The hour before dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salem…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trumpet Blowing…

Scimitar. Ray Wood pic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TPM checking out the crux section of The Trumpet Blowers.

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

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

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

Poor effort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Every boy-racers dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown climber at sector 2 of Falaise du Grand Bois.

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

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

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

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

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

A bird worthy of driving down a hole.

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

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

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

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

“FUCK YEAH YOU FUCKING FIELDFAIR!”

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

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

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

Psyching up… !!!!!

Beauty and the not so beautiful!

 

 

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The upper hand.

Regina.

I’m rock climbing close to the Pyrenees in Catalonia at the moment. The elevation and the spring time add to the clear and fresh feel. The climbing conditions on Regina, Rich Kirby and my chosen crag, are perfect. Regina is a steep and uncompromising forty-minute walk from the parking spot, on the outside of the road and train tunnels near the busy town of Tremp. The road weaves along the gorge: beneath rock walls, above the river, and beside the reservoir – it is a formidable feat of engineering. But as we climb, two days on, one day off, I can’t help thinking that the birds we share the crag with have the upper hand in both climbing and engineering.

It’s a small, cosmopolitan and friendly climbing scene at Regina: Spanish, Japanese, French, German, British. The easiest climb is an awkward groove, given a grade of 7b, so the generally accepted warm up is a more straight forward, but of a higher technical grade of 7b+, which is no warm up, but with no routes of a more moderate grade, or friendly character, that’s how it is! A couple of 7c’s, the odd 7c+, but that’s it, all the other climbs are 8 and above. The crag is so steep, the dirt at its base receives no rain, and because of this, its dry, so dry it resembles sand, but instead of shells and crispy seaweed, this dirt-sand has lumps of broken rock on its beach. Dribbling on its coast, between the limestone sea and the sand-dirt beach, are glassy mushrooms of brown blossoming limestone. The crag itself is a filigree of grey and black and orange tufas. Slim, wide, rippled, rounded, square, the limestone veins provide intricate puzzles for climbers who scream and hang and hyperventilate and fall.

Ignoring all of these somewhat clunky human efforts are the birds that make Regina their summer home. The house and crag martins flit and twist, with a scream, a swoop, and a ruffle of wings to settle into a mud nest, the envy of the engineer, constructed deep inside a dark overhang. The mouse-like, short-toed treecreeper scampers up the side of a grey tufa, clinging on with toes stronger than any climbers’ fingers. More flamboyant than the treecreeper (and some climbers), brightly dressed in carmine-red, the wallcreeper makes an occasional, jerky visit to brighten the day. High overhead, in the clear sky, the griffon vultures turn circles, oblivious to the climbers who are too alive to be of interest. Floundering and fighting, before falling and once again hanging, I look up to see the black and white of a pair of Egyptian vultures. That’s better. My mood is once again lifted.

Visiting Japanese climber, Toshi, making a clean ascent of Alone 8a+

 

Chie, also from Japan, on the classic 8a, La Deva.

Toshi, Attacks the Fat One, 8a.

 

Toshi on the large tufa’s of Attack the Fat One.

 

 

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Less rich without you.

Howse Peak, Alberta, Canada.

September 2014.

Will sim and I stand in a lay-by at the side of the Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada. I point my camera and zoom in on the east face of Howse Peak. The face was not plastered in snow, it was not glittering névé, but what it lacked in white, was made up by strips of coruscating ice.

“Wow, kind of looks doable, hey?”

“Yeah.”

We were looking at this face, on this mountain, because of a route called M16. M16 was first climbed in 1999 by Barry Blanchard, Scott Backes and Steve House, three climbers who inspired me because their climbs were generally shrouded in mystique and difficulty. Where some had turned their gaze towards the European Alps, I had always been intrigued by North America and the less well-trodden or tried challenges. Though, on writing this, I don’t think I did, not that much anyway, I have climbed a few of North Americas alpine climbs, but that’s it, so I suppose I’m fooling myself, but the dreams were always there, and reading about these climbs inspired me more than others.

As it turned out, when Will and I passed Howse Peak on our return to Canmore, the face looked stripped, so we turned our endeavours elsewhere.

