend the line of the climb should bad weather hamper was not taken. Both Paul and I had checked out a traverse of the East Ridge and at its culmination a turn left to romp an innocuous looking snow slope back to ‘our’ valley and ‘our’ well know moraine and finally BC.

More lung busting on day five.

More lung busting on day five.

Summit Selfy.

Summit Selfy.

Setting off, almost immediately on cue, the clouds chose to wrap us in our dreams, but somehow, like a homing Pigeon, Paul led across ridges and down and around dubious snow-slopes stopping whenever the cloud turned pea-souper…
The cloud became even thicker, the snow whiter, the angle and territory more dangerous and after falling into three bergschrunds, we stopped and set up the tent in one of the holes found by Paul himself.

I wasn’t worried, we had summited and the weather wasn’t that bad. If only the cloud would bugger off tomorrow morning, the hidden gully-exit we needed to find, which would lead to the North Face and the traverse to a lower ridge and finally our snow slope to the moraine and safety, we would be OK.

Soon after dark it began to snow, and snow and snow some more. I lay, not sleeping at all, while admonishing myself for not forcing the issue and abseiling the line we had climbed. Now we were stuck somewhere teetering on a ridge above 6500m in a dump of snow with limited food and limited knowledge how to get off. What were we thinking? We had climbed the line, we had our prize, this was just the way off, it didn’t matter, it was a fucking way off, that’s all and it was going to kill us.
Day six, and it’s still snowing and white-out. We would have to stay put, but by 9am the winds abated, the snow stopped and we launched, well, we teetered and staggered. I couldn’t help but voice concerns about the amount of snow hat had fallen through the night but what were we to do, sit there and hope for some kind of none-avalanche terrain miracle?

Paul doing a sterling job in questionable conditions.

Paul doing a sterling job in questionable conditions.

The Yorkshire homing Pigeon pulled a master stroke finding the exit gully leading from the upper ridge to the lower ridge via several abseils directly down the North Face. Paul’s ability to sniff out the line and cover technical ground was astounding, his years and years of Alpine climbing and the experience easy to see. Eventually, after covering several pockets of serious slab which chose to stay-put, we reached the lower ridge and after a few technical sections hit our turn left col, but the mess of glacial holes and lines and overhangs changed our plan, so instead we turned right into the south valley before stopping on flattening.

Day seven was a long arduous day following no path just a jumble of moraine and a river which after seven or eight hours popped us back into some form of reality near the village and house from which we started and the house where our Tibetan Liaison Officer was staying.

The Long way out... Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

The Long way out… Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Paul went back in with a team of bikers to strip BC. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Paul went back in with a team of bikers to strip BC. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Happy and battered.

Happy and battered.

Tashi, the LO, me, the village headman who put us up in his home, Paul and drives...

Tashi, the LO, me, the village headman who put us up in his home, Paul and drives…

If only!

If only!

Most definately!

Most definitely!

Paul Ramsden and I would like to thank the following in their helping this expedition exist through the form of grant monies.

The MEF.

The Montane Alpine Club Grant.

The BMC.

I would like to thank Paul Ramsden for his imagination and drive and foresight and of course his ability to make brews given any circumstance. I would also, as ever like to thank my sponsors who are very supportive and help me continue to live the life I do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Death of a Disco Dancer.

Nyainquentanglha 1 NE Face. Can you guess the line we hope to climb. Pic credit and thanks, Tom Nakamura

Nyainquentanglha 1 NE Face. Guess the line? Pic credit and thanks, Tom Nakamura

“Nick, Light and fast spells failure. Slow and heavy works. The weather is never as bad as it first appears and the secret is you don’t come down until you get to the top. Stop early, make a big ledge, get comfortable, start again the following day.”

My interview by Paul Ramsden the previous summer had gone OK I think? Although that depends on your take of what is OK. It was difficult to assess, as Paul is from Yorkshire! When I say ‘gone well’ what I mean is, I think he had decided I might be a suitable substitute for his usual and very successful climbing partner, Mick Fowler. Paul was interviewing for someone to join him in Tibet to attempt a very steep, unclimbed ridge on a 7100m mountain with an unpronounceable name.

‘Don’t come down.’  

If I passed the interview, I hoped we did come down. I really wanted to come down, staying up is overrated!

After my interview with Paul, I placed the thought of the trip somewhere deep into the back of my mind, it was a year away, an impossible visa away, a whole load of money away, but it was soon after I found that Paul isn’t one to let sleeping mountaineers lie. The emails began…

A year away, it was easy for me to decide to return to the Himalayas. My first expedition had been to Meru’s Sharks Fin in 1997 and my last Greater Ranges expedition had been to Chamlang, Nepal, in 2012. So much time. So much money. So much failure. Twenty-one expeditions in all. I had to have a break after Chamlang, I was mentally exhausted and almost immediately my rock climbing improved, along with my health and bank balance and state of mind.

