Steve’s Wisdom. AKA Humble Horse. Diadem North Face.

Diadem Peak North Face. Canadian Rockies

It was midnight and I lay at the side of the Icefields Parkway, that long strip of tarmac flowing through the Canadian Rockies. I was on my own, one hundred kilometres from Jasper, the nearest town, listening to the vast emptiness. Or was it having survived the last twenty-hours, I was listening for bears. It would be such a pisser to drag my body up and over my first Canadian alpine summit only to be eaten now by a bear having successfully returned to the road. Will Sim, my climbing partner had borrowed my muddy and wet running shoes and set off to collect the car, the car was parked six kilometres away where we had left it at 4am, (he was half my age!). I recalled the conversation  from the evening before as I sat in my sleeping bag leaning against the car and staring out at the valleys and trees and mountains which we would soon be experiencing,

“Bloody love all of this – the climbing, the thrill and even dossing here at the side of a road in the middle of no-where,  I’m getting old but at the moment this still works for me, bloody love it, give it up… never.”

Climbing a mountain by walking-in  up one valley, topping-out, traversing and then down-climbing and walking out of another valley is aesthetically pleasing, but when the valleys to be walked are in Canada it makes aesthetics and style totally knackering. Where are all of the telepheriques?

Humble Horse on Diadem North Face was supposed to be a warm up for bigger things but as I lay in the dark on the side of the road – shuffling jumpy legs, squirming in the gravel – I wondered if I had possibly pre-ejaculated on the alpine front. I was knackered and I wasn’t sure the three weeks we had left was long enough for recovery!

And as I lay and mulled the last twenty hours, the five hour approach, the climb, the traverse of the mountain with views of Alberta and the six hour descent, I didn’t notice a battered pick up rumble past my prone form. Brake-lights starburst the lonely-dark and the deep, many cylinder burble, changed to tick-over. Red turned to white as reverse was engaged and the pick-up burbled back until level. “You OK?” The deep Canadian gravel nearly matched the tone of the pick-up engine. “Yeah, I’m good thanks.”

I walked over to the open window to be confronted with a well-worn face, a peak cap and a big smile.

“What you doing out here?”

“Been climbing up there.” I gesticulated to the million acres of woodland somewhere over the other side of the river.

“Hell yeah, good on yer, want a cigarette, some whisky?”

I turned down both, the thought of glugging whiskey would have finished me and my lungs felt hot enough.

“Where you from, Australia, New Zealand?”

“I’m from England.”

“Hell yeah, I’m from England originally, a place called Derbyshire, left when I was one. I’m Steve, pleased to meet you.” A paw thrust from the open window and took my hand.

“Well Steve, you’ve done alright living here, I bloody love the place, the people are great and the climbing is the best – only country I’ve travelled too that I would live.”

“Hell yeah, that’s awesome, I used to climb but I’m way too old for all of that now.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m forty-five.”

“Hell yeah Steve, totally agree!”

****

Thanks to Jon Walsh for suggesting Humble Horse as a starter for this trip.

The night before THE day. Not a bad patio really.

Diadem Peak. The route, Humble Horse takes the obvious central ice-line.

Will Sim crossing the shrund beneath the route.

Starting on the pitched climbing.

Overhanging ice-offwidth. Will about to experience his first taste of Canadian steep mixed. I think this pitch could have been a bit fatter for the grade.

The second to last pitch of Humble Horse was on good ice with little gear. Welcome to Canada!.

Myself climbing the final pitch to the ridge.

Will on the ridge with the road and the car and the valley we walked in the background.

Choss to the summit.

Alberta. Yes please but maybe not tomorrow.

Will beginning the six hour walk back to the road.

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The Underground Mountain Soundtrack.

The London underground train rattles through the night. This is the soundtrack of the mountains. An empty vacuum. Rocks and ice follow deeply carved tracks and echo. Red brick walls topped with gothic turrets scrawled with natures graffiti, hem us.

The deep blue glacier cracks beneath. Stretches like polythene. Sleep. Awake. Sleep. Awake. And as we stir, stars slice through dark sky leaving trails. Life… life lived, lost life; love lost, lost love – vast empty space is consumed in a single breath and exhaled in a cloud of condensation. And in that evaporating cloud is choice. And at times, in that choice despair cries.

The underground passes through back yards, between fences, beneath windows, below roads, behind lives. The continued jointy rattle.  At times I wonder what it would be like to fall. Red lights never change for some

Cold rock beneath a thin mat is comfort. The wheels scream as the hour comes close. The stove boils and chugs. Mystic vapours swirl. A blurred face stares into nowhere from a moving window of an empty carriage. Minutes are worth hours. Hours are worth days and a lifetime can be worth nothing.

The headtorch cuts the cold. Quartz ignites. Noisy trickles of water furrow through the glacier and slow until blackness and silence. It’s nearly time to catch the final train but I’m not sure yet from which station to board or depart.

Because this is the soundtrack of the mountains.

 

The Argentière Basin. The Droites is on the right and the climb, The Richard Cranium Memorial Route first climbed by Mark Twight and Barry Blanchard is on the right side of the face. .

Following Tim’s footsteps on the lower section of The Richard Cranium Memorial Route.

Tim Neill seconding one of the steeper and more difficult pitches.

Just below the summit ridge.

Tim Neill on the Droites summit ridge setting up the first abseil of many down the south side of the mountain.

A flat rock with a great view is too good a thing not to bivvy.

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Seventeen Year Hiatus on The Grand Pilier d’ Angle

Jules Cartwright on the Grand Pilier d’ Angle bivvy studying ‘what next’ seventeen years ago.

Last night, I lay in my van which is parked outside Tim and Lou’s place in Servoz, France. The rain thumped the thin metal skin and thunder bounced from the mountains which surround the village. And as I lay, wrapped safely, the one thought which continually returned was where did the last seventeen years go?

Tim Neill, Keith Ball and I had just returned from climbing the Bouchard into the Boivin-Vallençant – a combination of ice climbs on the Grand Pilier d’ Angle. It’s possible that both Keith and Tim got fed up with my recollections, but the last and only time I had climbed on the GPA, was in October 1998 with Jules Cartwright. On that occasion Jules and I had returned from being blasted by gales on the North Face of the Matterhorn only to drive into a perfect five day  weather forecast for Chamonix.

“Only one place to go.” Jules said and the ‘only one place’, was the Grand Pilier d’ Angle, but Cartwright being Cartwright that was not enough and as we both sat a night and a day later beneath a massive overhanging gendarme, just beneath the summit crest of the GPA, Jules studied the guidebook and proclaimed,

“Its not often you get to somewhere like this and after all of this effort we may as well do something else.”  

It was the way he nonchalantly said it that still makes me wonder at his tenacity, he may as well have been talking about climbing another route on Tremadog in North Wales, but he wasn’t, he was talking of the one-thousand metre, Right Hand Pillar of Frêney and we had already walked across the Valley Blanche, crossed the Fourche Ridge, over to Col Moore and down to beneath the Grand Pilier in Italy. Jules and I  had climbed a combination of routes to arrive at the bivvy and yesterday, as Keith, Tim and I left that same bivvy to climb the upper section of The Arête de Peuterey, I marvelled at how seventeen years had passed since my last time here.

Keith, Tim and I had gone reasonably heavy because I still vividly remembered climbing the enchainment with Jules in 1998 and suggested we do similar. Unfortunately the intended second route, The Innominata, resembled Patagonian ice cream instead of rock ridge and as we sat in the sun at 11am on the same ledge I had sat seventeen years before after climbing the GPA, we decided to forego the second climb for a bash up the Arête de Peuterey after a long lounge and a reflective evening.

Sitting in the sun the following day, the same sun I had sat seventeen years before outside the Nid d’Aigle tram station and surrounded by tourists, I looked at the bench, the same bench Jules and I sat drinking a Kronenbourg after three nights out and once again I was on my own with Cartwright waiting for the tram and rejoicing in the cold October sunshine.

Almost every year since 1998 I have wanted to return to the Grand Pilier and at last, here and now, with heavily fragrant tourists turning their noses, I have returned and how fitting to return with great friends Tim and Keith, it’s such a shame I never had chance to return with my friend who is still in my thoughts regularly.

Tim Neill and Keith Ball walking toward The Col de Fourche.

Study from The Col de Fourche hut.

The Grand Pilier d’ Angle.

Keith Ball soloing the start of the Boucher Route on the GPA.

[Tim Neill fighting spindrift on the Boivin-Vallençant]

Slightly more awake. My second visit to this ledge with seventeen years between. pic credit, Keith Ball.

The second day high on The Peuterey Arête.

On the summit of Mont Blanc for only my second time.

Keith and Tim, in amongst the crowds at the Nid d’Aigle tram station.

Here is a link to Tim Neill’s Blog about the climb.

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Reigniting Memories. The Tournier Spur, North Face of the Midi.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill, my climbing partners on the summit ridge of our warm up climb, The Tournier Spur of the North Face of The Midi.

Tim Neill, Keith Ball and I walk the steep path - a brushed boot track leading toward the North Face of The Aguile de Midi. This is almost my first time in the summer months among mountains that are so familiar in winter.

I look left towards the sheer Aiguille du Plan walls and see Houseman and me climbing The Grand West Couloir – a direct line straight up the centre of the face. Walking higher, my breathing becomes heavier and deeper and Cartwright is up there – up there in the deep fault soloing Sylchris – the depths of a cold winter and a chopped rope his only company. Five days later he returns to the Chamonix Valley, frost bitten and knackered but truly alive. Fil a Plomb at the back of cirque on The Rognon du Plan, an intricate but fairly easy ice-climb I soloed, takes me back to my first full winter here in Chamonix in 2004.

For a short time, I’ve left these mountains alone and returning now with Tim and Keith feels good – it feels the right thing, but how the mountains challenge even the experienced mind after being left alone.

It doesn’t take long to discover the old flow, but summer conditions are certainly different than that of the frozen winter. Rubble and booming flakes show the way -  Canadian Alpine training I think while loosening another boulder. Keith appears happy being above and ahead of my carefree transition from summer rock climber to Alpine climber. Tim, fully acclimatised after weeks of guiding, leads the way on our warm up, hopefully this will lead to more challenging things later in the week.

After five hours, the three of us step from the vertical to the well tracked Midi-Plan Traverse and again I picture Houseman and myself staggering in the dark after being on the go for eighteen hours having successfully climbed the Grand West Couloir. Each step is forced but each step draws both Houseman and me close to the wine and cheese and the big sleeping bags we stashed the day before in the Midi Station.

The final steep pull up the Midi Arête brings more imagery – Kenton Cool and me crawling and pitching what really is a path but in one-hundred kilometre an hour winds after climbing Slave to the Rhythm on The East Face of the Mont Blanc du Tacul one January, the arête path felt more challenging than the climbing. I remember slumping next to Kenton in the dark Midi tunnel, at last safe and out of the wind and never feeling so close to him having shared this serious situation.

The Tournier Spur, the first climb of a short trip that will hopefully include one or two more climbs has once again fired my imagination and re-opened memories and imagery that have been buried. And for these feelings alone, it makes the mountains and the climbs which we venture, well worth the effort.

Starting off at approximately, 7am, on climb number one, The Tournier Spur.

The North Face of The Aiguille du Midi.

Tim Neill at the beginning of The Tournier Spur.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill low down on The Tournier Spur.

At the abseil point which leads to the ice flow on the left.

Tim Neill climbing the ice-flow.

The traverse leading to the more technical ground higher on The Tournier Spur.

Tim Neill climbing the crux section of The Tournier Spur.

The Midi-Plan on the summit ridge after climbing The Tournier Spur.

Kenton Cool at midnight in The Aiguille du Midi tunnel after climbing Slave to the Rhythm and returning in one-hundred kilometre an hour winds.

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Back on the Wagon.

Keith Ball sucking it up on the top of West Central Gully, Beinn Eighe, winter 2014.

British traditional rock climbing addiction is over. Hello to the mountains and all that comes with it – waiting-out conditions, weakness on rock, (although some would say I have never been strong) and a tad of suffering.

Sitting here in Chamonix with fellow co-conspirators/sufferers/obsessives, Tim Neill and Keith Ball plans are being hatched – will the weather give us a chance?

I climbed with Keith last winter in Scotland, hopefully we will get some better weather than experienced on that occasion.

Here is a link to a short film Keith made after the Scottish week we had together where we climbed Centurion and West Central Gully.

Scottish winter week with Keith Ball.

 

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The Pull of the Moon.

Wen Zawn with Caff on an on-sight attempt of Hardback Thesaurus. T-Rex takes the wide crack to the left of Caff and Mr Softy climbs the middle of the back wall.

Adam Wainwright a few years down the line and back in Wen Zawn.

The Pull of the Moon. (A work in progress) 

The sun wraps its warmth around Rhyolite. Shadows bend. Ferns fidget in the breeze.

Even though it’s early, inside the hut everyone has left. One fully charged Bluebottle is my companion. The fly jerks and buzzes and pops as it hits the window pane. I hate the bluebottle. On the outside of the window, in the top right corner, the fatly speckled spider, sitting in the centre of her web catches the breeze, the web contracts like a diaphragm. I wish she was inside.   

Ted Hughes is also my companion. Birthday Letters, a book given as a gift. Did she realise - I expect she did. 

The groove of Nexus Direct on Dinas Mot hangs high above the hut – it hangs high, as high as it has for my last eleven years. In the winter, water funnels between its rough rhyolite and in summer, the muck bakes to crispy bran flake. Until two days ago it had been just a groove – an open book – one possibly as raw as Birthday Letters. And if you had asked me where it was situated a day or two ago, I would not have been able to tell you. “Somewhere up there.” I would have said, “Somewhere up there, high on The Mot, somewhere in amongst all of those corners, folds, grass, slabs and sheep. “No I haven’t done it.” 

And if you had asked me its character, I would not have been able to answer. But, since Sunday, since I failed to unlock its dimensions and see the pain behind its smooth curves, I now know where trouble lies.

And now, like the moon, it looks down at me before I close the red doors and it welcomes me as I wake in the morning. And like the moon it is cold. I see its superiority, its subtle millimetres of movement, its savagery in the form of beauty, I see numb bleakness and I understand its difficulty and the damage it will inflict but I am mesmerised.

Today I entered and shared myself. I nearly backed off, maybe I should have but I wanted the experience, the feeling of becoming one.

And for a while we moved together.

*

Leaving the shady side of the Pass, Lee Dawg and I enter into the warmth and sit on the steep grassy hill beneath Scimitar. Scimitar holds so many memories. Most are good.

Jagged ramparts – overhanging calf cutters made from ripped aluminium – undercut razor edges, melted crystallised-quartz tacked to the smooth dolerite surface.

Generally there is no-one here apart from me, my climbing partner and the blood in the grass.

It was a vision from three or four days ago. King Wad Direct, climb the true line of the overhanging arête, do not move left into the groove, do not have the protection between the two pegs –  no chill-out and experience the big move at the top without a rest. A few extra bits of steep. Difficulty for the sake of difficulty, definitely? In no way disrespectful to Pritch and his first ascent, just a personal challenge.  Bloody genius – why has this not been thought of before? But of course it has and it was more than likely first climbed this way but I prefer to be ignorant of facts. It is less painful being ignorant.

*

“Low tide is at seven, we should be able to get on the climb at five.”

Will Sim and I follow the worn zig zag in the steep hillside and stop at the rocky edge overlooking Wen. Wen Zawn, the welt cut into the wrist of Craig Gogarth. Greedy invisible wind-fingers pinch and pull and snaffle and push. Grit is thrown in anger. Eyes blur. How dare you? Gulls pirouette and scream. A layer of paste-white cloud covers the sun. Pink Thrift lollipops headbang on fragile necks.

“It looks a little dark. The rock needs sun.”

With time and the gravitational pull of the moon the sea drains and the boulders in the base of the zawn reveal their boil-barnacle faces.

“Well, if you don’t shoot…” I think this is becoming my motto for life.

*

Will climbs the first pitch of Mr Softy. I belay and stare at the arch of Conan and its massive orange mullion crossing the sea to meet the corner of The Unridable Donkey. A grey seal pops its shiny head from the green pool and stares with sad unfathomable eyes. She must read minds.

The cobbled back wall madness of The Mad Brown. The ready mix of Rubble – I stand on my own and feel almost at piece in this quartzite cathedral. The wind pulls the ropes and a peel of sea water wrings the overhanging walls. A shaft of evening sun breaks the cloud. People, voices, images, flood my mind. Paul Pritchard stretches thin lycra legs across the rotting corner, but just as quick he is lying broken amongst boulders with the sea on the turn. Jonny Dawes repeatedly throws himself at Hardback Thesaurus. Adam Wainwright and Big George Smith wrestle with craziness. Jimmy Jewel solos the greasy off-width of T-Rex.

The Zawn is a cacophony of bird cries, crashing sea, wind and on occasion the deep engine throb from an Irish ferry. I imagine couples in the ferry bar, laughing and drinking beer. And here I am feeding out the rope with old conversation for company. 

The sea is a mocking mess of green and bubbles and white foam. Rock is sweating salt. Grasping quartzite fins and wrapping fingers, chalk strips as easy as tears cut a wavering path across pale cheeks. I thought I could flout the rulebook, but no, I am no better than those who have been before. Does love make a difference?

“Let’s bail, let’s get out on T-Rex.” I shout in an attempt to be heard above the wind slamming the door. But wearing the rack I know the first pitch of T-Rex, the slippery unprotected off-width pitch waits for me. Abseiling, I peel away the layers and I don’t like the answer I find as I tie-on beneath the wide fault.

What seems like a long time later, following the final traverse of Dream of White Horses, the blue rope, not clipped to any runners arcs above me. Obviously, it has had enough and wants out more than me but the wind plays tricks and for a second let’s go of the rope and it drops into Wen’s vacuum snatching at my waist before rising once again.    

At 10pm, in the dark, with salt smeared glasses pushed into a pocket and a skunks white stripe of chalk running the length of my blue back, I pull into that final chimney and then out onto the grass, out into the angry night with its bullets of rain.

*

Back at the hut, beneath strip lights, I make a tuna and salad sandwich and eat on my own while standing in the brightly lit  kitchen. The red quarry tiles beneath my feet are cold. 

Avoiding sheep shit, walking to my van, I breathe deep and suck the light of the moon, the glowing numbness will act like aspirin. Closing red doors, checking for a text message, I settle to the sound of sheep shuffling before turning the radio off on another day of the same song. 

 *   

Nexus Direct E5 6b, Pete Crew, Dave Alcock, 1966, 4 points of aid. First free ascent, D Roberts, on-sight, 1977. “Despite its benign appearance, this is a fierce and technical pitch with little in the way of protection.” Llanberis Pass CC Guidebook.

King Wad E5 6b, Paul Pritchard 1987. “As physically hard as indecent exposure.” J Dawes.

Mr Softy E6 6b, Adam Wainwright, George Smith, 1994. “Follow this (the second pitch) where angels fear to tread.” From the Gogarth Wiki description.

T-Rex, E3 5c, Ed Drummond, LE Holliwell, D.Pearce, J.Rogers (2pts) 1969. FFA Pat Littlejohn 1971.

 

 

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Island Life: Part 2. Pabbay & Mingulay.

 

The first evening on the way to Mingulay.

 

Last summer, for three months, I tried the Euro sport climbing thing. Sounds amazing doesn’t it – perfect weather, perfect evenings while camping and drinking cheap red wine, miles of pristine limestone – but to tell the truth, I find the climbing all a bit samey and if you get sucked into attempting the same climb repeatedly, it must become as similar as the drive to the same job, at the same place, to do the same thing, year in, year out with some form of release when you finally resign or clip the chains.  

Sport climbing is great for a quick fix, a holiday, cover some safe ground to get fit, chase a number, feel good when new numbers are reached, but it just doesn’t feed the soul. In that three month trip, the most memorable and the best adventure, and to be honest, the only climb I can remember the name, was Fiesta de Los Biceps at Riglos, a meagre 7a. Actually, there were two climbs, the second being Plenitude above Cluses down the valley from Chamonix, a nine pitch 6c+ which was possibly the most difficult climb of the trip with less protection and fewer holds from which to stand or pull than an E5. Plenitude was an emotional journey in a reasonably wild situation and because of this I remember the day and the climb vividly and with fondness – it certainly was not an ego boost or a number chasing exercise.

After last summer’s bolt clipping I wanted to get back to tradition climbing, its where I’m at, it feeds my soul and in Britain, not only do we have the best traditional climbing in the world, we also have the most beautiful and wild places to experience it.

Donald’s fishing boat, The Boy James, cut the green. The large bow wave frothed white. I tasted salt and my glasses misted. It was past nine in the evening and twelve of us were heading, first to Mingulay and three days later to Pabbay, small uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. Kittiwakes, Cormorants, Razorbills and Fulmars flew alongside the boat and skimmed the sea. A fire filled the darkening sky. The Perkins engine growled and powered the boat through swell and waves and my nose filled with the smell of salt and diesel. Face skin tightened. The vast emptiness of water spread to our left and to our right, even smaller islands than Pabbay and Mingulay were silhouetted. Emptiness. Space. A void. Gripping the metal frame of The Boy James, the world felt untamed that Sunday evening.

A slab of dark Gneiss covered in slippery green sea-moss easing into the sea was our dropping point for Mingulay. Flocks of fat bodied Puffins, blurred wings, jet propelled, filled the sky, while others bobbed on the dark sea-surface. The Puffins chatted to each other. A lone Artic Skewer, the bad boy of the bird world slowly flapped by.

I was climbing with Guy Robertson. I had climbed repeatedly in winter with Guy and I would call him a good friend but we had never met outside this realm. I wondered if he had sprouted leaves for summer and became warm?

Guy Robertson, route one, Voyage of Faith on Dun Mingulay, day one.

Abseiling nearly one hundred metres into Dun Mingulay – grey scallops and ears, flutes and fins, swirls of cold lava – the finest weather beaten, sun baked Gneiss in the world. On occasion the dark grey was splattered with a patina of pink pegmatite, on more than occasion it was splattered with guano from the Razorbills which called the cliff home. Guy and I stood, heads tilted and we paid homage to this Salvador Dali canvas created for climbers and almost immediately began our pilgrimage, moving in upward paint strokes.

Seven pitches and several hours later I backhanded a large, but not quite large enough hold, it offered energy-sapping wet respite. Beneath a massive capping roof, I crawled. Toes were pressed to smooth rounded smears and the ropes arced between gear placements. Guy was a good way around the corner, out of sight. I regretted running pitch two and three of Perfectly Normal Paranoia together but below this roof and below my aching feet, the sea crashed a sunlit bubbling crescendo and the birds cried the theme and the voice in my mind added the lyrics… But this is it isn’t it, it was my decision to launch – it was my decision to place gear when I wanted, or not place gear and it was my decision to carry a rack of what I hoped I needed or didn’t need. And this is the difference isn’t it, it’s not looking up a blank piece of rock sporting fifteen bolt hangers that mark the line while wearing fifteen quickdraws, knowing once you get to one of those hangers it can be clipped and made safe – this is food for the soul, exercise for the mind – it is decisions made in an instant or at least before the arms wither and the mind fries and for me this is why it is memorable.

The shy and elusive but not quiet Corncrake.

The blue moon would soon be full and its silver lit the heather and its force dragged the sea up the beach and back down again – sand scars were evidence of the sea’s passage. A group of seals gathered on the beach each night, their haunting cries, as if sad for loss, were our mournful music that became a fusion with the warble of the Snipe and the creak of the Corncrake from which to fall asleep.

K&S Special on Creag Dhearg rejected me, not once, but twice – my tenacity is strong and the increasingly challenging personality and my ability to ‘stick it out’ lead me into believing I would stand the test of time but no, it had, had enough of me and I could not hold-on and the climb shook me off as easy as snow from a windowpane but rejection is life and for a memory and experience as good as this I have nothing but love. One day, when I am stronger I hope to return.     

Greg Boswell on the brilliant K&S Special.

I had visited Pabbay before but not Mingulay. I recall someone telling me that Pabbay was the better island for climbing and Mingulay was disappointing, but after three days I would disagree, Mingulay is wild and beautiful with better climbing and a more varied wildlife than Pabbay.

Donald arrived at 8pm on Wednesday evening; The Boy James taxi slewed the team across the sea to Pabbay where for two days we were shut down. Rain poured constantly through the night and spirituous mists enshroud the island. The old building without a roof stood sentry and the stream broke from a marshy chrysalis, turning into a butterfly of brown peaty water digging down into the beach, cutting a channel and carrying old fishing floats back to the emptiness of the sea. We put in a stash of gear at the top of Pink Walls and for the rest of the time I lay in my tent, reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping…

The weather cleared and so we sailed onto the Pink – Ancient Mariners and In Profundum Lacu and Amber Nectar and for the final day we transported into the Banded with its maze of roofs, bulges, spaghetti-spirals – Endolphin Rush and Ship of Fools and spring Squill

Myself climbing Jonny Scuttlebutt on the Banded Wall.

Mike Shorter climbing The Ancient Mariners.

Sitting and drinking wine, the sun set but it didn’t get dark and in the bay The Boy James gently swayed from side to side while waiting patiently to take us back to Barra at 7am and on to Oban and a return to the mainland way of life.

“Why don’t you stay for another week, climb with Jonny and me?” Sophie Whyte, part of the Sheffield team said who had turned up a day before.

“I would love to, but I don’t have enough food for another week.”

 “What do you need, we will have enough spare food to give you.” Greg and the others in our about to leave team said.

And with that the donations flooded and before long I had more food than at the start of the week.

“Guess I’m staying then.”

Sophie Whyte leading the first pitch of Big Kenneth, Dun Minulay.

Myself on the crux of Jonny Scuttlebutt, The Banded Wall.

The undercut Wall approach, Mingulay.

The Bonxie AKA, Artic Skewer AKA, The bad boy of the bird world.

Adam Brown on Suger Cane Country, Pabbay.

A great big thanks to everyone from both teams for the company and the food and the climbing, it was great :-)

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Island Life. Part 1: Burren and Fair Head, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Hallowe’en Arete, Fair Head. Credit Tim Neill.

A haunting layer of cloud trickled over the Paps of Jura. Flowing from the hills, driven by the breeze, it crawled across the North Atlantic. Rathin Island blurred. Wispy white tendrils of wet entered White Lightning Amphitheatre and butted Fair Head’s dolerite. And as I clung to the sharp of Hallowe’en Arête, I imagined tears forming on the ends of silver lichen.

The eight day trip was nearly at an end but above me there was still the crux moves. Dunking my left hand, chalk dust caught on the breeze. Lee Roberts hung below me, belaying, looking up, smiling. Lee had climbed the middle pitch of Hollowe’en – finger locks, hand jams, balancy compression – forty five metres of technical burley brilliance which topped the first pitch, a pitch of edgy green insecurity. At one point I thought about suggesting something else but at times, to get things done, to get through, to move beyond, you have to have resilience.

I took hold of a chunk of dolerite. Sharp, the shape of a ship’s hull, stuck to the surface of the right side of the arête, I pulled and matched and moved around the arête, into a groove. The white cloud swirled in a darkening sky. A crack ran the length of the groove and unlike much of Fair Head’s rock, the crack was dry and clean. The rock all around was crisp and grabby. I joked with Lee that a spider’s web was reason to take the slab around the other side but it was just a joke, I wanted to try hard for the last climb of the eight days, I felt I deserved it, I needed the difficulty. Trying hard, becoming engrossed, it eased the pain of failure from other aspects of my life at the moment.

A few days earlier, Mirror wall at The Burren in the south, glowed in the afternoon sun and in the afternoon sun the heat increased. My fingers greased from the one insecure lock in the forked lightening crack near the start of the climb, Refraction, while my feet, stuffed into small shoes, grew in size and paddled. Three times, up down, up down, up down. The large boulders at the base of the wall sat in the sea cooking like hardboiled eggs. The fourth time up, or maybe it was the fifth and I was through the gammy finger-lock but still greasing from the most secure placements ever. Lee belayed and Tim sat on one of the hardboiled eggs. They both shout encouragement and as they yell, I watch a hand slowly slide from a secure placement. My body and mind begin to wobble. But then some form of my younger self takes hold, a younger more carefree self and the memories and pain are left behind and I slapped myself up the wall, through the overlap, onto the crozzled tuffa’s near the top and finally onto the grassy ledge wearing a massive smile.

Spider crabs, Black guillemot with fiery red legs, wild orchids, a jack Russell puppy called Cookie, Lee’s sharp wit, Tim’s fat fingers unable to fit into the pockets at the top of Ice Queen, A Wall of Fossils, A Fall of Wossils, Quicksliver, a school of Dolphins breaking the Atlantic surface and another fire-filled sunset – the Burren is a good place to accept and attempt to move on.

Bridging. The arête is now on my left and for the first time in weeks I open my mind to movement and possibilities of rock. A left-hand slaps. Under-clinging the arête, its shape is sharp and positive. I heel-hook the same sharp edge and stand in balance. What if life could be balanced with something as simple as a heel-hook? Arête climbing is close to being my favourite. All of those hidden possibilities that only reveal with courage and imagination and experimentation. I fiddle another perfect piece of protection into the crack running the length of the groove. Shaking-out, I savour this airy 9pm on a Sunday evening.

Last night, Saturday night – in the cow shed – crowds of climbers congeal – the Fair Head meet comes together. Outside the shed, under the stars, I stand by the fire, eating half of the biggest pizza ever while tilting a bottle of beer. I feel – well, I don’t really know what I feel, a true mix of emotions. Ricky Bell laughs and jokes and offers me a chug of the Jägermeister he has been offering around in the dark green bottle. I turn Ricky’s offer down but my stomach warms anyway with his infectious smile and effervescence. “It’s like Calpol.” He jokes and laughs – a large mouth full of teeth takes in the smoky evening air. “Let’s get out together sometime Nick.”  The evening was sociable and fun and poignant and sad but I came away feeling a part of something and a step nearer somewhere.

Pulling into the groove, a smear for the left foot on the front face of the arête and an edge for the right foot on the right wall of the groove, I stretch for the crack where it narrows and crimp a sharp edge and pull. Heel-hooking a rounded bulge holds my body and enables a left hand to reach for the same crack my right fingers crimp. This is it, this is the crux, this is what I’ve been working toward and now I’m here I’m damn sure I’ll give it everything to get through and continue to the top.

“There’s a big hold to your left on the arête.” Tim shouts from his viewing platform.

“Yes, I know Tim, I just have to get there.”       

Its midnight. Tim, Lee, John Orr and I sit around the fire; we leave for Wales in the morning. I tilt my half full of red wine, china mug, the mug with its coloured spots and watch the sparks, so full of radiance catch on the wind and glow and fly into the night and dim…   

Thanks to Tim, Lee and John for the pics and the belays and the great company and a big thanks to Paul Swail and Sean McBride for yet again pulling it out of the bag and making the weekend of the Fair Head meet brilliant.

 

Another Burren sunset.

Tim Neill climbing Fall of Wossels. The Burren.

Reaching the tufa’s on Refraction. Credit Tim Neill

Lee Roberts and Cookie.

Quicksilver on The Mirror Wall, The Burren. Credit, Lee Roberts.

Another one already. But I cant close my hands. Lee Roberts wakes…

Lee Roberts gets to grip with the Wall of Fossels

Tim Neill on the first pitch of Northern Exposure, Fair Head. Credit, Lee Roberts.

Loons on the Northern Exposure belay. Well it is possibly the best route in the world!

Tim Neill on the first pitch of X Men, Fair Head. Credit Lee Roberts.

Hallowe’en Arete. Credit John Orr

A happy Fair Head sunset after climbing Northern Exposure. Credit Lee Roberts.

The final night at Fair Head.

 

  

                     

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Bones and Barbed Wire.

 [James McHaffie at Dorys in the days he took a bottle of beer to the crag.] 

Bobok. 2004

Walking with James McHaffie along the top of Craig Dorys having once again left behind the dark quarried slate piled high above Llanberis and the rain in the cloudy mountains, the arid atmosphere of The Lleyn feels like illusion. But look out, over the large water worn boulders that balance on the tessellated rock-shelf, look out to the sea and the natural beauty and immediately you appreciate this is no illusion, this is real, this is now and of this time, of ‘your’ time… and the waves lapping the dark mosaic rock-shelf mark that time until the next wave moves in and washes your thoughts to sea and the clock moves forward once more.

Like many crags in North Wales, Craig Dorys is tempered by the mark of humans. Caff and I walked to the end of the buttress and down the steep track which sliced the steep hill. Feet crunched on small pieces of rock littering the hillside. The winter wind had easily persuaded the rock to leave the crag. Splintered bracken stalks blocked the track like barriers. Shins broke through the dry thatch. Dust billowed. Tumbleweed bundles of barbed wire poked from the bracken. Fronds of newly sprouting fern unfurled between old wooden fence posts and plastic sheeting and rotting animal carcass. The detritus of farming was scattered on the approach but I didn’t find the rubbish offensive, it reminded me of the area I grew up. I liked the juxtaposition between the beauty of nature and the effect of humans. I flicked a bleached sheep rib with the toe of my shoe. The blood had long gone.                 

I had climbed with Caff on and off for a summer or two but I had not zoned in to his dark side. I think I would be safe in saying not many people do as his demeanour and look – small round glasses, dark unruly hair, pale skin, reasonably short in stature and reserved – give the impression of school boy innocence. But to become one of the worlds most successful traditional rock climbers, repeatedly placing yourself in a position of danger while climbing in very good style takes serious dedication, mental fortitude, drive, self-belief, commitment and sometimes a dark side, a side with voices – voices that continually question and taunt and only dim after personal challenge. Where rock climbing is concerned I do not put myself in the same category as James McHaffie, not even the same planet, but I know about the voices and I recognise a person who occasionally has internal dialogue.

Bobok is a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘the chant of the dead people’ is how the story is described in the Climbers Club guidebook to the Lleyn Peninsular. Bobok would not be my recommendation for your first route on The Lleyn Peninsular. Bobok would not be a recommendation at all.

Caff pointed at what we were to climb. I looked up. The overhanging wall was a semi-circular scoop veined with orange and quartz.

 ”We are going to climb honeycombed chocolate?” I said followed by nervous laughter.

Caff dumped his bag in the dirt, pulled a packet of tobacco from his jacket pocket and rolled a small cigarette. Dabbing the cigarette with his tongue he looked up, “You’ll be fine Nick, it’s only E5, which pitch do you want?”   

The route consisted of two pitches, the first was seventy feet given a technical grade of 5c, the second was more difficult being 6a but slightly shorter at fifty feet. The guidebook description mentioned ‘chicken heads’ and ‘sneaking’ for the first pitch and ‘quartz snappies’ and biscuit footholds for the second pitch. I was tempted to say I wanted neither pitch but I knew this would not work, so eventually after much soul searching I opted for the technically easier first pitch, ‘sneaking’ after all was much more my style and sounded preferable to ‘snappies.’ Caff was by far a better rock climber than me anyway and this route had been his suggestion.

Stepping from ground took four attempts. The rock was like nothing I had ever climbed and the amount of gear clipped to my harness was holding me down. I eased once again from the ground pulling a vein of orange coloured munge, which I soon discovered was the rock type and the colour to aim. Caff, wearing long black shorts, wallowed in the dirt to my right smoking his second tab, sniggering like a schoolboy. He read from the guidebook,

“It says here, in the first ascents section by Ray Kay that the chocolate fudge colour works well for taking weight.”

What Caff chose not to read out loud was Ray Kay, master of all things lose, then went on to say he had had many ground up attempts to climb Bobok and had found the experience very very scary. He also chose not to read out the paragraph below this one which was written by Stevie Haston who had attempted to climb the line before Kay and Jones had made the first ascent. In this paragraph Haston described lowering off five equalised pieces of gear and on reaching the ground flicking them all out.

I climbed, wracked with paranoia. I had placed more gear than ever before in such a short distance. The rock – orange, white, brown, black – was laced with multi-coloured metal – nuts, cams, hooks – jewels of safety which offered no safety at all. And with so much gear I felt the pressure to continue. At around the two hour on the lead point I had climbed thirty feet, maybe less. I inched left and sat on top of a decomposing pillar afraid the whole pillar would tumble. I lowered a loop of rope and Caff clipped a second rack of gear onto the loop.

Sitting still on my pillar, eying a crumbling crack, I imagined filling it full of gear and wrapping the rope around me like some Victorian climber and saying to Caff twenty, or thirty feet below, ‘on belay.’

“I’m sure this is the belay. It would make a great belay. Shall I belay?”

Caff had a pee, sat down, looked up at me, and rolled another cigarette. “Just another forty feet or so to go Nick, you’re doing great, I reckon you have probably got higher than what Leo Houlding did before he fell off and hit the ground.”

I sat on the wobbly pillar clipping gear to my harness looking down at Caff with horror.

“What else are you not telling me about this climb Caff?”

“If we climb it today it will be the third ascent.”

“Quite telling that given it’s E5 and was first climbed in 1988. Who climbed the second ascent?”

“Will Perrin and Ben Bransby.”

Perrin and Bransby were great rock climbers and very good at ‘specialised’ territory. I looked up at the remaining ground and it looked a long way.

Box of Blood 2014.

Here I was, ten years later and here I was ten years older and here I was sat on the same decomposing pillar wondering why? Boboks quartz seams cutting through the mud and fudge were to my right. The years had changed my opinion a little, but the fear induced by this crumbling cliff was still there. This time instead of Caff, Will Sim, another very talented individual belayed and the same as before, thoughts of being sub-standard compared to the other person holding my ropes ran through me.

This would be my second attempt to successfully climb Box of Blood and plant a flag on Dorys summit and this time I would milk the rests. Will wallowed in the muck the same as Caff had wallowed. Bet he wished he rolled his own I thought…

*

Box of Blood summary and further info here

 

[Myself entering into the overhanging and run out on Box of Blood... Pic credit, Ray  Wood]

[Will Sim in a similar position to that of most of my friends who belay me. Note to self, must get better, quicker, bolder.]
[Will Sim combating the fear and launching onto the orange balsa wood on Box of Blood. to make a great flash ascent.]

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The Wasted Lands.

[pic: Al Powell and Jules Cartwright looking in awe at Teng Kangpoche Northwest Face, Nepal. ]

 

April is the cruellest month.

*

The Great Orme poked into the troubled sea. The sky was solid grey. On the horizon a thousand newly constructed wind turbines turned.

Will Sim and I had finished climbing for the day. I drove my little red van, a van without a name, around the narrow one-way road. The road cut the grassy hillside. The limestone wall on our right, turned and twisted, following the pavement and the roads edge. The wall separated us from the dark green sea – such a long way below – mixing memory with desire.

The male Kestrel hung on the wind; he glided a metre above the top of the wall. I looked into the van’s wing mirror. There was no traffic behind. I stopped and opened the window.

Close enough to touch, or so it seemed, the Kestrel didn’t hover – his wings were taught and braced, tilted at the correct angle to manage this solo performance. Bernoulli’s principle or something along those lines, although the Kestrel, I’m sure, did not know about aerodynamics. The wind took hold of his small body and puckered the soft. Burnt red, black flecks, a blue tinge to the ruffle of long wing finger feathers. His feet, just visible, were bunched yellow fists pulled into milky down. Streaks of black ran from just above his feet to the speckling of his throat, they looked like the streaks that run from the eyes of a Labrador. And above the throaty speckled ruff, his head was stationary, frozen, unwavering, stock-still. Large dark eyes, eyes as big as a pomegranate ringed with yellow, locked the long grass.

A week before, it could have been two; the wind blew down the Llanberis Pass. It was the Saturday of Easter weekend. The Cromlech layby, opposite the boulders, was full of cars and in between the wheels, empty drink cans, plastic bottles, Mars Bar wrappers, newspaper pages, cigarette packets, carrier bags and other detritus danced down the road to a Caribbean soundtrack. Shit, blown by the wind, jangled west – west, the same as my thirteen month relationship.

*

“You’ve got it sorted.” One of the folk staying at Ynys Etws, the CC hut in the Llanberis Pass said a few days after the breakup. I wasn’t sure I had anything sorted, I had lost my friend.

*

May Day Bank Holiday weekend came, it was Friday. Unlike a large percentage of society, I hate Fridays, especially the Fridays of a bank holiday weekend. I lay in my van at 11.15pm listening to cars turning into the hut entrance and the barrier clanging and the gravel crunching beneath wheels. A VW Transporter parked next to my van, the van with no name. The occupants disembarked, talking, slamming doors and bumping into my van. I leaned forward, “Would you mind not knocking my van please?” I lay back but didn’t sleep for a while. In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing.

I rock climbed every day – King Wad, Chreon , Killerkranky, Romany Soup, Warpath, Big Boys, Centrefold, Mask of the Red Death, The Moon, Perygl, Oreole, Skylark, Mayfair, Contusion, The Enemy Direct, North by Northwest, Agamemnon. Climbing, climbing, climbing – the cold wind carried image and memories and conversation and sadness.  

*

Taking off from the side of the stream, a Heron folds and flops, all awkward angles and pointed elbows, her legs, an undercarriage yet to be lifted and her politicians sagging chin. The wind caught her canvas and she became a ballerina. And beneath the humped bridge crossing the stream a Dipper bobbed – rock to water to rock. Tears flowed. How do you do? I’ve been better actually.

*

Gogarth’s Yellow Wall – I sat on-top of the crag facing the choppy sea, buried beneath my hood while belaying. Tourists passed behind all wrapped. Turbo charged Great Black Backed Gulls wheeled and wailed. Fingers and feet were numb but my mind was active. Fifteen years ago, maybe it was a little less; I climbed The Moon and The Cow for the first time with Jules Cartwright. I had weak arms, not long from Peru. Not long from the pubs of Sheffield, Jules was even weaker, so I climbed both pitches of The Cow. Later, at the campsite near Holyhead, the one the paddlers use, we hunkered behind the yellow flowering gorse. The scent of coconut filled the evening.

Crafnant – sharp, angular, slippery, overhanging ‘tiger territory’. Phoenix, E2 5c my arse. I belayed John Orr as he battled into the v-corner. The wind blew cold and in the wind I heard Michael Tweedley and Jules complaining about how difficult getting into the corner was. I stood in this spot eighteen years ago and took the piss. I still remember Michael’s disappointment when he backed off an E2. Don’t worry Michael, my disappointment would have been more had I attempted. Jules didn’t give a shit; he hung in, fell off, lowered off and lit a tab.

*

Living for the here and now, with a head that collects images can, at times, be difficult. What if. If only. And the weight, so much weight and with that weight there is pressure. Recently a friend said “We ain’t getting any younger and we should stop relying on our bodies for fulfilment – it’s a fucking dead-end street!!”

Like the hermit crab with a crumbling shell, our minds still spark, but unlike the crab, we cannot move when our shell rots. But is this not the magic? Is it not good we don’t know how long we have? Although I suppose, if we did know, we could at least go to the supermarket and fill the fridge with other less physical but just as deeply rewarding experience without fear of missing out.

“What shall I do now? What shall I do? What shall we ever do?”   

*

Craig y Forwyn rises from the woodland. Over ten years ago, I escaped other walls but once again here is a wall – a dappled wall strewn with desensitising scallops and pockets and flaring cracks. Birdsong fills the valley and in the foliage I can feel growth. Dull roots with spring rain. I’m happy to say I’m fortunate, I’ve nearly always been a glass that is half full.

*

My inbox shows one new. “If you are not getting scared, it’s not climbing.” And I wonder if the same goes for life?   

 [Thanks to T S Eliot for the belay on this piece] 

[Great Wall, Craig y Forwyn, Wales ]

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