April 2019

At the moment I’m clipping bolts in Catalunya. I spent the first two weeks in the van with Zylo at Margalef, and now I’m a tad farther north near Tremp, with Rich Kirby. I read about the deaths of Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer on my phone; I was sitting in my van eating breakfast, while listening to the call of hoopoes in the valley below. It always comes as a shock to open a news page and see familiar faces in an item, and know immediately they have either done something good or died!

I had not met David Lama, although he was attending the Ouray ice climbing festival in January where I was giving a talk, but I do remember standing on the opposite side of the gorge with my friend Zac, and watching him climb. I was being flippant about where and how he had set a belay at the top of a route, while quietly I was impressed by his confidence and ability, he appeared very much at home. Also, in January, and at Ouray, I met Jess, we chatted one evening at the side of a snowy street in the middle of town, and I had met Hansjörg a few years ago in The Heights pub in Llanberis, and afterwards we had shared a few emails about certain mountains and climbs.

I’m not really sure why I wanted to write about the deaths of these three, because in the last few years there have been so many deaths of people I knew, or people I had met in some capacity. Maybe it was because it was so recently that I had chatted to Jess, and it was only a couple of weeks ago he had asked for my email address from a mutual friend. I can only guess he wanted to ask about the climbing on the north side of Mt Alberta, the mountain that Will Sim and I eventually climbed instead of Howse Peak. Maybe it was because I remember Hansjörg so vividly from the night in the pub and his laugh and all of those teeth, with the large gaps between the teeth, and those dark framed glasses, bigger than my own dark framed glasses.

I find it increasingly difficult to read reports of climber’s death on the internet because the internet appears too immediate and impersonal and throw away. One-minute they are the top of the news item with all the mentions of sadness in the forums, and the next they are gone, pushed down the feed, to be replaced by a new route or an advert for a pair of shoes.

Goodbye Jess, Hansjörg and David, climbing is less rich without you.

 

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Stigmata winter.

Nearing the end of the stinking hot summer, 2018, Mick Lovatt (The Perfect Man) and I were in the Craig Dorys zone. Mick had climbed the second ascent of my route, The Zither Player, without too much messing, and I climbed the second ascent of Mick’s route, Destiny, almost with crazy abandon (when a foothold crumbled on the crux, I regretted my crazy abandon, but I hung on, and continued with less crazy and definitely, no abandon). Craig Dorys, and especially the intimidating, overhanging and loose, Stigmata Buttress, was becoming, (almost) a playground. A very dangerous playground – a playground with glass scattered beneath the swings and nails sticking proud from the shiny bed of the slide, maybe a pit of vipers surrounding the see-saw. Mick climbed his second new route of the summer, The Mudshark, early in September. I thought the line was a little naff as it shared the start of Rust Never Sleeps, a particularly fine E6 first climbed by Chris Parkin and Steve Long, November 1992, but after running a lap, (with the safety of a top-rope) I had to eat my words, because the style of climbing was similar to other lines on this delicate overhanging flower – forceful and committing, and brutally honest – you were either going to the top or not, and the thought of not, was not worth thinking about, (although that was exactly what we both ended up doing, and it was usually through the long, long little hours of night).

Almost crazy abandon at Dorys in March. Credit, Graham Desroy

“If you’re ready to lead it before me, no problem, get it done.” That’s what Mick said before he climbed The Mudshark. And with that, I recruited the Hippy to hold my rope, so I could run a lap or two, hopefully putting me in good stead to get it done on the next visit. Topping-out, after the second lap, I was confronted not only with a white jeaned Hippy, but with a bronzed, (some may call it orange) TPM. He had jogged to the cliff from his house, a mile or so away, and he now stood, out of breath and sweating, wearing only shorts, socks, running shoes and a gold chain hanging around his neck.

“What you doing?” He gasped in deepest Lancastrian.

“I’m working the route, you said whoever was ready to climb it first, could!”

“I didn’t say run laps on it!”

From this exchange, I surmised that TPM was, after all, rather keen to get the first ascent, and because of this I (begrudgingly) allowed my ambitions to settle with second place.

The following day, Mick and I returned to Stigmata where I held his ropes, and no-doubt feeling the baited Bullock breath slithering somewhat competitively down his golden neck, he climbed the first ascent of the line. After deliberation, the route was called The Mudshark. Actually, thinking about it, there was no deliberation, Mick had obviously decided on the name before the route was climbed, a pretty ballsy and risky strategy for an E8 on Stigmata!

