A tempestuous look back to the future

Stob Corie nan Lochan 2017.

Stob Coire nan Lochan 2017.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Robertson climbing the second pitch of Slenderhead.

Guy Robertson climbing the second pitch of Slenderhead.

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

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

“Yes.” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Chulilla Epiphany.

blog-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Not satisfied…

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

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

blog-5blog-1

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

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

  

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

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

   blog-8

blog-6

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

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

blog-2

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

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

A Christmas Day beer at La Pared Blanca.

A Christmas Day beer at La Pared Blanca.

The end of another great and memorable day.

The end of another great and memorable day.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Time. The Paymaster General.

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

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

 

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

 

Living the Dream?

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Nyainqentangla South East via the North Buttress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul on day one.

Paul on day one.

Myself, day one. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

Myself, day two. Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

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

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

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

Paul on one of the steeper sections day two.

Paul on one of the steeper sections day two.

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

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

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

Paul traversing to my position, day three.

Paul traversing to my position, day three.

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

Paul on day four.

Paul on day four.

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

More lung busting on day five.

More lung busting on day five.

Summit Selfy.

Summit Selfy.

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

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

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

Paul doing a sterling job in questionable conditions.

Paul doing a sterling job in questionable conditions.

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

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

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

The Long way out… Pic credit, Paul Ramsden.

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

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

Happy and battered.

Happy and battered.

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

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

If only!

If only!

Most definately!

Most definitely!

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

The MEF.

The Montane Alpine Club Grant.

The BMC.

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Death of a Disco Dancer.

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t come down.’  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Full time climbers never appear psyched.”

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

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

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

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

Something for the weekend sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimbling. Pic credit Ray Wood.

Gimbling. Pic credit Ray Wood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Cuckoo.

Cuckoo on decking.

While van dwelling earlier this year, parked in the pines above Gorges du Tarn in France, the call of a male cuckoo filled the forest. Cu-ckoo, cu-ckoo, echoed from the peeling trunks, the shrill sound threaded between needle covered branches. I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen a cuckoo, at least not close enough to confirm it was actually a cuckoo, because they are mimics. In flight they resemble sparrowhawks, and some believe this is to scare away smaller birds, birds like dunnocks, reed warblers and meadow pipets. The cuckoo intimidates these smaller birds, so they leave their nests for a while and while they are away, the cuckoo nips in to lay an egg. The egg of the cuckoo resembles the egg of the nesting bird, and the returning bird will continue to brood her clutch unwittingly. When the cuckoo chick hatches it strikes, dealing its death blow by throwing out any remaining eggs or newly hatched nest-mates to become the sole beneficiary of the parent birds’ attention. Cuckoos are brood parasites, they rely on others to build nests, brood and then rear their young while the cuckoo buggers off to do it all again to some other unsuspecting victim.

I like cuckoos. They quietly slip through the trees with their jerky flight, they are mysterious tricksters. Cuckoos are the bird world’s crafty survivors, they are successful and on the increase, so in some ways its strange that I don’t respect, what I perceive to be similar behaviour, in some people.

At the moment I’m cat sitting in a house high on the hillside above Waunfawr in Gwynedd. I’m taking this opportunity to write my second book and train for an expedition in September to Tibet, and to climb rock. I feel exceptionally fortunate and privileged to be here. I sit looking out through large glass doors across the Menai Straights to the island of Anglesey with Holyhead Mountain on the far horizon. On clear evenings the sun drops, backlighting the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. A procession of gulls and jackdaws fly overhead, above the smooth grassy curves of Moel Eilio and on towards the coast. As the sun sinks, rags of cloud glow red and scintillation from the street lights of Caernarfon and Holyhead remind me of glitter. With the setting of the sun, Jupiter, the first planet to be seen, shines bright over Ireland, and then to the left I can make out Mars, like some far away beacon glowing red onto Yr Eifl, a group of three distinct mountains on the north coast of the Llŷn Peninsula.

Soon I will present a lecture for PESDA, the mountaineering festival in Bethesda. This will be on the 20th of August, the day I leave this house and move on. It will be a sad day, I’ve grown very attached to this house and its situation, and to Joey the cat with her sleek white body and puffed brown tail.

On the poster to advertise PESDA, organiser Stephen Jones labels me as ‘Adventurer.’ Being described as an Adventurer got me thinking about what exactly “an Adventurer” is, because I don’t, and never would call myself as such. So I went to twitter (the obvious starting point!) to look for accounts of people who describe themselves adventurers, and there are certainly a lot of them!

Many of the adventurers out there seem to want to inspire us. Not such a bad thing in principle, but I’m not sure what exactly it is they want to inspire us to do! Is it to ‘have a life less ordinary’ or to ‘live one life to the full’, or ‘make money from your amazing business proposition’ (which in my mind does not make you very extraordinary, more just ordinary). It appears many of these adventurer types want us to ‘go out there and get it, whatever ‘it’ is, because we are amazing, we are unique,’ and they show us how using themselves as an example. But they don’t often give us their amazing story of how they have managed to live the dream, and I suspect for many their amazing began before birth. And I don’t say this as some form of working class attack, I say it as a reason why this type of person often has vision and confidence, because to grow up with the safety net of a parent’s money, which often leads to a private education where confidence is on the curriculum, certainly gives a person a head start in life and the courage to experiment. Modern day Adventurers appear keen to try and convince us we ourselves are extraordinary, and that we too can blaze a trail. They show us on their many social media accounts how to do this, often by a funky and funny diagram while # and @ing a list of companies so we can all look in awe together at the adventurer setting an example in a beautifully staged picture, glamorously running along a mountain ridge or swimming in a sparkling blue lake.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago I’m not an Adventurer. And now, if I’m being honest, after reading the same over-worked, over-used, not-so-extraordinary clichés, I’m fed up of reading the big sell. There are just so many of them. But, I’m going to try and make it my mission not to be angered by this type of cuckoo, because I realise it’s my problem, not theirs: I don’t have to read their adverts, their clichés, and you have to give it to them, they never appear to be angry or unhappy and they nearly always have an incredibly wide, white smile. Maybe a, @toothpaste sponsor is next on the cards?

I sit and write and look out through the large windows, out to Caernarfon Castle and the Menai Straights, out towards a boat with large white sails tacking and gybing its way onto the Irish Sea, and I ask myself: what is it about? What is this adventure mimicry that upsets me all about, and why does it make me so cross? And I have come to the conclusion that either I’m being cynical (not for the first time), or it is what I perceive as lack of integrity on their behalf, their delivery of a parasitic egg into a nest of general ignorance. It’s the dishonesty of it all, the mimicry, the attempting to fool that gets to me. And the phrase that gets laid the most and annoys me the most is ‘anyone can do it’. This particular line from the adventurers stock phrase of inspiration gets to me for two reasons. The first is because, no, not everyone can do it and the reasons they cannot is complex and deep rooted. The second and more telling reason, and possibly the root of my anger, is that, in the past, I have stood on a stage and said the same. I have stood and said, “If I can do it, so can you.” At the time, I’m sure I was sincere; I truly believed if I could make a jump, live a little different, ‘live the dream’, then my listeners could to, but over time, with more understanding, I’ve realised that no, some people can’t and never will and that’s OK.

I suppose while looking into what the Adventuring, motivational flock were telling me – telling me how I could improve my life – I discovered a truth, and this truth is I’m also a cuckoo, a mimic. Possibly a naive and well-meaning mimic, possibly a scared and defenceless bird, but in the livery of a raptor all the same, and it is perhaps this revelation, this self-realisation, that makes me angry, they have spotlighted a fact about myself I find difficult to digest.

In the past, I had thought along similar lines to those kinds of Adventurer types I’ve described above: live the dream, have some fun, make some money, make a living, attempt to secure my future by motivating others. Wrap it all in a warm, thick duvet of inspiring people, and through cu-ckooing such a worthy sermon, it won’t be perceived as selfish or greedy. How could anyone complain?

A few days ago I was out running The grass steps on the steep slope of Moel Eilio had been cleaved by a million like-minded feet. Llanberis Village and Elidir Fawr, the hill with its deep slate scar above the village, were hidden by cloud. The telegraph cables sang. I was jogging and sweating, the hairs on my forearm caught the mist and condensed – clear drops of water stuck to the end of the hairs and reminded me of a carnivorous plant. I struggled while running because the steep bits were steep, but my mind was elsewhere taking away the physical pain and transporting it. I was thinking about what I had just heard on the radio and about another favourite cliché the Adventurers like to promote, ‘creating our own map.’ (I don’t think there is enough Renne in the world to cure me of the effects of this unimaginative and condescending phrase).

Before setting out I had been listening to Eddie Mair presenting PM on Radio 4 and he was interviewing Dr Sama Ata, a surgeon from Chicago, USA, who had made several visits to Aleppo in Syria. During his visits, Ata had worked without pay treating injured people, tending the dying, helping other doctors. As I ran, I thought about the interview, about the anger I was feeling towards the adventurer flock, and a reason I was feeling this way became apparent. Here was a person who was truly inspiring, a person who didn’t have to shout about how exhausted he was, exhaustion not from some pretty pointless ‘first world, world’s first’, and then wrap it into some shiny survival blanket of adventure to brag about, lecture about, and make money from. This person was selfless in his giving, he really was an inspiration, someone who suffered, stuck his neck out, risked his life, gave for others. He was brave and inspiring and full of humility, he never once spoke of his own sacrifice and I don’t suppose he posts all his experiences on Facebook or instagrammed his latest success, but let’s face it, pictures of dying children with limbs missing and their guts sticking out don’t get many thumbs up and certainly don’t make your friends jealous?

Listening to Ata I became more aware of my own selfishness, my privilege, my lack of worth. Ata finished the interview by saying he would feel a fraud if he sat there telling others to help and didn’t himself and this comment made me appreciate how much I live in fear – I live with fear … fear… fear of the future, fear of not having money, fear of not living a life extraordinary, fear of being extraordinary, fear of being on my own, fear of being with someone, fear of not having fun, fear of living the one life, fear of not living the one life, fear of dying young, fear of dying old, fear of being overweight, fear of not being popular, fear of missing out, fear of not enough thumbs up, fear of looking at myself. And it was with this revelation I discovered I was a cuckoo, a mimic, a pretender gloating on a full stomach of other people’s misery.

Many of the adventurers out there appear to want us to believe they are doing what they do to inspire us and at one time I may have said the same about my life, but the truth is I did not set out to inspire anyone and I don’t do anything now in an attempt to inspire others. If some people are inspired by my decisions and it helps, great, I’m truly humbled, but it was never my intention. I do what I do for me. This life I now live helps me, it makes me happy, it feels full and fun and rewarding. Please try to understand, I do what I do, for me, it’s what I need to make me a better person. Perhaps the knock on of becoming that more travelled and experienced person is my appreciation of the less fulfilling, and at times, the truly shitty lives other people live, and with an appreciation comes the ability to do something about it, even if at this time it’s only write. I suppose this is a beginning, but with this awareness comes guilt, but alongside guilt is endeavour, endeavour to be less selfish and more honest and hopefully, when the time is right, when I can put aside my fear and selfishness, I can begin to help people less fortunate than myself. I suppose I still have an ulterior motive though, because if I am brave enough to take that step – which I’m not sure I ever will be – will I be doing it to help others or will I still be doing it still to help myself – but I suppose, if only to help myself, it will bring benefit to others?

So once again I sit and write and on occasion look out of the window. The sun is warm today and the view to Rhoscolyn is unhindered. Movement interrupts my thoughts and there, just a few metres away, sitting on the edge of the decking is a young cuckoo. I stand up, and as I do so the bird hunkers down attempting to blend with the decking. Such a beautiful innocent bird and given no choice other than to be a fake.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

PESDA. Mountaineering Festival in Bethesda.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the summit of Ysgolian Duon, The Black Ladders in the Carneddau, North Wales above the town of Bethesda. January 2013. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

The PESDA poster with everything you need to know if you want to come along and a slight alteration as I don't see myself and certainly would not describe myself as an adventurer. Being described as an adventurer nowadays to me makes me think of people like Bear Grylls and the like, people who want to do the promotional lecture circuit and make a load of cash and 'inspire others to live the dream' and other over worked clichés that usually abound that generally include the words, empower, extraordinary, amazing, conquer, :-)

The PESDA poster with everything you need to know if you want to come along and a slight alteration as I don’t see myself and certainly would not describe myself as an adventurer. Being described as an adventurer nowadays makes me think of people like Bear Grylls and the like, people who want to do the motivational lecture circuit and be a household name and make a load of cash while attempting to disguise it in a package of  ‘inspire others to live the dream’ and all the other over worked clichés that usually abound that always include the words, empower, extraordinary, amazing, conquer. Yes, it’s my problem that I am more than willing to admit, just don’t call me an adventurer ;-)

This time last year, maybe a little earlier, I met Paul Ramsden while cat sitting in the Hippy’s house in Waunfawr. Paul had driven over to chat about travelling to Tibet to try and climb a new route on a seven thousand metre mountain. At the time of meeting and speaking to Paul, I knew, if the trip looked like happening, I would dedicate my 2016 summer to being in Wales, writing, training and climbing and in that order.

It is now summer 2016. The flight to Tibet is booked and the issue of the permit is a distinct possibility, although as I have found out since become involved with this trip, nothing is guaranteed when attempting to climb in Tibet.

As promised to myself, I have remained in Wales. Every day I have spent the mornings writing and editing the fourth draft of my second book and the afternoons have taken the form of running, cycling or circuit training (obviously not all on the same afternoon, only Matt Helliker could do that!). The evenings have generally involved a visit to The Beacon climbing wall. On a rare occasion, through the working week, I have trad climbed, but more often than not, climbing outdoors has only happened on the weekend.

An unseen benefit of staying in Wales for the summer is being able to present a lecture at the Mountaineering Festival taking place in Bethesda on the 20th of August. I must admit there is more than a little irony in this…

In January 2013, I wrote a piece about winter climbing on Ysgolian Duon, The Black Ladders, and Llech Ddu, both cliffs in the Carneddau of North Wales situated above the town of Bethesda, which you can read here. North Wales, and in particular, Llanberis and the surrounding area, is the place I now feel most comfortable, its home, I have found no-where I prefer to be when I am not climbing somewhere else in the world, but in 2013, via an email to Chris Rowlands at DMM and Duncan Machin at Mountain Equipment, I was told by one person I was not welcome in Bethesda.

Back in the winter of 2013, after writing my blog, I was surprised when my friend and overseas brand manager at DMM, Chris, called me over one cold and wet afternoon when I visited the offices of DMM intent on snaffling some bandwidth.

I walked across the warm office. The usual clatter and chatter and trill of phones was my soundtrack.

“Take a read of this…”

Chris pointed me at his computer screen and an email. The email was from an unhappy man who said he was a mountain instructor living in Bethesda and he was angry by my description of Bethesda. It turned out he had also contacted and complained to Duncan Machin at Mountain Equipment. I don’t recall the exact wording of the email, but it followed something along these lines, he was friends with many Plas y Brenin instructors and they were also pissed off with my description of the town, which I must admit to being a little surprised as I am also very good friends with many of the staff at The Brenin, in fact I had been climbing with one of them in the account on the blog, Tim Neill, and not one of the Brenin staff had said anything to me about the piece. He then went on to say to Chris and Duncan I should be controlled, censored, taken in hand, dressed down and I should be ordered to remove my piece. As I said above, I don’t remember the exact wording of the email, but this was the conclusion I drew. I also surmised he was telling my sponsors they should think about ending their relationship with me because I had written this piece with their endorsement. To say I was a little taken back by this email is understatement, especially considering the content of my blog which for me was very controlled.

When Stephen Jones, mountain instructor from Bethesda contacted me to ask if I would be interested in presenting a lecture at the Mountaineering Festival in Bethesda, I must admit to feeling a little awkward amusement, as at the time, I couldn’t, and still don’t, remember the name of the guy who emailed my sponsors, and I wondered if it was Steve and he was setting a trap.

I imagined myself agreeing to meet him in Bethesda and being grabbed, beaten, tied, bagged and thrown in some dark cellar beneath Neuadd Ogwen, the venue for the festival, where after weeks in the dark, I would be force fed daffodils and pumped, ‘learn to speak Welsh’ on replay.

So, it was with more than a little trepidation a few weeks ago, I parked my red van down the road from Neuadd Ogwen. I left the van door unlocked and the engine running and parked at the far end of a lay-by pointing towards England.

Walking the pavement toward Neuadd Ogwen, I felt similar to what I imagine Jason Bourne feels. I studied the passing cars and cyclists, I flashed a glance at the upstairs windows, the old lady walking toward me with her attack Corgi could be in disguise, she could be a hit woman. So, it was with a huge sigh of relief, I pushed the glass doors open of Neuadd Ogwen and entered the dark room. Two guys stood chatting in Welsh. This was it, this was where it was all to end. I was never to be seen again, I was doomed, my mouth puckered in anticipation of green and yellow Daffodil juice…

“Hi Nick, how you doing?” The bigger guy said thrusting his hand toward me.

It’s a trap, it’s a trap, he’ll grab my hand and perform some type of Welsh Kung Fu.

I took his hand expecting the worse and apart from a firm grip, there was nothing more, no, I lie, there was more, there was warmth and enthusiasm and a big friendly smile.

“Steve I presume, nice to meet you.”

That was what I said, although what I thought was, ‘Steve, nice to meet you, even better to not be tied up and stuffed in a bag and thrown into the cellar.’

Steve then introduced me Dilwyn, the manager, who was also very friendly and helpful and didn’t appear to hate or want to cosh and bag me, and if anything, Dilwyn appeared more psyched than Steve. My day was already feeling a success, but, by the end of our meeting and chat and walk around Neuadd Ogwen, I was feeling much more than success, the venue was great. I could not believe I didn’t know the place existed, and the ebullience both Steve and Dilwyn emitted about the festival and Bethesda was infectious.

At times it’s easy to focus on face value and not stop to think about what’s happening beneath the skin and make a knee jerk reaction. I say this two-fold, because I make no apology about my original blog, it was a factual description of what I saw at the time and I made no judgement about Bethesda or the people who live in Bethesda, apart from I would imagine life for some in the town is a struggle and I felt a little awkward and rather privileged walking through the town wearing expensive clothes, but I suppose could have also focused on some of the less obvious, the good things happening in the community, or at least hinted at them. I could have suggested that given more support and encouragement the town could thrive, it could have the same buzz as Llanberis, but I didn’t, it didn’t fit with the piece and if I am honest, it didn’t occur to me to do this. But being involved now with Steve and with PESDA, the mountaineering festival, it is obvious there are many people who are committed and have their hearts set on improvement and growth in Bethesda and this is certainly something to write about and support.

It turns out that Steve was not the person who complained about my blog piece, so on the 20th of August I will be the one dressed in a suit of armour and shouting about cold topics including Canadian ice and mixed, Canadian alpine on Mt Alberta’s North Face with the second ascent of The House/Anderson, some episode with a bear that you may not have heard about where Greg Boswell plays Leonardo Dicaprio, falling off a mixed climb while belayed by Steve House, going feral with Tim Emmett and a film by Jack Geldard and Nick Brown of me puntering my way up a hard climb in the Rive Gauche while belayed by Jeff Mercier who is laughing!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Complete Cream.

simons-cat

 

“Are you setting a rappel rope?”

I turned and looked into a familiar face. Alex Honnold stood looking at me with those large dark eyes that were set in a tanned complexion. Of course I knew he was at Fair Head, Alex Honnold coming to Ireland has been the talk of the climbing scene for months and he looked exactly the same as he does in the pictures and films he stars.

I was stood at the top of the crag at Fair Head having just returned from the nearly deserted and adventurous climbing on Owey Island off the Donegal coast in the South. Wrapping my white static rope around a large dolerite boulder, while looking over the calm Atlantic toward Rathlin Island, I answered that yes, I was setting up an abseil line.

“Would you mind if we use your rope.”

Chris Weidner was climbing with Honnold. Chris approached me, smiled, introduced himself and immediately I warmed. On first meeting, Chris appeared somewhat less intense than Alex, more approachable, happy to chew the cud, take in the surroundings.

“Of course you can use the rope.”

The Atlantic was relaxed. The sun was bright. Seagulls cruised on wings set. I lowered my rope the length of the wall, almost down the line of a climb called The Complete Scream, the climb that was top of my to do list for this week. The Complete Scream was a climb I had become interested in the previous year when John Orr and I threw down a top rope and climbed it twice. This wall was close to being unlike anything I had encountered in the British Isles, an almost unbroken sixty, just off vertical, metres of positive edges and technical climbing. The bottom half of the wall was sparsely protected, in-fact, once on your way, from about the ten metre mark, the only protection, apart from one difficult to place wire, are skyhooks over edges. The wall had only seen one on-sight from Pete Whittaker last year even though the first ascent by Ricky Bell had been in 2005. Both Pete and Ricky’s ascents had included placing skyhooks secured in place with gaffer tape and, or blue tack. Even on my first visit to Fair Head four years earlier, this wall, in its complete form, shouted to be climbed, it was such a draw to me, but on that first visit with arms not yet fit for the summer, I was content and happy to climb Primal Scream, the top half of this wall.

Chris and Alex abseiled down my rope heading toward the E4, Promised Land, while Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski and I headed toward Blind Pew, an E2 running the length of the corner to the right of the wall where the abseil rope ran.

After completing our respective climbs, the four of us once again stood on top of the crag. The sun warmed and for almost my first time at Fair Head there was hardly a breeze.

Alex came over,

“Does anything come up the wall where the abseil rope runs?”

“Yes, the top of the wall is an E5 called Primal Scream, but you can climb the whole of the wall, that’s called The Complete Scream, it’s an E7 with great technical climbing and very little protection in the bottom half apart from skyhooks over the edge of flakes.”

“My partner is a bit bummed, he says he needs a rest; do you mind if I micro traction the route on your rope for something to do while waiting?”

“Feel free.” I said while getting the idea to climb with Honnold, as reasonable and polite and interesting a person as he appeared, would possibly my idea of a nightmare. I would certainly struggle with what appeared to be an almost incessant drive to be constantly moving and climbing, especially if the climbs meant little to him other than something to do to fill time.

Maybe I was also once like this, maybe at one time it didn’t matter what the climb was or where it was, maybe … and maybe I would also be his worst nightmare to climb alongside, an old, slow punter who had reached a point where absolute quality over quantity and being aware of the environment in which the climbing I became involved took place mattered more?

Alex abseiled and as he did I shouted directions of which features the line followed, finding it amusing that my dream route for this year’s visit to Fair Head was being reduced to a filler in, something to do while Chris rested and relaxed.

I will admit to not being sure about the whole climbing superstar celebrity thing and the following it receives, especially where Fair Head and this meet is concerned.

My first visit to Fair Head had been four years before when I was invited by Paul Swail to come over and give a talk. On that occasion my travel expenses were covered by Mountaineering Ireland and I was very grateful with that arrangement because with the expensive ferry covered, after my talk, I could stay and climb for the week.

Fair Head lived up to all of my expectations. The climbing, the place, the atmosphere. Sean McBride, the farmer who owns the crag and his family were welcoming and friendly, the whole meet was down to earth and grass roots and full of people enjoying the climbing. It was a welcome relief to find that this iconic, big bad cliff, a cliff I had heard so much about was being treated with respect and the people who climbed on it obviously loved the place and because of this I have returned every year since, staying for the meet and the week after.

When Paul contacted me this year asking if I wanted a ticket, explaining that Alex Honnold was coming and the event was to be ticketed to keep control of the number of people attending, I replied, a little tongue in cheek, but also with a small amount of seriousness, that he should give my ticket to someone who really wanted to see Alex talk, I would be there to enjoy the place and climb. I continued, saying I was a little concerned by how this down to earth celebration of climbing, at this very special place, was being turned into some form of media climbing circus. I felt sad in a way that a person and his celebrity status appeared to be taking over from the real star which of course is Fair Head.

Paul replied that the BMC were paying Alex’s costs to bring him over to the UK and make a film and his coming to Fair Head was something that appeared to good an opportunity to miss, which of course he is correct, who can blame him, not me, but a big part of me wanted to say, the Fair Head meet does not need this, it does not need superstars, the climbing at The Head does not need hundreds of people, it does not need multiple film crews and climbing reporters and photographers, it doesn’t need people coming purely to watch a slide show, it doesn’t need some kind of climbing celebrity hysteria.

Zylo and I returned from climbing Hell’s Kitchen and once again Alex was standing on top of the crag. I asked him what he thought of the Complete Scream and he replied it was enjoyable and easy, before dragging Chris away to climb Above and Beyond, another absolutely classic route first climbed by Pat Littlejohn that I feared would be quaffed like some vin rouge that comes in a brown plastic hexagonal five litre demijohn, but who am I to say how people should experience their climbs and what they should take from them, or what in-fact they are taking from them?

Alex said he may solo The Complete Scream and continued by saying soloing it with such poor gear in the lower half made sense. I really didn’t understand this thought process because actually it didn’t make sense at all. He had a willing partner, the gear on the very start of the climb was good, protecting the first quarter of the route where some of the flakes moved, and the gear higher on the wall, in Primal Scream, was actually very good where the climbing was still UK 6b and a little balancy.

For a man who has soloed all of the things we have seen him solo and being filmed soloing them, I know 6b is not very difficult, but I could not understand why… why did he need to solo this route, a route he didn’t know existed until an hour earlier in the day, it meant nothing to him, he hadn’t dreamed of soloing this climb, he had no real connection or desire and why solo it at this time, in front of a load of people and film crews and photographers?

I am a great supporter of the BMC and I have been an individual member for years and I have very gratefully received much in the way of grant funding from them for my expeditions. I think they really do a valuable job for climbers and they should support all aspects of climbing and walking, which they do, and in this day and age, climbers really do need a body that has a voice, but I thought it amusing that Alex Honnold, a person who has hit the celebrity big time by climbing stuff without a rope, was in the UK on an expenses paid trip from the BMC, The BMC, our governing body who frequently published articles and films about wearing helmets and being able to navigate in winter and being safe, it was almost belly achingly funny and really appealed to my dark humour. Frankie Boyle could not have thought up a better punch line that this one.

Later in the day, Zylo and myself sat leaning against the big boulder that the abseil rope was still wrapped around and down the line of the Complete Scream. A large crowd of people stood on the piece of land jutting from the cliff edge where a view of the wall below could be seen. Calvin Torrans walked past in the opposite direction to the crowd and turned to me, “Don’t pull your rope Nick, your man is soloing the Complete Scream and for a second I imagined the scenario of me tugging up the rope, causing Alex to fall to his death, and all of the cameras turning in my direction and snapping away at me standing, giving the double thumbs unaware.

“What’s all that about then Calvin?” I asked to someone who in my mind really was climbing history and inspiration and someone I would pay money to watch give a talk about his development and routes at Fair Head.

“I’ve no idea Nick,” meaning Calvin didn’t understand the motivation either, “I’d rather not watch it.”

I explained to Calvin I was of the same opinion. Afterwards I spoke to people who had watched the ‘performance,’ they said they had been drawn to witness something that was of course an incredible example of strength of mind and confidence and something they will no-doubt never see again (?) but they also admitted to feeling voyeuristic although voyeurism implies the person being watched is uncomfortable and their privacy is being invaded (!)

I wonder how people would have felt if he had fallen and died and I wondered if in some way they would have felt a little responsible? I also wonder about all of the comments I have read since this solo of The Complete Scream, the comments calling this feat inspirational. I’m really not sure I find soloing the likes of what Alex does as inspirational, it certainly doesn’t inspire me to do the same. The Fitz Traverse he completed with Tommy Caldwell, now that in my mind was truly inspirational.

Personally I’m convinced I don’t need to watch this kind of show. I truly believe the individual should have choice, choice to climb what and however and in whatever style they prefer. I am a great believer in not introducing rules and regulations and for years I have spoken out against how climbing appears to be becoming more regulated, main-stream and dumbed down, so I had no problem with Alex soloing The Complete Scream, why should I? But I find it difficult to understand why he needed to climb this climb and at this exact time and why people felt drawn to watch, but maybe this is my problem and I’m the odd one in this ever increasing world of show and tell?

As he pulled over the top of the climb he looked up toward me.

“Good to see you are still alive. How was that?”

He replied it was OK. Outwardly Alex appeared to be showing very little emotion about this quite extraordinary thing he had just done. I know people show emotions in different ways and inside he may possibly have been buzzing, but it didn’t look that way and I still did not understand why he had felt the need to solo this climb in front of all those people unless he was climbing to perform because this is how his life has moved and this is what on occasion he has to do?

“You certainly had a crowd.” I said gesturing toward the dissipating throng.

“Yeah, I looked up once and saw all the people and had to have a word with myself to try and forget about them.”

Alex’s admission to being affected by the number of people watching confused me even more. If this was the case, if he really didn’t like being watched, it really made no sense at all, especially as he was staying around next week and could easily have chosen a quiet time, was this really just a performance.

In the past I have soloed, both in summer and winter. My winter soloing was brought about more from the need to be out and climbing and not having a partner, so I would get up very early and go out climbing by myself. More often than not there would be no one else around and this was how I preferred it. There is also something really fulfilling about winter soloing with the lack of faff and heavy gear and being able to keep moving and not get wet and cold and be in the mountains, moving competently about by yourself.

My rock solos have generally been the same – on deserted crags – not all the time, but more often than not. The first time I soloed Left Wall on Dinas Cromlech was on a Sunday evening after it had rained for most of the day and I was waiting for my friend, Bruce French to arrive in Wales. I arrived at the base of Left Wall as the evening sun broke from between the clouds. There wasn’t another person in the Pass, or that was how it felt and after I had climbed Left Wall, a climb with history which meant so much personally, the feeling of lightness and fulfilment that I had soloed a climb, a climb that at one time I could not imagine myself lead, was an exceptional leap which gave me tremendous confidence and happiness.

Several years later, again I walked to the foot of the Cromlech walls and once again the Pass was almost deserted. This time it was in the middle of the day and sunny and the route I intended to solo was Right Wall. I had climbed Right Wall about seven times already that summer, I had it dialled, and with each ascent earlier in the summer I knew at some point I would walk to these walls to do what I was now about to do. The internal build-up was what it was about as much as the actual climb and the personal pleasure I would receive having completed the climb.

Right Wall had been the second E5 I ever climbed, I think the first time I climbed it was in 1995 by default when my partner backed off leaving some of my gear in the route. Right Wall is about as iconic as it gets for a British climber and years down the line, the experience of climbing it solo is still an intense and fulfilling feeling.

On that day, in the Pass, I sat beneath the route for a while squeeking my shoes and relaxing while looking down at my green Berlingo parked by the boulders until the time felt correct and then I set off. I knew each hold intimately. I climbed, passing familiar edges, making familiar moves and with those moves my mind settled and the climbing became less mechanical, more fluent, enjoyable.

I reached the large ledge beneath the crux and sat down carefully removing my climbing shoes. Two people appeared beneath me on the large ledge and timidly looked up. I waved and said hello. They said hello back and quickly moved around the corner to climb Cemetery Gates.

Once again I was by myself and after a while I replaced my shoes, being careful not to drop them, and entered into the crux section of the climb. To this day I still don’t remember much about climbing this section of the route, except how it flowed and how confident I felt moving over the rock and for these brief seconds in my life, I suppose, in some way, I felt on a higher level of appreciation.

Seeing and speaking to Alex after he soloed The Complete Scream I’m not sure he shared this type of relationship with the climb, but like I say, we all show emotions differently so what do I know and my God, can that bloke climb rock!

Not that I ever really needed any more conformation, but what I do know now, what I am more convinced than ever before, especially with some of the hyped and factually incorrect reporting I have read about this performance is this, climbing has definitely become more Dan Brown than Cormac McCarthy, more Daily Mail than Guardian, more circus than majestic animals on the plain.

*

As ever, and I know I speak for everyone when I say a huge and massive thanks to Sean and The McBride Family. Fair Head and its climbing is made so much better because of this family who own the crag and the land and their hospitality and generosity.

Finally thanks to Paul Swail who has worked so very hard to organise this meet and highlight the great climbing that is Fair Head.  

Dan, who takes us across to Owey Island. Cool guy. Cool hat. Cool dogs.

Dan, who takes us across to Owey Island. Cool guy. Cool hat. Cool dogs.

Two of my ship and island mates. John Orr and Kris McCoey.

Two of my ship and island mates. John Orr and Kris McCoey.

The other team member staying in the luxurious barn/ship like accommodation on Owey, Tim, Albatross, Neill.

The other team member staying in the luxurious barn/ship like accommodation on Owey, Tim, Albatross, Neill.

Tim Neill climbing pitch one of Immaculata, Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

Tim Neill climbing pitch one of Immaculata, Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

John Orr leading the second pitch of the adjective inspiring Immaculata on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

John Orr leading the second pitch of the adjective inspiring Immaculata on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

Paul Swail. All round nice guy who has developed and highlighted Ireland's fantastic and adventurous climbing over the years and who was on the first ascent of one of the two reasons I particularly wanted to visit Owey, the routes on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Immaculata and The Second Coming.

Paul Swail. All round good guy who has developed and highlighted Ireland’s fantastic and adventurous climbing over the years and who was on the first ascent of one of the two reasons I particularly wanted to visit Owey, the routes on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Immaculata and The Second Coming.

John McCune. Irish new routing phenomenon, its getting boring but just another really friendly Irish guy, adventure hunter and author of both Immaculata and The Second Coming

John McCune. Irish new routing phenomenon, its getting boring, but just another really friendly Irish guy, adventure hunter and author of both Immaculata and The Second Coming among many other new routes in Ireland.

blog 4

Kris McCoey who is no slouch when it comes to new routing and climbing on the cliffs of Ireland, seconding the first pitch of Immaculata. Kris and I came to an agreement that on Immaculata, I would take the first pitch while he would climb the long crux pitch and the roles would be reversed on The Second Coming.

Another day on the Holy Jaysus Wall. Myself leading the top pitch of The Second Coming. Pic Tim Neill.

Another day on the Holy Jaysus Wall. Myself leading the top pitch of The Second Coming. Pic Tim Neill.

A gathering before going climbing. Paul Swail, Kris McCoey, Tim Neill, John Orr, John McCune.

A gathering before going climbing. Paul Swail,  Eamon Quinn (out of sight) Kris McCoey, Tim Neill, John Orr, John McCune.

blog 11

myself on Lumpy Space, another John McCune three star classic on Owey.

Hanging out with one of the Owey locals. Pic Tim Neill.

Hanging out with one of the Owey locals. Pic Tim Neill.

blog 12

Paul Swail and John McCune return to the Holy Jaysus Wall to climb Immaculata.

f h meet sign

After four days of Owey the team headed North.

blog 13

Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski leads her first ever E2, Equinox.

Changing the all terrain footwear for the technical approach footwear on a warm up of The Complete Scream.

Changing the all terrain footwear for the technical approach footwear on a warm up of The Complete Scream.

Myself leading The Complete Scream in good sticky damp conditions. The ropes were well attached but i'm glad to say were not tested. Thanks to Zylo for the belay and to Uisdean Hawthorn for the picture.

Myself leading The Complete Scream in good sticky damp conditions. The ropes were well attached but I’m glad to say were not tested. Thanks to Zylo for the belay and to Uisdean Hawthorn for the picture.

The weather eventually breaks. Zylo sorts the gear in Sean McBride's cow shed.

The weather eventually breaks. Zylo sorts the gear in Sean McBride’s cow shed. Trip over.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

A Second Beer…

A picture taken by Paul Scott on the day I managed to successfully sloth my way up Strawberries... Dream Topping???

A picture taken by Paul Scott on the 20th of April this year, the day I managed to successfully sloth my way up Strawberries… Dream Topping anyone???

This month its my turn to be the judge in Mountain Equipment’s summer photograph competition #MEclimbing

In conjunction with the competition I was asked to supply a piece of writing which is featured on the site here with shots by Lukasz Warzecha and Ray Wood amongst others and a film clip by my friend Nikki Clayton. The same piece of writing is below but without the pictures and the film.

To enter Mountain Equipment’s competition you need to share your climbing photos to Mountain Equipment’s live feed using #MEclimbing via Instagram*, Pinterest and Twitter or upload them via the MEclimbing Facebook page.

A Second Beer.

It was early in the summer of 2015 when I decided to get fit by attempting to climb Strawberries, the iconic route on the Vector Headwall at Tremadog. I have always had a love hate with Tremadog. I hate the closeness of the road and the noise of the traffic. I hate the leafy humidity in the summer and the midges. I hate the complexity of route finding. But the rock I love.

I love the smooth grains of hard dolerite which take protection as solid as a nail driven to oak. I love the angles and hidden toe scoops and scabs of brown and white and the octagonal indentations that shadow in the afternoon sun. I love the way the rock forces my body to lean to the right and to the left and the way my toes have to press and smear. I love the way that after ten minutes of puzzling, with just a slight change of body position, or a millimetre of foot movement, a strenuous move can be completed, almost, without effort.

I also found new love with the start of my Strawberries campaign, because the most convenient and quickest way to concentrate on the climb, was to approach from an abseil and this means being in the fresh air on-top of the crag.

Escaping the noisy road and the tree cover, walking the steep path through the woods, pulling on tree roots that are curled and smoothed by the touch of hands, walking through the smoke of blue bells until out of the trees and stood on top the of the crag always made me gasp and revel in the openness. And as I stood on the rock platform, getting my breath, before dropping down to the ledge at the top of the climb, I would look-out across the fields that run a flat course to the marsh and estuary and the Cob. The Cob is a man-made causeway built across the Afon Glaslyn and opened in 1811, where thirty-seven years before, as a seventeen-year-old gamekeeper, I would ride my 50cc motorbike while watching the wading birds amongst the reeds before paying the five pence toll.

Climbing a route that is too difficult for me to on-sight, or at least, that is just hard, has, over the years, been a regular thing at the beginning of summer. I enjoy the process, which in the end, not only gets the body fit, but, when a lead is attempted, the mind also benefits.

Strawberries is the antithesis of anything I usually try to climb, it’s a bit like Bob Hoskins, short, solid, powerful, physical. There are no ledges, no crumbling rock, no shake-outs but the protection is brilliant as long as you can hang-in and place it. It is also in full view of everyone so if being seen failing affects the ego, as it once did me, rule this one out.

I began the Strawberries road to fitness in anticipation of a visit to Fair Head in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, I found the climbing so intense and powerful, Fair Head became training for Strawberries, although the Tremadog training made the Northern Ireland fingerlocking feel, for once, OK, so I suppose I could have left it at that, but I was now addicted to everything about this climb.

Tom Livingstone and I went ground up on the first visit but we were shut down quicker than a leaked report of a Conservative politician’s off-shore account. All subsequent visits took the form of a top-rope warm up, in an attempt to become strong on the holds and learn the idiosyncrasies, before a lead attempt to desensitise the fall. And with every visit and every attempt, the experience of setting off, knowing everything had to be engaged, but never quite knowing when the impossible may happen, lit my mind like a strip of burning magnesium.

I fell in love with taking that fall. The position and the air. The crackle of electricity. The internal dialogue. The microcosm and millimetres of improvement. The banter and yawping from everyone who was climbing nearby and I loved watching the confusion when friends asked if I have done it and I replied, “no, and I’m not really bothered if I do, because I’m enjoying the process.” Maybe this was affecting my chances of climbing the route clean, but climbing should be fun and I was having fun.

Strawberries is such a great climb for so many reasons, it has so much history and it has so many twists it could have been a story written by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of those climbs that you have to decide what works for you. Placing the gear, all five pieces in my case, was as important as doing the actual moves. In some way it’s what makes the climb, it was for me anyway. Putting aside all of the bullshit is also another great thing about the climb. In my mind, placing the gear makes the climb about 7c+, it says 7b in the guidebook but this is Pete Robbins at his sandbagging best, a climber who is too strong and talented for his own good, or maybe I’m just not that good and ego won’t allow me to recognise this?

Stopping to place the nut in the top of the right hand crack feels almost as strenuous as the crux move, it stops the climbing flow, it makes you hang on that painful fingerlock longer than you want, it stops the blood flow and the muscle contraction. Placing that nut on lead, as bomber as it is, also gives a feeling of doubt, because it’s difficult to pull-up and check to see if its placed correctly, and the voice inside the brain whispers the question, ‘Is it placed good enough to hold the fall?’ There is another fantastic gear placement higher, in the left-hand crack, but I knew my limitations and taking the air was easier than stopping, and I took that air so many times I could taste those molecules.

In my final week of summer in Wales, before travelling to the Alps and then to the south of France and then to Canada, I had two more visits to Tremadog one with John Orr and one with Rachel Crewesmith. The ferry to France was booked and as much as I have said I could continue the repeated process of attempting and falling, I felt I had done enough for success, I now felt I deserved this climb. I also felt a little pressure and it was not a nice feeling, in fact it was everything in climbing I had attempted to move away from. The thought that I may never be good enough to climb Strawberries was creeping into the grey, but I was getting so near, surely at some point it would happen? But what if it didn’t, how would my mind and ego cope?

On the surface, cool calm and collected, I travelled to Tremadog with Rachel, someone I had met only three days before in Ynes Ettws, but underneath, in amongst all of that grey, those firing synapses my mind screamed, ‘MIA INSTUCTOR IN TRAINING, ONLY KNOWN EACH OTHER FOR THREE DAYS, NEVER CLIMBED TOGETHER UNTIL TODAY, MONSTER DEATH LOB SCENARIO.’

The sun soaked the ledge above the Vector Headwall. The fields opposite, no longer resembled the desert, they were boggy with furrows full of water, more paddy than camel. Rachael’s instructor experience came in handy. I tied-on and prepared to be lowered for a top-rope warm-up, while feeding the rope the wrong way through the Gri Gri… “What do you mean I’m the hand?” Her paranoia, something I find in equal measure, be it instructor type or mountain guide, was already a bit too honed. “This block moves and the tree you have slung is a twig.” “Rachel, calm down, its fine, it’s been tested many times.”

The warm up went well; I managed to top-rope Strawberries in a single push for the first time and after sorting the gear for the belay, abseiled to the ledge beneath that other three star classic, Cream. Waiting to abseil, basking in the sun above, Rachael practiced her dynamic belaying running back and forth on the dusty ledge while rehearsing short roping scenarios and lapping the rope techniques. Her phone rang. “Hi Iain… Yes, I found someone to climb with … no, just some old bloke I met in the hut…. We are at Tremadog; yes, I’ve led two climbs… I’m about to belay him… Oh, just something near Grim Wall.”

Time passed. Shadows moved across the surface of the rock and softened. The rush hour surge of racing cars and motorbikes speeding past Eric’s had been and gone. On lead and only inches from the slim, but you’re never going to let go of rail at the end if the difficult climbing, as close as I’d ever been … almost, just about, just about … my right toe, pressed to the index finger sized scoop, slipped and I let go, and as I let go the image that ran through my mind was a person practicing how to give a dynamic belay…

“BASTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARD… “Rachael’s dynamic belay practice on top of the crag must have paid dividends; she was ripped from the stance and closely inspected the top pitch of Cream and as considerate as ever, she apologised to the climbers on Grim Wall Direct about the noise I was making as she flew into the air.

Falling off and being annoyed, if only for a few seconds, shocked me. I had been so very close to at last climbing Strawberries and it was obvious, with the almost success and the revelation, that actually, this was possible, some of my motivation had moved from fun and personal challenge to desire, and combined with this desire, possibly, was the admiration I perceived would come from others on having climbed Strawberries. Inches, just inches, I had watched my finger creep along the rock and I had imagined them wrapping the slim rail and it wasn’t until I had come so close from actually latching that rail, I realised my ego had once again taken control. OK, time to take stock, have a word, begin to laugh at myself again, have a glass of wine, spend time chatting with friends and for a while, move on.

It’s now the 20th of April 2016 and after a winter, where I spent two months in Canada and a month on the East Coast of the USA, a week in Scotland and ten days in Spain, once more I stand on top of Vector Buttress. The fields between here and the sea are green and fresh and the breeze that butts the dolerite is clean. The Friesians chewing the cud in the field opposite flick their tails.

