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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Flight into El Gato.

Myself on Flight into Emerald City before the sun made its presence felt! Pic credit, Matt McCormick

Myself on Flight into Emerald City before the sun made its presence felt! Pic credit, Matt McCormick.

Matt, Doug and I, huddled deep inside our down jackets while walking the snow-devilled pavement of Burlington in the state of Vermont. It was nine-thirty in the evening and I would have expected the city to be quiet, but the pavements and the bars and the restaurants were heaving. Matt McCormick and I wore climbing clothes, sporty little soft shell numbers, having driven south from the Adirondacks before meeting Doug Madara in the climbing wall, where we started to set two dry tooling routes in preparation for a competition in two days’ time. Skeletal trees, growing around a chained off grass square and what looked like a public building, had illuminated electricity bulbs high in the branches – green, red, blue, yellow, orange – the multi colours reflected through the frigid and smeared the red brick and mortar.

The three of us entered El Gato Cantina, a Mexican restaurant and immediately I felt a little uncomfortable. I have lived in Llanberis in North Wales for thirteen years, Llanberis is a small town and quiet for much of the time in comparison to many places in the UK. People move to Beris for the climbing and the climbing vibe, but it is relatively insulated and separated and the ratio of men to women in the climbing population is as wide as a hippopotamus’s arse – wide enough in fact to make entering the real world, a world that has other objectives apart from climbing, running, cycling and surfing, something almost mystifying and downright intimidating, well at least for an old full time climber who is wearing sweat-stinking climbing clothes while faced with a Mexican Restaurant full of young women dressed to the nines and out to party.

I turned to Doug, who was ten years older than me, but looking more comfortable with the situation and said, “Shit, is this normal, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many women in the same place since reading about the suffragette movement. Doug spoke without turning to look at me, “No.” And then I remembered what had happened earlier in the day and felt more comfortable in my old skin because I imagined the whole buzzing vibe of this female fuelled Mexican restaurant, all of the clinking of glasses, the happy chatter, the laughing and joking and whooping and partying, suddenly stopping and in that same instant, where a knife-blade could be heard hitting the floor, I watch the whole restaurant, every beautiful woman turn to face us and in unison they all lift their heavily bangled arms and point at Matt – good looking Matt, young Matt, and the most confident in this partying vibe of twenty something year olds, and in unison, i imagined the beautiful throng saying in monotone, “It was him, it was him, he is the one that let himself down – he jibbed, he scuttled away, he cried out the word that no climber should ever cry, ‘TAKE,’ he let himself down, he let Naomi his girlfriend down, he let his family down, he failed.” And in that moment all of my insecurities paled, life was once again good.

Earlier in the day, Kevin Mahoney, Matt and I returned to the Adirondacks. Rolling hills with snow and spruce. And between the hills, cliffs of steep compact rock wearing glistening baking foil. Two days previous, when we climbed at Chapel Pond Canyon, Matt watched a line form high on the Upper Washbowl and throughout the day gave running commentary, “Its getting fatter, wider, longer, it’s almost touching down…” The excitement oozing from Matt was easy to pick up and it became infecting.

The line that held Matt’s interest was a streak running down the line of a rock climb called Flight into Emerald City and this was what the three of us were going to have a close look.

Matt climbed a fifty metre mixed pitch that lead the three of us to a belay from a tree beneath a slightly overhanging wall of cracks and ice streaks. The whole of the glistening Adirondacks filled our blinking eyes. The sun shone, but the temperature, which was about minus fifteen, stopped the ice dribbling away and as quick as you can say, ‘Kevin Mahoney is a MOG who is never going to get beaten to having the first attempt’, Kevin was away and above us and swinging around and pulling moves that a man of so much girth should not be doing. Matt and I stood below looking and waiting for the clatter of a MOG being spat from less ice than is generally in a tumbler, but no, it didn’t happen, and after a time the call came to lower him back to the ledge and down alongside Kevin came the first winter ascent in his outsized pocket.

Kevin Mahoney on the first winter ascent of flight into Emerald City. Pic credit, Matt McCormick.

Kevin Mahoney tapping his girth to the first winter ascent of flight into Emerald City. Pic credit, Matt McCormick.

It was then I realised the sun had moved and was now shining fully onto the face, but it was still cold and reasonably early, but how long this would remain was anyone’s guess. I looked up, up onto a beautiful wall glittering cold and dangling pieces of well-placed MOG protection and in an instant I knew it would be best to get on this truly amazing looking climb, sooner, rather than later, and as I lowered Kevin, it made sense to go for the lead on his gear to speed things up. I looked at Matt and asked him if he wanted to go, while simmering beneath my easy going, jovial, was a ticking clock of cunning knowing Matt is one of the nicest and kindest guys out there and my cunning plan worked, “Oh, you know Nick,” Matt said in his deep East Coast drawl, “You should go, you’re the guest.” And in a flash I said, “OK.” Without giving Matt any time for reconsidering.

not over till 2

Myself higher on the second ascent of Flight into Emerald City. Pic credit, Matt McCormick

Myself higher on the second ascent of Flight into Emerald City. Pic credit, Matt McCormick

What a situation, the air, the space, the cold, although the cold was not quite as cold anymore… I grabbed the second winter ascent after a few heart in mouth moments while tapping away at a weakening, puckering thin skin, which appeared to be starting to slowly delaminate.

We pulled the rope for a second time and Matt set off. The overhanging lower section didn’t rely on ice too much and Matt made short work of the powerful crux although the tap pouring water from the sheet above him – the sheet he was soon going to have to teeter and trust, the sheet with stubby ice screw protection up high, the hollow creaking cracking sheet – had opened full and was rinsing Matt in the face. “Oh, this is not good, this is really not good, its falling off, peeling, I don’t know what to do.”

The MOG and I content with our respective ascents didn’t really care, but we gave encouragement, “Get on with it Matt, its fine.”

