Never Again.

I’m listening to Radio 6’s Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour. The two-hour show is dedicated to a single album, Talk Talk’s spirit of Eden. I’m not that knowledgeable about music apart from I know there is some music I like, and some I don’t. I know some music evokes a time, a place, people, and some music makes me happy, and some sad. The music of the band, Talk Talk, evokes something in me more than almost anything out there. I think it’s the imagination and creativity that make Talk Talk’s music evocative. And in a personal ranking of what is important, I would place imagination and creativity top five. Alongside these, I would also include inner strength, which of course means many things depending on the individual. I would imagine Mark Hollis, the lead singer and primary songwriter from Talk Talk is a brave and strong individual, and his imagination and creativity are obvious as he chose an alternative musical direction, and followed his vision with determination and passion.

I nicked this picture from Up Climbing.com, but as its possibly from the Italian version of Deep Play, I thought I could get away with it, as I’m paying Paul compliments and advertising the book 😉 I also couldn’t resist using it as I now know all three of the people in the picture, Simon Yates, Paul and Noel Craine, and I’m honoured to say they are all friends. By the way Noel, you’re looking better than the other two in this shot!

A person within the world of climbing I have always considered creative, a person with imagination who is certainly brave and strong is Paul Pritchard. Paul’s climbing, his writing and the way he lived his life (and still does), were a massive influence on me in the early days of my climbing. Paul certainly chose his own path. I don’t want to get too deep into writing a character portrait of Paul, but if you don’t know about him, just hit Google (other search engines are available) or buy his books, Deep Play and The Totem Pole. Paul has numerous admirable qualities as a person, and his imagination is up there alongside Mark Hollis. His first ascents were crazy journeys into the character, of not only the cliff, but also the person; Rubble, The Enchanted Broccoli Garden, The Super Calabrese, The Unridable Donkey (and many more), great routes with great names and bags of character.

Minya Konka. Credit, Kogo, Wikipedia.

I’m about to go on a trip to China with Paul Ramsden. After Tibet in 2016 I said never again, but there is very little in my life that stirs my imagination more that entering a deserted valley that hardly anyone has visited, and the thought of finding a line on a massive unclimbed face, that nothing is known about, and no one has ever attempted, is such a creative and life enhancing experience for me, it’s almost impossible to say never again.

Paul is a tad paranoid about giving away too much, before trying something new, because in the past he had a bad experience when another team, having had difficulties gaining permission for their main objective, decided to look at what Paul and Mick Fowler were doing that year, go before them, and climb the line they were hoping to attempt. Paul and I have been planning this latest trip for well over a year now, and it would be disappointing to find someone else in-situ, so I’ve been instructed to keep a lid on it, but having received several grants, it’s no secret as to the peak we are about to travel too, a mountain called Minya Konka, or Mount Gongga in China.

Minya Konka is pretty big, 7556m big in fact, and situated in the Daxue Shan mountain range which is part of the Hengduan mountainous region. Minya Konka is the third highest peak in the world outside the Himalaya/Karakoram, after Tirich Mir and Kongur Tagh and it will be the highest mountain both Paul and I have attempted, beating Annapurna III (a mountain I failed dismally on a while ago), by a single metre.

I’m pretty sure we will fail to climb Minya Konka as the weather in the region is notoriously poor and the face we intend to climb looks very long and difficult, and it’s a very high mountain, but that’s possibly not a bad thing because maybe then it will be easy to say never again and mean it!

A big shout to the Grants who supported us, which are;

The Mount Everest Foundation.

The Nick Estcourt Award.

The Alpine Club Grant.

The British Mountaineering Council.

And to Mountain Equipment who went above and beyond once again, designing custom sleeping bags, rucksacks and duvet trousers.

Needless to say, for those of you who wait in anticipation of my next written masterpiece (Haha), its going to be a while, we fly out of the UK on Friday 21st and neither Paul nor I are big fans of sat phones and weather forecasts and blogging etc while at BC, so we don’t have any form of contact until we are back in town, which will hopefully be around the 1st of November. So no blog posts until then. I can almost hear a big sigh of relief!

Paul Ramsden. Not a person I would choose to upset but a great person to share a rope!

 

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Substance D: The truth or a blurred outline? (An opinion piece that may be real, it could be made up)

 

Philip K Dick and friend.

 

“The whole world began to take on an artificial made quality…” Philip K Dick.

In 1994 I watched a TV documentary about the sci-fi writer, Philip K Dick. Twenty-four years later, I still remember a fact from the documentary that I may have imagined – Dick used to eat dog food? Did I imagine it, or was it the truth? Maybe it was a parallel time, or a glitch in the system? It’s so weird how the mind can make things up, or hear what isn’t there, and then once this has happened, it locks it in and makes it real. Teleport forward twenty-four years since the first airing of Arena, Philip K Dick: A Day in the Afterlife (and thirty-six years since Dick’s death), and we now live in a time where some of Dick’s literary inventions are taken for granted. I can now use a search engine, find the programme, and watch it again on my laptop, and yes, there it is, he actually (if the person in the documentary is telling the truth) bought horse meat that was sold for dog food and ate it.

The first time I watched the programme, it blew my mind, I don’t think I watched the whole thing because I found it pretty disturbing. Dick was bonkers. I had read some of his books and they were bonkers also, so it all began to make sense. I watched the whole documentary on this second airing and enjoyed it. Scarily though, on this second viewing, the thing that really struck home was not how mad Dick’s stories were, but how, in certain aspects, true they have become. Dick was writing about a dystopian earth fifty years ago and many of his imagined scenarios are now happening.

Watching the Arena programme it is full of comments relevant to today. “A rural paradise bulldozed into urban submission.” “From a trash world ever more dependable of disposables.” “Your video camera might be keeping an eye on you before filing its own report.” “He saw the consequences of a media-soaked world, [ ] it was just a media event.”

Dick was not mad,   he was obviously one of the sanest out there (OK, I’m willing to concede this one). We now live in a form of his predicted world, but if anything, it’s even more scary and controlling than Dick predicted. Could you imagine if PKD was alive today, he would be in his element. The control and power and influence the internet has over us, its like something taken from one of his novels. “If God manifested himself to us, he would do so in form of a product advertised on TV,” Dick wrote. Forty years later, substitute TV for the internet and it’s spot on, God would appear on an Instagram picture with loads of hashtags, #Followme #Imadeyou #Number1 #BigG #Redbull, but it’s really scary because Dick didn’t think big enough, he thought of an individual, what he didn’t forecast was everyone today appears to be a God, everyone is a product in their own advert, everyone is the headline act on their own station.

We are reaching a point that reality is whatever a person or organisation want it to be, whether it actually happened or not, and then, it’s reported to an audience of followers, that in turn, spread the word to their followers, and before you know it, this warped parallel is the truth and the actual truth is a parallel, something only to be believed by zealots and odd individuals. And for those brave enough to stand up against this new truth, they are often bullied and labelled as heretics. Philip K Dick must be in his coffin in riverside Cemetery, laughing dementedly, while popping more LSD and wondering how his wildly creative, drug damaged mind could see so clearly into the future.

“I consider the universe to be a clever fake, with streets and houses, and shops and cars and people standing in the centre of a stage surrounded by props, by furniture to sit on, kitchens to cook in, cars to drive, food to fix, and then behind the props, the flat painted scenery, painted houses set farther back, painted people, painted streets, everything not real, only a series of tapes being played for us.”

Years ago, even before the Arena programme in 94, I worked in a high security prison, and while at work one evening, a prisoner took a teacher hostage and demanded to be set free. The escape bid didn’t get anywhere, the prisoner didn’t get beyond the inside corridors, where all prisoners were allowed to walk. This ‘escape bid’ was reported in a newspaper, I can’t remember the full facts of the report, but it said that the prisoner was close to escape. If this prisoner had been close to escape, so had the whole prison population. At the time, I couldn’t believe how much spin there had been to the story to turn it into something it wasn’t. I stopped reading newspapers then because it became apparent, if this newspaper, a broadsheet, published wild inaccuracies, they all must.

I now read newspapers again, but at times I remind myself that I’m possibly being lied to or manipulated. I know I sound like Philip K Dick who suffered with paranoia, but what was, and still is happening in the newspapers, is now happening on a massive scale on the internet, and the internet is more invasive than any newspaper.

The recent reporting on the Livingstone, Cesen and Stražar ascent of Latok 1 is the latest event that caused me to despair. It’s my problem, I know it’s my problem, and it’s something I try to control, but incorrect and inaccurate, hyped reporting, with quotes taken completely out of context, drives me almost as crazy as PKD. Events that actually take place become something they aren’t, and I find it exceptionally difficult to ignore. At best its lazy journalism and at worst, we are being lied to and manipulated.

The Latok 1 climb was a fine new route and it was only the second time Latok 1 had been climbed. The route was without doubt worth reporting and celebrating, but I can’t get around the fact that the reporting, almost without exception, took on some kind of fanatical, religious zeal and most of the reporting was incorrect. Some reports said it was the first time Latok 1 had been climbed and almost all reports told us that Latok 1’s North Ridge had been climbed in its entirety. Two days after these first reports, when it became apparent that the North Ridge had not been climbed in its entirety, there was only a limited number of apologies and corrections, and for some it turned into a damage limitation campaign by throwing even more inaccuracy and smoke over the truth.

OK, they didn’t climb ALL of the ridge, but hey, they did climb from the north, and some of the route DID include a bit of the ridge, and who would want to climb all of it anyway, that’s crazy!

And so, instead of just holding up hands and admitting to jumping on the cut and paste bandwagon, the hype continued. Pictures from the Jim Donini, Michael Kennedy, George and Jeff Lowe attempt, (almost ascent because they climbed the ridge, but not to the summit) from 1978 were used in reports. A lot of the pictures were sections of the ridge that the Livingstone, Cesen and Stražar line did not climb. But that didn’t stop the comparisons and superlatives. Many, in fact all of the quotes I read were from people talking about the 78 attempt, and then these quotes were printed in bold and applied to the new climb, but the new climb was not the whole of the North Ridge, not by a long shot.

I must admit to becoming a little hot under the collar when I read about all of the failures, at least 30 I was told, and by superstars, and this was applied to the new route and the climbers. Livingstone, Cesen and Stražar are very talented climbers, but it was being suggested they must be better than all of the climbers who had gone before, and this route they climbed was better than anything climbed by British climbers in the previous thirty years because it had been tried 30 times. (There have been quite a few significant ascents made by British people over the last thirty years, and several by one team alone, Fowler and Ramsden, whose climbs have generally been as difficult, maybe more so, and certainly more committing than this climb.)  In none of the reports I’ve read was it mentioned that these 30 failures had been attempting the whole of the ridge, not a new route that avoids the initial rock buttress, (I know avoiding this initial buttress has become the recognised way onto the ridge, but it is not the line taken by Donini, Kennedy, George and Jeff Lowe), and more importantly, the new line avoids a large section at the top, including the most difficult and technical sections.

I have read two accounts, one says they traversed from the ridge at 6500m and another at 6300m, no matter which is correct, there was a whole Alpine route of climbing still to be done on the ridge, including the crux. To put it into some kind of rock climbing perspective, the new route on Latok 1 would be like missing out the slightly polished and awkward start of Cenotaph Corner on Dinas Cromlech by traversing in at a quarter height, climbing the not too bad middle section, then traversing off before the pumpy and hard crux section. This is not Cenotaph Corner I hear you shout and you’d be right. You could call it a route based on Cenotaph Corner, but to call it the Cenotaph Corner route and then compare it to Cenotaph Corner would be inaccurate and wrong .

“No matter what things may come, they will be exploited, merchandised, and routinized by the force of human weakness.” Adam Gopnik, Blows Against the Empire, The return of Philip K Dick. The New Yorker

I suppose, in some respect, it’s like the prison news report, I possibly have a deeper understanding of certain aspects of a climb and because of this I can see through the hyperbole and grandiose, and because of this I get annoyed, maybe I need some of Dick’s medication to take me away from all of this warping of the actual facts.

The new route was a fine ascent, and I congratulate Livingstone, Cesen and Stražar, they showed imagination and skill, and took a line with a lot more chance of success than the exceptionally technical North Ridge. It’s a shame that the climb was reported prematurely and incorrectly, although some of the blame must be levelled at whoever sent out the information from BC. Would a few days delay in reporting have made a big difference (well, I suppose it may have, as the correct story could have been reported), a story like this coming out a week after getting down is not a big issue, it really isn’t, it’s just climbing, it’s not the cure for cancer. Privileged people climbing a mountain is only important to a very tiny proportion of the population of the planet and I think the climbers should have done more to dispel the hype that now surrounds their ascent. To shout down the hype and incorrect reports would give them credibility, but maybe they have and I haven’t seen it. It wasn’t in the interview with Tom that was published on a few sites, which would have been a great opportunity to raise the subject of the incorrect reporting, but being his first success in the Himalayas maybe Tom didn’t feel confident to raise the subject? I have also seen [are] several newspaper reports that are so incorrect and hyped as to be cringe-worthy. These made-up stories – and deals done with mainstream media – make a mockery of the actual ascent, and a mockery of the climbers … and thus make a mockery of climbing culture at large. Take a look at some of the absurd comments after the article if you need evidence.

What would have given the reporting of the Latok 1 climb more integrity – and dignity –would have been a set of questions that gave a true insight into how the actual new route compares with North Ridge in entirety. The actual story is: how come this excellent route succeeded while the North Ridge has seen so many failures? Such an article would’ve been genuinely interesting, dramatic and useful! Such a set of comparison questions would have shed more light onto the true nature of the actual, genuine new climb.

However, instead of insight we get dishonesty:

“The climb of a generation” “Climbers hit new heights by being first to conquer legendary peak.” Incorrect.

“British mountaineer, 27, completes ‘the ascent of a generation’ by scaling the ‘impossible ridge’ on the north face of Pakistan’s Latok 1 – just days after a Russian climber died on the same path.” Incorrect and insensitive.

“The ridge was such a big prize. It was a ten-year goal. I’ve always thought, imagine if you could climb that, and to actually do it was such a special experience,” Incorrect.

Some of the questions that may have given a greater understanding of how the new route compares with the ridge, and what it means to climb in an area where many other climbers have been are below:

What was the technical difficulty of the climbing on the line you climbed, where was the crux, and how do you think the difficulty of your climb compares to the difficulty on the initial and upper sections of the North Ridge?

In the section of the North Ridge you climbed, was there a track left from the Russian ascent, and if so, did it assist with route finding and confidence?

Were there bivi spots made by the Russian team and if so did you use them and did this help?

Did it make any difference to your approach and mind-set knowing you were being watched by people at BC, and should anything go wrong there was a possibility of a helicopter rescue?

I did read an interview where Tom said they used some in-situ gear to abseil from – my question would be: how much in-situ gear was there, did it speed up the process of getting down or finding new anchors?

How much research did you do, how much information about the ridge is out there and did it help with the route finding and decision making?

Some of Dick’s writing has a recurring element: time loops back on itself, we are returned to the start, and the plot is replayed. It seems that reporting and social media today has slipped into a similar dystopian loop: we keep reading, over and over, the same incorrect or simply false report until eventually the incorrect plot blots out truth, and it is then in the shock of that truthless vacuum that we make — believe. And if its discovered that what was made to be believed is not actually true — then too late, the damage is done, we find the mind already locked to the fake.

There are still sites with the incorrect headlines on their home pages. Why do these sites not change or take down an incorrect report? I can only comment about climbing reports on the internet, but in general, the internet is in a deeply worrying state of narrative chaos. I know a big part of this chaos relating to climbing is the fault of climbers, and I don’t just mean in this case, I mean in all cases, and I include myself. Climbers are terrible at recounting and giving a balanced account, this is the nature of the activity, it is very much an activity for the individual and the experience at the time, so attempting to relay this can be problematic. Climbers are terrible at remembering actual facts and they also forget simple, but important facts. (I was completely cut out of a published account on the internet last winter from a new route I climbed with Matt Helliker and Pete Whittaker because Pete didn’t tell the journalist I was there!). There are other less savoury forces at work when climbers give accounts to journalists, the opportunities and money available to climbers can now make an honest and balanced account difficult.

But, the bottom line for suppliers of climbing news on the internet, has to be down to the journalists who write the reports. It’s their job to ask the correct questions and wheedle-out the true facts. They have to work hard and not feel the pressure of time and most of all they have to have integrity and not be swayed by other factors such as money. They have to ask questions that may be difficult. I think we are fast approaching a point where much of what is written in the name of news has to be read with a critical eye, because much of it is incorrect, and I think we have now reached a point where climbing news reporting on the internet has turned into a Philip K Dick novel and it is almost impossible to recognise the electric animals from the real thing.

Postscript.

Just before the Livingstone, Cesen and Stražar ascent of Latok 1, two Russian climbers, Sergey Glazunov and Alexander Gukov were attempting to climb the North Ridge in its entirety. It is not sure if Latok 1’s summit was reached, but it is believed that the ‘western summit’ at the top of the North Ridge was. On the descent Glazunov fell to his death leaving Gukov stranded. After 6 days Gukov was rescued by the 5th Pakistani Army Aviation High Altitude Squadron. In my opinion much of the reporting, especially in the UK newspapers, but also the internet reporting was extremely insensitive and lacked empathy. Gukov’s traumatic experience, and the terrible pain and suffering that Glazunov’s family and friends must be suffering should have been given consideration. There is absolutely no excuse or reason to increase this pain.

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Pushing for Rail. To peg or not to peg – that is the question.

The top three pegs were taken from Rust Never Sleeps and the bottom peg is from the start of The Gross Clinic. Picture credit, Ray Wood.

It was an odd one, the country was bathed in sun and as the temperature hit 30 degrees, the most obvious, and sensible option for a climber was to head to the hills. The hills were brown – brown and dried to a crisp. The white stone walls, that ran over, and across the hills, stood out even more than usual. Underfoot, the grass and bog were parched. There wasn’t a wet hold in Snowdonia. Get on those seldom dry climbs, it was now or never.

I’ve never been good at doing the obvious, or the most sensible, (maybe that’s why I became a climber) and as the temperature increased, and the crags up high became as dry as a quality bottle of French wine (not really my tipple of choice, cheap and chunky is much more preferable), the most obvious place not to climb is Craig Dorys on the Llŷn Peninsular, and in particular, Stigmata Buttress, because the crag faces south, and it hardly ever rains even in the wettest of summers. But, in this desiccated landscape Stigmata Buttress had become the very place to go climbing.

Stigmata looks amazing, but it’s like playing in a sand pit to reveal a dog turd, there is danger in the untouched. I love wallowing in the dirt at the base of the crag and squeaking the rubber of my climbing shoes, before standing, and once again, sinking into muck. I love getting home and emptying dirt from trouser turn ups and standing in the shower to watch the flow of gravel swirl towards the plughole. Climbing on Stigmata is the antithesis of what many enjoy, but for me, and some of my friends, this place and its idiosyncrasies add to the climbing experience and the climbing experience adds to our existence.

A long time ago, in my climbing, it was ticking the classics, the test pieces, but for a few years now, it has been more about becoming involved, having a relationship. I suppose being a bit shit at climbing makes it like this, if I was as good at climbing as James McHaffie, I would get on a climb once, then, more often than not, never go back. (If evidence is needed, just look at one of Caff’s latest climbs, Masters Wall, a climb he had to visit a few times, over several years, and in doing so, became involved – he vividly remembers his times on this bad boy, doesn’t he?)

Being a bit shit gives a whole host of recollections, it gives time to become familiar, not just with a place, but with individual rocks, single holds, toe placements, crumbly, insecure flakes – I become close and begin to look upon these small features with love, and also, in the case of Stigmata, with suspicion. Even crappy gear placements become something to be thought about in the long hours between dark and light. And when the time comes to place these crappy bits of gear on lead, it feels similar to reading a favourite passage from a loved book.

Climbing life goes through stages. One year it big hills, then bolts, then on-sight trad in new areas, Canadian ice, Scottish mixed, Alpine mixed and rock. Headpointing routes that are too difficult or bold for me to tackle in any other style, has always given me joy, its just another form of climbing, but add loose rock and practised uncertainty becomes tantamount to psychological chess.

Loose rock at its most insecure can be termed, death choss, and death choss, I suppose, can be sub-divided into on-sight death choss – following lines of weakness and gear, generally off vertical to vertical, to very dangerous death choss – lines of a type and grade I am not good enough, or bold enough to on-sight, or even climb, with just an abseil inspection. These lines tend to be overhanging and hard, and follow no particular line, but sometimes islands of solid and small micro-features give direction. And the ultimate in getting close and becoming involved is new route, dangerous death choss.

The Hippy was away in the Dolomites doing something called via ferrata, I think its clipping cables and teetering along metal steps somewhere on a rock face? He is very old now, so this is OK, each to their own, at least appears to be enjoying himself. The void has been filled by a younger, more skilled and talented model in the form of Mick Lovatt. Admittedly the music hasn’t been as good, I’m pretty sure we haven’t listened once to Jonny Cash, but the clothing has been like the rock, snappy, and the hair is not only more abundant, but nurtured!

Mick and myself have had fun, and because Mick lives only half a mile up the road from Dorys, he’s rubbing his great big hands together at the saving in fuel. The sleep deprivation does appear to be bringing about the odd crease though – more skin care products needed!

Pushing for Rail. E8 6b. The green dot is the approximate position of the peg.

A few weeks ago now, Tuesday was my day to climb, and we climbed a new route I had been working. This route falls into death choss, sub-category 2 – no actual line, steep, bold and physical. In the lower half it climbs the steepest and most insecure section of Stigmata via the longest portion of the worst type of rock. There are no particular features and it only has one lump of the safe red stuff. The line is between The Gross Clinic and Melody, and in the lower section has poor, minimal gear. I fought long and hard, but eventually decided to place a peg about half way up the bottom section of wall. The peg is tied-off, and in my opinion, quite good. It’s the best bit of gear up to this point and for a little way after, which is the crux of the lower wall. I think it would have been easy for me to have placed at least another one, or two pegs lower down, as the gear (what gear there is), is not trustworthy, but because I worked the route, I was able to keep the pegs to a minimum.

Another reason a single peg is good, is to mark the line, which is difficult to spot. And finally, a reason for not placing a peg (once I knew it was possible), was to give the climb a grade of E9. E9 is a pretty chunky grade, which I would have liked to have given to inflate my ego, but in the end, I decided this was the wrong reason not to place a peg. If in the future someone wants to remove the peg and climb the route without it, go for it and give yourself an E9 tick, or if you want to replace like for like and get the E8 tick, do that also, I’m not that worried as I’ve now had my experience and I’ve never been of the opinion that the first ascensionist has some kind of ownership over the rock.

Myself, above the lower wall crux (and peg) with a few more steep moves to complete before the sanctuary of the ledge. Picture credit, Ray Wood.

After the lower wall the climb has a ledge. I love climbs that have ledges, especially ledges big enough to take off my shoes, sit and contemplate. Being a bit shit also loves a ledge, a ledge helps climbing hard when you’re a bit shit. Ledges are great – while away the time, revel in the situation, (or is it tremor with what is to come and grow really scared that if fluffed, it all needs doing again!). On the day of my ascent, I’m not sure Mick liked the ledge as much though, because his wait while belaying me was long!

Leaving the ledge is negotiated by a few easy moves up a corner, until a pull right and onto that beautiful orange face. There is gear in the form of a nut, before the technical crux – a weird pockety, crimpy, mono-move, and, if successfully negotiated, this leads to more sustained climbing, but with good, spaced gear. The biggest worry is muffing it or breaking a hold and having to climb the lower wall again. As good as it is, you really don’t want to climb that lower wall too many times!

The top wall with the technical crux climbed. Picture credit, Ray Wood.

Placing pegs on sea cliffs is a lukewarm topic, and one I do have mixed emotions, but I think they are still a valid part of climbing because they allow passage at a certain grade and use natural weakness in the rock to determine where they are placed. A bolt can be placed anywhere and I don’t agree that bolts should be placed when a peg becomes old and rusty. The main reasons I disagree with bolts for pegs is, a bolt is almost one hundred percent safe, while a peg always has a feeling of insecurity, something akin to a piece of traditional protection, and there is always concern that it may not hold. This, ‘not sure’, fits perfectly with the whole ‘trad’ experience.

Another reason I don’t think bolts should replace pegs is, once bolts start appearing on the rock face, as part of protecting moves, where does it stop? There is certainly evidence (where bolts are accepted), once they go in, they spread and take over traditional climbs, and very rarely come out again. I can see the argument that pegs are only good for the first ascent and maybe several years after, because they rot, and it’s a valid argument, but what is the alternative? The alternative I suppose, is to climb at a very high E grade and risk life and have a harrowing experience. This of course is fine, but the route may never get repeated, which is also fine (all be it elitist), but, possibly the most pertinent question a climber should ask is, should the rock be climbed at all? Not making an ascent of a new route, would also be fine, and something I agree because does every piece of rock need to be climbed, no, I don’t think it does? I’ve thought a lot about this, but much of climbing, and especially new routing, is driven by ego and it will take a strong person to forgo the experience of putting up a new route. I love climbing new routes and becoming involved with micro features and a piece rock, I find it very rewarding and the experience is very much about the time and place for me, the experience is individual, its an intimate thing. It’s also a rewarding experience to add a new line for other climbers to enjoy, but it is certainly about my ego and my experience, and to be frank, putting up a new route benefits a very small percentage of the population and is never going to win you the Nobel Prize.

To almost prove my point about how confusing the argument is about pegs, there was a discussion a few weeks ago on a UKC forum where my friend, Rob Greenwood wrote a few interesting comments, one in particular caught my attention,

“Pegs really are crap… Take Huntsman’s Leap for example, a crag with countless amazing E6s – almost all of which are f**ked because of the fact the in-situ gear has rotted away. They’re basically there for the first ascent, then anyone quick enough to bag a second or third ascent, but within the space of 5-10 years are inevitably in a pretty poor state which can often render the route unclimbable (or unjustifiable).”

Rob, in part, has a valid argument, although I think 5-10 years will see more than a few ascents with the high standard in climbing today and in many cases the pegs last longer, but the amazing E6’s would not be there at all if the pegs had not been placed. And if they were there without pegs, they would be a much higher grade, and of course, a lot more serious. In this form they would not be amazing climbs that many could attempt including Rob or myself (which as already stated is fine – do we all need to climb all of the climbs?) The initial use of pegs is what made these climbs, and gave their grade, and as climbers maybe we should just accept that climbs have a limited shelf-life and this is not something to be looked at as a problem and bad, but something to be revered?

Something else Rob said was interesting,

“With that in mind I don’t necessarily think they need to be chopped (in time they’ll rot anyway), but I do think that anyone thinking of placing one should question long and hard as to whether it is actually necessary. What makes the matter all the more confusing is that there’s inconsistencies abound. Replacing one on Souls for instance would feel wrong, whereas replacing them on Roc Ness Monster would seem ok.”

Rob does make very valid points. In my opinion, replacing pegs on climbs that have been climbed since the peg has gone is possibly wrong, as the bench has been set higher, and this is fine (its elitist, but that’s OK, because as stated above, climbing is an elitist activity). But I don’t see a problem in replacing pegs like for like, or even backing up old and rusty pegs to give you something close to the experience the first ascensionist had. And as for replacing pegs on other less dangerous climbs, well, why not, or put it out there and get a feel for what people think, or just do it, because to finish with Rob’s final comment,

“Basically, it’s a massively grey area riddled with inconsistency. As someone said above, it’s more about emotion than it is to do with logic…”

A statement I completely agree, climbing is grey and inconsistent, and that’s why it’s great. And climbing is most definitely about emotion, and long may this continue, because emotion is what got us into it at the start. If we wanted logic we would take the stairs.

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A sunny Sunday in the Llanberis Pass

View from a bridge. Looking towards the Llanberis Pass from Pont Pen-y-Llyn. Credit, Malcolm Mills Davies.

It was a Sunday several weeks ago now. The sun was blazing, the Llanberis Pass awash with people. The steep rock on either side of the road was dry and all around multi-coloured dots were inching their way up faces, cracks and corners. People sat with their feet in the clear water of the stream that runs the length of the pass, before entering Llyn Padarn and eventually flowing beneath Pont Pen-y-Llyn (the bridge at the head of the lake). Zylo and I walked up the Pass heading towards the Cromlech boulders, because we intended to climb on that bulwark of traditional climbing, Dinas Cromlech. Cars, buses, taxis, motorbikes, the occasional swishing speeding cyclist – a stream, almost as continuous as the one of water, flowed down the road.

With a thudding and chopping displacement of warm air, a rescue helicopter passed low overhead. For a second, the sun disappeared, before once again, there it was, a gigantic burning star with insurmountable amounts of energy and life.

We continued to walk, and coming towards us was a friend, Ric Potter, and alongside him was someone I recognised as Ben Moon. “There’s been an accident on the Cromlech, we’ve decided to go to Gogarth. I’m going to climb The Moon with the Moon!” Ric joked. We all laughed over the noise as the helicopter made another turn and the traffic sped by.  I must admit to being a little star struck; this was the first time I had met Ben. I shouted something along the lines that he shouldn’t struggle too much as he had climbed 9a at fifty, then immediately felt a bit silly, and hoped my red face looked like I had caught the sun.

After a little more chat, we said goodbye, and began walking again, but stopped at the roadside boulders because of the rescue happening on the slopes above.

On the downhill side of the road, two ambulances and two mountain rescue vehicles with blue flashing lights were double-parked. A paramedic stopped and waved-on traffic. People leaned against the stone wall, shading their eyes with one hand, so they could look up. Others sat on the grass by the side of the stream. Some held phones. We also sat by the stream to wait out the rescue, becoming unintended observers. My seat was a hollow made from brown grass and cracked earth. The helicopter circled and closed in on the group of dots huddled amongst the yellowy-white scree. I watched vibrant, new growth bracken flatten with the down-force from the rota-blades. There felt something akin to a crackle of electricity amongst some of the roadside crowd. I wondered if this was a similar feeling to what was felt in the Colosseum before the lions were released?

It’s easy to watch a rescue and be critical, without any information or evidence. I’ve done it when the helicopter passes overhead on a Sunday afternoon in North Wales, “Bloody Three Peakers being rescued from Snowdon again!” It’s easy to forget the person, or people, being rescued are individuals with families and friends. Few, if any of us have made it through life without mistakes or having a close call. The red and white helicopter hovered – loud echoing thuds reverberated. The machine shocked with its bright red plumage, the grey rhyolite behind emphasised its outline. A cable had been lowered with a person dangling from its end and now, strapped to a metal stretcher, the unfortunate person was winched up into the guts of the machine, before it flew down the valley. The blue flashing lights on top of the rescue vehicles went in the same direction as the helicopter, and the pass returned to its usual, Sunday-self, of cars and bicycles and buses and people.

Zylo and I set off up the steep hill heading for the Cromlech. It felt a little odd to be continuing, but accidents happen. We continued to plod the worn steps, cut into the grass clods, both quiet, in contemplation. About half-way up the approach slope we began to meet the rescue team on their way down. A man in the team I didn’t know told us the person who had fallen from a climb was someone local. A little higher a member in the team we knew approached. As he came closer I could see his face, and he looked harrowed. He told me the climber who had been rescued was a mutual friend, someone well-known and well-liked in the local climbing community.

After a sombre chat, Zylo and I said goodbye and continued until we were on the grassy flattening beneath the climb Dives/Better Things. We sat and talked about our friend who neither of us were really that close to, but we both liked him, and enjoyed bumping into him, and chatting and climbing together at the Beacon climbing wall. I particularly enjoyed bouldering with him, he was much better than me and he often gave me beta on problems. After a long conversation, and a lot of introspection, we decided that we would continue with our plan to climb.

Only once before have I been close to grinding to a halt while on lead, after a friend had been involved in a climbing accident. The same happened this time: half way up Left Wall, approaching the crux, I could barely focus. I looked down, the runners placed were more than I normally would have placed in the whole pitch. I was sure they would all just rip-out if I fell. All I could focus on was falling, all I could see was falling. This was now about falling, not climbing. The voice in my head insisted it was impossible to move up this section of blank rock. Impossible, even though I had climbed Left Wall many times, and never once fallen. I looked at the rock, the rough grey rock, sharp edges, pockets, the deep, dark crack, the same rock I had looked at so many times, and I could not see where to place my toes. Impossible. On the verge of slotting a deep and secure nut and shouting “Take!” to Zylo, I forced myself on, made it shakily through the crux, and eventually to the top of the climb.

Afterwards as we sat beneath the Cromlech walls, walls which have so much personal history, I almost said I was giving up climbing. I was so close to saying I’d had enough, that climbing asks too high a price. I felt shell-shocked. In the last few years there have been so many people I know who have had accidents and been seriously hurt or killed, and on top of this there had been other friends suffering with illnesses. I felt enough was enough, this activity was not fun, this life was unfair, it was not what I wanted. Climbing had turned into something that caused terrible pain. A wave of fragility hit me, the walls above closing in and blocking the sun – the world, life, climbing, they wanted to cause damage to my friends. Climbing was not worth it… But, eventually, and without sharing these thoughts, we continued to climb, and I continued to place more runners than ever before.

Pont Pen-y-Llyn. Credit, Malcolm Mills Davies.

The following day I went climbing again, this time with Tim Neill and John Ore. We climbed in the sun, clipping bolts at the Orme, the best option as we felt affected by the accident. At the end of the day, after dropping John home in Brynrefail, Tim and I passed over Pont Pen-y-Llyn. Walking over the bridge were friends Martin and Kath Chester, I like them both very much, and really enjoy meeting either of them. I’m not the best of keeping in touch with friends, but a few months earlier, when I was in Spain, Tim had sent me a message telling me Martin had been diagnosed with cancer. I contacted Martin and we chatted via messenger, where we chewed the cud, had a laugh and I told him he could not die because I liked and respected him too much. He had said he would try his best not to!

And here were Martin and Kath walking hand in hand (or that’s how I remember it). The water on the surface of the llyn rippled, distorting the reflection of the hills. The sun was low, the sky was tinged with red and the moon was a silver outline. Swallows flitted just above the surface of the water. Tim stopped the car and got out to give Martin a big hug. I said hi to them both but stayed in the car with the window open and had a bit of banter with Kath. She laughed and smiled and took the piss out of Martin. She reminded me of the more solid rock I like to climb.

Whenever I bump into Martin I always remember the morning of Tim and Lou’s wedding when Martin, Tim and I ran up to the Cromlech at 8am and climbed Right Wall. On that occasion the sun was just hitting the rock, the surface was crisp and fresh and climbing felt enhancing, a solution, a healer. Martin had not been climbing much, if at all, but he seconded Right Wall with guts and gusto, power screaming on the crux and happy to have made it to the top without falling. And Tim, the third, the bridegroom, pulled the grassy lip soon after. The three of us, smiling and happy, stood looking down, down onto the winding road, a road without people, cars, buses or noise. The pass was quiet and peaceful. Perfect.

Martin spoke with some difficulty having had an operation on his tongue, he was a little thin on top after the treatment, and he was wrapped inside a duvet jacket despite the warm evening, but the treatment was almost over and the prospects of recovery were good. Martin was radiant. It was so good seeing them both out enjoying a walk in such beautiful surroundings, clearly happy and appreciating each other, and appreciating life and everything around them.

I have obviously continued to climb. As useless as I am to all of my friends, I do think about you all on a regular basis, more than you realise, and you all mean a great deal to me. Sometimes I lose perspective, possibly a human trait when things are going well and we have nothing better to moan about or dwell on. In these times, the insignificant concerns and petty problems take over and become blown out of proportion and we need to remind ourselves what we have is not so bad. The accident on the Cromlech happened a few months ago now and I would love to be able to say that my friend has made a full recovery, but he hasn’t. He is still in hospital and badly injured. There are others who are so much more affected by what happened on that day and their continued pain is to be respected and remembered. I still think daily about my friend, sometimes several times a day, and I just want him to get well again because, like Martin, he is one of the good guys.

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Jam Crack Climbing Podcast.

In the style of Niall ‘Grimer’ Grimes podcasts, I thought I would just rush this blog post out without any credence to professionalism or accuracy.

I suppose ever since first meeting Niall (and yes it was at Hen Cloud and we talked after meeting on the crag), I have always, generally, connected and appreciated his off-the-wall attempts at humour, sometimes they are even funny!

I knew it was a risk doing anything for Grimer as he always has the last word, and you never know what that word is, on this occasion I think I came out OK, in fact, the Honnold comments are priceless, nice one Grimer… (Wanker!) 🙂

Anyway, below is what he said and the podcast…

Bad news: if the image led you to click on the link in the hope of hearing a podcast from the amazing climber in the photo. I’m afraid this week’s episode of Jam Crack Climbing Podcast is all about Nick Bullock. Nick is one of the UK’s most committed alpinists and has spent many years pushing his limits in the mountains as well as pushing his writing back home.

Our Nick reads three excerpts from his brand new book, Tides. Get it here.

The good news is that if it was Honnold you wanted, then find him here.

As usual listen via the player below. Better again go via iTunes, or to Stitcher Radio, or on Spotify. If you like the podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you would subscribe via one of these services. That way the shows will download automatically. That way it won’t just be shows from famous people who get heard, but also the less famous who will be equally interesting (or boring).

Cheers all,

Niall x

HERE IS THE PODCAST

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Dorys Dancing. Bam Bam & Requiem for a Vampire.

Bam Bam E7 6b in red. Requiem for a Vampire E8 6b in green, Stigmata, Craig Dorys, Llyn Peninsular. Credit, Mick Lovatt.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about climbing on Craig Dorys. I love the place. It’s a relationship with complication though, because the climbing, at almost any level, is terrifying. UKC description of the rock type is ‘crumbly rubbish’, but this is incorrect, it is compressed mudstone that breaks apart with predictably unpredictable regularity. On occasion the mud has a thin patina of quartz, and in this white and black speckled patina, there are holes, and looking into these holes takes you to an Alice in Wonderland world of soft. The strongest and most reliable rock on Stigmata Buttress is the reddish-brown. I’m no geologist, but I can only imagine it is this colour because of some sort of iron deposit, which makes this the colour to aim for, and savour. Unfortunately, these small bristly clots, occasional spikes and sticking-out plates do not occur often enough, and when marooned on these islands, it brings about a Robinson Crusoe kind of madness. Madness.  A word frequently used while in conversation to fellow enthusiasts talking about Stigmata. Funny that!

In the lowest section of Stigmata, the most unpredictable, friable and untrustworthy section, like a sick joke, is also the hardest section of the crag to protect. On occasion, a rusty peg can be seen poking its old emaciated body too far out from the rock, almost like septic Stigmata is attempting to expel everything that is not supposed to be there!

It’s difficult to describe what it is about Dorys, and especially Stigmata, that make it a very special place, I suppose this term, ‘special’ can be used in a few ways, and all would be correct. I suppose the same phrase can be used for many of the people that, like myself, love the place. But, and I feel it is an important and big but, the rewards of successfully topping out are almost unrivalled.

Stigmata takes climbing to a different, intense and psychologically bruising place, and the reward to the climber is also different. Having never taken drugs, apart from prescription and alcohol, I imagine climbing on Stigmata is akin to smoking crystal meth and possibly as addictive. Every little hold, every change in the colour of the rock, each creak, each slight movement (that’s of the rock, not you), every pinch and pull, is dissected, inspected, respected. Every hold is viewed with heightened consciousness and paranoia. And when you pull over the top of the crag, the colours of the world around, pour into a brain near the edge of explosion.

If you haven’t been to Dorys and stood beneath Stigmata you might be imagining this buttress is a slab or a vertical wall, because with rock so unreliable it has to be a slab doesn’t it? Well no, far from being a slab, some sections of Stigmata overhang so far as to rival a Catalonian cliff. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it isn’t: it really is as steep as something at Siurana, and the thought of stepping from the pile of shale to venture up, is so daunting it makes your mouth feel like someone has stuck a hair dryer in and flicked the switch to high.

I have once again become addicted. I’ve lit that pipe and the inhaled smoke has hit me with an anticipation of the highs to follow. I am addicted. There will be many who read this and don’t believe it, but the climbing on the more modern, very steep lines, is as good, if not better than anything out there. The movement through the steepest terrain, the crispy fins, the edges, the red crozzles, the roofs, the corners, the overhanging grooves, needs conviction and force, but always care, and above all control. There is no lunging here, and if there is, you’re on a countdown.

I have been to Dorys with Zylo and Mick Lovatt recently, and their reactions have been interesting!

I approached Zylo at the top of the crag after going on a cleaning and chalking-up, and looking mission: “It’s brilliant, it’s a bloody masterpiece. You pull through a roof using a heel-toe and crimping red flakes and then you have to stand on thin fins at the edge of the roof, they could easily break. Once over the roof, you have to pull another hard move before placing two, small and marginal cams into a shallow seam of dirt at your feet. More overhanging moves, but on holds that feel like they may rip-off, follow. Then in the most strenuous position of the climb, you have to place three more marginal pieces of gear while hanging from a spike of rock that has a crack all around it. (Senses heightened? Damn right they are!) And then… phew… you have to pull really hard into a corner, steady yourself,  while holding really poor rock, before getting a good wire in clay. If anything rips in this section it’s going to be massive.”

I was buzzing. Zylo looked at me and admitted later she was thinking, “How the hell did I end up going out with this crazy person!”

Mick Lovatt’s appraisal was possibly more telling.

(To be read in a gruff Lancashire accent) “What have you done to me? I don’t usually dream but the other night I dreamt I was climbing and as I climbed, a hold broke, and as I fell, I woke with a jump. I had to get up because I couldn’t sleep. The climbing here is brilliant and terrifying, it gets under the skin. What have you done?”. Mick continued, “You know Paul Pritchard’s introduction in your first book, the bit where he calls you a fucking nutter? When I first read that I though it a bit harsh, but he’s spot on.”

However, what all three of us agree on is that if the rock was solid at Dorys, it would be the best crag in North Wales. But we also all agree that if it was, you would never have the crag to yourself, as is often the case!

I seconded James McHaffie when he climbed the third ascent of Bam Bam back in 2009, and after pulling over the lip, completely exhausted with eyes on stalks, vowed I would attempt this climb on the sharp end, because it would surely give an unforgettable experience.

It took a few years to get back on it, via a minor episode on a climb near by, but a couple of weeks ago in the company of Mick, I climbed Bam Bam and it lived up to all of my expectation. What a fantastic climb… But quickly, possibly before I had even climbed Bam Bam, my mind wandered to the right… in the next, even steeper and less well protected section of the crag, there was another mind-bending Haston climb, an E8 6b called Requiem for a Vampire. After Haston’s first ascent in October 2009 Simon Panton described it on UKC and the Ground Up website as  “…an astounding line that eclipses all previous routes on the cliff” . Bam Bam was obviously gateway to this, the very real deal, class A in the loose rock addicts cupboard.

Mick had now fallen for my plan and was completely hooked on the thought of climbing Bam Bam, which meant I had a partner for my new obsession. After a few-clean-it-up and chalk-it-up-laps (not as easy as it sounds on rock so steep and loose, and quite a terrifying experience in another kind of way), Mick climbed Bam Bam, and a few days later, on Wednesday 27th, I climbed Requiem for a Vampire. The weatherperson said it was 31 degrees down the coast at Porthmadog on the day, and it did have both Mick and I cowering in the shade and the muck at the base of Stigmata beneath the climb Bobok (my first ever climb on Stigmata). Once my body temperature had decreased, I could face the cauldron and tie-on to begin my upwards Dorys dance. (The climb was now in the shade, but not the belay and I asked Mick if he wanted me to wait, but he said he would be OK. I think he looked on it as an extreme sunbathing session, so definitely an opportunity not to be missed…)

Stevie Haston (the first ascentionist of both Bam Bam and Requiem for a Vampire)  and I have had our difference of opinion in the past, but Bam Bam and Requiem are brilliant climbs that obviously took imagination, foresight and a bold approach. Maybe to create a true masterpiece, which both of these climbs are, you have to dance with the Devil. Cheers Stevie, both routes are a credit to you.

Another view of the lines, or roughly the lines. Bam Bam in red. Requiem in green. Both climbs are exceptionally steep and physical and bold. They do differ though, as once through the initial groove on Bam Bam, the gear is good and reasonably plentiful. On the whole, the gear on Requiem is marginal and run-out. The climbing on the routes contrasts also, Bam Bam is possibly more thrutchy and less on the arms, although passing the several roofs is physical. Requiem is more two dimensional and similar to sport climbing, this for anyone who knows the rock on Stigmata is a truly terrifying prospect!

The belay I used at the base of Bam Bam the day Mick led it. Falling from the initial groove would not be good.

The Perfect Man looks a little bit less than perfect! A fine and controlled ascent followed though, nice one TPM 😉

Mick high on his ascent of Bam Bam, possibly the 5th over-all.

Myself, just above the crux of Requiem for a Vampire. I think this lower section is the crux, both physical and psychological as the gear is pretty shoddy and the climbing is ‘sporty’ and the rock poor. Above there is plenty more climbing almost at a similar standard, but at least you’re a tad higher should a hold rip. credit, Mick Lovatt.

An island of sanity. Good gear and a good rest before the heel,toe roof moves where once again the gear goes a little south! credit, Mick Lovatt.

Myself about to successfully make the second ascent of Requiem for a Vampire? (I have not heard or read about any other ascent.) I did not on-sight it, the thought of going completely on-sight on this climb gives me cold sweats. If anyone fancies it though, (Lunatic!) its clean and chalked, but please make sure I’m not on the crag on the day you try it. And if you do it, in my old and bumbly opinion, give yourself an E9 tick. And if you get on it un-chalked, and without any gear knowledge, a true on-sight, you need therapy! Credit Mick Lovatt.

Looking down the line.

Old men who should know better. credit, Mick Lovatt.

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Dawn to Dusk to Dawn…

While Greg McInnes, (AKA Boswell) and I were at the Banff Centre November 2017 we were asked if we could give an interview about the bear attack, that would be edited and made into a short film including animated sequences. Below is the result. I’ve also included a section of chapter 35 from Tides, Dawn to Dusk to Dawn, that is an account of the attack.

 

Chapter 35: Dawn to Dusk to Dawn.

 October, 2015. Canmore, Canada.

Two years after the successful trip with Greg, I visited Canada for an eighth time. It was half-past midnight when I arrived in Banff, the last person on the white shuttle bus that had carried five passengers from Calgary Airport. I sat in the back of the bus in the dark. A freight train bullied its way through the center of town. Red lights flashed and an X between barriers marked the spot. The deep bass of the train horn blew. A grey cat with white stripes skittered across the tracks. It was almost twelve years to the day that I had walked from the door of Leicester Prison for the final time and fifteen years since my first visit to Canada.

I spent a month at The Banff Centre writing this book before moving to the Alpine Club of Canada’s clubhouse, where, sat now, age forty-seven I wait for my climbing partner Greg Boswell. Greg is from Scotland and half my age, but unlike some of my other, older Scottish friends, he doesn’t appear to have that aggressive Scottish nationalism. I don’t mean to belittle this fierce nationalistic pride, but Greg appears to place all of his fierceness into his climbing and when he is not climbing he is generally relaxed and good fun to be around.

The temperatures dropped and a meter of snow fell with Greg’s arrival. Winter was again with us. Our first climb had been one of those long-lusted-for climbs, The Real Big Drip set in the heart of The Ghost. After this climb, we made a return to the Stanley Headwall climbing Dawn of the Dead and Nightmare on Wolf Street, two big mixed classics. We thought we would try going even bigger after these routes and attempt the second ascent of a climb called Dirty Love.

Dirty Love is a 500-metre, twelve-pitch alpine climb, high on Mount Wilson, which is situated off the Icefields Parkway, the road that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. No coffee shops, no people, just wilderness, emptiness, deserted, alone … almost …

Jon Walsh and Raphael Slawinski had climbed the first ascent of Dirty Love in April 2008, grading the climbing M7. The climb had taken them twenty-three hours from the car to the summit of Wilson and another eight hours to descend. The trouble is, there is a very technical approach, which includes several mixed pitches and approximately four hours of slog through trees and alpine terrain before the bottom of the huge gash, something like Cenotaph Corner on steroids, is reached.

Greg and I aimed to put a track to the base of the climb to become knowledgeable about the approach, before retracing our steps back down to the valley and returning in two days’ time to attempt the second ascent. Everything was going well, although the three loose and difficult mixed pitches after half an hour’s walk didn’t really match Jon’s description, and took us longer than we had hoped. We assumed there should have been ice on the approach, but after the days of snow and the subsequent days of minus twenty, it had been warm and we guessed that the sun had melted any exposed ice.

At the top of these initial pitches, we slogged snow for an hour before climbing an M5 mixed pitch in the dark. Engulfed now by the last of the forest on the highest level of Mount Wilson, Jon’s description said, ‘two hours forty-five of snow slope to reach the climb’. We had come this far, so felt it would be pointless not to now put in a track, even though we were in the dark and the wilderness.

We left ropes and some gear at the top of the mixed pitch and after five minutes we also dumped axes and anything heavy before attaching snowshoes and bushwhacking through thick forest. Eventually we escaped the trees and found the snow gully that led to the foot of the climb and at seven thirty, really high and near the foot of the climb, we decided we had done enough to establish a track so we could return in two days and follow it without too much bother. Retracing our steps without snowshoes to consolidate the track, I walked in front with Greg behind, until the edge of the forest was reached.

The moon had yet to rise and darkness enveloped the both of us. We followed a glittering track in the light of our headlamps. I kicked as the snow clung to my knees. Small spruce lined the edge of the forest and all I thought about was how, in two days’ time we would return, fresh from rest, to attempt the stunning-looking line we had taken photographs of earlier. Having the time to search out the unusual made my roving and sometimes lonely existence bright and fulfilling.

Greg was behind, and then I heard something that took over my reflexes …

I spun. My headlamp caught blue as Greg flailed past, all arms and legs. Snow splattered everywhere. Just behind Greg, but moving quicker than him and with much bigger arms and legs, was a grizzly bear.

Ink-black, bottomless, unfathomable eyes turned and focused on my prone form. Erect ears, a broad industrial snout and an open mouth full of brown teeth was attached to a beautiful head etched with pale flecks. His bounding body was muscular, seemingly propelled by pistons. The snow lapped at the bruin’s belly, which didn’t appear to slow it. Frozen, terrified, my torch lit the snorting, carnivorous freight train that was now rattling by inches away from me, and dusting me with spindrift.

I just stood. I was frozen. Terrified. Incapacitated. For a second, the bear looked right at me, for just one second, and for that one second I thought this is it, this is really it. Or, more like, I would have thought that if I could have formed thoughts, but I couldn’t; my mind was white noise, it was a TV screen in the times before twenty-four-hour programmes, when the screen became horizontal bars and the sound was a constant ‘beeeeeeeeeeeee’.

All in that exact same second, the bear had seen Greg fall and it flew past me close enough to run a hand along its fur.  Immediately I ran away. I ran as fast as I could, I ran uphill, in the opposite direction, as fast as the deep snow would allow. And my now functioning mind had capacity to scream, and alongside that scream was another scream. Greg had fallen on his back and Could only watch as the bear bounded towards him. Screaming and shouting, Greg kicked at Ursus arctos horribilis, and it bit straight though his boot as if it were just a sock. It pounced again and crunched into his shin, while placing a paw around his other leg before lifting him clean off the ground.

‘Nick! Nick! Help it’s got me ARGHHHHH, HELP NICK, NICK HELP … ’

I stopped running then and hearing my friend and his high-pitched pleading, my mind insisted: the bear has got Greg, let it eat him, run, run as fast as you can, save yourself.

But on hearing the chilling, terrified scream, my survival instinct subsided. I stopped and turned. But I’ll tell the truth, the thought of running back to face the bear armed with only a ski pole, slowed me. My limbs and mind were unraveling but Greg was shouting my name, I couldn’t just stand there. I couldn’t just stand and listen to my friend as he was torn apart. I began walking towards the bear and Greg, thinking this was it: I was about to die. After fifty years I was about to return to the stomach of another living creature.

Suddenly, out of the dark, a shape came hurtling toward me. I screamed so loud the skin at the back of my throat tore. But the shape coming at me was Greg. My torch shone into his ashen face, and in that face I saw something I had never seen before…

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Modern Scottish Climbing Fables #4: Four, 4 star classics spell the end & an Alpinist Magazine podcast to boot.

Beinn Bhàn on the Applecross Peninsular. NW Highlands of Scotland.

My van is parked in a lay-by fifty metres before a bridge crossing the Kishorn River. To continue along the road, the Bealach na Bà, (Pass of the cattle), takes you to the wild, and almost deserted, Applecross Peninsular.

I’m sitting on the side-step of my van’s open door, drinking a mug of tea and looking across open marsh and the river. On either side of the marsh, the hills are snow covered. The river is slow moving, the sun reflects on the surface of the water and even though its three in the afternoon, on a winters day in Northwest Scotland, the air is still and almost warm. The sky is clear.

Hanging from open doors of the van are clothes, bedding and gear, all drying – all be it, slower than the water in the river moves towards Loch Kishorn. Eventually the water will run to the Inner Sound, a straight separating the Inner Hebridean islands of Skye, Raasay and South Rona from the Applecross peninsular.

My axes have sharp picks and crampons have freshly filed points. The rack is sorted, ropes and gloves dry. Set. In hundreds of days of Scottish winter climbing I can only remember a handful, (and a small handful at that) of days like this; sun, no wind, clear sky, frozen ground, hardly any humidity, and this is possibly the first time I have experienced all of the above and been able to stay in this peaceful, isolated environment after climbing.

Earlier, at 6.30am, Murdoch Jamieson had driven from Inverness to join me, where, in the dark, we sorted gear and began the walk towards Gully of the Gods, Coire an Fhamair on Beinn Bhàn.

Myself sorting the rack beneath Coire an Fhamair on a day of remarkable weather. pic credit, Murdo Jamieson

…The walk-in was like never before, almost dry underfoot with no snow and when we reached the coire we were by ourselves and the sun shone and the wind was none existent. We climbed the ultra-classic, Gully of the Gods, without any knowledge whether it was in condition or not because no-had had reported it. I would rather take a punt than have guaranteed anytime, because when it comes-off, it feels special and bloody hell, this was already special given the weather and conditions.

At 1.30pm we left the coire; having climbed, topped out, returned to the bags and packed up – then looking at the cliff, which was very lean in the dry and sunny weather, I took several pictures before returning to Murdo. “Here you go, look at this, I reckon Die Riesenwand will go.”

Murdo studied the shots and after brief consultation with pointing fingers that traced a weaving line from blobs of white to thin threads of silver, we decided that yes, Die Riesenwand would go and it would be a great option for tomorrow…

Myself, pitch 1 of Gully of the Gods. Pic credit, Murdo Jamieson.

Murdo on the second pitch of Gully of the Gods.

I pulled the bedding from the door and stuffed it into the back of the van. It was 5pm, the sun dipped and cast shadows across the surface of the river. A heron eased his stilts through the shallows and struck, coming out with an eel, all twisting and wriggling around his lance. One quick flip and the eel was gone. A chill breeze stung, soon I would go to the back of the van and sort some food before going to bed and another early one.

The second day of climbing was possibly even better than the first. Murdo and I climbed Die Risenwand adding a new, and more difficult finish. Once again, I had led the easy pitches that took us to the top, this time chopping through a large cornice, that once surmounted, led into the dazzling sun and a shimmering vista of the Isle of Skye and the Black Cuillin across the blue of the Inner Sound.

Day two of a memorable weekend of climbing. Myself on the first pitch of Die Riesenwand. Pic credit, Murdo Jamieson.

Murdo on the first of the traverse sections of Die Riesenwand.

Myself, just before the exposed step of the original. I belayed here. The new alternative goes right, making the exposed step more exposed! Pic credit, Murdo Jamieson.

Murdo follows on the high traverse.

Murdo approaching the belay.

The new alternative, more exposed finish.

Later that evening after saying goodbye to Murdo I began the two hour drive back to the hut at Roy Bridge.

The two routes we had climbed were both 4 star classics and each great experiences, but the weekend as a whole had been more special than the actual climbing. Staying in such a wonderful place, with settled weather and remarkable conditions made me feel exceptionally privileged. Two weeks later, I would remember this weekend, but only on reflection after answering questions posed by Paula Wright for an Alpinist Magazine podcast called Threshold Shift, and can be listened to here.

In this interview, Paula raised a point from two of the articles I have written for Alpinist Magazine. At the time of the interview I don’t think I answered well, although in the interview I think Paula covers the issue and answers it better than me, but I have attempted to write a better answer here.

Some of what I have written in the past, and what I still write, appears conflicted, but that has always been the case, or at least in the last several years. To change one’s opinion, to continually asses, and reassess, means having an open mind doesn’t it? To change an opinion is not hypercritical, it’s been open to all opinions, and changing one’s opinion, when a better argument is presented, possibly means admitting things are different from how they were perceived at the time. My opinion about climbing changes often, almost on a daily basis, and will be swayed by what is happening in the world of climbing and mountaineering at the time, it will also change depending on my mood and recent experiences.

The pieces of writing that contradict each other, or possibly a better way to say it is, the pieces of writing that describe a different emotion from the one before, are taken from Alpinist 30, Into the Shadow and the latest article from Alpinist 57, Threshold Shift. Both articles cover death and loss in the mountains, and loss in the mountains featured quite significantly in our talk. Paula quoted me from Into the Shadow with the following;

“All I can think about is Tom’s question. What makes you want to put yourself in that position? I dig into the snow, looking for ice, for something solid, but find nothing. Two of my friends from the Shark’s Fin expedition, Jules Cartwright and Jamie Fisher, are gone. So is Phillip Lloyd from Pritchard’s attempt. In the valley, the losses make no sense. But up high, surrounded by thousands of mountains, something seems to expand, briefly, minutes swell to contain hours; infinity bursts within an instant; one life holds many lives, many possible ascents; one existence races along several paths, each way leading to liberation; and nothing good or bad ever ends. In such moments, mountaineering makes every sense.”

But then in Threshold Shift Paula quoted me;

“Lying in the little tent, I came clean with myself. Possibly for the first time in more than twenty years. “Life affirmation, the challenge, live life to the full….” It was true at some point I suppose, and still is for some, but now it all felt cliched. It felt like marketing consumeristic bullshit. The most honest answer I could conjure up is to know what you are and what you have to do when you wake in the morning: today I will walk to the foot of something that intimidates me, and I will begin to climb. But even this statement was untrue, even this was my mind’s marketing, because the real reason was for the after, for the adulation and acceptance and the slap on the back. It was all just a big erect middle finger. I’m getting mine, how about you? But at least I’m being honest, and possibly this is my answer, this is why I do it. Honesty is easy. Honesty is open. Honesty is a weight off. Honesty is no secrets, and once discovered, honesty is peace. Maybe I’m getting old? I am old. Trying to set the record straight.”       

When I write, I attempt to write from a questioning position, one that will hopefully interest the reader enough into making them ask their own questions. I also write from a position that will make me ask my own questions, and in doing so will help me reach answers, or at least, form more questions and hopefully different answers. Sometimes I write from a position that I do not completely agree to see what comes back, but all of the time I attempt to write honestly.

I find attempting to answer the old question of why, especially when talking about loss, almost impossible. How can you justify the loss of someone fit and healthy, someone who had so much to offer, and how can you explain it to the people left behind? It all just ends up as platitudes and clichés. I think there is value to be had from not trying to explain because, as with many things in life, there are a thousand possible answers. At times the reason I climb is for the shear joy, the life expanding and at times it is in an attempt to be honest with myself, because being honest with oneself can be very difficult and climbing does help with this as long as you remember the real story when returning to the ground! And, at times, I struggle to come to terms with the whole climbing internet scene and the way some climbers appear to want to share everything they do, (whether they have actually done what they have said or not!). I become frustrated with the thinly disguised consumerism and self-promotion and retaliate with a big boast of my own, it is a big erect middle finger. For a very short period I may feel sated, but it isn’t long before I feel ashamed of myself and unfortunately it will no-doubt happen again in the future.

I’m pleased to say my final climbs in Scotland this winter gave me joy, satisfaction, and lasting memories and for that short period, I felt fortunate to experience some of the best of what life can offer and for this I’m glad I have climbing.

Brothers in arms. Pete Whittaker and Matt Helliker on the Fly Direct day. They really should make sure of their wardrobe the night before!

Walking in to Craig Meggy. Thanks to Andy Inglis for sending me a picture that stirred interest to go and have a punt at climbing the Fly Direct.

Myself setting off on the Fly Direct. It may look scrappy but it wasn’t, the route was one of the best of winter and in tremendous condition. We climbed it in four big pitches. Pic credit Pete Whittaker or Matt Helliker, sorry, I’m not sure who took it, maybe its because you both looked exactly the same!

Myself setting the belay after climbing pitch one and two together. Pic credit as before!

Myself setting off on the second pitch which was really pitch 3, supposedly the crux but it wasn’t, it was the closest I’ve come to climbing plastic Euro ice in Scotland. 🙂 Pic credit, Pete or Matt!

Matt on pitch four…

The day after the Fly Direct we went to Buachaille Etive Mòr and climbed Raven’s Gully with the direct finish. Well, I say we, I mean Pete led it all, Matt and I were still on a high from the previous day and it was too cold! The end of my Scottish winter with another 4 star route.

 

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With arms like a doner kebab.

We both laughed because, well, because it was funny. “Can you imagine being a fly on the wall of everyone who has seen us climbing over the last two weeks?” Rich Kirby said.

I leaned back, ignoring the slightly sour taste and took another swig of red wine. The Spanish heat, the clear plastic of the 5ltr bottle and the two weeks it had been open, none of this had helped with quality or longevity of the wine.

The clips had been in now for two weeks, and for two weeks both Rich and I had floundered and flapped – we had pulled, fallen, screamed, (but never in anger). We had torn skin, stretched sinew and almost ruptured joints. Climbers had come and gone. “Can you imagine being a fly on the wall?” We laughed some more as we imagined the conversation between other climbers.

We were both sat inside Rich’s black VW camper that is parked on the plateau above Margalef. Opposite, all stick thin and teeth and northern, Rich laughed. Outside the van, lining the plateau edge, I watched the massive propellers of the wind turbines slowly spin. Rich almost choked as he spluttered out the imagined conversation, “Them old blokes trying to do that route, who are they kidding, have you seen them, no chance… two weeks, two weeks –  t   w   o     w   e   e   k   s! – can you believe it, up and off, up and off… no chance, who are they kidding, they even top roped!?” I almost spat out my wine with the imagined scenario.

Bloody hell I felt old! Two ripped fingers, one bruised finger, unable to make a fist with either hand, my arms felt like the grease dripping meat of a doner kebab. Who the hell was I kidding, this route was never going to go. I have heard it said that age is only a number, getting old is just a state of mind, and in some way I understand the, ‘don’t let age hold you back’ attitude, of course we do whatever we can and try to do as much as possible to delay the onset of age, but all in all, its fallacy, how can we stop getting older and becoming slower and less strong? My younger body certainly didn’t ache and hurt like it does now after a day of hard exercise!

Rich and I are at Margelef and attempting to climb a route called Hard Krit which is a 40m 8a. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so out of my league, I’m surrounded by beings from another planet, mutant humans with pencil thin waste lines and shoulders wide enough to span an estuary. Just across the way is a route called Era Vella, it has a grade of 8c+/9a and has a queue of people attempting to climb it on a daily basis, in fact, at the moment, its possibly the most popular climb at Margalef. Alex Megos came across to climb on the ‘vertical cliff’ the other day. He had already climbed Era Vella and was using our section of crag as a warm down.

AAAAAAAARGE……………. There goes another attempt. No not at Era Vella, at our route.

A friendly Swiss woman attempting Era Vella told me there were no hard moves on the climb. She was not being elitist or tongue in cheek, she really believed there were no hard moves. I’m not so sure?

A French man had walked up to the cliff, joined the Era Vella queue, fallen off and headed our way. He didn’t acknowledge the two old men working the warm up. His shoulders and back were so wide he caused a shadow my van could park beneath (and I do own a very large van now!) and his waste was narrow enough I could see he had just eaten a peanut. I now not only felt old, but fat and out of shape.

Rich successfully climbed the crux section clean today. I thought it was on, he would now go all the way to the top. Then I noticed he appeared to be launching and only just hanging holds he usually managed to reach and hold without too much difficulty. Another 9a superstar was about to walk past me. He looked up and decided to wait because he could see an old man above in difficulty. BOOM. There he goes, Rich explodes from the cliff, but hey, he got through the crux section, its more than I’ve managed.

We have 5 more climbing days to plant a flag on the Hard Krit summit, I’m not sure I’ll make it. An unprecedented two rest-day strategy is now taking place to (hopefully), allow skin repair and the unlocking of fingers. I sit outside my van and watch a long train of black ants carrying stuff to their nest. All day, back and forth, carrying, working, labouring, back and forth and as day turns to night I watch the lights on the slow turning turbines change from white to red.

 

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Tides: The first review from Dennis Gray on Footless Crow.

I wont be posting all reviews, but to get the ball rolling this is the first published on Footless Crow and written by Dennis Gray.

As the book is not yet published its quite important to get the word out and hopefully the word will be favourable. This review is well balanced and good, but it’s always good to remember we all have different opinions and we like, or dislike, different things, and because of this, it doesn’t make a thing good or bad, just to your taste or not. I’m pleased Dennis liked Tides, thanks Dennis.

One thing to point out is Dennis received a pre-publication copy of Tides that was not the finished article. We have now done more editing and all of the pictures in the copy Dennis had were black and white and low resolution, the final book will have full resolution and colour plates.

Here is the review…

And here at Vertebrate Publishing is where you can buy the book.

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