My third visit this summer, but the first to attempt a lead. Tim Neill, my old friend is with me and as I stand looking out toward the sea, I watch myself from thirty-three years ago, a seventeen-year-old, riding my 50cc motorbike across the Cob. T E Lawrence was born just down the road in the village of Tremadog and later in life, when he wrote his Seven Pillars of wisdom, he said, “He was old and wise, which meant tired and disappointed…” Even though I’m old and tired, I still struggle to be wise, but this journey has been one in which I’ve learnt and unlike Lawrence in his description of Nuri Shaalan, I have become less disappointed with life and much happier.

Later, that same evening, Tim and I sit outside the Prince Llewelyn Hotel, the stone built hotel just over the bridge in the centre of Beddgellert. At last I had climbed Strawberries without falling and it seemed apt to stop and have a pint in this hotel. The only other time I had drank here was about thirteen years ago with another great friend, Jules Cartwright. On that occasion Jules and I had been climbing at Tremadog for the evening alongside Dave Evans and Dave Hollinger. Jules, I’m sure, would have been very happy for me, as was Tim with my successful ascent of Strawberries and as Tim and I sit on the wooden bench by the side of the road, eating crisps and drinking beer and laughing, it struck me how really enjoyable life can be if you are fortunate and privileged and can allow yourself to enjoy it.

Roll-call.

A big thank you to everyone who has held the ropes and shared in my time on the Vector Headwall and made climbing Strawberries possible… Its been emotional!

John Orr

Matt Smith

Tim Neill

Zylo Zylinski

Rachel Crewesmith

Tom Livingstone

Tommy Chammings

Alex Mason

The Hippy

And to the photographers and film makers…

Ray Wood.

Zoe Wood.

Lukasz Warzecha

Wojtek Kozakiewicz

Paul Scott

Al Lee

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Fermez la Porte

fermez la porte

Switchback after switchback. I drive from the doss situated amongst the old pine, high above the valley base and the river. I stop at one bend and count the vultures. A corkscrew of about thirty birds rising and circling, rising and circling… I continue to drive. Down, down, around and down … around and down … down and around until Les Vignes, the village with its bridge and the river and the campsite. I stop outside the stone tourist information building and the little grocery shop to connect to the outside world via the internet and collect email and news and weather, before walking around the back and washing my face in the cold water from the tap. Finally, I walk down the stone ramp, something akin to the switchbacks in the road, that lead to the toilette.

I’ve taken to holding on, or as sometimes known in the north as, ‘baking it down,’ even after my ritual strong coffee and having, as The Kirby calls it, “A posh shit.” There is something in the way he delivers this “A posh shit” it’s his Stone Roses, Northern, that makes me crawl a little, but what he means by ‘a posh shit’ is basically, sitting down on the porcelain pot, opposed to ‘dropping the kids off in the woods’, and not rummaging with its undergrowth and ants and creepy crawlies, to then have to squat and balance, while all the time looking around to make sure no one stumbles into you while you are in this most defenceless of positions.

Standing in the gloom of the toilette, I pull my pink roll from my pocket and unwind a meter of the thin pink paper before ripping a section. Folding the section in half, I bend it in the middle so it forms a wide V shape. I then place the V, of Leclerc value, carefully along the toilet rim. The reason I perform this ritual is because there is no seat. I can only imagine the reason for no seat is cleanliness, but it is annoying attempting to balance toilet paper in the shape of a V along a white porcelain rim, especially when the strong coffee has got to grips.

There, that’s it, balanced. I drop my trousers and turn around and as I do, the Leclerc pink value catches the breeze and the paper plops into the water.

“Shit.” Or not shit, and the whole procedure starts again.

After a few more tries, I forgo the balancing of toilet paper and sit direct on the white which is what I should have done in the first place.

toilete pic

The Kirby has been getting a little depressed by the rain that we have experienced here in the Gorges du Tarn. In a way to combat the cold and damp he has taken to dossing at the service station on the A75 near the medieval town of Sévérac-le-Château. The services must be one of the best in the country, it has everything the van dwelling climber with seasonal depression lusts, including a large and clean toilet facility.

A morning or two ago, he unfolded from his luxurious black VW California and creakily made his way up hill towards the facilities. The road inclines gently and has oak trees on the left and a grass mound to the right. The Kirby whistled something northern and indi, it may have been Oasis, he did this while puffing on his E-cigarette, quite a skill I thought while watching his outline, which reminded me of a swaggering Manc Lowry matchstick man against the dark grey sky.

Through the sliding doors, without an extra ounce attached, the northern creaking frame wanders into that bright world of coffee machines and gifts – gifts at inflated prices that no one ever really wants to purchase – past the wagon drivers with little man bags and big bellies and shorts and flip-flops and past the cafeteria with its faux filet, poisson, charcuterie, famage blanc, jambon and baguettes. The Kirby thinly wanders on – on past the coffee machines, that deliver better cheaper coffee than a lot of the café’s in Britain and eventually he stumbles through the highly polished door of the toilette and eventually into a cubical.

Now, these toilettes are posh, but there is still no seat. The Kirby, humming the Arctic Monkeys, all thin and brown and reasonably agitated with the weather, forgets there is no seat and drops his Simond climbing jeans and his Calvin Cline’s, where they ruffle his thin ankles. He shuffles and only when he is about to drop into position, he remembers the no seat situation. Unlike me, he doesn’t do the folding toilet roll, he just buffs and sits, but in these posh loo’s, the toilet paper is housed in a big round metal container, that is locked and the end of the roll is hidden somewhere deep inside. So, with his trousers and boxers around his ankles, he hums Arabella and shuffles and bends to eventually peer – peer up inside the metal container, where he begins to fish and poke and prod while looking for the godforsaken end of the roll.

What he has also forgotten this morning was to lock the cubical door and as he bends, peering and prodding up into that metal box, with a thin white northern arse cocked into the air, the door to his cubical is pulled open by the cleaning lady – all cardigan and apron and yellow plastic marigolds held aloft, the poor woman is presented by a bony northern arse. She begins to shout and gesticulate, “Fermez la porte, fermez la porte.” Shouting at him that he should lock the door, but never once taking her eyes from that northern derrière, which has now turned full frontal as he swings to face the noise and the crowd that has gathered.

Maybe there is something to dropping the kids off in the woods after all?

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment