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

Every boy-racers dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown climber at sector 2 of Falaise du Grand Bois.

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

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

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

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

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

A bird worthy of driving down a hole.

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

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

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

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

“FUCK YEAH YOU FUCKING FIELDFAIR!”

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

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

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

Psyching up… !!!!!

Beauty and the not so beautiful!

 

 

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The upper hand.

Regina.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Toshi, Attacks the Fat One, 8a.

 

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

 

 

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Less rich without you.

Howse Peak, Alberta, Canada.

September 2014.

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

“Wow, kind of looks doable, hey?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Stigmata winter.

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t say run laps on it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hippy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spray… Ice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Colorado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Returning from Minya Konka.

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

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

*

October 31st 2018. Halloween.

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

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

Superstition.

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

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

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

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

The icefall that Paul and I passed through six times.

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

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Never Again.

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

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

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

Minya Konka. Credit, Kogo, Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

The Mount Everest Foundation.

The Nick Estcourt Award.

The Alpine Club Grant.

The British Mountaineering Council.

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

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

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

 

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

 

Philip K Dick and friend.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, instead of insight we get dishonesty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something else Rob said was interesting,

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

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

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

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

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