There are many exciting aspects of expedition climbing, going into an area previously unexplored, climbing a mountain or a feature previously unclimbed, pushing your body, both physically and mentally, but there are also down sides and I hadn’t missed any of them, especially the red tape, but I told myself it would be great to explore Tibet, a country I had never experienced and meet the local people. And I still lived for that feeling when you catch the first glimpse of the mountain you hope to climb and then all that expectation, excitement and mystery floods into your head. It is at this point the glass is half full, and its an intoxicating feeling.

So, instead of going to France and the Alps this summer and then on to the Dolomites and finally driving south to clip bolts in the Gorges du Tarn, I remained in Llanberis – running, cycling, circuit training and rock climbing.

Fifty. Half a century. So many candles, so little cake. Fifty is the youth of old age. I turned fifty last December. I don’t hate growing older, I’m doing OK and there is nothing I can do about it anyway, but at fifty, fitness is hard won, and containing that fitness, being master of it, is as slippery as seaweed. Its like a dance with the Devil being able to jiggle all of those hot fitness pokers. And the tide of expedition climbing carries hard won finger strength and conditioned muscle out into the cold vastness. The big hills and altitude reap a hefty price to the climber who participates not only in high altitude, but also rock, ice, mixed and Alpine and the time they eat up, not only the actual time, but time in physical and mental preparation, is a large price.

“The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.” T. S. Eliot

It’s OK, Tibet is an age away. That was what I told myself in Canada, America, Quebec, Spain, France, Ireland, but each time I relaxed, Paul sent emails talking about gear and flights and visas and tents and sleeping bags and food, and with every email, I was ripped from warm contentment and placed onto a cold snowy ledge sucking oxygen depleted air.

“We don’t need a cook Nick, we can take freeze dried meals for BC and the hill. The porridge comes in two sizes, big for BC, small for the hill. No, we don’t need gels or bars or powders, because on the hill, through the day, I don’t eat anything after porridge apart from sucking on a boiled sweet.”

When Paul said this I think he could tell my psyche had hit an all time low.

“Full time climbers never appear psyched.”

This was Paul’s belief. He was possibly correct; he was most definitely correct when compared to himself and his one trip a year in which he gave everything, thought of nothing else and packed his bag months in advance.

The pressure I felt in becoming involved with Paul was like never before. I was certainly no Fowler. I needed to train. I didn’t want to let him down on his one climbing trip of the year.

“I think when the full horror of being fifty hits you, you should stay home and have a good cry” Alan Bleasdale

I climbed Strawberries at Tremadog in April and The Complete Scream at Fairhead in June. That was enough then? Time to start my paso doble of aerobic fitness by running, cycling, circuit training. I was still climbing on the weekend, but now the lungs were more important than the strength of my fingers.

Something for the weekend sir?

In the evening, after a morning of writing, followed by the afternoon of running and cycling, I would climb indoors at The Beacon, this would keep me topped up for the weekend and put in a base for the long haul. I enjoy training indoors, especially as the summer in Wales was as I remember, monsoon, but why is it climbers have to try to make a person feel bad by asking the same old question over and over and over, “What are you doing inside, it’s not raining?” And they deliver this same old unimaginative question like some sort of bayonet aimed at the heart and thrust with a condescending sneer.

At first I attempted to justify myself, but after a while I became bored with the same unimaginative poking. What is it with climbers, why do some climbers try to make other climbers feel bad? I heard that same question so often it became a cliché. Was this, trying to make me feel bad for my decision to climb indoors, purely aimed at me, or is this something everyone goes through? Why did people feel the need to try and give other people a hard time for training and climbing indoors? Lets face it, every one of those super rock stars we all read about, even James McHaffie the best climber in the UK, spend hours training indoors. When time is at a premium, because other things take precedent, it helps to get a guaranteed burn, especially in questionable weather conditions, and for once, I had to place other stuff above rock climbing to give myself a chance in Tibet, I had a Ramsden to keep up with! I was also writing a book, which some don’t see as work, but it ate into the time like Necrotizing Fasciitis.

I have always attempted to be more, half full than half empty, but i must admit to getting a little bored of the same old unimaginative dig about being inside when people have not the first idea about what what I have been doing and the reason I may be inside that day... Pic credit, The Hippy.

I have always attempted to be more, half full than half empty, but I must admit to getting a little bored of the same old unimaginative dig about being inside when people have not the first idea about what what I have been doing and the reason I may be inside that day… Yes stuff does go on even if it isn’t on Facebook! Pic credit, The Hippy.

I went out to disco dance on the weekends. I was a weekend warrior… Right Wall, Left Wall, Resurrection, Kicker Conspiracy, Rimsky Korsakov, Chreon, Troy, Run Fast Run Free, The Strand, Warpath, Big Boys, Mask of the Red Death, The Sun, Centrefold, Electric Blue, Cream, Falcon, Stroll on, Quasar, Right Wall, Left Wall and Resurrection for a second time, Surgical Lust, Killercranky and Anarchist and Out of the Asylum on Red Wall. Yes, I was an indoor climber!

I climbed two routes, both E6 – Super Mario on Scimitar and Don’t Cry at Rhoscolyn, routes I had always been interested in, but had never had the inclination. I felt made up to have eventually climbed these esoteric gems and the day after, at the Beacon, I was once again told that I had become an indoor climber.

Tap dancing up the grassy whale back of Moel Eilio has become a source of great pleasure this summer, especially the easier it has become. The only day it became a challenge was the day the guy drove past me as I ran up the steep lane from Waunfawr.

Running past the parking spot, he was waiting by his car, even though he had passed me twenty minutes earlier. He limbered-up in his black t-shirt with a white muffin top and his black shorts and black socks and black trainers. Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana 1, he posed while taking a crafty glance in my direction. To be honest, he looked like a knob! But as soon as I passed, he began. BANG… my jive in the squelching mud must have sounded as loud as a starting pistol.

At the top of the track, I reached the gate at Bwlch y groes, turning right, heading uphill toward Moel Eilio summit, and looked down the track, down the way I had come. Mr black socks and muffin top was approaching rapidly; I knew he was approaching because I could hear him, even though he was still about two hundred metres away.

Tap, tap, tap… on my toes, ball heel, shuffle, scuffle and paddle… I tapped the steep grass attempting to run at my usual speed, attempting not to feel the pressure that was coming in like the steam train that runs from Waunfawr to Porthmadog. On my heals now, gasping and blowing, he would surely have a heart attack, but he appeared adamant to prove he was better, faster fitter…

I stopped and allowed him to pass with a wave of an arm, his emphysema was disturbing my peace, but as soon as the hill steepened, he slowed and I caught him. For a few seconds I was tempted to tap dance behind, but decided I couldn’t be bothered because the thought of performing mouth to mouth on his sweaty, snot streaked face wasn’t something I wanted to contemplate, so I tapped past.

At the summit Mr black socks and muffin top was nowhere to be seen – I turned and jogged downhill – the same way I had come, passing him with a good way to go before he reached the summit, but I knew, oh did I know that as soon as he made it to the top he would break his body to catch me and come past, which of course he did. My, was he was determined, he was determined not only to have a heart attack but also to wreck his hips and knees. Why people feel the need to try and prove themselves is beyond me.

With six weeks to go before flying to Tibet, Paul visited me in Wales to talk and sort rack. He pulled three pegs, two screws, five nuts, four cams and five extenders from his bag. This is the normal rack Mick and I take. I looked on at this tiny amount of metal for a two thousand metre route and felt like weeping. “I wouldn’t go onto the north face of Tryfan in winter with that rack Paul.” But KLM were forcing the issue by refusing to allow us to buy extra baggage, so that would be that. “I’ve done loads of trips like this Nick, it’ll be fine. What sleeping bag are you taking?” I explained to Paul I hated carrying a heavy rucksack and preferred to suffer, so I would take a light bag for the altitude. “Take two bags Nick, I’ve been let down by partners not carrying a bag that wasn’t warm enough, you can take a heavy one if it gets too cold.” In a panic, I contacted the Mountain Equipment office and begged for a very light, but very warm, uber bespoke waterproof sleeping bag, which after a week or so they very gracious and kindly produced. Obviously they knew my pain or maybe it was worth it just to stop my moaning?

In the Mountain Equipment office testing out my bespoke sleeping bag nicknamed the Quiver Bag. Extra down, wider at the top, waterproof outer with taped seams. "How much did it cost?" "You really don't want to know Nick." Who could ask for better sponsors. Thanks :-)

In the Mountain Equipment office testing out my bespoke sleeping bag nicknamed The Quiver Bag. Extra down, wider at the top, waterproof outer with taped seams, super light, super warm. “How much did it cost?” “You really don’t want to know Nick.” Who could ask for better sponsors. Thanks everyone at ME :-)

After four hours sat with Paul, who had rigorously explained the forms to fill and photocopy and the visa procedure I would have to go through in Manchester, as he would be out of the country, I went cycling for four hours and in the evening I went to the Beacon. It wasn’t quite raining hard enough and of course I was made to feel like I was doing something dirty by being indoors, even though I had cycled in the rain all afternoon. I contemplated answering the usual question by saying I had just finished my first bout of chemotherapy and being outside would be too risky, but in the end, I said I preferred to climb indoors because outside was overrated.

A couple of weekends ago Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski and I went to Rhoscolyn and climbed a few routes, before I threw a rope down Gimble in Wabe, an E7 that Alex Mason had put up in 2014 and the last remaining route I wanted to climb in Fallen Block Zawn. This is the other thing I have found about expedition climbing, it is always in the back of your mind when rock climbing, its a maggot, especially when attempting to climb routes that a fall from may stop you going on your expedition. The thought of telling Paul that his one trip in the year was not happening because I had broken my leg or worse and we had wasted a load of money was almost too much, but not that much, and a few days later with my old, in fact, very old climbing partner, The Hippy, a group of us, including Ray Wood and my friends Mark Goodwin and Nikki Clayton walked the Rhoscolyn headland.

The day turned into a fun one and I climbed the climb without too much fuss. It’s strange isn’t it how this indoor training lark and keeping fit and healthy and taking a guaranteed burn instead of mincing on wet rock can make the experience of the harder outdoor stuff feel OK! Even The Hippy just about managed to top rope-flash, Gimble, but didn’t quite manage it and used that age old stuck cam reason for having a minor slump. Don’t worry Hippy, you did well, you don’t need to make excuses you are seventy five years old. Here is a film clip of The Hippy doing very well… but my, check out the height of those elbows 😉

The Hippy and me Walking in to Rhoscolyn. Pic Credit Nikki Clayton.

The Hippy and me Walking in to Rhoscolyn. Pic Credit Nikki Clayton.

Myself climbing Gimble in the Wabe. Credit, Nikki Clayton.

Gimbling. Pic credit Ray Wood.

Gimbling. Pic credit Ray Wood.

Myself having just climbed the crux of Gimble in the Wabe. Credit, Nikki clayton

Myself having just climbed the crux of Gimble in the Wabe. Credit, Nikki Clayton

Almost the whole team. Hippy, Ray Wood, me, Mark Goodwin. Pic Credit, Nikki Clayton.

Almost the whole team. Hippy, Ray Wood, me, Mark Goodwin. Pic Credit, Nikki Clayton.

The Hippy takes a picture of beery times in The White Eagle. Post Gimble success celebration. Pic Credit, Nikki Clayton.

The Hippy takes a picture of beery times in The White Eagle. Post Gimble success celebration. Pic Credit, Nikki Clayton.

The following day I was in the Beacon and chatting to my mate Lee Dawg. Lee is a good mate, he makes me laugh and takes the piss. I like Lee, but of course it wasn’t long before he entered into conversation that I was now purely an indoor climber. I took great joy in saying yes, yes I was, I really was, but somehow, I said, somehow yesterday, I had successfully puntered my way up an E7 at Rhoscolyn, so we might have to reassess! Oh, did that give me a warm flush, but maybe that was just the male menopause.

Last Friday I climbed the final route on my unwritten list of routes to climb before becoming a weak mountaineer once more. The climb is an E7 called Ring my Bell on The Gravestones in the Bum Hole Area of the Llanberis Pass. I’m not sure why I left this one till last, because falling from the crux is guaranteed ground fall, but the wind was freshening things and keeping the midges at bay and my time was running out.

Zylo once again held my ropes, she is four foot five and weighs three stone – I needed Tim Neill, all seventeen stone of him, because I didn’t fancy my chance of a midgets running catch to take the slack from the rope in the hope of saving the expedition, so for the first time ever, I had not one, but two bouldering mats at the base, but even so, it still looked a long way to fall and not being experienced in the art of mat placement, I wasn’t sure where they should be positioned. I thought of Paul once again and how big he was and what a strong right hook he would have and nearly said, “yeah, stuff this, it can wait until next year, but there are times when you just have to disco dance.

A happy Bullock is one without broken legs! Pic Credit, Sarah Zylinski.

A happy Bullock is one without broken legs! Pic Credit, Sarah Zylinski.

It’s less than a week now before travelling to Tibet. Yesterday we at last found out we have visas, so, as long as we can fit all the gear, including BC gear and food into our 23 kilo allowance, it’s on.

Tonight I think I will go to the wall after a run. It’s not raining yet today, so I expect at some point I will be made to feel like some sort of imposter. Ah well, maybe when I return from five weeks in Tibet I will become a proper outdoor climber again, who knows?

***

Thanks to the Alpine Club, The Mount Everest Foundation and The BMC for the grants that have helped tremendously and thanks to Mountain Equipment who, using their own catch phrase, have gone above and beyond in supplying me with one-off bespoke gear.

Nyainqentangla 1. 7162m and Damshung town. Pic Credit Tom Nakamura.

Nyainqentangla 1. 7162m and Damshung town. Pic Credit Tom Nakamura.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments