The Complete Cream.

simons-cat

 

“Are you setting a rappel rope?”

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

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

“Would you mind if we use your rope.”

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

“Of course you can use the rope.”

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

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

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

Alex came over,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

f h meet sign

After four days of Owey the team headed North.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Second Beer…

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

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

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

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

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

A Second Beer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll-call.

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

John Orr

Matt Smith

Tim Neill

Zylo Zylinski

Rachel Crewesmith

Tom Livingstone

Tommy Chammings

Alex Mason

The Hippy

And to the photographers and film makers…

Ray Wood.

Zoe Wood.

Lukasz Warzecha

Wojtek Kozakiewicz

Paul Scott

Al Lee

 

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Fermez la Porte

fermez la porte

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

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

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

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

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

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

toilete pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Fable for Another time.

The line of Féerie pour une autre fois Extension, a seventy-five metre 8a in the gorges du Tarn.

The line of Féerie pour une autre fois Extension, a seventy-five metre 8a in the gorges du Tarn.

the rest day service station doss with luxuries such as a shower, hot water, a table, internet, a decent mobile signal, people other than Kirby (joke Rich) a toilet and a bird that sings a beautiful song in the middle of the night.

The rest day service station doss with luxuries such as a shower, hot water, a table, internet, a decent mobile signal, people other than Kirby (joke Rich) a toilet and a bird that sings a beautiful song in the middle of the night.

I drove my little red van deep into the night. Fields. Roads. Painted white lines. Over to the east, a large orange glow lit the night sky. Paris.

I was on my own and heading to the Gorges du Tarn in the south of France to meet Rich Kirby. Usually, I am driving to Chamonix and because of this, I had never driven to the south via the roads to the west of Paris. Already, I had almost run out of fuel, crashed at a round-a-bout, crossed several lanes while turning right, or is it left – but when I pulled up, in the yellow glow of the aire at two thirty in the morning, with the refrigerator units on the waggons buzzing and that shadowy eerie menace that surrounds these places or is it that I have a vivid imagination, I felt almost content. It was a feeling of being on the road. Making do. Surviving. Moving.

Rich had bought a one hundred metre rope especially for Féerie pour une autre fois Extension, a seventy-five metre 8a, the route we intended to climb, but after only a couple of sessions, Rich had split two fingers in the small sharp pockets, and at day four, with the top getting wet in the rain, I found myself wondering about moving to something less time consuming. Every go took two hours and along with the usual paraphernalia, sandwiches, protein shake, duvet jacket, belay glasses, belay gloves, electronic cigarette, hand cream, a book, Rich had also began to bring his I-Pod and speakers. The music didn’t bother me at all, but the lack of being heard while about to plummet from a height of seventy metres did!

It wasn’t only the time though, it was a combination of the length of the climb and the sustained nature, the wet, the doubt, but these things, these things that made the whole climb doubtful, were actually the things that drew me to it and made me want to continue. Choice. Decision. Turnings.

The old pine tree behind where I parked my van each evening, high on the plateau above the valley base and the climbing, was curved, it made me think of the neck of a dragon. The bark on the trunk, the neck, was peeling in large orange scales. A Coal Tit with a black buzz haircut flitted amongst the needles. Fire consumed.

I loved the effort and the doubt but I also wanted an outcome, a result. Result. Fucking result? Why was I not content with just the effort? Being here is result enough. Doing what I do, attempting to do what I attempt to do is enough. Result. Proof. Worth. List. Log. Collect.

As the dark took over once again, I sit in the back of my van reading Cormac McCarthy’s, Cities of the plains, for possibly the third or fourth time, maybe more, certainly not less.

An open and tough and true and honest and at times brutal existence is what McCarthy’s vaquero’s live, and each time I read the Border Trilogy, each time I hope for a different outcome, each time I find myself wishing John Grady, The All American Cowboy, could make himself choose a different path, make another decision, take another road, and each time I read my heart bleeds and my heart bleeds because I know he can’t, it is who he is and what he is and what he has to be, and every time I read, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, I become more involved, more embroiled and more caught up, more emotional, but stop, no, no, stop is not an option, I have to read-on knowing there is only sadness.

There was a national meeting of Citroen 2CV owners taking place in Sévérac-le-Château, a small town near the Gorges du Tarn and every day, for the first four days, the narrow country lanes and the centre of Les Vignes, the town just before the climbing with its bridge and the brown trout bending in the eddies, was clogged with Bacofoil cars, powered with an engine only large enough for a motorbike. Battered and grey, pink, yellow, brown, purple with bulging black wings, rag-top-red, army grey, flat back, panel van, there were thousands of them and every one of them was old and tiered and individual.

A vulture, with massive wings and pointed fingers flew between the orange pocketed rock. The dark grey tissue proved the back drop and small birds angrily bombed the big bird causing it to veer and alter its course.

Nothing is ever quite like imagined. Maybe the secret is being able to adapt?

Tomorrow I think I will see how Les nouvelles plantations du Christ Extension feels.

The night time rain hits the roof of my little red van. Large drips fall from the oak that its parked beneath. The lamps that light the walkways to and from the services where we are dossing tonight, give twenty-four-hour light and in the twenty-four-hour light, the nightingale sings his heart.

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Totally Pointless? V-Day at Tremadog.

Kris and Tim in the Vector Cave.

Kris and Tim in the Vector Cave getting very close to completing the list of six, or is it seven?

It’s a strange feeling, when in a modern world of share and share alike you become comfortable with being yourself and being inside yourself and feeling like you don’t need to share that self which given I’m writing about myself is a little confusing. It’s quite a revelation to at last feel almost free of constriction, but are any of us free? No, not really.

Talk of late has been much about ego and happiness and drive and ambition. What fuels what? It’s quite a topic when thrown into the mix of a climbing life.

A few days ago Tim Neill, Kris McCoey and I decided to take on the challenge of a Tremadog extreme V Day, which in itself is a total load of waffle, because, in fact, we didn’t take on a true V Day. This was pointed out bluntly by Mick Lovatt before setting out from the Hippies house in Waunfawr that morning. “What about Valerian.” The Perfect Man said in perfect, not a hair out of place, dulcet Yorkshire.

“What about Valerian?” I replied.

“Well, it’s not an extreme V Day without Valerian is it?” He brushed at his perfect thin, denim covered, thigh, and steeled me with his perfect eyes.

I could hardly remember the name of the six routes we were hoping to climb never mind some obscure E1 on Pant Ifan and brushed it aside, but later, as Tim, Kris and I stood on the grass verge next to the road beneath Vector Buttress, I mentioned the conversation from earlier to Tim, although of course, by then, I had forgotten the name of the climb. Tim looked somewhat aghast.

“Valerian.”

“Yes, that’s the badger.”

“We don’t need to do that.”

“Really, so in this OCD exercise of ticking a list, we are not actually ticking the list.”

“It’s not on the list.”

“But it starts with V and its E1.”

“Shush Nick.”

Tim was looking uncomfortable. Tim is more OCD than me, although he frequently argues against this, but when it comes to lists and ticking, he is. But in my new found state of attempting to be humble and less ego driven and a better more understanding person, I consoled myself that I was out for a fun day of climbing, so no matter, we would still have a good day, even if the six, or is it seven routes were not completed.

Kris, the youngster in this party, and like Tim, from Northern Ireland, looked on with a total lack of concern, he was out for a day of climbing with two old codgers and saw it as a service to the community.

V Climb, number 1. Big Tim on Void's first pitch.

V Climb, number 1. Big Tim on Void’s first pitch.

The sun was shining as we began. The rock sparkled with fine grains of dolerite. Void was the first climb. Tim had decided this one was his, which I didn’t mind, as I find the climbing into and out of the pod desperate and Kris didn’t mind because he was used to climbing at Fair Head so it would all feel easy. Unfortunately, as we stepped from the loamy ground, the first ‘easy’ section was feeling quite difficult and I mused, if this was the first pitch of around ten, or was it twelve, I didn’t have a hope in hell, which as I’ve already said, didn’t matter in the slightest, no, no it didn’t. Not. At. All!

V climb (still) number 1, pitch 2. The pod and crux wall of Void.

V climb (still) number 1, pitch 2. The pod and crux wall of Void.

Sometime later, I pulled the last moves of Void with swelling finger joints and sat beside my big friend on top of the crag.

“Is it too early for the pub?”

“Shush Nick.”

Kris topped out all smiles and fresh and young and in a deep Northern Irish asked what next.

“Vulcan.” I spat before either of the others could say a word.

V Climb, number 2. Myself climbing Vulcan from the evening before. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

V Climb, number 2. Myself climbing Vulcan from the evening before. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

I had climbed Vulcan for the first time only yesterday, having been spat from it a few years ago and to say I was confident, would have been a lie. Vulcan scared me and it scared me more than ever because I had led it clean just a few hours before and I didn’t want to mess that up. Crazy? Ego? Hubris? Yes. I was obviously failing on my new found head state of nirvana, but I just wanted to hold the memory of success for a little longer, and I knew I could fall off this climb almost every time I attempted it.

I attacked the first hard fingerlocking section of Vulcan and immediately fell off. My mind and mouth were on the cusp of blurting “It’s too warm, it’s much more difficult in this sun, I fell off because of the heat,” but, but, I held it in and said nothing apart from “let me down, I’m going to give it another go.” Maybe my new found state of becoming humble was in there somewhere, maybe, maybe it just needed prizing out? Maybe…

The second attempt went much better and if I was twenty five years younger and writing on social media this would be the part of the spray I wrote something along the lines, ‘I cruised to the top, the climb was a warm up, it’s easy for the grade, but I’m not twenty five years old and I am attempting to be less ego, so I’ll be honest and say this climb, a climb that was once given the grade of E3, was, and is, bloody hard, or at least bloody hard for me, but, on this occasion … on this occasion, I made it to the top without falling.

As the three of us abseiled it began hailing, which made me think of the story the Perfect Man had told me earlier in the morning about the time he was climbing with Paul Pritchard on Heading the Shot. Heading the Shot is a difficult slab climb in the slate quarries. Half way up and a reasonable distance above the last bolt, the Perfect Man teetered, when the sky opened and delivered its icy present in the form of a thousand ball bearings which built on the Perfect Man’s perfect and strong fingers in icy pyramids. Not wanting to fall and unable to move his fingers, as the hail piled high would then wet the tiny slate edges and make them impossible to grip, he shouted to Paul to tie him off and run around to the top and drop a rope. Eventually Pritch made it to the top and dropped the rope in the wrong place and without a loop. He pulled it up, tied a loop and dropped it once more. The rope was still to the side, but the Perfect Man could wait no longer and jumped. He caught the rope and swung but the tied-off leading rope held him, and pulled him down, and he swung across the slab and down and couldn’t move. Paul, still peaking over the top of the slab looked down howling with laughter.

After a bit of blathering with friends, the three of us headed back to Bwlch y Moch and Vulture. Tim told me I had to let Kris to lead this one as it was his turn and he had not climbed it before. I would like to say I was happy with this… no, I was happy with this, but secretly, or not so secretly, I really wanted to lead Vulture, because I had led it a few days before, and I had it wired, and then I would have climbed my quota and I could relax. What was happening to the ‘I’m just out for a pleasant day of climbing and I’m not bothered how many of the six, or is it seven we do’, I’m not sure!

V climb number 3, Vulture. Kris McCoey leading. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

V climb number 3, Vulture. Kris McCoey leading. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

The weather was as twisted as our ethics. So far it had been warm and sunny, cold and cloudy. Raining. Sleeting. Snowing. Warm and sunny…

Kris did a great job and on-sighted Vulture and as Tim and I topped out, my mind started to become a little obsessed. ‘We can do this, we can climb these six, or is it seven climbs.’ Oh no, it’s begun, but in a moment of lucid, I had another thought, ‘Fuckit, if we do five out of the six, or is it six out of the seven, I’ll just say I’ve done enough, numbers and lists don’t mean anything, and to prove my point, I’ll go and sit in the van and wait, happy not to have done the final climb to make the set.’

V climb number 4. Venom. Big Tim Albatrossing the technicalities.

V climb number 4. Venom. Big Tim Albatrossing the technicalities.

We walked the path a few metres and up the hill until stood beneath a perfect v-groove. It looked desperate. Neither Kris nor I had climbed Venom, but I had heard of it, and on the occasion I remembered something about a climb, it was generally for a bad reason, and in this case, the reason I surmised was arse-kicking. So, quietly I contemplated and hoped my new found lack of ego came good, but I had serious doubts.

Tim led Venom clean. He led in great style, until he belayed beneath the final pitch of a climb called Pretzl Logic.

V climb number 4 (still). Venom, Concentration.

V climb number 4 (still). Venom concentration.

Both Kris and I had been impressed watching Tim, a giant, who appeared to span his way left with a reach longer than the wings of an Albatross and in doing so, this stupid list ticking was starting to weigh heavy around my neck. Looking up, looking into this groove, I could feel the definite yearning of wanting to complete the six, or is it seven climbs and not only did I want to complete them, I wanted to climb the six, or is it seven, clean, and looking into the yawn of dolerite, I suspected I was about to fall and my mood darkened along with the sky. Ego was once again taking control. ‘Get out Nick, get out now, walk away…’ But I couldn’t, I didn’t want to, I was hooked, and I was being reeled-in on some pitiful, pointless excursion. I had become a collector, a collector of six, or is it seven, but we still had two, or was it three to stick the pin.

Kris being young and talented showed me the way to climb the groove without an Albatross span and now, the three of us stood on a large belay ledge looking at bright green abseil tat wrapped around a tree.

“Are we abseiling then?”

“No, we have to climb this pitch as its now included in the new guide as the finish to Venom.”

I pointed out to Tim the error of his logic, as we were not intending to climb the seventh V which was Valerian, so it made no sense if we climbed this pitch or not, it didn’t matter, none of it mattered, and as I voiced this Tim set off, jamming and smearing and pulling out squishy trumpet plants while ignoring my analysis of what OCD really was and to what level Tim ranked.

“Shush Nick.”

Returning from Venom. Pic credit, Kris McCoey.

Returning from Venom in the hail storm. Pic credit, Kris McCoey.

The sky decided to dump hail and rain on the three of us as we abseiled back to the ground, and as we sat sheltering in the dark cave beneath the climb, it was obvious, so bloody obvious, this was it, this was the end of our V Day with two, or is it three routes left to climb.

We ran to the van and sheltered beneath the rear door. Climbing parties were abseiling and running and shouting. The sky was black. The rock was wet.

“The first pitch of Vector will remain dry no matter what happens, we could climb that and if it’s still pouring we can abseil from there?”

“OK.”

V climb number 5. Vector. Kris does a fine job of smearing in the wet.

V climb number 5. Vector. Kris does a fine job of smearing in the wet.

I belayed Kris who did a fine job of climbing wet rock and by the time Tim and I joined him in the little belay cave, the sky had once again cleared, along with everyone else on the crag, but out on the horizon, the night and the dark and the cold were fast approaching.

Kris took us to the top of Vector and serendipity now played its part. Yesterday, along with Vulcan, we had also climbed Valour, something of an obscure, but very good E2 with quite a difficult and bold top pitch. This was the last of the climbs in the six, or was it the second-to-last in the seven? While Tim and I had hung on the Vector belay, we had decided we didn’t need to do the first pitch of Valour. It would be wet. It was a builder’s yard. It wasn’t the crux, and as I geared up in the gloom on top of the crag, Tim and Kris ran to the top of Valour and constructed an abseil and a belay point.

We set-off down the rope, down into the dark, down in our quest to complete all of the Tremadog V’s. Well, almost all, because with the night fast approaching, we had at last declared that Valerian didn’t count along with the first pitch of Valour, but we had climbed all of the others!

V climb number 6. Valour. Myself setting out in the gloom. Pic Credit, Kris McCoey.

V climb number 6. Valour. Myself setting out in the gloom. Pic Credit, Kris McCoey.

I hit the belay tree running and set off in the last of the light trying not to think of all the smears in the shiny black rock I had confidently stood yesterday. I was fine, I was fine, I was fine, fine … fine until I reached the final 4c v-groove which required smearing and I couldn’t see a single ripple, not a pocket or an edge. What had I done, what had I done, I had allowed myself to be caught on this quest for some arbitrary list, that wasn’t even the full list because really it’s seven not six, and here I was, here I was slithering around a v-groove in the dark and about to fall, and all of my new found peace, I know, will fall in with me and I’ll discover I’ve been a pretender.

But at last I committed, and by the lights of the Porthmadog rugby ground, I eventually slithered from the top of the groove and sat.

Kris and Tim joined me, both were laughing. We had finished the Tremadog V’s, well, all but the one that doesn’t appear to count because no-one wanted to do it. It was half past nine, a fine time to finish something completely pointless, well pointless I suppose apart from the memory and the comradery and the friendship and the laugh and all of the great climbing, yes, totally pointless…

V day. The End. 9,30pm.

V day. The End. 9,30pm.

 

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The Question. #alpinistcommunity project. (My Edit)

keep it real

Recently I had a series of photographs, with each photograph accompanied by a paragraph of writing, featured on the Alpinist Magazine social media sites, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The ‘takeover’ is for someone like myself, climber/writer/photographer/bigmouth, to supply a picture a day, for seven-days, along with text.

I chose to run a theme throughout the seven pictures and text which hopefully will become apparent.

I have had a long and very successful and friendly association with everyone at Alpinist and I really value their support. The people at Alpinist uphold a crafted, creative and honest stance in the world of mountaineering/climbing journalism, long may they prosper. Of course they have guidelines and word counts and some form of restrictions, especially when trying to provide meaningful work through the form of social media and of course my writing was edited before being published, so I decided to wait and then publish my version of the #alpinistcommunity project here.

 

The question?

Does every mountain face, every ridgeline, icefall, boulder, summit need to be ascended, touched, climbed and stood-upon? For me, the answer is no—there should always be places that thwart and defy and in doing so, challenge and inspire. The question I then ask myself is, do these much dreamed about places, objects, features, do they need to be beaten to submission and afterwards, after one of these almost mythical formations has been ‘conquered’, is the climbing world richer for the blow by blow account that is almost always, without exception, publicised with little time for reflection?

Style and honesty in climbing and in life has become paramount for me, but occasionally, in the past, I have used a style, a technique or a piece of engineering in an attempt to bring the climb down to my level. On occasion I have lacked humility and shouted about my endeavours. On occasion, I feel I have done enough to claim an ascent, my ego has struggled to accept that actually the experience in itself was enough and the summit, the true and honest finish to the climb, was still an untouched dream.

In today’s climate of instant and self publicising through social media, I feel the truth can often be distorted, it can be glamorised, enhanced, twisted. At times it appears information is pumped to an audience, and the audience are duped for an agenda. On occasion I find myself battling with ‘the modern’ but in the end, this is my problem and I have found the most healthy for me is to be true and honest with myself and honest in my writing and reporting and try to ignore much of what I perceive as hubris and commercialism and the need to make more money.

In approximately twenty-three years of climbing there are only a handful of experiences that have deeply affected me in their integrity and the style of climbing, so much so, they have formed the person I am and the person I strive to be and it is these climbs, these memories, I value and place in high regard, it is these experiences that have true value. It is these experiences that get to the very heart of why I do what I do and have made me a better person. It is these experiences that have highlighted to me how valuable true friendship is.

This collection is not the whole or even exclusively the ‘handful’ this collection is a combination of images and stories that hopefully inspire the reader to ask and question my motivation and the motivation of those who share a similar history on similar mountains and climbs, and possibly your own motivation.

I will only continue to improve as a person and continually move forward with the constant questioning of why and for what reason and for what end?

1.

Shark’s Fin.

In September 1997, Jules Cartwright, Jamie fisher, Owain Jones and I travelled to India to attempt Meru Central. This was my first expedition. We attempted to climb the Sharks Fin twice in an Alpine Style with open bivies and four climbing ropes. We did not carry bolts or porta-ledges. On the second attempt we carried my Quasar tent to the spur at approximately 5500m, before once again, setting-off. Cartwright, Fisher and I reached a high point of approximately 6100m just beneath the series of iced corners to the left of the base of the actual fin. At this point, Cartwright had resorted to jumaring the climbing rope as both of his crampons had broken, but he did not want to go down. An anchor failed that was holding the rope while he was moving sideways, causing him to pendulum and injure his leg. It was at this point we decided to retreat.

Owain Jones and myself on our first attempt to climb Meru Shark's Fin, India. On the second attempt, Jules Cartwright, Jamie Fisher and I reached the base of the corner system at the top of the snow patch directly beneath the final headwall. Pic Credit, Jules Cartwright.

Owain Jones and myself on our first attempt to climb Meru Shark’s Fin, India. On the second attempt, Jules Cartwright, Jamie Fisher and I reached the base of the corner system at the top left of the snow-patch, directly beneath the final headwall. Pic Credit, Jules Cartwright.

2.

Slovak Direct (aka Czech Direct; Alaska Grade 6: 5.9, 100 degrees, 9,000′, Adam-Korl-Krizo, 1984).

Adamant that I was staying in North Wales trad climbing on rock for the summer, I twice refused Andy Houseman’s plea for a partner to go to Alaska. Andy is a Yorkshire man and drives a hard bargain. On the first phone call he told me his sponsors would fund the logistics and food. I turned him down. On the second phone call he told me his sponsors would fund the logistics and the food and the flight. I turned him down; I really wanted to rock climb in Wales. On the third phone call I made the mistake of asking what it was he wanted to climb in Alaska, he replied, “The Slovak Direct on Denali,” immediately I replied I was in and there followed yet another summer of lost rock climbing ambitions.

Myself climbing the third pitch of 'The Corner' on the Slovak Direct. Pic credit, Andy Houseman.

Myself climbing the third pitch of ‘The Corner’ on the Slovak Direct, Denali, Alaska. Pic credit, Andy Houseman.

3.

Chang Himal, North Face, Nepal. (ED+: M6, 1800m, 6802m)

Climbing in the mountains is not only about the climb and the situation, as important is the person I climb alongside. Andy Houseman, a quiet and understated Yorkshireman, is without question one of my closest friends, but beneath that pale Yorkshire exterior is something of a stubborn pugilist. A year after we had everything robbed while attempting a new route on Peak 41 in the Hinku Valley, Nepal, Andy came back with, “Let’s go and try Chang Himal.” It had been featured in Alpinist Magazine, in an article written by Lindsay Griffin, as one of the worlds most desirable unclimbed objectives. He took our total failure in 2008 and rolled the dice on an even bigger gamble in 2009. The gamble came good.

Andy Houseman at about 9pm chopping the bivi ledge at the end of climbing day two. We climbed another day, Bivied, then summited on day four before returning to the high bivi. Sometime in the night on day five we reached the base of the face and bivied for a final time. Pic credit, Nick Bullock

Andy Houseman at about 9pm involved in chopping the bivi ledge at the end of climbing on day two, this was as big as it got. We climbed for another full day, before a third bivi at approximately 6500m. We summited on day four before returning to the high bivi and a fourth night on the hill. This climb and summit was one of those moments, there was no false summit, no higher spot to stand, no rising ridge – we stood on the very top, very happy we could climb no higher, very happy for once to be able to say, “Yes, we reached the top.” Sometime in the night on day five we reached the base of the face and bivied before returning to camp the next morning. Pic credit, Nick Bullock

4.

North Face of Mt Alberta. Canada. House-Anderson  (WI5+ M8 R/X, 1000m, 3619m)

After seven trips to Canada where I have been fortunate to climb many of the big multi-pitch ice and mixed lines, I decided it was time to taste some true Canadian. In 2014, Will Sim and I climbed the second ascent of the House-Anderson on Mt Alberta’s North Face. Will had lost his belay plate and we couldn’t find the ‘correct’ rappel to place us beneath the face, so we constructed our own anchors and committed. We carried food and gas for one night only and bars for two days and took no sleeping bags or mats, but we did have big jackets. I carried a bivi bag and Will carried synthetic trousers. Three days later, in the afternoon, we stumbled back into the tin shed of the Alberta Hut. The following day we retraced our steps back to the trusted and underpowered Nissan Micra parked on the Icefields Parkway, where the food bag in the boot was first port of call.

Will Sim seconding one of the 'easier' higher pitches. The weather came in as we reached the summit crest making the descent in the dark and bad weather something of a bugger. Will did a great job of finding the way but at about 11pm, unable to find the correct gully on the massive and complex east face we resorted to a night in the snow under separate boulders. Pic credit, Nick Bullock.

Will Sim seconding one of the ‘easier’ higher pitches of the House/Anderson, Mt Alberta. The weather deteriorated as we reached the summit crest, making the descent in the dark and the bad weather something of an effort. Will did a great job of finding the way, but at about 11pm, unable to find the correct gully on the massive and complex east face, we resorted to a second night out, but instead of a comfortable cave we had a blizzard beneath separate boulders. Pic credit, Nick Bullock.

5.

Jirishanca, Southeast Face,Huayhuash, Peru. Fear and Loathing (ED3: 900m that joins the East Buttress route, 6094m).

I shared five expeditions with Al Powell, four to Peru and one to Nepal, and I can honestly say we never had a cross word, well, almost never. My stopping and hanging from a dubious spike on our first climb together, a new route on Quitaraju’s south Face in Peru was the closest. I have more respect for Powell and what he stands for than possibly anyone. His passion and honesty are exemplary, though in 2003 he may have held some facts back from Sima, his partner, when we returned to Jirishanca’s Southeast Face and succeeded in climbing the line we later called Fear and Loathing. Powell, a highly regarded endurance runner designed and manufactured much of the gear for the attempt, he was adamant that a lightweight approach was the only way because a year before we were both almost killed when hit by a large slough sending us four-hundred feet while entering the gully near the base of the face.

We set out to climb the face on our alpine style, three-day attempt with packs weighing five kilos’ each, only to be stopped approximately one-hundred-and-fifty metres short of the summit by bad weather. The nagging concern that we were already very extended and spending a night, just beneath the summit in hope of better weather, would be a risk too far, we returned to our high bivi, before escaping the face the day after by constructing abseil anchors from ice v-threads.

Myself leading towards the right side of the crux icefall on Jirishanca's Southeast Face. Powel weighed our rucksacks before we set off, they were 5kg each. This included all bivi gear and food. Pic Credit, Al Powel.

Myself leading towards the right side of the crux icefall on Jirishanca’s Southeast Face. Powell weighed our rucksacks before we set off, they were 5kg each. This included all bivi gear and food, although the food was a few fun sized chocolate bars, a single cup-a-soup and a small pack of noodles for each day. The rack was a few cams, a few nuts, a few ice-screws. We took no bolts or aid gear, we fixed no ropes. Pic Credit, Al Powell.

6.

Mick Fowler’s Helmet Boiler, Mousetrap Zawn, Gogarth, Anglesey. E5 5c

Tim Neill is a 6’7” mountain guide originally from Northern Ireland and a great friend. The list of Welsh rock climbs we have climbed together since first meeting in 1998 is long. Tim is one of the few friends who can say he saved my life after one particularly harrowing episode on a climb called The Bells, the bells! A million climbs behind us, and still we hadn’t learnt, or maybe Tim had, I was leading the crux pitch of another Gogarth route, this time a Mick Fowler climb called Helmet Boiler with the moderate grade of E5. The crux pitch weaved through unprotected overhanging mud, cheese, talc and quartz with small islands of sanity from which I could stand and question the wonders of what I was doing. Snapping quartz at the most run out point nearly ended the attempt and me, but a Bruce Lee snatch for a hold saved the day.

Myself starting pitch two of Helmet Boiler and I remember climbing it as if it was yesterday. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

Myself starting pitch two of Helmet Boiler and I remember the climbing that day as if it was a few hours ago. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

7.

Godzilla. Beinn Bhàn’s, Coire Nan Fhamair and the Giants Wall. Scotland. IX/8

In March 2011, almost at the end of another Scottish winter, Guy Robertson and Pete Benson individually called me on the phone. “We are going in search of a new route on the Applecross cliffs, you can join us if you want.” I hadn’t had my fill that winter and drove the eleven-hour journey from Llanberis in North Wales to the north west of the Scottish Highlands by myself before settling down in the back of my green Citroen Berlingo to wait. At 10pm a car pulled up and the almost-mythical team of Scottish winter new route success came-a-knocking, bringing with them zeal and reconstituted meat in the form of such highland delights as sausage and pie, of which I partook in none.

After four hours we set off in the dark aiming for Beinn Bhàn’s, Coire Nan Fhamair and the Giants Wall.

Several hours later, the three of us topped out with a monster of a new line and monster smiles. The moon lit the glistening sheet of the green sea and the stars flickered almost the end of my winter that year. Scottish winter climbing and the style we impose on ourselves to keep it real can be very rewarding, especially when shared with trusted friends. We named the new route Godzilla and gave it a grade of IX/8.

Guy Robertson seconding what turned out to be the crux pitch of Godzilla. To call this pitch the crux may suggest the other five pitches were easy, this would be doing a disservice, as they were all quite chunky. Godzilla is up there with the best new routes and days climbing I have ever had in winter in Scotland.

Guy Robertson seconding what turned out to be the crux pitch of Godzilla. To call this pitch the crux may suggest the other five pitches were easy, this would be doing the climb a disservice, as they were all quite chunky. Godzilla is up there with the best new routes and days climbing I have ever had in winter in Scotland, what gets better, walk-in, look-up, begin to climb, finish at the top, in the dark and with two great friends. Pic credit, Nick Bullock.

8.

Guerdon Grooves. Slime Wall. Buachaille Etive Mòr. (The one that got away. Bonus words and picture that didn’t appear on the Alpinist takeover.)

“Nick, I’ve been training hard and climbing easy routes and I’m getting nervous and jittery and I’m borderline ANGRY! We will go to Buachaille Etive Mòr.” This was how the phone call with my friend Guy Robertson finished after planning for the following day of Scottish winter climbing. Guy, a Scot and guru of all things wintery, was joining Bayard Russel, an East Coast American and me as we attended the final day of a BMC Winter International Meet.

Saturday morning, walking in the dark past Lagangarbh, the SMC hut and over iced puddles cracked like stars, we look up and a vision from a dream appears, there is a white wave running down Slime Wall. Guy turned to me, “It’s on, it’s on, my God, ITS ON!” As Guy had not actually said what the plan was, I could only guess that whatever it was, was on.

I had always dreamed of climbing the mythical, Guerdon Grooves, first climbed by Dave Cuthbertson and Arthur Paul in 1986 and not having had a second ascent. Climbers whispered when they spoke of it. At the start of each winter internet forums always had a long thread guessing the grade and asking would it ever be climbed in winter again. Guerdon was a fable, a dream, it was a rabbit from a hat, it was a step into the almost unknown and because of this, because of this unknown, this step, it was worth more than gold, but it couldn’t be taken at any cost, that would have been heresy.

Guy, Bayard and I started to climb at 10am armed only with a large rack of gear and a route description and with each move, with each pick placement, every front point, the anticipation and history and myth increased. The crux of this climb was coping with the folklore that threatened to weigh us down.

At six pm, all three of us stood on the top, the route was climbed. Robbo’s anger was quelled, Bayard, knowing nothing about the history of the climb thought it had been “An awesome outing dude”, but I could tell it was a little lost on him, and for me – well, I was almost over-whelmed with deep joy but I was also a little bit sad.

Myself leading pitch two of Guerdon Grooves. Pic Credit, Bayard Russell.

Myself leading pitch two of Guerdon Grooves. Pic Credit, Bayard Russell.

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Tides. wuthering and erosion. Chapter 24. How Soon is Now.

I’ve just finished the third draft/edit of what will hopefully become my second book, provisionally called, Tides. wuthering and erosion.

Below is chapter 24. how Soon is Now. This was first published in the on-line magazine Mountain Pro Magazine

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How Soon is Now.

The edge had returned to the Welsh hills in February. There was no snow, only frost thistling the yellowy slabs of Rhyolite. Each morning the grass was white and the black slate wore frozen cling-film. I stayed on my own in Tim and Lou Neill’s house next to the chapel in the centre of Nant Peris. The sun filled the sky and melted the frost and cast shadowy crosses on the white walls inside the house. When, after breaking my ankle on Omega, and my first winter season in Chamonix was cut short, I returned to Britain feeling sullen having been torn from the mountains. On that occasion I stayed with my friend Janet, in her house in Quorn, Leicestershire. I counted the hours and days and weeks before I could remove the plaster and return to Europe. I sat inside Janet’s terrace house in stasis, inert, stuck – the waves washed over me and I almost drown. Time, that most valuable commodity, was spilling. And now, my winter had been cut even shorter, but returning to Llanberis felt like coming home, the town had taken place of my home in Burton Overy, it was somewhere I was starting to become very attached. Friends that were still in town and not in Scotland or the Alps welcomed me and I didn’t begrudge being back or even the injury I now had.

Every day I ran with the frozen bog beneath my feet. Sometimes my foot would break the crust leaving a dark footprint with a white outline. The hills directly accessed from the house were my favourite, Elider Fawr, Foel Goch, Y-Garn – sheep shorn mounds, all frozen and crisp. I ran across the worn track at the top of the Devils Kitchen. Open space. A buzzard cried in the blue crackling sky. The Glyder plateau, spikes of rock, like hewn standing stones. On the lee of these monoliths was soft moss, but the rock was as rough as a terrier’s coat on the windward side.

One day I ran and scrambled Tryfans North Ridge. Where it was possible, I jogged, and where it was not, I scrambled. Passing people, they looked aghast when they saw my arm in plaster. I waved and said hello and continued. I climbed direct, the cold friction felt clingy and safe. I remembered climbing the same ground, the same rock and the same features in April, seventeen years before when I trained to be a PE Instructor. I jogged a wide ledge where I could still picture Mark Bentley, my roomy and friend from Bolton, crawling on all fours with the wind snickering at him like a magpie and afterwards brushing away the sleet leaving dark damp patches on his knees. The air around me now was frigid and empty; it caught images and dreams and carried them away over the heather.

Crossing Bwlch Tryfan, I looked once again to my past. I saw a group of trainee PE Instructors trying to remember how a compass worked. My toes crunched on the surface of rock covered with moss and grains. I smiled thinking that some things hadn’t changed. On and on and on – panting, chest heaving, deep heaving breaths, the streak of dried sweat. Scrambling Bristly Ridge, swinging legs and pulling. Empty air with blank open space. My broken wrist ached, but not enough to stop me. Then, once again, I was out of the dark and onto the glaring Glyder tops. The rocks and the hills looked like an over-sharpened photograph and in the shimmering distance, the sea was a dark green sheet. Jet aircraft screamed across the blue leaving white scars for the buzzard to thread. But eventually the scars faded and the buzzard disappeared into the distance.

I ran from the summit of Glyder Fach, dodging and balancing, my feet catching edges, stubbing toes, ‘nnnrrrrgh‘… The pain, like a broken heart, was only temporary, although the pain from a broken heart would remain for longer and hurt more.

I stood on the edge of Cwm Cneifion. Skidding feet turned sideways. Rocks bounced and whirred and hummocks of grass broke revealing the red beneath. I stopped and stared at Clogwyn Du, the little black crag at the top of the Glyders. Raven coughed. I could see ghosts of winters past.

Running the edge of Llyn Idwal, around the well-worn path, the water sucks and filters through rocks rubbed round. I watch Sam Sperry, my ex-girlfriend from Leicestershire with Blue, the brindle Staffordshire Bullterrier pulling on the end of his fully stretched lead. I see Sam’s long blond hair blowing wild in the breeze and her torn jeans with flickering frays and I watch her ‘take me or leave me’ twenty eight year old attitude catch in the breeze and carry across the ancient water.

I jog onto the Ogwen Cottage car park and see a group, including myself, hucked tightly together on tarmac, cooking in the cold, having navigating the Carnedd’s all the way from Drumm to Pen Y Ole Wen on our summer Mountain Leaders Award. I run the roadside by Llyn Ogwen, the water unruffled. Gulls skim the waters clear surface looking down at a version of themselves. Cars speed past. The people inside with heavy right feet and heavy heads, rushing to somewhere from somewhere, going nowhere or anywhere. I can smell fumes and warm worn oily engines. A silver wheel trim lies in the gutter – a plastic starfish washed up and winking.

Whatever happened to Alison Parker?

Alison Parker and I went out for a while when we were both twenty. She had a small upturned nose, short to medium length blond hair, white teeth, taught suntanned skin and a wicked smile, which she wore most of the time. She laughed and she made me laugh and I think for the very short time we were together I loved her very nearly as much as I have loved anyone. She introduced me to Neil Young and Crosby Stills and Nash and Leonard Cohen and The Smiths.

The night before this run I had watched Morrissey on the I-player, he looked similar to how Tom Briggs looked, the time we first met and climbed together in Australia. And later in the evening, I watched a YouTube clip of The Smiths on Top of the Pops from 1984. What Difference Does it Make, the song I ribbed Alison Parker about when we first met and stood next to the cooker in the kitchen. I refused to admit I liked it.

The night before, watching The Smiths from so long ago, plunged me into renaissance – swinging my plastered arm and wishing I had a bunch of flowers.

Where the hell did it all go?

It had been twenty-three years since Alison Parker had bullied and cajoled until at last I admitted to enjoying the music of The Smiths and then we moved close and kissed for the first time while leaning against the cooker.

Morrissey gently shuffled around the stage with his shirt buttons tested to the limit by a paunch.  Then, with a bit of a shuffle and the occasional arm swing, he attempted to be dangerous. But he wasn’t, he was just old.

His voice and presence were still electrifying even after all of this time, but how time stops for no-one. Not you, not me.  Not Morrissey nor Alison Parker nor Tom Briggs nor Mark Bentley nor Sam Sperry. It stops for none of us.

The music of the Smiths takes me back – back to an attitude of, what difference does it make and panic at the disco – but while I always panicked at the disco I never did think, what difference does it make, or at least, not until now, not until I could run no farther and wring every bit out of this short life.

The Smiths remind me so much of Alison Parker with her vitality and energy and intelligence, she was carefree and dangerous and so much fun.

I wonder where Alison Parker is now and if she has children and if so how many. Does she still have that spark or has life beaten her to grey?

I ran the last few metres until I stood at the side of my green Berlingo, parked at the side of the road near Little Tryfan.

Watching Morrissey the night before made me think that for just the short time you are there –  there in your prime, a handsome devil with hollow cheeks and bendy limbs and strong muscle – just for a short time, you may not care about the world, or at least the world outside your world, and you think there is a light that never goes out.

But there is a light and one day it will go out…

 

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The Wrecking Light.

Guy Robertson and Andy Ingles approaching the col before dropping beneath the Southeast Face of Coire Ghranda, Beinn Dearg

Guy Robertson and Andy Inglis approaching the col before dropping beneath the Southeast Face of Coire Ghranda, Beinn Dearg

Sat by myself, I drive north from Llanberis.

Several hours later, just over the Kessock Bridge, the bridge that crosses the Beauly Firth in Inverness, I turn into the tourist information centre and set about to wait. Sitting, eating a sandwich, listening to Radio 4 – the sun, between the clouds, sets and over the water, a fire of shadows stirs.

Turning off the radio, the gentle sway of sea and the call of birds can be heard between the cars passing on the road behind.

Guy Robertson, the Highland Powerball, who like me, has become somewhat tempered with the passing years, arrives and we travel together, in my red van, towards Ullapool.

Eighteen years since my last visit to the town set on the side of Loch Broom, Ullapool was as I remembered – thick walled houses made from sandstone, short and stock and sturdy, making me, for some reason, think of wild ponies.

Not moving an inch, fishing boats sit in silence, moored to the quay that has nets and chains, yellow plastic crates, stacked lobster pots, weathered wooden boxes. Large pink floats the shape of space hoppers but without a smiley face, hang from the side of the fishing boats. Waiting. The boats wait. The sea waits. Eighteen years. Time waits for no one.

We drive past the bar that years before, on a New Years eve, Jon Bracey and I meet people that became friends, drifted, reacquainted, drifted… The bar tonight was closed and dark, no shadows, no ceilidh, no sloshing pints, no burn of single malt – just a brief echo, a glimmer.

Tesco carpark, shining chrome bars and blue neon feels out of place, but on meeting Andy Inglis, who is sat waiting inside the dark of his car, he appears to fit well with the landscape surrounding Ullapool.

Driving into the night, following Andy, a deer jumps from the heather and runs into the glittering road. Caught in the lights, she looks almost surprised. I brake and swerve, looking more than almost surprised. Fortunately, the road is wide enough for the both of us and she scutters off into the heathery bog. In the black ink above, the northern lights shimmer in ethereal waves.

Looking towards Suilven on the walk in to Cùl Mòr.

Looking towards Suilven on the walk in to Cùl Mòr.

Suilven.

Suilven.

Early the next day, clouds pour over Suilven and its long ridge. The sea behind, a dark sheet, full of life, is flat. The land is a quiver with white and green and brown. Lochs – those pools of deep and quiet, appear imprisoned within the earth, yearning to join the sea, but like a child who has lost a parent, they will never join again.

A shaft of sun splits cloud. Shadows of the three of us, stretch and lead the way to Cùl Mòr where an ephemeral single silver streak, a wrecking light, waits.

Later, stood on the summit of Cùl Mòr, the green sea, in front stretches to infinity ans Suilven is to my right and above, a pair of eagles wheel on massive wings.

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From the summit of Cùl Mòr. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Day two. Walking in to Beinn Dearg.

Day two. Walking in to Beinn Dearg.

The second day of climbing had more walking than the first. Coire Ghranda on Beinn Dearg held on to its secrets as if embarrassed, but at long last, after four hours, we gaze at the cliff.

Ice Bomb, yet another Fowler gem is todays present, all wrapped in ice and mystique but the real prize is completing the climb in its entirety.

And as the sun beats and the clock ticks we begin…

starting the first pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Starting the first pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself on pitch one of the new route, The Wrecking Light. A direct, four pitch ice climb on Cùl Mòr. VIII/7. Guy Robertson, Andy Ingles, Nick Bullock. 6.3.16.

Myself on pitch one of the new route, The Wrecking Light. A direct, four pitch ice climb on Cùl Mòr. VIII/7. Guy Robertson, Andy Inglis, Nick Bullock. 6.3.16. Pic credit, Andy Inglis.

Myself on the first pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Andy Ingles.

Myself on the first pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Andy Inglis.

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Andy seconding the first pitch. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy seconding the first pitch. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy seconding the first pitch. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Andy setting off on the second pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Andy setting off on the second pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy Robertson on the third pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy Robertson on the third pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Andy Ingles on the fourth pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Andy Inglis on the fourth pitch of The Wrecking Light. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Andy Inles on the first pitch of Ice Bomb. Ice Bomb was first climbed in 1988 by Mick Fowler and ........ Beneath the overhanging top corner/chimney, Fowler tensioned left and climbed a line on the face/arete to the left leaving the second ascent but the first true ascent of the line to be climbed. On the 7.3.16 this is what Guy Robertson, Andy Ingles and I climbed. the grade is bench mark old school fowler 6.

Andy Inglis on the first pitch of Ice Bomb. Ice Bomb was first climbed in 1988 by Mick Fowler and Dave Wilkinson. Beneath the overhanging top chimney, Fowler tensioned left and climbed a line on the face/arete to the left leaving the second ascent but the first true ascent of the line to be climbed. On the 7.3.16 Guy Robertson, Andy Inglis and I climbed the whole line, including the overhanging top chimney. The grade is bench mark old school Fowler VI and we called it the Mind Bomb Finish.

Myself on pitch two of Ice Bomb. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Myself on pitch two of Ice Bomb. Credit, Guy Robertson.

Guy Robertson setting off on pitch four, the previously unclimbed finish. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy Robertson setting off on pitch four, the previously unclimbed finish. Credit, Nick Bullock.

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The Big Red Rooster in the Far North. (Steep Ice in Northern Quebec.)

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Sainte-Marguerite Headwall near Sept-Îles, with Bayard russell climbing the first pitch of Speedy Gonzalez.

I was sat engulfed inside the comforting arms of a large chair. A fireplace made from red brick, smoke tainted and heat scorched, held burning logs the size of small canoes. The glowing logs shimmered in the subdued light of the living room. Friendly, boisterous and jovial – people sat all around while watching Super Bowl 50. The last of my four lectures was over, which was the largest, the Mount Washington Icefest, and in the morning, Bayard Russel, Michael Wejchert and I, would drive the seven hundred miles from North Conway, New Hampshire to Sept-Îles, Northern Quebec.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate how far north we were heading, but if I had taken the time to look at a map, I would have seen that Sept-Îles is level and quite close to Newfoundland. It was nine p.m. Bayard and I still had to finish packing for our whistle-stop of Quebec ice, but at least we had shopped for food and done some form of preparation, although the preparation consisted of looking at a few pictures and deciding that’s where we wanted to climb. This ‘preparation’ was completed by looking at a few pictures of the hostel we hoped to stay. It may have been helpful to have taken the name and address of the hostel or even contact them, but we were only a drive away, who needs preparation, it was just ice cragging in the next country over, right? “Do you speak French?” “No.” “Ah, we’ll be fine.” We would just drive fourteen hours and climb. It’s not like we were travelling to another planet in a frozen solar system where we could not communicate…

After collecting Michael, we left behind a dark North Conway at six a.m. The sky was overcast. I had visited Canada nine times, including Quebec City and Montréal, although I had not climbed in the east. The east of Canada evoked austere, wilderness, bone numbing cold and a space so big and empty, my mind swam with anticipation. For some reason I have always been drawn to these austere and vast open spaces, and the people that live locked inside these cold and desolate wildernesses fascinated me more. How and why do people live in such a harsh environment and would they continue living in such challenging conditions if they had another choice. Do they enjoy this weather induced hardship, does it become ‘normal’ to live with bone numbing cold and did this challenging weather make the people rely on each other more, which in turn, in my experience, makes the Quebecois people very friendly and extremely helpful?

Bethlehem post office, the Maia Papaya Cafe and the GMC, Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

Bethlehem post office, the Maia Papaya Cafe and the GMC. Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

The three of us travelled north, up over Crawford Notch and past the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods where the IMF was established in 1944. Bayard’s truck, a large silver GMC Sierra – a big truck, which for some reason appeared to fit with my friend’s big character, guzzled petrol like my friend guzzled cheap beer. We stopped at a small café as the day came to being in a town called Bethlehem. I watched a man with a beard raise the stars and stripes above the Bethlehem post office. Old Glory whipped in the wind. Winter at last came after four hours on the open road. I sat in the passenger seat of the silver truck and sensed the massive expanse of water somewhere to my right.

Inside the Maia Papaya.

Inside the Maia Papaya.

North, higher than Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. North – north, until hitting Quebec City at the five-hour mark. “I could drive slower, it would save fuel and money, but I like passing people.” Bayard said as he pushed the GMC gas pedal and the truck muscled past another car. I had visited Quebec once before and it was just like I remembered, cold and windy, but friendly in a must move quick to get out of the cold kind of way.

We cross the Pierre Laporte Bridge with the Pont de Québec to our right, both bridges span the Saint Lawrence River. The Pont de Québec, a large iron structure made with rivets and girders and angles, took thirty years to build, costing the lives of eighty-eight people and it is still the largest span of a cantilever bridge in the world. Pack ice erupted beneath the bridge and clung to iron and concrete. The ice was anarchic, a jumble, a frozen turmoil. Paves of thick ice thrust toward the cloud filled sky, it almost felt like the lives lost to build the bridge made the water and the ice seethe.

Entering Quebec City via the Pierre Laporte Bridge with the Pont de Québec to our right.

Entering Quebec City via the Pierre Laporte Bridge with the Pont de Québec to our right.

The Pierre Laporte Bridge, the bridge we were crossing, is the longest non-tolled suspension bridge in the world and the longest suspension bridge in Canada. The bridge was named after a provincial cabinet minister who was kidnapped and murdered by the Front de libération du Québec in 1970 as the bridge was coming to completion. How these two bridges capsulated hardship and austerity and death, combining beauty and endeavour. The two bridges, and the misty milky sky, and the cloud and smoke swilling around the sky scrapers, fitted perfect with the surroundings and the mood.

Quebec City.

Quebec City.

We went wrong, got a little lost, although it wasn’t really a surprise and found ourselves in the centre of the city. Michael and Bayard called into the Mountain Co-op in the city centre as we had realised we didn’t have a guidebook and none of us knew where the climbs were. In fact, not only short of a guidebook, we didn’t have a road map or any idea how to get through Quebec City or the number of the road we should be looking for, which eventually would lead us north. After acquiring the guidebook, we bought a road map, and with instruction of the road number we needed from a very helpful lady in the petrol station, we continued in our quest for steep Quebecois ice and a mythical village called Sept-Îles.

Île d'Orléans Bridge, Quebec City.

Île d’Orléans Bridge, Quebec City.

Leaving Quebec City having found the correct road, the 40, which would eventually lead to the 138, the only road north, we passed the Île d’Orléans Bridge. Quebec appeared to have more than its fair share of historic and dramatic bridges. The Orléans Bridge was commissioned as a job creation project in the great depression of 1934 and completed in 1935. Before the bridge was built, Orléans Island could only be reached by ferry or walking when the Saint Lawrence was frozen. In this crazy winter of warmth and no snow and storms I suspect people would have to be very hardy and good swimmers to cross the Saint Lawrence at the moment. Turning and taking one more glance at Quebec City, that was once more lost in dirty swirling cloud, I watched a solitary gull fly upstream while beneath the bird the earthquake of ice groaned.

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The GMC takes to the water.

The GMC takes to the water.

A free ferry service took us across a turbulent inlet at Tadoussac. A woman with piercing grey eyes, that sparked from a face buried in balaclava, wrapped a yellow rope around a rusting girder to secure the ferry. The GMC rumbled across grated metal and we continued north while all of the time skirting the coast with its millions of frozen baubles bobbing and glittering. At times the road veered inland and spruce heavy with snow lapped the road on either side. “Keep an eye open, this is typical swamp donkey terrain,” Bayard warned.

Michael was driving now, his dark eyes stared directly ahead as he pushed the throttle, the GMC penetrated a blizzard that had hitched a ride on an easterly and was shearing the coast and cutting the deeply frozen land. I felt space and emptiness and a vast longing to experience this empty land and all it could throw at me.

Bayard Russell. A big character with a big truck.

Bayard Russell. A big character with a big truck.

“Baie-Comeau, Baie-Comeau, Baie-Comeau.” Bayard, sat in the back drinking cheap beer, he repeated the name of the town three times enjoying the texture of the words and the rounded taste. I affectionately laughed as his deep, American, drawn-out-drawl, said the place name and the obvious pleasure he received from saying it. Michael had spent a lot of time with Bayard and had grown used to his eccentric and endearing qualities. In some ways Michael was the steadying influence on this, no direction whistle-stop, but even Michael had that tide of New Hampshire recklessness running through his young bones and appeared not concerned at all that we had no idea where the hostel was that we were hoping to stay. We had brought along a tent and Michael had brought a stove but he had forgotten fuel for the stove. “Have you two any cooking implements? You know, stuff to spread shit and stir stuff and eat from? I asked. “I have a spoon.” “I have a spoon.” “Bollocks, I don’t have a spoon. I need a spoon.” “Do you have a knife?” Michael looked at me from his upright driving position as if I were a dumb ass, “Nick, we’re Americans, of course we have knives.” I felt seriously under gunned on the cutlery front.

The frozen chill became even deeper as our direction maintained north with some east, and as we continued north with some east with no real plan about how to reach the climbs we hoped to climb, we continued north with some east with no idea where we would be staying, but the most concerning factor haunting me in our continuing north with some east was the lack of cutlery. I need a spoon, how the hell could I eat muesli without a spoon and the thought of using Bayard or Michaels knife to spread my, I can’t believe it’s not butter, onto my bagel, after I had witnessed the both of them sawing into lumps of congealed meat and fat was not a thought I wanted to contemplate.

A dark and winding road, swirling with sparkling snow devils lit by the lights of the truck, took us through small towns with the sea rolling frothy white and spraying a frozen smoke over the sea wall and the boulders. Wooden houses or trailers perched on a concrete platforms had small white lean-to tents attached to the front door and strong white tents masquerading as garages to battle, and hopefully combat, the elements. The truck thermometer measuring the outside air temperature said eight degrees Fahrenheit, when converted into a scale I understood this meant it was cold. We passed through a large town with a supermarket. As my wittering about not having a spoon was becoming too much, Michael and Bayard suggested a visit. I walked the well-lit isles and found a $2 pack of four spoons which I bought by debit card having no Canadian dollars. Possibly a good deal to end my lack of cutlery concern, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I had just paid in bank charges for a spoon, which was a set of four spoons as the supermarket didn’t sell singles, and having now bought four spoons, it was obvious we would find the hostel which would have room and would be stacked full of spoons. I suppose, all in all, the bank charges from using my debit card to buy four spoons would be a small price to pay given how cold it was outside and my lack of excitement about the prospect of camping. To completely seal the deal in finding the hostel, Michael had bought a big canister of white gas for the stove.

At eight p.m. we drove in to the outskirts of Sept-Îles along a duel carriageway. Behind the truck – very close behind the truck – the locals appeared to drive like people from France, pushy and pressurising, an inch from the rear bumper. “Erm, I thought you said this was a one horse town, the end of the road?” We were driving through a modern urban sprawl with flashing neon and hotels and supermarkets, and a St-Hubert chicken restaurant with a big sign showing a rooster with a bowtie and a red quiff and a smile, which I couldn’t understand as no rooster would be smiling just before he was about to be killed and fried. We trundled past another chicken restaurant that in other parts of the world is known by the initials KFC, but we were in the east of Canada, so this one was PFK (Poulete Frit Kentucky). This town was no single pony, this was a large modern town close to becoming a city, we were never going to find the hostel. And then Bayard voiced a thought that was not a thought any of us wanted to contemplate. “Dude, do you reckon there is more than one Sept-Îles?” I looked around and I could see the three of us, our faces were lit by flashing neon, screwed tight with concern, and our heads were all working with the same thought, ‘We have just driven fourteen hours and we have driven to the wrong place… FUCKER.’ Now I must admit, even I wanted to strangle that happy rooster as he looked down and laughed at our stupidity.

This place felt so far from anywhere, the thought that we were in the wrong place was sickening. This was going to turn out to be an expensive drive for a bit of sight-seeing. The only settlements on the paved road network that are farther north than Sept-Îles are Fermont, Radisson and Chisasibi, the last two in the extreme western portion of the province at the north end of the James Bay Road. If this wasn’t our Sept-Îles we were well and truly scuppered. The remaining settlements at higher latitudes in the province are mostly isolated Cree, Innu, or Inuit villages, with access limited to seasonal gravel roads, we sat in the truck wondering how the hell we could have been so stupid not to check where it was we actually wanted to be. Panic was almost setting in as we cruised the strip for the third time, and for the third time that laughing rooster looked down. I had serious reservations about my vegetarianism. “I know, why don’t we stop at somewhere with internet and look up the hostel?” It wasn’t really that intelligent, but at that moment it felt like I had just invented a solution to global warming, which given the temperature outside, if I had solved the problem of the world warming, I would have kept it to myself for a while longer.

We sat beneath the large glowing red of a Tim Hortons sign, all three of us had our phones to hand and typed in Sept-Îles Hostel and hit the button. This would be the critical moment because we knew this hostel was the same hostel that Bayard’s friends had stayed when they had visited Sept-Îles to come and climb the same climbs we wanted to climb, but it was these same friends that had told Bayard Sept-Îles was a one horse town in the arse-end of no-where, so would the hostel be in this town, in this Sept-Îles, would the climbing we had travelled all day to experience be close at hand?

The three of us watched our individual phone screens with trepidation. Four blue dots rolled across my screen… any minute, any minute, please let this be our town…

Postscript:

At the moment I’m sitting on a bus heading toward Logan Airport in the centre of Boston, my time in the east is done. A huge thank you to everyone who has once again made my time here very enjoyable and I cant thank you enough for the generosity and friendship you have once again shown me, cheers and all the best, till next time, Nick. 

The GMC eventually finds the Sept-Îles hostel.

The GMC eventually finds the Sept-Îles hostel.

Finding the dam and Rivière Sainte-Marguerite, Michael, Bayard and I take to the ice. Over the two days we skinned along the river/lake four times. The dam is released occasionally and our tracks from skiing in, to skiing out disappeared beneath pools of brown water giving concern. We chilled a little after speaking to a local on his snow mobile who told us there was a release of fresh water sitting over the top of two feet of ice.

Finding the dam and Rivière Sainte-Marguerite, Michael, Bayard and I take to the ice. Over the two days we skinned along the river four times, thirty-four km in total. On occasion, the dam is released and our tracks disappeared beneath pools of brown water. We relaxed a little after speaking to a local who stopped to chat from his snow mobile and told us there was a release of fresh water sitting over the top of two feet of ice.

blog pics 19

After two hours of skinning...

After two hours of skinning…

Approching Le Pilier Simon-Proulx WI 5, Speedy gonzalez WI 6+ and the unclimbed new route which I believe is called, Speed Trap, WI ? M?

Approching Le Pilier Simon-Proulx WI 5, Speedy gonzalez WI 6+ and the unclimbed new route which I believe is called, Speed Trap, WI ? M?

Bayard climbing the first pitch of Speedy Gonzalez.

Bayard climbing the first pitch of Speedy Gonzalez.

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Myself half way up pitch two of Speedy Gonzalez. This pitch was possibly the most enjoyable and smile inducing pitch of the two days. A narrow and thin perfect skin of first time placements.

Myself half way up pitch two of Speedy Gonzalez. This pitch was possibly the most enjoyable and smile inducing pitch of the two days. A narrow and thin perfect skin of first time placements.

Michael on the skin out.

Michael on the skin out.

Day two. Bayard and I went back in and climbed the line to the right of Speedy Gonzalez. This line is possibly called Speed Trap but i have been told it still has to have a complete and clean ascent.

Day two. Bayard and I went back in, (Michael was sick with a serious manflu condition) and climbed the line to the right of Speedy Gonzalez. We attempted this line knowing nothing about it, but since climbing the route I have been informed it is called Speed Trap and is possibly still waiting to have a complete and clean ascent. Knowing this now, I’m glad I didn’t lead it clean. Good job on doing this route whoever you are because its a corker.

Myself setting off on pitch two, a brittle and steep pitch leading to a large overhang that is protected by three bolts.

Myself setting off on pitch two, a brittle and steep pitch leading to a large overhang that is protected by three bolts.

After trying quite hard and hanging in for a while just above the overhang, I could not find anything to enable a final pull to establish myself above the overhang. Even if I had managed to get above the overhang, the next few moves would have been very difficult given the lack of ice. Having looked at pictures from another year this pitch looks like it would go on ice and be easier. As it was I used two points of aid and continued to climb the pitch free which was a truly technical and slightly wild run-out experience weaving between rock and ice.

After trying quite hard and hanging in for a while, just above the overhang, I could not find anything to enable a final pull to establish myself above the overhang. Even if I had managed to get above the overhang, the next few moves would have been very difficult given the lack of ice. Having looked at pictures from another year this pitch looks like it would go on ice and be easier. As it was I used two points of aid and continued to climb the pitch free which was a truly technical and slightly wild, run-out experience, weaving between rock and ice. I’m glad I continued as the battle was very memorable.

Bayard nearly at the belay after climbing the overhang section and weaving through the ice dagger.

Bayard nearly at the belay after climbing the overhang section and weaving through the ice dagger.

Bayard leading the third pitch of Speed Trap which led to our ice thread from the day before and a full seventy metre abseil to the ground. The eight and a half km skin out took three hours.

Bayard leading the third pitch of Speed Trap which led to our ice thread from the day before and a full seventy metre abseil to the ground. The eight and a half km skin out took three hours.

 

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Rock and Roll and Rock and Snow.

A few pics on entering Russ and Amy's place will give you a clue.

A few pics on entering Russ and Amy’s place will give you a clue to the Clune.

I’m sat on my own inside a large detached house owned by Amy Pickering and Russ Clune. Looking through the large window, deer walk through marsh grass, silver birch glitter with Goldfinch and as a backdrop, the Gunks shine in the early morning sun. The house is near the small and quirky town of New Paltz in New York State. On the first drive through New Paltz, two days ago, looking out through the side window, I immediately liked what I saw and felt, because what I saw and felt reminded me of similar quirky towns near the sea on the Cornish Coast of Britain.

Small individually owned cafes and bars rubbed gable ends with red brick and shutterboard art shops, a Turkish restaurant, record shops, a sushi joint, tattoo parlours, a hostel with a large plastic sasquatch, and the place we were visiting, where tomorrow I would give a presentation, Rock and Snow, an independently owned climbing shop, the type that are becoming rare in our world of sterile internet consumer convenience. Rock and Snow is a cave stuffed to the slippery walls and full of history and gear and knowledge and intimacy, a place of love and dedication, the kind of place when I first found climbing I would enter and feel like I’d found Nirvana.

Talking about Nirvana, the first time I met Amy and Russ was about two weeks before at the Keene Valley Ice festival where on being introduced to Russ, someone I was told had something to do with Black Diamond, I possibly upset him, because as we shook hands, Russ asked, “What’s your story?” And being a Brit, who would rather listen to someone else tell their story, I answered rather curt and somewhat bolshie “I don’t have a story, what’s your story?”

Later in the evening, sat at the dinner table next to Amy and Barry Blanchard with Russ and Matt McCormick sat opposite, Amy turned to Barry and me and said, “What’s the best punk rock single ever. I felt somewhat enlightened with this turn of conversation and listened as Barry said it had to be something by the Clash. I answered it had to be a Sex Pistols song. Amy thought for a while before saying she may begrudgingly admit to agreeing with my choice, but her decision was swayed by having met John Lydon and not having a good experience. As you may imagine, this took me back a little. Being a Brit and slightly cynical and loving most of what John Lydon stands for, I immediately thought, ‘is this woman bullshitting,’ but as the conversation progressed, it became obvious not only had Amy met John Lydon, she was good friends with a whole host of other well-known and very successful musicians. Russ passed me his phone and it showed a picture of Amy sat with Dave Grohl and it wasn’t the type of “can I have my picture taken with you please,” picture, Dave Grohl was laughing and sat with his arm around Amy looking like a close friend. Holy shit, this woman was the real deal. Barry also looked at the picture and asked “Who is that,” which gave me a little bit of warmth that someone as cool as Barry didn’t recognise someone as cool as Dave Grohl, but maybe this just makes me really uncool the fact that I thought it cool.

It turns out Russ Clune is the real deal and also has a story, but I’ll let you look that one up for yourselves. Needless to say, given my present location my ice trip is on hold for a day before I hitch a ride with Doug Madara to North Conway for the final presentation at the Mount Washington Icefest and tomorrow I’m going rock climbing with Russ at the Gunks.

*

Got to say, thanks to everyone here in New Paltz for showing me friendship and kindness, especially everyone at Rock and Snow, yes, that even includes you Rich with your terrible jokes and of course Russ and Amy for leaving me home alone in their home without a single cat to look after.

post nasel drip line

Kevin Mahoney and I returned to climb the second ascent of Matt McCormick and Peter Doucette’s fine climb, Post Nasel Drip at Smugglers Notch, Vermont.

Setting off on pitch 2, leaving behind The Snotsickle and most of the ice. Pic credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Setting off on pitch 2, leaving behind The Snotsickle and most of the ice. Pic credit, Kevin Mahoney.

 

A lille bit farther along pitch 2. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

A lille bit farther along pitch 2. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

 

Kevin leading pitch 3 of Post Nasel Drip. The pull into the corner was tricky and the exposure a little airy.

Kevin leading pitch 3 of Post Nasel Drip. The pull into the corner was tricky and the exposure a little airy.

kev on pnd 2

Nearly at the belay with even more exposure.

Nearly at the belay with even more exposure.

Looking down at me seconding pitch 3. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Looking down at me seconding pitch 3. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Nearly at the belay on pitch 3. OK, so its the States, no need to say its looking black! Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Nearly at the belay on pitch 3. OK, so its the States, no need to say its looking black! Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Leading the last pitch. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Leading the last pitch. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Kevin Mahoney seconding the final pitch of Post Nasel Drip.

Kevin Mahoney seconding the final pitch of Post Nasel Drip.

The following day after climbing Post Nasel Drip, Matt McCormick and I climbed at Willoughby. I love this place that is situated in the north of Vermont. while climbing, the frozen lake below creaks and stretches and makes mournful whale like noises adding to the atmosphre.

The following day after climbing Post Nasel Drip, Matt McCormick and I climbed at Willoughby. I love this place that is situated in the north of Vermont. While climbing, the frozen lake below creaks and stretches and makes mournful whale like noises adding to the atmosphre.

Climbing in the Devils Kitchen. Not the one in North Wales before you all jump in your cars, this is at The Catskills, New York State. Credit Marty Molitoris.

Climbing in the Devils Kitchen. Not the one in North Wales before you all jump in your cars, this is at The Catskills, New York State. Credit Marty Molitoris.

climbing at The Catskills. 1

More in The Devils Kitchen. Catskills. Credit Marty Molitoris.

climbing at The Catskills. 3

And another… Credit, Marty Molitoris.

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