“OH, this really isn’t good.”

Matt had climbed the iced crack but now he had to cross the sheet to a crack on the left and with each tap and each kick, the ice creaked and lumps pealed, twisting and smashing onto the rock ledge.

Somehow, Matt scuttered across what was ice but what now resembled a flowing stream and plugged the crack full of cams.

“All of the ice is breaking away, the whole lot, I really don’t like this.”

“Go on Matt, its fine…”

“No, I really don’t think it is, all of the ice is bulging and balancing… Take, TAKE.”

“Oh Matt, what have you done, you’ve let yourself down, you’ve let Naomi down…”

But as I lowered him and he landed back on the ledge shaking his head with his weakness, the sheet making up the bottom half of the climb detached and crashed to the ledge obliterating to a million pieces and fortunately missing the three of us.

“Hmm, guess the ice had gotten a little warm!”

The Quartz Crack Face and the Snotsickle which Kevin Mahoney and I climbed hoping to make the second ascent of Post Nasel Drip, a mixed line first put up by Matt McCormick and Peter Ducette that follows the roof to the left at the top of the ice, across the face and up an overhanging crack on the left. Unfortunately Kevin, being a professional, decided getting back to work had to take precidence.

The Quartz Crack Face and the Snotsickle which Kevin Mahoney and I climbed hoping to make the second ascent of Post Nasel Drip, a mixed line first put up by Matt McCormick and Peter Ducette that follows the roof to the left at the top of the ice, across the face and up an overhanging crack on the left. Unfortunately Kevin, being a professional, decided getting back to work on time had to take precidence.

end of blog

Myself leading End of the Begining. Both Kevin and I led this one, which is a pumpy number on gear and bolts leading to a fine thing smear of ice. Pic credit, Kevin Mahoney.

another day and another great Vermont crag. Snake Mountain. Matt and Michael do partner look!

Another day and another great Vermont crag. Snake Mountain. Matt and Michael do partner look!

 

snake blog 1

Myself leading SNRS, Snake Mountain. Pic credit, Matt McCormick.

Matt McCormick on the SNRF.

Matt McCormick on the SNRF.

Myself on an absolute shoulder blaster called Fang Shui. Matt tried it afterwards but got a little rough with the icicle which scudded into the earth making the climb a whole lot more pumpier proposition. After this climb Matt and I decided tomorrow would be a rest day! Pic credit, Matt McCormick.

Myself on an absolute shoulder blaster called Fang Shui. Matt tried it afterwards but got a little rough with the icicle which scudded into the earth making the climb a whole lot more pumpier proposition. After this climb Matt and I decided tomorrow would be a rest day! Pic credit, Matt McCormick.

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Back in the East.

Day one of climbing since my last trip to the East a couple of years ago. This climb is called Cassowary. I was determined for things not to get to crazy to soon. Kevin Mahoney is not the right persn to go out with given this cryterior, and the next climb, Catatonic Immobility started to up the anti, although the climbing on this day was at least safe.

Day one of climbing since my last trip to the East a couple of years ago. This climb is called Cassowary. I was determined for things not to get to crazy to soon. Kevin Mahoney is not the right person to go out with given this criteria, and the next climb, Catatonic Immobility started to up the anti, although the climbing was at least safe.

The day after I arrive in the States, a punch of winter hits the Adirondacks. Dana Seaton and I pull up late afternoon at the Rock and River Lodge – dark wood and warmth set at the end of an unmetalled lane in the middle of the forest. The morning shocks with chill and the snow, so fine, dusts the decking. The petrified hardwoods shiver. The morning is distilled chrome.

Back in the East. Slow flowing rivers with small, heavy with white, ice-islands that on occasion break and take a trip. Shutter board, shingle, Dutch barns filled with steaming black and white cows, post boxes on stalks like waiting schoolchildren at the side of the road. Space and emptiness. A set of red plimsolls, one in front of the other, as if out for a walk by themselves, stand on the snow in the middle of the road. I wonder if their owner had been knocked clean out of them and carried away welded to the grate of some truck. Pipes, tapping the trees for maple sap, bow with frost. The suns milk glows between branches.

Back in the East. Friendly people. People who are friends. Kind people. Piles of hewn logs and a smattering of hewn, well wrapped people. The Stars and Stripes hangs outside the general store flickering in the wind. A black Pitbull chasing a stick bounces through the snow. A jet cuts a ski trail through the sky.

Back in the East. Small crags shine with sheen. Breaking glass. Control the burn and control the brain and control the urge to sprint. Sprinting is not a recommendation. The protection glints a long way below. “You can never have enough pound in kit Nick.” I remember my friend Byard saying just after I almost hit the deck. “We’ll start steady, Matt McCormick said and almost as quick as you can say epic, I was teetering high, attached to thin silver looking at the distance I would go and my head screamed, ‘How the hell did this happen all over again and so soon?’

*

A big thank you to everyone for their kindness and who made me very welcome at the Rock and River and to everyone involved with the organisation and running of the Adirondack International Mountaineering Festival.

The second day of climbing with Matt McCormick, Alexa Siegel and Matt Horner went somewhat adrift and was getting close to what I left behind on my last visit to the East... There is still so long to go on this trip as well!

The second day of climbing with Matt McCormick, Alexa Siegel and Matt Horner went somewhat adrift and was getting close to what I left behind on my last visit to the East… There is still so long to go on this trip as well! This climb was put up by the great, Alex Lowe and Scott Backes and is called Ice Storm.

Ice Storm. M6, WI 5+. Chapel Pond Canyon.

Ice Storm. M6, WI 5+. Chapel Pond Canyon.

Topping out on Ice Storm.

Topping out on Ice Storm.

Things beginning to get a bit silly way too soon on a pretty bold climb called Bubba. WI 5+ !

Things beginning to get a bit silly way too soon on a pretty bold climb called Bubba. WI 5+ first climbed by Ed Palen and Paul Brown.

Thankfully topping out on Bubba...

Thankfully topping out on Bubba…

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Returning to Llanberis.

Looking up The Nant Ffrancon toward Cwm Idwal.

Looking up The Nant Ffrancon toward Cwm Idwal.

Travelling along the A5 and through Llangollen – North Wales is in the grip of water. I drive across Telford’s Waterloo Bridge. Ornate cast iron, spanning the steaming Afon Conway. Betws y Coed and its Christmas lights, swinging threads of flickering colour, are a blur through my windscreen. Wrapped against the wet, people move along the pavement avoiding puddles rippled by wind. Caffi Caban y Pair – hewn stone with small white windows and a shining red Segafredo sign beckons. I continue without stopping, imagining logs burning, glowing embers and flickering orange flames. A fusillade of winter bullets ricochets off the bonnet of a parked car. The pavement, the road, shop windows, my windscreen, umbrellas, Gore-Tex jackets – they all run with rain.

Past The Swallow Falls Hotel and Cobden’s Falls and on through Capel Curig. The Afon Llugwy on my left, a turmoil – tireless, remorseless – the churning brown water rages white. Plas y Brenin, the national mountaineering centre looks deserted, almost post-apocalyptic.

The open road, that was not open, more, just-about, is strafed and the streams running off Glyder Fawr etch the hillside. Cloud and rain skutter between caffi and youth hostel as I drive Pen y Pass. Yellow casts from the hostel windows out onto the glittering road. Sliding down the Llanberis Pass, Scimitar and Dinas y Gromlech are up there somewhere, somewhere in the dark and the rain and the cloud and the wind. Somewhere. Up there. Somewhere. Up. There…

Raphael Slawinski and Mount Sparrowhawk. this picture was taken six days after the bear attack. skiing with climbing boots is not my greatest skill. We decided not to try a new route, because of the weather and I told Raphael to leave me as he is no slouch with climbing boot skiing. I will admit to my nerves being a tad on edge alone in the forest.

Raphael Slawinski and Mount Sparrowhawk. This picture was taken six days after the bear attack. skiing with climbing boots is not my greatest skill! We decided not to try a new route because of the poor weather and bailed. On the way out, I told Raphael to leave me as he is no slouch with climbing boot skiing. I will admit to my nerves being a tad on-edge alone in the forest.

Since returning from Canada and the bear attack episode, I have had all of my national, general, media, reservations confirmed. My pictures have been used without permission on websites and in newspapers around the world. I have been lied to and I have had friend requests on Facebook from media folk who have changed their profile pictures to disguise who and what they really are. The newspaper reports I have read were factually incorrect and some were complete sensationalism. This lazy, sloppy, rushed form of journalism makes me ask the same question I asked years ago at the time when I was a prison officer in HMP Gartree, in Leicestershire. I was a landing officer on B Wing when an alarm bell rang. I ran to answer the call for assistance, there was blood and a craft knife and a teacher who had been taken hostage. Eventually the situation was resolved. This incident was reported in the newspapers as ‘near escape’, although the prisoner involved was inside the prison and no nearer escape than any other inmate in the prison that night.

It made me ask then, and makes me ask now, is most of what people read in the newspapers, at best, factually incorrect and at worst, sensationalised and made up? And if this is the case, which I, and a whole host of others who have spoken to me about the bear incident, believe to be true, it also makes me ask, why do we put up with been fed bullshit by the newspapers?

A few friends have suggested I invoice all of the newspapers that have illegally used my pictures. The money would not go a miss, but to do this, will make me feel like I’m endorsing their theft and it does not solve my issue, which was,  I didn’t want involvement with these people, it compunds it. I did not want to talk with a large proportion of the people who were repeatedly phoning, texting, messaging, twittering, Facebooking, lying, I wanted no contact, because in general, I don’t trust them. Arrogantly, pictures were used without permission and by opening dialogue in the form of asking for payment, I feel, I will be giving them some form of clearance to continue to run roughshod over anyone.

What I don’t think some people understand is, by accepting money, it condones what they did, it makes me appear to be happy to be paid-off, in a way, accepting a bribe – bought out. It shows I value money more than integrity and honesty. They obviously see themselves above the law and certainly above the rights of the people they write about. Scruples and integrity do not appear to be in abundance with many of the journalists and TV people who reported on the ‘bear incident’ and these are things I hold as high as almost anything.

Greg had a conversation with one reporter. She then wrote the conversation into a piece for publication. Greg asked her not to publish her piece as it was just a conversation, not an interview, telling her if he wanted the incident written up he would do it himself and she replied, “I have to make a living, the piece will be published.”

I do have a price and I’m not going to say I will never be interviewed or appear on TV, but it is Greg and my story and if I tell that story, it will be under my conditions. I would want control of what was being written and said, because at the moment, what has been written and said is in the realms of Enid Blyton and The Famous Five was something I grew-out of reading a long time ago.

NF1

As Christmas approached, Wales became a flowing and wind scoured wilderness. The Hippy was away and I wrapped myself inside his house at Waunfawr – just me, Gypsy the cat, my computer and a bottle or two of wine. I had worked on the new book almost every day since returning from Canada. This was the third edit.

On Christmas Day, I ran from the centre of Waunfawr, through the sodden fields, past the cows, shank deep in mud, toward Moel Eilio. I jogged a river that once was a road and stumbled through a lake that used to be a track. Moel Eilio was a rain thrashed whale-back hiding amongst clouds. The firs bordering the track bent in the wind. The wind caught black slate edges and whistled. And the tune the wind whistled was a wet one. The sun had also gone for a run. Two in the afternoon on Christmas Day and the day was done. A wood pigeon took-off, wings clattering. Reaching the metal gate on the exposed moor, the gale, played a digeridoo through the galvanized bars.