It was difficult to think the glorious weather would come to an end, but with a week or so before I flew to China, end it did, and this scuppered my chance to climb the second ascent. Six months later, (Where the hell does time go?) another weird weather phenomenon brought about an unexpected opportunity. It was February and 20 degrees, (who says global warming is a made up thing) Scottish winter was not happening, and for only the second time in 25 years, I had not been North, (although I’m sure I missed a year or three when I was in the Alps, but I’m old, so I’ll ignore that) which left time to train, and with this opportunity, and given the crazy, almost summer temps, TPM and I began where we had left off in 2018, and headed to Dorys.

Crossing the field, walking towards the cliff top, the difference was striking. Great black-backed gulls circled. The hedgerows and trees were bare, mud squelched and the grass was lush and green. At the end of the blazing summer in 2018, the fields were brown, dried to a shining crisp, charms of goldfinches raided the thistles. It was difficult to appreciate that it was February, not June, the temperature was certainly more June. TPM, looking slightly less golden because, after all, it was winter, threw a rope down a route to the left of The Mudshark, and I threw a rope down The Mudshark.

It’s not rocket science, but it still came as a shock to find that after not going to Scotland and after a load of training, I felt reasonably fit, and I was climbing The Mudshark (on a top-rope) clean – this was a scary prospect, because this is Stigmata Buttress, where only after loads of confidence miles, the thought of leading a route so serious, becomes viable, (for me anyway). TPM also felt his route was within reach, but he also shared the quiver of doubt that Dorys gives. We decided to come again the next day, because the weather was looking as good, but after this, and for the foreseeable future, there was wind and rain, and to top this, Mick was abandoning me for Spain (inconsiderate, although good for a gold top-up!).

The following day both of us wanted, or at least, longed to climb our chosen routes, but February all felt a tad too much for tying on beneath an E8 on Stigmata, and the glow of fatigue from the day before didn’t give confidence.

“You know what, I’m definitely fit enough, but I’m not mentally strong enough.”

Mick agreed, which wasn’t astounding, it was bloody February! So, we both worked our routes and said it will happen when it happens.

TPM flew to Spain, but six days later, on Tuesday, there was a small weather window.

Tuesday arrived and I was keen. It was blowing a bit of a gust, and rain was forecast for late in the day, and it was only 9 degrees, but it was a window, a small cold, windy window, but most definitely a window and it was no longer February. Bring on the Hippy! The Hippy had agreed to climb as long as he wasn’t washing his hair or even worse, playing golf.

Hippy.

And so, with the old team united, we headed to Dorys on the 5th of March to attempt something that should not be attempted in March. The wind was gusting and the sea crashing. I was a little concerned that the wind was too much. A rock pipit ran across the top of the cliff hunkering down between gusts, but as I crawled to the edge and peered over, I could see that the rock was light in colour and dry. The Hippy had a massive jacket, so he was happy, and my only concern was keeping him awake. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t the only concern, it was just one in a long line, but I have always had the opinion, that when opportunity arises, you have to give it a go…

TPM on the 1st ascent of The Mudshark, E8 6b. September 2018.

Myself on The Mudshark, March 5th 2019. Credit, Graham Desroy

Into the breeze on the 2nd ascent of The Mudshark. Credit, Graham Desroy.

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INTERVIEW: Nick Bullock – Comfort by Marc Langley on UKC.

The interview linked below has just been published on UKClimbing.com. The thing that interested me was Marc Langley’s introduction, where he said at one time his opinion of me was “a man whom I had once assumed to be dogmatic”.  After looking up the definition of dogmatic I laughed … here are some synonyms;  arrogant, overbearing, dictatorial, uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, inflexible, rigid, entrenched, unquestionable, unchallengeable. At one time in my life I think I was a few of these things, now I like to think I’m none, and if you don’t believe me, you’re wrong!

Anyway, I do find it interesting how many people formulate an impression of a person by information gleaned from various sources. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, most of us do it, don’t we? I suppose the difficult part is to recognize you have a preconceived opinion, and to change this opinion, if they are not what you thought they were when meeting in person.

