Breadgate. Fable for another time.

8-3-large

In April, 2005, Tim Neil, Dougal Tavener, Jonny Garside and I travelled to the Gorges du Tarn. This was the first time any of us had been to the Tarn. I remember the four of us packed into the small hire car and entering Les Vignes, the village where the camp site was, and already I was in awe of this quiet and beautiful place. Steep, pocketed and orange limestone reared from both sides of the road. Large bulbous pillars towered above pine and spruce, the gorge felt almost fairy-tale. And the blue of the river cutting the base of the gorge was radiant.

Unknown climber on Les ailes du désir Extension. Tennessee.

Unknown climber on Les ailes du désir Extension. Tennessee.

I had known Tim for years, but I hadn’t known Dougal or Jonny for long. Dougal was on the Assistant Instructor scheme at Plas y Brenin, as Jonny had been at one time, but he was now working for the BMC. Dougal was extremely gifted at most things, he had been the British junior white-water kayak champion, and even though he had only been climbing for a few years, he was already knocking off some routes with a reputation. Jonny was talented also, but talented in a reserved way, and unlike Dougal, who was blond and angular, and had what my Mum would have described as dashing good looks, Jonny was dark and calculating and a little predatory – less dashing, more hawkish and flittery, missing nothing. I found out that Jonny’s nickname was Birdy, a name that suited him well. I also discovered Jonny had a penchant for packing his day time snacks in a selection of different sized Tupperware boxes. Jonny liked Tupperware! I was soon to find out Jonny had another love alongside that of Tupperware,and that was one of being irritating and argumentative and Jonny took to what was soon to be known as Bullock baiting with a passion. If there had been a championship for the sport of baiting a Bullock, for it was most certainly sport to Jonny, he would have won gold. His nickname took on new meaning, as he now resembled a Peregrine pecking and pulling at a pigeon, and I was pigeon!

peregrine

Unknown climber on Les nouvelles plantations du Christ Extension. Tennessee.

Unknown climber on Les nouvelles plantations du Christ Extension. Tennessee.

I returned again to the Tarn the following year. I loved the place – the river, the vultures, the Jays with their shock of blue and screech, the friendly local people and the style of climbing. Long run-out pitches, with pockets of various depths, which generally meandered up a vertical, or more often, overhanging sheet of perfect orange. That first trip with Tim and Dougal and Jonny had only been my second ever sport climbing trip. I really enjoyed the climbing and the physicality, but at that time, especially coming out of winter, I only really looked on these trips as a way to get fit for the summer trad climbing in Wales. But it was on my second trip with Phil Dowthwaite, when I was walking along the road, looking up at the massive cutaway in the seventy to one hundred metre walls of Dé Qué fas Aqui, that I stood fixated. There was a climber who was continuing on his climb after what looked like he had already reached the lower-off, and continue he did, almost topping out in one huge, almost inconceivably long, single pitch. He was so high he must have needed oxygen. Do they make ropes that long, surely not! But they must because I could not see a join. Just before he stepped onto the top of the crag he fell and my, did he fall. And as he fell he screamed. At first he screamed in terror. Then his scream lightened with joy. Then the rage took hold, before finally, he sobbed. And when he eventually stopped falling, he let out a loud and machine gun like list of expletives that I didn’t understand as it was all in French. I remember thinking how the hell does a person become so fit to even contemplate climbing a pitch so long, and later, when I found out the grade of the climb was 8a, my fascination turned to a complete lack of comprehension.

One of the Locals almost latching the hold on Dessèchement Planétaire, L' Oasif. Pic Rich Kirby.

One of the Locals almost latching the hold on Dessèchement Planétaire, the 8c in L’ Oasif. Pic Rich Kirby.

On that first trip, Tim, Dougal, Jonny and I improved as the days past – getting fitter, understanding how to use pockets and how to get to grip with the run-outs, which on some climbs were dramatic. Dougal soon became the front runner, but annoyingly, it turned out Jonny was a great climber, he not only had good technique, he was also bold, taking repeated whippers, although I must admit the tiny shorts he wore were embarrassing for everyone apart from Jonny. Tim was solid and I did my usual, using strength and fitness as my ally, fighting my way, and on occasion even reaching the chains. It’s fair to say, I was more suited to the lines that were long and ‘trad like’. Big corners and faults that soared into the sky with overhangs that could be skirted by underclinging, by-passing the steepness. Knees, elbows, back, thighs, push as much onto the rock as possible, that was my style. There was one climb in particular that fitted this bill, it was called Féerie pour une autre fois, Fable for another Time, a thirty five metre 7a+ with a Tremadoc style groove, surmounted by fingerlocking while trusting the feet to smears. Layback. Thrutch. Udge. After the crux there was a run-out overlap that traversed by underclinging with the feet pushed to smears, until at last the chains were reached. I was attracted to this line like slobber to a bulldog’s jowl. Unfortunately, like slobber is prone, I stretched and snapped and fell from the traverse, much to the amusement of everyone below. What a brilliant climb. I got it second go, but only just, flapping, and screaming and blowing. My arms were so full of blood, if someone had pricked them, the walls would have splattered red. Féerie pour une autre fois was the start of the seventy metre 8a I would stand and watch the French climber fall from the following year.

Tim, Dougal, Jonny and my trip continued with the tension hitting a high point at about the day five mark. For many years, ever since being a PE Instructor and training for most of the day, I eat very little after breakfast, training on a full stomach never appealed. I have taken this habit of not eating through the day, on into my climbing life, but there comes a point in the evening when I really need to eat. It was on this trip that Tim pointed out to me how not eating in the day effected my mood later in the evening. At the time, I could not see it, but with hindsight, he was correct. I’m also what some people may call a ‘bready person’ I love bread of most types and eat bread with almost every meal. Bread is a very important thing in my life! Our trip was early in the holiday season and the little shop in Les Vignes only opened in the morning, and each morning Tim would take it on himself to get up and walk to the shop to do the bread run. On his return, we would all eat breakfast.  I would not make sandwiches for later in the day because I didn’t eat through the day. Jonny, I noticed, always made a big sandwich, almost using a whole baguette, before packing it very carefully in his Tupperware.

When we returned to the camp site in the evening the shop was closed, and more often than not there would only be a small amount of bread left. At this point I was very hungry, but I believe in delayed gratification where food is concerned, I’ve never been one to wolf down whatever in a quick fix before preparing my tea. Needless to say, years down the line I can see this is my thing, this is my shit, not everyone is the same, and on this occasion Jonny was not the same! But to be honest, I’m sure neither was Tim or Dougal, but neither Tim nor Dougal had taken so well to Bullock baiting so if they were eating bread I chose not to notice. For days, I had watched our last remaining bread be guzzled by a Birdy without, what in my mind, any consideration to me and the fact I did not make a sandwich. In my mind, I was due some bread, if not all of the bread reserves. I snapped at about day five! “Fucksake Jonny, leave me some bread, you’ve had your share.” It would be at this point that most people would have read the warning signs and acted appropriate, they possible would have thought, ‘Here is a very hungry and annoyed Bullock, he is close to snapping, maybe I need to back away from the mike… But not Jonny, this was not Jonny’s style, he could now see this was the time, because this time would have the best effect and cause me the most upset. “The bread is bought for all of us Nick, its team bread,” he said in a really annoyingly sanctimonious way, and continued, “If you don’t want to make a sandwich or choose to wait until you’ve made your dinner before wanting any bread that’s your choice, if it runs-out before you want any that’s your problem.”

Tim is six foot seven and on this day it was a good thing, he manoeuvred quick and pinned me down. Eventually, Tim calmed the situation by promising each morning to buy an extra baguette, which would be my very own baguette, and eaten when I liked.

I have now visited the Tarn seven times, it’s my favourite sport climbing destination and over the years a few things have changed. I don’t consider sport climbing as training for trad climbing any more. I now favour the more ‘sporty’ types of climbs and less, the trad thutchfests. I don’t go out to break myself by climbing as many routes as possibly on a trip or even in one day. I try not to climb all day long and in the direct sun light. I don’t run on rest days, I rest on rest days. I’ve discovered Hydration is good, but over half a bottle of wine the night before redpoint attempts is too much hydration. Belay glasses look weird but for 70m routes they’re a must. And Jonny and me are very good friends who laugh about Breadgate almost every time we meet.

I stood all those years ago watching in disbelief as the French climber reached the chains on the 7a+ section of what I remembered to be a really pumpy route and then continue to climb until he eventually fell. A few days ago, I’m still not sure how, I managed to successfully climb Féerie pour une autre fois Extension, the 70m 8a. Some things have certainly changed, but one thing hasn’t, I still love bread.

Rich Kirby psyching up before the big ascent!

Rich Kirby psyching up before the big ascent!

Rich having climbed the first 35m and about to embark on the second 35m.

Rich having climbed the first 35m and about to embark on the second 35m.

Myself on the 'rest' just before starting the crux sequence at the 50m mark.

Myself on the ‘rest’ just before starting the crux sequence at the 50m mark.

Myself setting off before falling once again from the crux!

Myself setting off before falling once again from the crux!

Belaying duties were long!

Belaying duties were long!

Belay glasses a must for what at times were up to 2hr belay sessions.

Belay glasses a must for what at times were up to 2hr belay sessions.

Rich also on the hangout just before the crux. "It'll be fine Nick, you'll never fall off the move after latching that pocket." It was a close one though hey Rich? ;-)

Rich also on the hangout just before the crux. “It’ll be fine Nick, you’ll never fall off the move after latching that pocket.” It was a close one though hey Rich? ;-)

A happy man with a pile of stripped gear. It took us so long to climb this route clean its a wonder the gear hadn't rusted!

A happy man with a pile of stripped gear. It took us so long to climb this route clean, it’s a wonder the gear hadn’t rusted!

And the vultures looked on hoping for another failure.

And the vultures looked on hoping for another failure.

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In through the outdoor.

blog 1

Several years ago, after three months of sport climbing in Spain and France, I climbed Plenitude, a nine pitch 6c+ on Les Vuardes, the big crag high above the small town of Magland and the river Arve that flows a milky grey, down the valley from Chamonix. You would think 6c+ a doddle. I fell off the 6c pitch soon into the climb, and it was then I realised what this crag was about. The crux pitch needed binoculars to see, not only the holds, but where the next bolt was. Successfully climbing the crux pitch without falling was almost the highlight of my summer. A whole load of hours later (about eight from the start), I pulled the top pitch of physically and mentally battered.

So, it started a few weeks ago. Maybe it was more. Van, ferry, van, toll road, toll road, aire, toll road, Servoz. The Walker Spur was the plan but that was not happening because of the weather, so Keith Ball and I took the next best. Well no, of course it wasn’t next best, it wasn’t even second best, but multi-pitch rock climbing down the valley from Chamonix always gives a thrilling outing as long as the ego can be controlled.

Ten exhausting days later, my cunning plan to get a kicking on Aravis limestone, before heading to the Dolomites, where everything would be easy in comparison, came to fruition. Two visits to Les Vuardes did the job. A serious beating was dished on day one, but Keith and I were gluttons, so we returned for a second bruising the very next day joining the family of kestrels skimming the grey while hunting the young martens. We took the grade down on this second day, managing to climb the easiest route on the crag without floundering or pulling on the very spaced gear or falling. Wonders will never cease. La Costa, my first climb of three on Les Vuardes without a fall. If someone said I would not be pleased to climb 6a without a fall, they would be wrong, both Keith and I were very happy.

Myself at the start of La Costa, which is the same start as Plenitude vividly recalling the kicking. Pic credit Keith Ball

Myself at the start of La Costa, which is the same start as Plenitude, vividly recalling the kicking. Pic credit Keith Ball

Keith seconding pitch three of La Costa.

Keith seconding pitch three of La Costa.

Keith on the 5+ pitch of La Costa. (E3 5c)

Keith on the 5+ pitch of La Costa. (E3 5c)

Myself Seconding the 6c pitch of Exhalation. There wasn't much 6c about this pitch and there weren't many moves made free!

Myself Seconding the 6c pitch of Exhalation. There wasn’t much 6c about this pitch and there weren’t many moves made free!

The weather was not the best for the Walker Spur.

The weather was not the best for the Walker Spur.

I picked Zylo up from a very busy Geneva Airport and a frenetic journey heading towards the Dolomites ensued. I adore my new van and I have named it Betty Blanc (my van is white and French). I have waited long in life to own a van like Betty, and taking her onto the Italian roads was something I could have done without. *Generalisation alert* Italian drivers are fucking crazy! Almost without exception, Italians dive very fast, and without any forethought or apparent notion of consequences. And as the storms hit Milan, and the rain bounced from hot tarmac, the traffic turned to a warm wet mass of one hundred mile an hour mental. To say I find driving in Italy stressful is very much an understatement.

Zylo, Betty and I eventually reached Cortina in one piece and we headed to the hills. The roads were still crazy, in fact, in some ways, they were crazier, because they now had a million cyclists and motorcyclists and buses and cars and camper-vans, and all of these vehicles were weaving and whizzing while attempting to negotiate a million hairpins and taking selfies and talking on their mobile phones. Mental.

At last we found a pull in away from the road and peace ensued. Speckled nutcrackers with large and sturdy beaks balanced on the very top of the pines. The thin and single branch swayed as the robust bird balanced while grinding out a rhythmical, almost electrical buzzing call, which was music after the constant drone of traffic. A Three Toed Woodpecker tap, tap, tapped its way up the trunk of a mature pine.

The Dolomites are busy. In fact, the Dolomites in August is so busy as to be avoided like a sexually transmitted disease. But the climbing is exceptional and worth putting up with a mild infection, because antibiotics are available and can cure most things, as long as the full course it taken.

Zylo and I climbed for two weeks and the climbing – multi pitch and single pitch, was exceptional. Ottovolante on Torre Brunico coming out on top. But all good things come to an end, Zylo had to leave and go back to work, so back to the motorway madness heading towards Venice Airport and another motorway service station doss.

We had only been parked for a short time when a family pulled up in a blue Audi. Mum, Dad and teenage son. Son had a plaster cast on his arm. Making an assumption, I would have guessed they were refugees travelling up through Italy. They pulled matting from the rear of the car and laid it on the grass beneath a massive brightly illuminated road sign. After a short time, Dad came over and in broken English asked me if I had any bedding he could borrow. I leaned into my van and pulled a sleeping bag. He was grateful and asked me if I had another. I did, so I loaned him that as well explaining that I wanted them back. Zylo and I sat in the grass eating our tea when Mum came across asking for more bedding. Unfortunately, we only had the duvet, which we wanted for ourselves and apologised. Mum walked away disappointed. Both Zylo and I felt guilty, but later, as we walked back from the service station we saw the three of them all tucked up beneath the two sleeping bags. We joked that that was the last we had seen of them, and when we woke in the morning, the family had gone taking the bags with them. I must admit to been disappointed, maybe it was a misunderstanding, but it was only a couple of sleeping bags and their need appeared to be more than our own.

Zylo on pitch two of Finlandia.

Zylo on pitch two of Finlandia. Cinque Torri

Zylo Abseilng

Zylo Abseilng from the summit of Torre Grande.

zylo after climbing Ottovolante

Near the summit of Torre Brunico after climbing Ottovolante

Betty and Zylo after Ottovolante.

Betty and Zylo relaxing after Ottovolante.

That evening I met Matt Helliker on a bend in the road above Cortina. Matt is a Dolomites regular and suggested we start on Tofana with the five hundred metre and twenty plus pitches of the Constantini, Apollonio. Both Zylo and I had repeatedly looked at Tofana with its dramatic orange and black striped South Face, but once warmed up, the weather became unsettled and getting off the top of Tofana is tricky if shroud in cloud. I jumped at Matt’s suggestion and we headed to the car park near the Tofana Refuge which was much like the others, busy and noisy but with a great view.

Matt hadn’t climbed in the Dolomites in August and he suggested leaving the carpark at 8am. I said I thought it may be a tad relaxed for a route as popular and long, but being lazy I went for it anyway.

In the morning, I looked up and counted five parties on the climb and none appeared to be moving quickly. To give them, and us space, a relaxed start became even more relaxed and we eventually started the climb at ten. At around midday, the climbing became steep and we caught the people ahead. Ah well, a relaxed start meant a relaxed climb and we kicked back for an hour on a ledge but still reached the summit with plenty of daylight.

A second route on Tofana was fun, although like Les Vuardes, a pair of binoculars were needed to see the next bolt, but unlike much of Les Vuardes, the rock became interesting, in a terrifyingly loose Craig Dorys kind of way, so after this climb we decided to head for the higher and hopefully more solid ground of Cima Ovest’s North Face!

As we reached the steeper stuff on Constantini, Apollonio things slowed.

As we reached the steeper stuff on Constantini, Apollonio things slowed.

Taking care of the rubble on Gladiator. Tofana. Pic credit Matt Helliker.

Taking care of the rubble on Gladiator. Tofana. Pic credit Matt Helliker.

Matt and I arrived at the Tre Cima car-park late, as do many, by driving in through the out gate at the toll booth that closes at eight thirty, but leaves the barrier up on the exit. It was clear and peaceful and bright as we parked above the camper-vans. Caught in the cone of Betty’s headlights were names and comments and phrases written in small stones by people who had now left. White limestone rocks, rocks made of the dead, placed in a pattern that said something by people that had gone. In the morning a short walk from the carpark, something akin to the walk to Gogarth Main Cliff, found us looking at some very impressive and shady rock. Two vast faces rear from the tons of silver scree that brush their base like snow. And like snow, there are tracks made by humans that form zigzag patterns. Both the Ovest and the Grande overhang in their lower sections and have bands and lines running horizontal and vertical. Looking at these shadowy monoliths it’s like they have been photo-shopped with the antique filter. The bells of cows grazing in the meadows below chimed almost making music.

Cima Ovest is at a higher altitude than Tofana, no disputing that, although I’m not so sure about the more solid than Tofana that Matt had been selling. Cragging on a large scale without much of the hardship that is normally involved with climbs so big. I would call the climbing style on Tre Cima fast food mountaineering, but that would possibly be showing disrespect, as both the Ovest and Grande North Faces are gobsmacking. Matt and I decided to climb as far as we could and in whatever style on a route called Pressknödel, then we would abseil. If we liked the climbing, the intention was to work the route and try for a clean ascent. I had never done anything like this on a big face, a sort of redpointing on a grand scale, but after climbing loads over the last month, and knowing I was meeting Rich Kirby on the 30th of August for three weeks in the Gorges du Tarn, I thought what the hell, it would be a laugh hanging out in such spectacular territory and getting fit at the same time.

Pressknödel is a sustained twelve pitches, the easiest pitch being 6a+ the most difficult 7c and a few in the middle of 6c, 7a, 7b and 7b+. The climb covers a distance of four hundred and eighty metres and is athletic. What could go wrong. Well, for those that would like to try and climb all of the route without pulling on gear, but are not good enough to on-sight and free the harder pitches like me, abseiling the line, after working the harder lower pitches is not as easy as you may think, because the climb is quite overhanging and weaves a cunning way between steep sections.

Matt and I climbed the first four pitches, which were tremendous, before deciding we had done enough. Matt led the abseils and clipped everything while abseiling back down pitch three – a fifty metre, more meandering pitch than the others, to reach the next abseil/belay station. I had a haul bag hanging from my waist, and set off down the ropes, unclipping quickdraws while shooting miles to the left before having to do it all again and again. This was not my idea of fun and reminded me of something I was told a long time ago by Stuart, a friend and PE Instructor from the Prison Service in my first few years of climbing. “Nick, there have been more mountaineers die abseiling than of lung cancer”. This fun outing had suddenly become very serious. Don’t be fooled by Matt and the way he looks – big and blond, more suited to the beach that the office, he is as sharp as an unripe kiwi fruit and by going first played an ace! Fortunately, I’m still here to get my own back by writing this, but it was a tad touch and go. Now, we both hung clipped to what had been the second belay station looking down at more, very overhanging. It was impossible to tell if the ropes were on the ground. The first pitch was fifty metres and the second was thirty, but with rope stretch and a direct line? “I’ll go and clip-in, to get to the first belay” Matt said. I looked down and imagined myself swinging around with a haul bag again while the ropes twanged across more sharp edges. Fuck that! “They’ll reach, look they’re down – stretch will do it, they reach that ledge just above the ground anyway.” “No, I’ll clip in to the first belay,” said the man who wasn’t about to risk his life. “No way, just abseil.” I said. “Ah, so you want me to go.” “No problem, give me the ropes, you take this stupid bag, I’ll go, it’ll be fine.” “Have you got a prussic, in fact do you know how to use one, here have a sling, here is a mini traction? “What the hell is a mini traction? I’ll be fine,” And with that I clipped in to the ropes and launched into space.

As predicted the abseil was fine. I did have to down-climb a little from the ledge but that was OK because I didn’t have the stupid haul bag. And after Matt reached the ground only complaining a little about the down-climb, it was decided we should continue with our endeavours of attempting to free climb the whole of Pressknödel, but we both also decided it would be prudent to fix a few of the abseils.

Matt Helliker walking in to the north side of Cima Ovest.

Matt Helliker walking in to the north side of Cima Ovest.

Myself on the first, 6a+ pitch of Pressknödel. credit, Matt Helliker.

Myself on the first, 6a+ pitch of Pressknödel. credit, Matt Helliker.

Matt approching the belay at the end of the third ,7b pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt approaching the belay at the end of the third ,7b pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt on the 7b+ second pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt on the 7b fourth pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt pulling the roof on the easier section of the sixth 7c pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt pulling the roof on the easier section of the sixth 7c pitch of Pressknö

Myself seconding the sixth, 7c pitch. Matt Helliker.

Myself seconding the sixth, 7c pitch. Matt Helliker.

Almost at the top of the 6th pitch. Matt Helliker.

Almost at the top of the 6th pitch. Matt Helliker.

Matt seconding the seventh, 6c pitch.

Matt seconding the seventh, 6c pitch.

Matt leading the eighth, 7a pitch.

Matt leading the eighth, 7a pitch.

On the top in a storm after climbing Pressknödel. Matt Helliker.

On the top in a storm after climbing Pressknödel. Matt Helliker.

And some random abseiling pictures from working the route…

Myself hanging out. Matt Helliker.

Myself hanging out. Matt Helliker.

Matt on his way down.

Matt on his way down.

Matt almost down...

Matt almost down.

 

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The cost of the (sweet) dream?

If at all possible, this piece will be more in context if Hazel Findlay’s article, Sweet Dreams, featured in the summer edition of Summit Magazine 2017 is read first. The Summit app can be downloaded and if you are a BMC member you can download the article for free. For non-members you can still download the app and read the article but it will cost £2.95. 

This is very much an opinion piece. I know people will have a different opinion from my own, which is fine. In no way have I set out to make it an attack on anyone in the climbing world, because it’s not, it’s just an attempt to highlight some of my fears and concerns and if by doing this I make a few people think or even share some of my concerns that’s great. In writing this piece I had the valuable help and feedback from several friends. You know who you are, thanks, it’s such a better piece for your input.

 

The cost of the (sweet) dream.

Lev-Beh-Ziz red

Behemoth. Ziz. Leviathan.

 

Greed: excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions. Excessive desire, as for wealth or power: (Dictionary.com)

 

July brings frequent and prolonged rain to Llanberis. But if I happen to be cat-sitting in a house with a good internet connection, July is one of my favourite times because it’s when the Tour de France takes place. I have followed the Tour for almost thirty years, possibly every year since the first time I watched it in the dark and smoky confines of the TV room in Gartree Prison Officers’ Mess. I don’t watch or follow any other sporting events, but I really do enjoy the Tour. I like so much about it: the tactics, politics, drama, excitement, competition, rivalry, characters, commitment, scandal, colours, bikes, commentary. The event is massive; it’s a giant of a sporting event and a dream for advertisers, which should make me dislike it because I struggle with the greed involved with much big business. Many of my favourite riders in the Tour ride or have ridden for the British Sky Team, yet I should find the mere existence of this team repellent. Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox owns a 39.14% controlling stake in Sky, which means Murdoch ultimately owns a big stake of the Tour. I dislike Murdoch and all he stands for with a passion: I struggle with one person having so much influence and owning such riches. I find it grotesque that one man has so much power and influence over others. According to Forbes, Murdoch is the 96th richest person in the world with a net worth of US$13.1 billion as of February 2017. Isn’t it strange how I manage to let all of my morals slip while watching a bike race? But these morals are in place where climbing is concerned, or at least I try my best to keep them intact: I can’t imagine how utterly distraught I would be if a climber took a sponsorship deal from Sky … but looking at the way things are going, it’s probably only a matter of time. Climbing has changed so much and continues to change at an alarming speed… but then climbers are changing too.

I like watching the Tour de France, but it isn’t ‘my’ thing. Climbing is my thing, and I love it. I love its history and traditions, and its mix of odd and difficult characters, driven (mostly) by something other than money. So, for the Tour, I can put aside my morals, and gratify myself in front of the TV each July. I can relax, despite my double-standards, because cycling is not mine. But climbing … I feel strongly rooted in climbing, I belong to climbing, and so I worry about how it might grow… or might distort.

Climbing is heading to the Olympics. The competition aspect is becoming ever more prevalent, and with this transition climbing is moving further away from its roots, turning rapidly into a competitive sport. But with this change comes all of the inherent marketing and money-spinning we see in other mainstream audience-dependent sports. I’m not making this observation as an angry old climber who longs for the past –, because change is, as they say, ‘the way of the world’. But the way I see it, climbing is in a strange transition at the moment, and perhaps at a cusp that will see it emerge from its amateur and quirky roots into a monster. Currently, climbing is an activity that is accessible and attainable to many people, at whatever level, where personal achievements and internal battles are more important than grades but also an activity that is being rapidly turned into to a serious professionalised sport, which will come to recruit only serious professionals, and will come to depend on making serious money.  So, looking to the future of climbing – will it be dreams or nightmares? Sweet or bitter?

In the summer 2017 edition of the BMC’s Summit magazine there is an excellent article by Hazel Findlay called Sweet Dreams. It takes a sharp, informed look into the sponsorship of individual climbers by large soft drinks companies, and in particular the sponsorship of the 16-year-old prodigy, Ashima Shiraishi by the Coca-Cola corporation. It is a well-researched and thought-provoking opinion piece that urges the reader to start asking questions, of themselves, and of others. It definitely got me thinking, and has stirred me up a little! Since reading it I have been fighting an internal battle, while attempting to answer some of the questions Hazel raised.

It seems obvious to me that Coca-Cola has no interest in climbing or climbers, apart from one young climber they feel they can use as a marketable asset. Coca-Cola a super-brand that has got not just its claws, but arms, shoulders and upper body thrust deeply into the lives of individuals. This said, sometimes the Coke monster can use its power of for good: During the US racial tensions of 1964, J. Paul Austin, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, was embarrassed by the lack of support for an inter-racial celebratory dinner that Martin Luther King Jr was attending. After telling the Atlanta business community they should buck up and support the event, the tickets sold out in two hours. See what Coke did there? You can’t fault them for helping out the black man who had a dream! Or can you? Was this guilt and repayment on Coke’s part? Or was it, well, just another sweet dream to ease their domination?

Sponsorship is the issue here., Or at least I thought it was the issue when I started writing this. So maybe not sponsorship itself, but more who sponsors who, and how, and above all why? And what are the consequences sponsorship? I felt this was the important issue for me to think and write about, but I’ve since come to the conclusion this is part of the issue but not the whole issue, not for me anyway.

I’m a sponsored climber. I’m lucky enough to receive modest financial support from two and gear from all three of my sponsors. The three companies that sponsor me produce stuff for climbing, of course! I’m not fooling myself: these folks are in it for the money and are businesses. But it comforts me to know that all three companies were founded in a love of making and developing kit for climbing and climbers. They were formed because they like climbing equipment and climbing, and many key players within them are still climbers. Sometimes they don’t get it right, but on the whole they have a deep understanding of climbing and climbers, of the roots and ethics, the history, and in these transitional times they are in a position to help climbing grow. But now it looks like the leading transformers of our climbing culture are not going to be companies that make money out of us by selling us carabiners, or jackets or climbing shoes, but instead the manipulators of our culture and traditions will be huge corporations that sell lies and sugar and caffeine and anything else addictive, to anyone. These beasts know nothing of, nor care for climbers.

Although I’m sponsored I don’t class myself as a professional climber, and I certainly don’t fall into the category of ‘climbing superstar’ that Hazel’s talking about. The word professional relates to a main paid occupation, something you’re qualified or trained to do. Conversely, an amateur is someone doing what they do just for the love of it rather than for financial benefit, and I very much class myself as an amateur. But, because of my fortunate position, brought about in part by some unusual life choices, I am sponsored, which has been something I’ve struggled to come to terms with. Being sponsored, in the modern commercial age, isn’t just about getting on with your art or sport, but it’s also about endorsing a brand: it’s about putting your name and what you stand for to a product or a company, with which your involvement will hopefully help to sell more goods and make more money.

I’m sure there are small businesses of all kinds around the world partly in it for passion and fun. But not the big multi-nationals, they are in it just for profit. Combined they are the monster from the Book of Job: the awful BEHEMOTH, the beast that is immeasurably large and irrepressibly powerful that has monstrous greed, trampling the weak under its feet as it runs amok, unsated and devouring the heart and passion of everything in its path. This is the thing I constantly struggle, this is the thing I found by writing this piece I am most concerned about: I find the greed of some humans repulsive, and I find the lengths they go to in order to influence, control, and affect the lives of people unfathomable.

The way money is pouring into climbing is forcing it to change. In some ways, of course, this can be good. In other ways it’s most definitely bad. So can you say to a person without much in their life, who suddenly finds a big cash handout and a ‘comfortable’ existence what they are doing is wrong? Yes, I think you can. How much is ‘comfortable’, and how much is greedy? How much money does an individual need to live? It’s a very confusing time for climbers, because all said and done a lot of us around at the moment began climbing for the simple joy of it, not for the money, and not to make a living as a professional sports person. Since reading Hazel’s article it’s become clear to me that other climbers appear to be struggling as much as me with how to live with themselves and this change, but perhaps more so with how to justify their decisions.

In the Summit piece and in  a long article for the Men’s Journal Alex Honnold is said to have turned down a six figure offer of money from Dr Pepper. Alex says he ’would never feel comfortable encouraging people to drink soda’ Yet Alex appeared in a short film that is an advert for Dewar’s whisky.  Dewar’s is owned by Bacardi, a behemoth of the alcoholic drinks industry reportedly making $4.6 billion in 2014. Alcohol is arguably more directly damaging to health and costs to individuals and families, but also carries costs associated with social issues and crime. A report can be read here.

Bacardi don’t care about climbing or climbers, nor for Alex (who does not drink alcohol making it a strange choice of company to promote). I would suggest that there is some conflict going on here: Alex says, “An athlete has to be comfortable with their own choices” and “I understand Ashima’s decision…. I doubt she uses any of their products but if she is comfortable with it and can handle the criticism then power to her.” Is he just talking about Ashima here I wonder? My intention here isn’t to attack Alex, it just illustrates how complicated the situation is when big manipulative businesses begin throwing around deals at people who are passionate about their activity.

I don’t agree that Ashima’s deal is ‘everything in life’: she is so talented and personable that something would have come along whatever, like a company that cared for climbing. Maybe when Ashima is older she will take more control of her own life, and perhaps then she’ll speak out against this deal? Regardless, I truly wish her the best, and I hope that my fears for her are unfounded.

Adam Ondra says ’I comprehend athletes who endorse companies they do not fully agree with, most of them are in a different situation than me and it is the only way for them to pursue their goals.’ I don’t comprehend them. I think it’s dishonest and lacks integrity to support something you don’t use or believe in yourself. There are other ways to pursue goals but perhaps ways where the financial gain is less?

To cherry pick Alex and Adam’s comments from Hazels article is perhaps unfair and takes them out of context, it appears to me they are being diplomatic which shows they are decent people, but these behemoths play on this, they do not care, and I believe there is a point when greed and excessiveness, no matter how much a person dreams or secures their future, is too much.

In the article many climbers Hazel spoke to suggest that professional climbers need to make a living somehow. Mina Leslie Wujastyk says “Can you blame an athlete for taking that deal that gives them the security to follow their passion and succeed?” Well, the answer is yes if that deal is with a huge multi-national behemoth which has no direct connection to what you represent and is offering you a load more money than you actually need. It’s a symptom of the consumer culture we live in, a culture that in general worships money. Climbers do need to make a living. But what is stopping people who climb making money out of something other than their actual climbing? Nothing. Why do we feel so entitled? No-one needs to be a sponsored climber, just as we don’t need climbers who are sponsored. It’s a choice, not something we are forced to do. Who says it is our right as climbers to survive as climbers, and make a living as climbers? Climbers are privileged. And climbing is the privilege of wealthy people. I’m wealthy and privileged. To climb regularly takes time and expensive gear. A climbing wall entry costs more money than many people can spare. As climbers we travel around the world, and we often have vehicles to get us to crags and even sleep in. It’s great being a climber, I love it, but I do appreciate how bloody lucky and privileged I am.

It is a great thing to follow your passion and ‘live the dream’. But unfortunately, unless you are born into money, for most of us we will have to work to fund our lives, or maybe make some form of sacrifice, (which for many climbers in the UK is never going to really be that much of a sacrifice among the grand scheme). But that’s OK, there can be compromise. There can be good times and ‘dreams realised’ without a big monster hand-out that eats you away from the inside. There are climbers out there that are proof this can happen, climbers who are climbing at the highest standard but who do not pursue deals with companies that have no interest in climbing. To say we have no choice but to let Behemoth devour our freedom so we can realise our (selfish) dream is just not true.

Hazel said “The climbing community has never really spoken out against our many Red Bull sponsored athletes.” This is possibly correct: there has been some dissent over the years but not much, more than likely because the Red Bull directors (dictators?) and marketing gurus have been exceptionally astute … because this is what they are, this is what they do. Red Bull fund films and create events and owns teams and owns races. They don’t support these things, they engulf them until their name is synonymous with an activity. I have heard it said that Red Bull are OK because they give adventure film makers opportunity and a platform and they support (a few) climbers around the world. But it’s all brilliant marketing so more of a horrible sugary drink that costs just pennies to produce can be sold to make billions. In Hazel’s article, Will Gadd says Red Bull make it ‘possible to follow some big dream.’  But ‘big dreams’ are followed every year: films are funded, dreams’ realised, climbers reach their summits and succeed without funding from Red Bull. This is just another way for climbers to justify being involved with a giant all-consuming, profit-making monster. In The Book of Job, it is revealed that one of the forms of the Behemoth is, wait for it, yes, a red water buffalo!

Over the many years I’ve been climbing I’ve seen some strange rituals before a climber steps from the ground. For myself I can’t help but spit on the sole of my climbing shoe before rubbing it with the palm of my hand and squeaky-cleaning the rubber (yeah, disgusting I know! I even do it indoors). Yet not once have I been at a crag and witnessed someone crack open a can of Red Bull before they tie in. In fact the only person I have ever seen consume an energy drink before and during climbing is the Hippy, and not being sponsored by Red Bull, he drinks Tesco’s own brand and even then it doesn’t appear to help him that much (for full disclosure Will Gadd says in the article he drinks Red Bull before a hard training session and before a hard climb!) The only place I’m likely to see a Red Bull can outside of a shop is in a hedge, presumably thrown out of car windows, along with the McDonalds and KFC, wrappers. Is this what we want to support and be part of? Maybe a Red Bull funded litter pick?

Alex Megos tells us how well Red Bull look after its people, and that he has never received better support from anyone. This is not a surprise: they have invested a lot of money for him to advertise their product and Shauna Coxsey adds that if it wasn’t for Red Bull paying for scans, surgery and rehab she would not have been able to compete this year. But if she hadn’t competed this year then Red Bull would not have had their name appearing on the podium and in all those pictures so of course they are going to pay to keep their talent going. It’s a variable cost to a lucrative business: farmers spend a lot of money on fertiliser.

But who is paying the price? I’m not sure, but we are being lied to and controlled, and the greed of this monster is easy to see, and I want nothing of it. In the past I received free private health care and used it for treatment so I could keep on climbing. I thought nothing of people with similar injuries but who couldn’t afford insurance or treatment and had to wait to be seen by an overburdened health service. I thought nothing of my encouraging a two-tier health system, I thought nothing of more money going into a private health system and widening the gap. It was all about me and getting back to climbing, I was greedy and selfish. Being young and driven makes it harder to see the right path; maybe the moral high ground is for the old with fewer dreams to live? Did Shauna need to compete this year? Shauna’s fantastic and inspirational endeavours might have been slowed down without Red Bull, but I doubt it. For someone so very talented and driven I’m sure it would have still happened, driven people make things happen. It’s just such a shame the monsters plug into the hard-drives of the talented. Perhaps if she had held out, maybe there would have been another less controlling, less dominating company, one to fit her better, one that didn’t just want her for making money, but one that also could feel for the dream with her.

Red Bull exemplifies most that is wrong about big sports business. They don’t support sports, they buy them. It is well known that Red Bull make ‘their’ climbers sign contracts forcing them to always wear their logo, speak no evil, actively promote the drink, and promote whatever else the Red Bull commands. That, as far as I’m concerned, is disgusting as it forces dishonesty with a bribe, but it is, in the end of course, up to the individual who signs the contract.

I hugely respect how, in her article Hazel goes on to question and challenge Red Bull, and all that they stand for, and especially because she is certainly good enough to be sponsored by them, but because she has been bold enough get off of the fence and tell it how she sees it. I’m sure she will now never be offered Red Bull sponsorship. Good for her, and her courage!

I receive sponsorship from three companies which almost fit with my personal ethics. But I still have to compromise, I still try to justify my actions, and by doing so I feel something of a hypocrite; I live with conflict and contradiction. Alex Honnold says ‘a person has to be comfortable with their own choices’ I don’t know if they do: I’m not. I bear my choices and constantly review. Yet even though I’m not comfortable with them, I can be certain I’m not greedy, which in a small way goes towards easing my own guilt.

We live in complicated times for sure but that isn’t an excuse! I dislike big supermarkets with their huge profits and monopolies but I still use them. I wear a pair of jeans made in China, probably by someone paid a pittance. I don’t buy fair trade, but instead buy something cheaper, telling myself I can’t afford to pay extra, even though I can. I use Google as my search engine, a company that earns multi-billions mainly from advertising. I have a Facebook account (Mark Zuckerman’s personal fortune is $62.7 billion June 2017) another advertising and influencing behemoth. I order from Amazon (Jeff Bezos net worth $85.4 billion June 2017) and drink the occasional Starbucks coffee ($4.2 billion profit in 2016). I own a house that is paid off and rented out. I own a brand new van. I have savings. I am privileged and I live a great life. I don’t think it’s a case of being comfortable with your own choices, because I’m not, I think it’s about attempting to live in a way that is honest about your choices, and constantly re-evaluating these and hopefully make improvements to the way we live and the influence we have on each other. Having integrity is something to strive for but something that can be so difficult in these times. But integrity trumps all the climbs, all the mountains, all of the first ascents and 9b’s. Integrity trumps being a world champion, soloing El Capitan and having an income that goes way beyond your personal needs. Attempting to live life with integrity, improve the lives of others, and get on with other people is the greatest of complicated dreams.

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Out of the ground.

nectarine

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

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

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

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

My friend Tim who still puts up with me.

My friend Tim who still puts up with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Well place it then!”

“No!”

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward 18 years to a June heatwave. Zylo and I visited Clogwyn Gafr last week intending to climb the two E3s Sacred Idol and Pulsar. After climbing Pulsar and finding Sacred Idol covered in muck we still wanted to climb, so we decided to drop a rope down Nectarine Run.  I was interested to safely see if it had become any easier and if the gear had improved. On a rope, and with 18 years climbing under my belt, I found the climb was still pretty tough, especially the groove, which would still be bold and committing, but not as bold or as committing with a few RPs, and even less so if the RURP was brought into play! The rock-over on the slab above the roof felt a lot easier with my more recently acquired skills, and with the gear placed in the crack of Satsumo it would feel relatively safe. So I returned two days later with TPM and after a warm up we both led Nectarine Run. I’m very pleased to say I climbed Nectarine Run with only half the terror and trembling as the first time.

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

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

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

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

TPM in the groove on Nectarine Run.

TPM in the groove on Nectarine Run.

A close up groove shot.

A close up groove shot.

 

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The Nightmayer cometh. (But not for me)

Nico Favresse attempting the Nightmayer.

Nico Favresse attempting the Nightmayer.

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

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

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Driving north from Catalunya

The view while walking from Racó de misa, Montsant.

The view while walking from Racó de misa, Montsant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blog 11

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

Riglos.

Riglos.

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

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

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

Unknown climber at Racó de misa. Montsant.

Unknown climber at Racó de misa. Montsant.

DIY kneebar trousers. Chulilla.

Drying in the sun, DIY kneebar trousers. Chulilla.

Processional Caterpillars, Figols. Pic credit. Zylo.

Processional Caterpillars, Figols. Pic credit. Zylo.

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

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

The penultimate pitch of Zulu, Looking down on Rich.

The penultimate pitch of Zulu, Looking down on Rich.

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Far too nice for that…

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

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

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

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

Mum always warned me about men in tight clothes.

Mum always warned me about men in tight clothes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kirby contemplates.

The Kirby contemplates.

Chulilla and one of the locals.

Chulilla and one of the locals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben on Ramallar.

Ben on Ramallar.

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

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

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The unseen sun.

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

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

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

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

pic credit, Guy robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry and Lamont.

Terry and Lamont.

Brad.

Brad.

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

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

Bevan.

Bevin.

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

Bevin's note left in the cabin.

Bevin’s note left in the cabin.

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

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

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

 

Thanks:

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

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

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

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

The Arding Slot.

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

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

Guy, pitch 1, The Arding Slot.

Guy, pitch 1, The Arding Slot.

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

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

Credit, Guy Robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson.

Credit, Guy Robertson

Credit, Guy Robertson

Guy Robertson, pitch 3.

Guy Robertson, pitch 3.

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

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

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

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

Myself seconding the fifth pitch. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself seconding the fifth pitch. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself leading pitch 6. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself leading pitch 6. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Got Me Moose Boy.

Western Brook Gulch.

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

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

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

Bayard on the first pitch.

Bayard on the first pitch.

Guy leading pitch 2.

Guy leading pitch 2.

Credit, Bayard Russell.

Credit, Bayard Russell.

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

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

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

fat of the land

Bayard on pitch 2.

Myself on pitch 4. Credit, Bayard Russell.

Myself on pitch 4. Credit, Bayard Russell.

The way out…

Norris Point, Newfoundland.

Norris Point, Newfoundland.

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A tempestuous look back to the future

Stob Corie nan Lochan 2017.

Stob Coire nan Lochan 2017.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Robertson climbing the second pitch of Slenderhead.

Guy Robertson climbing the second pitch of Slenderhead.

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

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

“Yes.” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Chulilla Epiphany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Not satisfied…

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Day beer at La Pared Blanca.

A Christmas Day beer at La Pared Blanca.

The end of another great and memorable day.

The end of another great and memorable day.

 

 

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