The interview can be read here… Interview: Nick Bullock – Comfort

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Spray… Ice.

Alert and puffed against the cold, the fox tip-toed the icy road. Nothing special about this, but the road was in the middle of Ouray, and Ouray, once a mining town, was in Colorado, USA.

Still, nothing special I suppose, foxes have mooched around towns all over the world for many years. It was February and Ouray was tight with cold. The cold was blue, the night was blue, the ice was blue. But in the yellow bursting from the street light, the fox was red.

Dawn arrived. And after a while the sun threatened from behind the frozen mountain.

I carefully navigated around the ice glued to the tarmac of the motel courtyard, and in the trees, Steller’s Jays hopped from branch to branch, their black crest sticking into the clear sky.

I was in Colorado to present a talk at the Ouray Ice Festival. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday, and I was presenting on Saturday evening. This was my first time in Colorado and it was something of a treat to eventually be in, and see, Ouray, but it was even more special to be in the dry cold of a Coloradan winter.

Presenting the talk on the Saturday evening was really fun, although it would have been nice to have been able to finish as intended, and tell the Slovak story, show some pics from around the world to music, and thank everyone. Sorry for that, I did try! So, anyway, thanks for coming and listening 🙂 Pic credit, Rich Bailey.

Since returning from China in the autumn, I must admit to being more focused on rock climbing than winter climbing. It’s possibly a getting old thing; the extra fitness needed to complete a day of Scottish winter climbing, the extra packing, sorting, carrying a heavy rucksack, the cold, the wet, the discomfort, but maybe its just a lazy thing? But I really want to climb rock in 2019, and by that, I mean all types of rock. I want to sport climb in Spain, to trad climb in the Outer Hebrides, new route on the Llyn Peninsular in Wales, trad climb in Pembroke, clip bolts once again, but this time in the south of France, and then, Canada, or even back to Colorado.

Back to Colorado?

Myself with eyes closed so not to get too excited! Ross and Sam also excited, but maybe not as much! Pic credit, Rich Bailey.

As the four of us travelled from Denver to Ouray, Sam, Rich, Ross and myself, I spotted a sign for the Black Canyon. “Look, the Black Canyon is that way!”  The Black Canyon, or as its known by the locals, The Black, has a reputation – a reputation for loose and exciting, it has a reputation for times we now appear to have almost lost – of under the radar and humble. I had always wanted to visit and climb in the Black and had, almost, twice, but twice the plans had not materialized.

Sam checked on his phone, “Its only fifteen minutes’ drive away, shall we go have a look?” The consensus was that we should go have a look, and fifteen minutes later we were running from the car, slithering on the snow, to reach the South Rim of The Black. Columns, broad pillars, a flowing river far beneath the sheer cliffs. What a place. I vowed to return in warmer weather.

Rubbish picture taken on my phone but you get the idea.

I enjoyed visiting Ouray, climbing ice and meeting loads of friendly people, some for the first time, and some friends I had not seen for a while, but on occasion, I found myself suffering a feeling of, if only. I had hoped to travel to the east coast after Ouray and meet my friend Bayard Russell and travel to Quebec to climb an icefall we went to climb when we had visited the area a few years previously. It didn’t make my feeling of missing out any better when, innocently, Bayard sent me several pictures of the exact area, that, low and behold, was in fantastic condition this year. Someone had even climbed a new, crazy looking line that I would have loved to have attempted with Bayard.

How can a person be climbing lines like these and want to be somewhere else! The climbing was great in Ouray and made even more so by partnering up with Zac who is a friend of a friend, and now my friend. The time we spent climbing together over three days was great fun and interesting. Zac is an ex-marine, who now works as a soil scientist for the government, he had not been paid or worked for quite some time because of Trump’s wall dispute. Pic credit, Rich Bailey.

Another fun climb in Ouray with Zac. Pic credit, Rich Bailey.

It’s a bit crazy, or is it, I’m a bit crazy? I have a good life, but at times I want to be in several places at the same time. Even as we flew to the States, the weather in Scotland had turned good for winter climbing, and I regretted leaving the UK. I now very rarely look at social media sites apart from Twitter, because in general they make me want to be in too many places all at the same time. Rightly or wrongly, I start to question what is behind the constant flow of pictures from people I respect? I find myself asking why do they want to inflict pain on their friends, because that is what it is when it isn’t just the odd picture, the occasional splurge of excitement – it’s a barrage, an avalanche, a spray of, ‘I’m getting mine, what are you doing? I find myself wondering if this flow is a sign of their insecurity, or is it they just really do like making their friends jealous knowingly causing frustration and at times worse? We all have ups and downs, it’s human, even these folks that post their every climb, but these ‘not so good experiences’ never appear to be shared?

It’s a strange world we now live, because here I am writing a blog and posting pictures, but, I do think a blog is a different medium to social media, at least I take the time to tell a story and hopefully make people think, and people choose to hit a button and visit, but, maybe I’m fooling myself, maybe it’s no different from spraying on Facebook or Instagram?

Sorry, once again my dislike of social media has hijacked my story, but you can blame it on my friend I met in the climbing wall over the weekend. It was the first time in several months I had seen him and for some reason I mentioned Facebook. My friend is in some ways similar to me, he has a good life, he climbs loads, is in full time employment, and on the surface, confident and happy, but when I mentioned Facebook, he said since being injured several months previously, he has drawn away from all social media, because it was annoying, and affecting him because he could not climb, he said seeing the pictures repeatedly posted by friends made him unhappy.

I do think there is good to be had with social media, but in the hands of some people, people who appear to need to justify themselves for whatever reason, and at times to the detriment of their friend’s health, I prefer to be cautious with what I post and find myself drawing away from these websites more with time and reflection.

After returning to Wales my feelings of missing out were soon to be quashed. Yesterday I walked around Bangor centre, and in a short distance passed six men who were begging and appeared to be living through terribly difficult times. One of them in particular was in some distress. I emptied my wallet of change, it wasn’t a lot, and took a grip on my thoughts and feelings of missing out.

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Returning from Minya Konka.

Base Camp was at a height of 4100m. The climb on the south face started at 5700m above the icefall. On first acquaintance, it took three days to almost find a way through. The second time up, it took 3 days to get beneath the face. On the final time, we reduced the approach to two days. To the best of our knowledge, no-one has been through this icefall and beneath Gogga’s south face. (And I’m not surprised!)

Since returning from an expedition in China three weeks ago, I have been giving a few lectures, and because of this (and because I want to train to regain my personal high, low level of fitness) my writing has been on hold. Below is the start of what I hope will be a published article… Three weeks to write several lines, not bad going that. I’ve also added a few pics from China but not many because they will also be a part of an article if I ever get back to being a writer.

*

October 31st 2018. Halloween.

I’m sat in a house above the village of Deiniolen, North Wales. Large windows look out to the hills dusted in snow. The wind blows and the skeletal branches of an ash tree jerk. A low layer of cumulus moves across the sky. ‘Superstition: belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas about magic, etc.’ Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m 52 years old, the same age as the British climber Paul Nunn was when he was killed by serac fall in Pakistan. The flip of a coin. Nunn’s death was nothing to do with lack of skill, lack of experience, or, for those who have spent a great deal of time in the mountains know, could it be called poor judgement. It is naïve to think that only a fool, or because of a mistake, people die in the mountains. People with understanding know there are occasions when risks are taken, and on that rare occasion, the coin is flipped. There are so many unimagined factors and pressures that can lead to that one in a million.

Superstition.

I have just returned from an expedition to a 7556m mountain called Minya Konka, or Mount Gongga, Sichuan Province, China. On the run-up to the trip there were more times that I didn’t want to go than the times I did, but the mountains have meant so much, how do I know when to decide enough is enough? It’s actually more complex than this, of course it is, because the mountains have enhanced my life almost to the point of being irreplaceable. The physical and emotional strains have formed me and given unsurpassed highs. But the mountains have also exacted a high toll, so much so, that in the last few years, I have begun to wonder when my time will come…

Minya Konka, or Mount Gongga 7556m, Sichuan, China.

Paul and myself are very different people but we get on together well!

Mr Pan our LO and Mr Chong our cook. Also very different people. Both enhanced our time in China very much.

The icefall that Paul and I passed through six times.

Paul about 30 minutes away from where we camped beneath Gongga’s South Face.

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