Boxing Day was wetter still. I wrote and edited before finally, after three attempts and two flooded roads, arrived at Ynys Ettwys – Hetty’s Island – how apt the name given to the Climbers Club Hut in the Llanberis Pass. Afon Nant Peris was in full flow. I drove over the hump back bridge before parking outside the hut. No dipper, no buzzard, no heron, no grey wagtail, just the electricity cables fizzling blue and sheep sheltering from the wind.

After a circuit in the hut, I reversed my journey from two weeks previous until reaching Capel Curig. The BBC weather report that morning had said the December rainfall for Capel Curig had been over 1000mm. Truth or lies? Truth I think?

Travelling along the Ogwen and down the Nant Ffrancon, the stone walls on the mountain side of the road, perforated like a tea bag, piss brown water. The van headlights scythe the dark and the pouring rain. I could be the last person left alive on this drowning swithering planet. Not a raven, a seagull or even a dog walker. The Nant Ffrancon, a perfect example of a glaciated valley, wide and semi-circular, is a full gutter of silvered fields. Clouds of rain hide the hillsides. The valley and its fields and small road and hedges are struggling to breath. The Nant Ffrancon is an African plain in monsoon. And as I drive, I imagine Wildebeest.

Entering Bethesda, the blue strobe of police-lights, show-hide-show the skeletal trees growing alongside Afon Ogwen. The afon roars as it bullies its way to the sea.

The book, has at last, had its third edit and has been sent to friends for feedback. It’s time to become a climber once again. On Thursday I fly to Boston to attend four ice climbing festivals on the East Coast and meet friends and climb whenever the conditions make it possible. But I will miss the Welsh rain; it has honesty.

USA Lecture flier

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An Open Letter to Derek.

Below is a message posted to my blog from Derek. This message is very similar to a few others I have received so I thought it was time to answer.

 

“Two words: bear spray.

Great story, but there was a bunch of actions that could have been taken that would have made the situation better and help you both handle it better. I live here and NEVER recreate without bear spray, so that’s one. Second is to never run; running triggers a pursuit response, so guarantees a chase (and bears run faster than you anyway, so it’s a waste of time). Third is to recognize the difference between an aggressive attack and a defensive attack and act accordingly. In the former, the bear wants you as lunch (very, very rare), in the latter the bear just wants you gone and out of his neighbourhood. This was obviously the latter, because he passed on his message then left. Leave the neighbourhood and there’s no fear of “how far away can bears smell blood?” — they’re not sharks. Movies don’t depict bear behaviour realistically. Bears don’t stalk you for days.

A bit of education and some bear spray and your day would have been better. Congratulations for trying to achieve a challenging objective.”

 

Hi Derek,

Thanks for your comments and concern. This being my ninth time to The Canadian Rockies, an area I love for amazing climbing, wildlife and the friendship of Canadian people, I am very much aware of ‘standard’ bear safety theory.  I think it’s safe to say we met this Grizzly under extraordinary circumstances, at a time of year when one would rarely carry bear spray for example. I think this factor is endorsed by many locals who have expressed surprise this attack happened at this time of year. Also, given the extremely difficult nature of the route we were attempting, hence the odd time of night we encountered the bear, this would be considered unusual as well.

Although much of the mainstream media described us as running – because neither Greg nor I have spoken to any of them to confirm or deny – the bear was in fact upon us almost immediately, a few steps were taken at most. We didn’t see it coming because of the dark, so we were very much controlled and not panicking and walking. When we turned the bear was running at full speed, only metres from us and the attack happened in seconds. We did not cause the attack other than by being in the place we were. I could have been carrying a Glock 9mm but it would have been of no use unless it was in my hand and ready. Bear spray would not have helped unless carried in position and ready for action. Can you honestly say this is how you walk around the hills, armed and ready at every step?   Also, you should know I have the utmost respect for bears and their territory and I am very pleased to hear the bear won’t be terminated because of our, or its actions, the area is to be made ‘out of bounds’ for the winter. Hopefully this will end the speculation and uninformed comments doing the rounds on other sites.  

It appears the few people that have criticised our actions are very skilled in the correct procedure if faced with a bear attack, but it also appears they have not actually been in the unenviable position themselves. If this is your case, maybe you should wait and see what you do given similar circumstances, and then maybe you would think twice about writing a somewhat condescending message. I could have started this message giving you two words but I chose not to.

You say bears don’t stalk or track people. In general I’m sure you are correct, but bears, like people, like any animal, are individual, who is to say they all act the same and rules and normal actions are always followed… The ferrets I kept as a teenager had the reputation for fierceness and biting, but they were as soft as hamsters, although I hear hamsters can give a good out of character nip if provoked!

Finally, I have not eaten an animal other than fish for 22 years, how about you? You and other peoples concern for one animal is admirable, but I wonder how many of the people criticising Greg and my actions eat animals and in doing so are a part of the massive cruelty happening on a daily basis to animals around the world?

All the best and hoping you never experience what we did.

Nick Bullock.

 

 

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From Dawn to Dusk. From Dusk to Dawn.

The calm before the proverbial…

I was thirty five years old in December 2000 and I had travelled to Canada for the first time. I was climbing with my friend Bruce French, ex Nottingham and England wicket keeper. Bruce and I were equally matched on the ice and the trip was a great success. We toured around while listening to Faithless, Sunday 8PM, and taking-in the massiveness and openness, the cold, the trees and we climbed loads of in condition icefalls – generally two pitch icefalls, apart from Polar Circus and Weeping Wall – and more often than not we finished climbing by mid-afternoon and headed for the coffee shop.

In the evening there was loads of time for sorting gear and preparing food and there was always beer and chips for Bruce and red wine for me. Icefall climbing in 2000 was holiday with the occasional discomfort. Bruce and I climbed our first proper WI6 on this this trip, Whiteman Falls, with its massive mushrooms. We went home content with swollen knuckles and stomachs full of pancakes.   

I returned to Canada in 2003 with Dave hunter and it was on this trip things began to go a tad leftfield, not the band, more the warped outlook when I suggested to Dave we should attempt an out of condition Sea of Vapours. Big whippers, ripped pins, one point of aid and an eighteen hour day. Bloody hell, did I want that route and at the end of that eighteen hour day, we had it. This was possibly the start of the weirdness, when the two of us sat in the Alpine Clubhut at one a.m. knackered, battered, thousand mile stare but overflowing with the experience.

The year 2008 with Ian Parnell was, I suppose, the nail in the coffin for the pleasant two pitch outings and coffee shop finishes. On that trip we threw ourselves at multi-pitch test pieces one after the other. The trip was full of three a.m. starts and ten p.m. finishes, almost every route we climbed – Nightmare on Wolf Street, French Reality, Terminator 2, Riptide, Suffer Machine, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot – was a wide-eyed opener and a bicep burner. The time we climbed a two pitch icefall, even one with the reputation of Curtain Call, almost felt restful. It was this trip that converted me to leashless climbing because bloody hell, leashes made climbing these lines almost impossible.

I returned to Canada in 2012 with Rob, Chopper, Greenwood, or Bobby Big-legs, whichever you prefer. This trip was a trip full of reinforcing everything Ian Parnell and I had learnt, but with loads of  laughs and red wine – No Use in Crying, Replicant, Exterminator, Southern Comfort, Fiasco – Still a few easy short days, Call of the Curtain and Nemesis, but no coffee shops and certainly no mid-afternoon finishes. On this trip, even the easier, short days would have been routes of the trip a few years ago. What was happening, what was I thinking, where was the holiday atmosphere? We climbed the plane steps with aching legs and heads full of thrill while leaving a cold and windy Calgary.

It was this trip that opened my eyes to possibilities of Canadian climbs on natural protection with Jon Walsh and Rob Owens’, No Use in Crying, on the Upper Weeping Wall – M7 on gear felt more like Scottish 9 with minimal pro and not the best rock. Teetering, front points pushed to small limestone edges and fingers wooden while high above my last nut and scraping fresh snow where ice should have been – I would like to say this was the most terrifying part of that day, but it wasn’t, the drive back with snow lapping the bonnet and washing the roof of the rented town car and hitting ice at 80kph took that prize. Another lesson learnt, hire a 4×4. This trip also had me looking at the new Jon Walsh and Jon Simms line Man Yoga and the line to the left put up by Raphael Slawinski, Victoria’s Secret ,but a dump of snow near the end put pay to that idea.

Roll on the following year with Greg Boswell – the route count went down as the pitches and difficulty increased – Man Yoga, Victoria’s Secret, Rocketman and the Maul, the Maul being a step into Alpine and a first real taste of how fun Rockies choss is. Unfortunately, the choss, on the final pitch, chopped the rope. Climbing with Greg was almost as good as it gets – he wants to try the same lines but doesn’t mind having a rest day after every day of climbing and whenever I don’t want to lead a hard pitch, bring in The Boswell, jobs a good un, almost makes up for the lack of afternoon coffee… Almost. We also hired a 4×4 on this visit which eased the mind but another lesson learnt, heated car seats are the death of forcing yourself out on crappy mornings.

2014 went adrift somehow as Will Sim and I tried Canadian Alpinism, culminating in renting a Nissan Micra and two routes, Humble Horse on Diadem and the House/Anderson on Mt Alberta’s north face. No coffee shop afternoons on this trip, no 4×4, not even a bed on some nights. This trip was where I thought things truly went tits up. But I was wrong…          

Nightmare on Wolf Street. Contender for the best ice and mixed line in the world?

The first pitch of Nightmare on Wolf Street. I belayed Ian Parnell on this pitch in 2008 and seconded with ski boots. The learning curve was as steep as the pitch. I wanted to lead this pitch to see if anything has sunk in over the years. Not sure it has! Credit Greg Boswell

Higher on pitch one. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg seconding the final steep bit of pitch one of Nightmare on Wolf Street.

Pitch two of Nightmare on Wolf Street. I led this one to put Greg in line for the mixed pitch three. Credit, Greg Boswell.

Greg on pitch three. Not your standard M7+ especially with a load of funky ice covering the higher bolts.

Greg higher on pitch three dreaming of the coffee shop…

Me seconding through the funkiness. Early season ice, great fun!!

And steep. Credit Greg Boswell.

No coffee shop finish. Greg leading the final 60m pitch. One of the best, if not the best, single pitches of ice anywhere.

Here we are again, Greg and I, not quite back to coffee shop and red wine, but at least I get to go to bed which is a bed, well, unless the bed is a car.

After Nightmare on Wolf Street, we thought we would try going big and attempt the second ascent of a climb called Dirty Love. Dirty Love is a five hundred metre, twelve pitch Alpine climb, high on Mt Wilson which is off the Icefields Parkway, the road that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. No coffee shops, no people, wilderness, emptiness, alone… almost!

Jon Walsh and Raphael Slawinski climbed the first ascent in April 2008 grading the climbing M7.The climb took twenty three hours from the car to the summit of Wilson and another eight hours to descend. The trouble, or is it the beauty, is the very technical approach which includes several mixed pitches and approximately four hours of slog before the bottom of the huge gash, something like Cenotaph Corner on steroids.

High up there are gremlins… Dirty Love is the big corner way up.

The approach.

More of the approach.

Greg and I aimed to put in a track and suss out the approach and return in two days to attempt the climb. Everything was going well, although the three loose difficult mixed pitches after an hours walk didn’t really match Jon’s description and took us longer than we hoped. At the top of these pitches we slogged deep snow for an hour and climbed an M5 mixed pitch in the dark. Engulfed by forest on the highest level of Mt Wilson, Jon’s description now said, ‘two hours forty five of snow slope to reach the climb’. We had come this far, so it was pointless not putting in a track. We left ropes and axes and anything heavy before bushwhacking through thick forest. Eventually we hit the snow gully that lead to the climb and at seven thirty we had done enough, we turned, retracing our steps until at the edge of the forest.

The moon had not risen and the dark engulfed. I kicked a boot track, the snow clung knee deep. Small spruce lined the edge of the forest… peace?

Greg was behind. “Bear, aaaaaaargh.” I spun to watch Greg sprint past me and in hot pursuit was a Grizzly. The bear bounded, pulling and pushing the snow with powerful legs. The snow lapped its belly and didn’t appear to slow it. Greg ran out of sight and the carnivorous freight train passed me, snorting and growling and bounding, dusting me with spindrift – it looked at me for a second, and for a second I thought this is it, this is really fucking it, but in that second the bear had spotted Greg had fallen. I ran uphill as fast as the deep snow allowed. Greg fell on his back and watched the monster closing. It jumped. Screaming and shouting, Greg kicked at Ursus arctos horribilis and it bit straight though his brand new boot as if it were a carpet slipper. It lunged once more and crunched into his shin, placing a paw on his other leg before lifting him off the ground. I’m not sure at this point what other people would do, but Boswell is Boswell and the bear just didn’t appreciate this, he grabbed the bear’s mouth and prized apart the jaws, pushing, and screaming… “Nick, Nick, help, its got me…” I stopped running, and hearing my friend, the terror, the pleading – my survival instinct subdued. I stopped and turned, but I’ll tell the truth, the thought of running back to face the bear armed with only a ski pole slowed me, in fact, armed with a bazooka would have still slowed me, but Greg was shouting my name, how could I just stand. I took steps forward and out of the dark a shape ran at me. I screamed, the skin at the back of my throat tore. But the shape was Greg, screaming and running and shouting. I looked into his ashen face and saw something I had never seen.

We both screamed and ran into the woods following our tracks. The trees and branches surrounded, closed in, caught as we ripped and tore and crawled. “Watch me, watch me, stay with me.” All of the time we waited for the dark to  ambush. After what felt like hours, we found our crampons and axes meaning the abseil and the ropes were five minutes away. Keep a look out, Greg packed gear into his bag. I stood, shining my headlamp armed with axes. We took turns shining and looking and brandishing. “If it comes, no running, we stand together and hit the bastard.” “Yeah, were in this together, hit the bastard, hit it as hard as fucking possible, in the head, in the eye, hit the fucker.” But in my mind I saw the alien and I watched it shrug an axe as easy as a person squashes an insect. ‘They mostly come at night… mostly’ When the bags were packed, we took off again, sweating and swearing and shouting and banging axes together while following our trail. But it wasn’t our trail, it was the bears trail, and after an hour we had become totally lost. We knew we had gone wrong. “Lets head for the cliff top.” And we threw ourselves down – down and down, falling over rock steps, powder exploded, and I knew I was about to fall over a cliff and a small part of me hoped I did. We stood on the top of the cliff. Greg shone his torch, I kept watch. We had to retrace, we had to head back towards the bear and the attack, back into the dark woods. We now knew we were too far to the right, we were never going to find the ropes, we were stuck up here, stuck up here with the bear.

An hour later, crawling, bushwhacking, following our steps, the bears steps, any steps, we spotted where we had gone wrong and within minutes we found the ropes and the place to abseil the rock band. Greg abseiled first. I sat on the cliff shining my torch, looking into the dark and the trees, holding both axes. Greg was down and shouting to make noise, any noise, anything. I abseiled and the two of us waded the snow on the middle shelf, between the two sections of a climb called Shooting Star. In the distance wolves howled. Following Greg’s bloody footprints, I wondered at what distance bears can smell blood. Reaching the bolted anchor above the first section of Shooting Star, Greg rigged the ropes, while once again I shone my torch holding my axe.

Three abseils later we landed and waded our tracks for thirty minutes until reaching the road, it was twelve forty five a.m. and at two thirty Greg and I entered Banff Emergency Hospital. The friendly nurse asked me if I wanted a drink, but there was no wine on offer so I had ginger beer. Greg couldn’t drink anything as the five huge holes in his shin, which now resembled a thigh, might need surgery, but I told him the ginger beer tasted good.

I don’t quite know how my Canadian trips went from coffee shop afternoons to middle of the night ginger beer, but I can honestly say, I prefer coffee.

The red arrow is where the bear attack happened.

Bear meets Boswell, Boswell wins!

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The Glowing… Dawn of the Dead.

Stanley Headwall. If Carlsberg made mixed climbing crags…

The email I received, which was sent in reply to my email informing Raphael Slawinski that Greg Boswell and I intended to go to The Headwall to attempt Dawn of the Dead, made me smile.

“The whole route goes on gear, you don’t need to clip the bolts. Just saying.”  

I replied…

“Every route Greg and I have climbed in Scotland goes on gear; we don’t need practice at placing gear. Just saying.”

“Well I don’t suppose you will be clipping any of those bolts then?”

“Oh contrary, we will be clipping all of them, being safe in winter is a novelty!”

My friend Raphael is something of an enigma; this is possibly why he is my friend. A few years back, reaching the point where he had climbed all of the routes on the Stanley Headwall, including many first ascents, he decided to take the challenge farther by climbing Dawn of the Dead, a one hundred and forty five metre M8+ WI6, (Scottish tech 10) without clipping any of the bolts. To top this, when abseiling, he made ice v-threads alongside bolted anchors while his partner, Steve Swenson, who is no slouch when it comes to bold and out there, reportedly looked on shaking his head.

I really like this story, it shows fortitude. It also shows massive OCD which warms the heart and goes a little to making me think I am reasonably balanced!

Raphael Slawinski from a previous climb. If Carlsberg made climbers…

The temperature leaving the car yesterday morning was -26, which warmed to a luxurious -18 while we were climbing.

At seven pm, having climbed Dawn of the Dead, Greg Boswell and I followed our own deep footsteps steps cut into the side of the snowslope beneath the crag. A Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep or even a Cougar had taken advantage of our steps. No, wind, not even a flicker and in the cold, the stars  are crackling silver foil and the full moon lights the iridescent ice candles that speak to us from high – the glowing is calling, calling us to challenge ourselves in some basic ancient ritual. ‘The route goes on gear.’

The temperature remained constant on the drive. The road was tyre wide strips of dry tarmac surrounded by a curtain of slithering snow. Parking at the Alpine Clubhut in Canmore, the temperature once again dipped into the -20’s. The route may go, ‘all on gear,’ but not today, every one of those bolts was clipped and very grateful we were for them all. Maybe our calling is for another day. Maybe not…

Dawn of the Dead.

Putting in a track, the day before. Credit, Greg Boswell.

Greg approaching the climb.

Greg on pitch one of Dawn of the Dead.

Me seconding the thin ice at the end of pitch one. A great lead, I think Greg was quite pleased to clip a few bolts here! Credit Greg Boswell.

Myself leading the ‘easy’ pitch. WI 4 this one. Credit Greg Boswell.

Me leading the third pitch. A great tuneful pitch in the present cold conditions. Credit Greg Boswell.

Higher  on the third pitch. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg leading pitch four.

Topping out in the dark once again. We really need to get quicker! Credit Greg Boswell.

Abseiling in the dark, we are getting it down to a fine art.

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Betty Battles The Ghost.

 

The Real Big Drip. The Ghost

Turning from the tarmac, onto the unmetalled and through the gates, Greg Boswell and I judder the cattle grid heading into the back of beyond. Driving the rented jeep, as it scutters toward the Ghost, I remember the last and only time I made this turn, through these gates and across this cattle grid, it was back in 2003 with Dave Hunter. On that occasion, as we juddered the metal bars, I looked left, and pacing the same direction, showing us very little thrift, was a Grey Wolf. He was huge, with feet so big, if they were islands, they would have had a population count. Sturdy legs propelled and dense fur shimmered silver grey. He swung his snout to lock us with orange eyes – eyes that glimmered intelligence, survival, ferral.

Dave Hunter and I were nearing the end of our three weeks of ice in Canada and had decided to take our small rented town car back to Calgary and request an upgrade, ‘we want to drive the Icefields Parkway.’ The upgraded was a silver Jeep that had chunky tyres, bash plates, diff lock and low ratio, but getting into the North Ghost to climb Hydrophobia and The Sorcerer still felt risky. Two days later the concern rattled through my brain as I swung  into steep ice, half way up Hydrophobia, because the silencing snow fell, making climbing the route, and driving out asap, paramount.

The 2015 rented Jeep, which I had christened Betty, had 4×4, but it was only that and the name Jeep which was common to the 2003 model. Betty’s tyres are M&S, which for the uninitiated isn’t a posh supermarket, it supposedly equates mud and snow, but in reality it should stand for mainly shit, only good for collecting the kids from their public school.

Driving into the Ghost. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg and I decided to drive the afternoon before the climb and check things out and Betty would second as our luxury bivi to allow an early start in the morning. A few days before it had dumped snow and the thermometer told us it was minus 10, Canadian winter had finally arrived.

Parking at the top of the ‘Big Hill’ and going for a walk showed Betty was going no farther. I can’t believe how bold I use to be, the thought of driving the Chelsea tractor, down this hill made me queasy. I don’t mean in case we crashed, I mean the cost to pay someone to recover us from this empty place. I’m sure I thought nothing of it in 2003. 

The Real Big Drip, Betty and Boswell all on top of the Big Hill.

Greg and I walked down the Big Hill and turned left following a rough track across the dried river bed until we stood on the raised bank made from small grey rocks washed by the river. The wind scythed the open plain. Snow devils kept us company as we walked the three kilometres, before the turning right into the woods and the track which would eventually led to our intended climb, The Real Big Drip.  We climbed a large bank formed by the cutting motion of the river hundreds of years before and between sheltering eyes from the  bullets of snow, there it was, our climb, still another hour or so away, but there it was cutting a white line directly up the back of a rock cirque.

Looking back to the Big Hill nearly from the right turn toward the climb.

Two weeks earlier there had hardly been any ice in the range, the temperatures were unseasonably warm, but a cold snap had shocked the water and lines were forming almost in front of the eyes. When we attempted to climb The Drip tomorrow, it would be the first ascent this winter, which excited, but also intimidated.

As Greg and I turned, heading off the platform and back to the track leading to the comfort of Betty, I couldn’t stop my mind picturing strings of chandeliered overhanging ice, ice untouched so far this season. The first pitch was also something unknown as a large flake had broken and the reputed grade of M7+ had increased to M9. Tomorrow would tell, but the one thing I was happy about was the drive back out of the Ghost, that would be casual, because Betty was staying exactly where she was…

Bivi in Betty. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg and I successfully climbed the route returning to Betty at approximately ten pm. The wind had gusted to almost gale and the temperature had risen from minus fifteen to plus five. The climb with its tons of hanging daggers had flowed water and at one point the wind gripped a huge dagger from the second roof and ripped it free. I was alongside at the time climbing the fourth pitch and as I teetered, battling the wind and cold and wet, I watched tons of solid water slice the air. When the ice connected, the cirque rattled, but I rattled more.

*

“Should be back in Canmore by midnight.” I said to Greg, but how wrong I was. Betty decided she didn’t do drifted snow and with the gardening spade loaned from the Alpine Clubhut, the crux of our day was just beginning…        

Greg climbing the first pitch.

Greg reaching thank god ice. “Shall I bridge onto the ice?” … “I would have about four moves earlier!”

Myself on the ice at the top of pitch one. Credit, Greg Boswell.

Myself setting off on pitch four. Look at the icicle, the wind is about to alter its looks… Credit, Greg Boswell.

Hiding after the wind had taken hold of the icicle. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg seconding to the belay behind the pitch four icicle.

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The Dream.

The Toilet Window…

 

Its half past midnight when I arrive in Banff, the last person on the white shuttle bus that had carried five passengers from Calgary Airport. I sit in the back of the bus in the dark. A freight train bullies its way through the centre of town. Red lights flash and an X marks the spot. The deep bass of the train blurts solid. A grey cat with white stripes skitters across the tracks. It’s almost twelve years to the day that I walked from the door of Leicester Prison for the final time.  That was the end of my fifteen year, self-imposed sentence. And in the twelve years I hope I’ve learnt – I know I’ve certainly changed.

I was about to spend four weeks at the Banff Centre on a writing scholarship which I would hopefully use to complete the first draft of my second book. One Fleck Scholarship is presented each year for one mountain culture related artist, and luckily this year that was me. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, I wonder when I’ll be found out and people will realise the imposter and make an example and I will stand, tied and head-hung, ashamed and lambasted, a bad joke for being a dreamer. Possibly I will wake and the cell walls will once again impose? I’m not sure of the two which would be worse.

*

Four weeks have passed. I have averaged forty hours a week writing, and I have been fortunate to climb five days. I sit at the desk in a room that I’m about to leave – my wooden hut in the woods once again stands empty. The red squirrels will no-doubt still scamper along the roof as if wearing Dr Martin Boots, but unaware that I am no longer in residence. The Nuthatch will continue to point his head down in search of spiders.  I shall miss that hut.

I have fifty chapters of a second book uploaded and when its published, hopefully it will always remind me of that hut and the generosity of the people at the Banff Centre.  

I cannot thank everyone at the Banff Centre enough, but especially Jo Croston who helped me apply for the scholarship and of course The Paul D. Fleck Fellowship which provided everything and more a writing climbing hobo can ask for. The fellowship was established by the family of the late Paul D. Fleck, a former President of The Banff Centre, in honour of his memory.

Below is a rough extract from my second book, Tides. (Working title) Chapter 1. Love & Hate.

I stepped outside – out through the small prison door and the sounds changed. There was the distant rumble of a lorry, and a snatch of a far-away police siren. Cars swished down Leicester’s Welford Road, furrows cut into the wet tarmac. I could hear the high dull whine of planes descending into East Midlands airport, the barking of dogs. I could hear and sense the wet clinging to branches in the trees. A few pigeons huddled in the shadow of one of the prison’s turrets, briefly mumbling to each other. I turned my face upward to feel the rain, and I imagined the stars beyond the sodium lights, fixed in a slowly spinning sky. The acidity in the rain felt cleansing. The exhaust-fumes in the air smelled of freedom. I breathed in deeply. I listened to the air enter and filter around my body. I could hear the mechanical creak of time.

I breathed out, turned and walked away.

Fifteen years. Fifteen years of aggression and violence and stress. Fifteen years to learn bitterness, prejudice. Loneliness. Fifteen years of building walls. Fifteen years. The Prison Service had given me all of these things, but in some way it also had given me life, it had given me health and fitness and climbing and the money to pay-off my mortgage. I was grateful for these things.

Looking over my shoulder, I followed the straight line of red brick. The prison wall stretched above. Rain soaked my shoulders; high level lights lit the street. Shadows clung to the corners as if scared.

I had done it. I was thirty seven years old and I had resigned from being a PE Instructor in the prison service. I had walked from the job guaranteed for life, the job which at some point in my life was everything I desired – security, pension, stability, regular wage. I had walked, and as I walked the water beneath my feet squelched and the stars, hidden behind the clouds were burning bright – close enough to grab and take hold, close enough for me to lock away, lock away almost like some of the people that were no longer a part of my life; Reggie Kray, Gary DeBasi, Hate Em All Harry Roberts, Bobby Dew, Rookie Lee, Houston, Bronson. I almost felt free. Almost.

Day Off 1. The Mitre.

Colin Croston on the summit ridge of the mighty Mitre.

The view from the Mitre summit.

Day Off 2. Snert’s Big Adventure on Yamnuska with Michelle Kadatz.

Snert’s…

Making do, or being paranoid on Snert’s… some things have changed!

Yamnuska descent.

Day Off 3. The Lookout. World class sport held up by choss. Rock climbing with Jon Walsh.

The Lookout.

Day Off 4. Rock climbing with Raphael Slawinski which was so full there was no time for pictures. The crux of the day was avoiding these two. Ian Welstead and Brandon Pullen at their finest.

Day Off 5. A 6pm pick up at the Banff Centre from Michelle Kadatz, a four hour drive, a two hour walk, a night in the hut, a three to four hour walk, climb the Big Hose on Howser Tower, a five hour walk, a six hour drive with a few forced sleep stops, arrive at the Banff Centre at four thirty am ready for writing.

 

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The Life Around Life.

The carriageway passed through the middle of Saint-Étienne, a city in the south eastern central of France. Plastered walls painted a salmon colour and covered by graffiti, skirt the road. Large letters, tags, cartoons, sharp angle shapes with shadows, a multi-coloured aerosol mosaic… Cars speed past the graffiti and past my little red van missing it by inches. Tower blocks look down – some have broken windows and the graffiti blooms like confetti,  upward, up into the dark cloudy sky, up, a sprayed bark of red, blue, green, graphite…  letters cling to the building and flow out of sight around the man-made arêtes.

I was driving by myself from Chamonix to the Gorges du Tarn in the south west of France. Phil Dowthwaite was also taking the same journey to meet me and in a few days Rich Kirby, a Northerner with humour as dry as a washed up lump of wood was joining the two of us.

Three hours earlier, leaving Chamonix had been heart wrenching, I had clicked to the Guardian website and immediately I was punched by an image of a uniformed man on a beach carrying the lifeless body of a small child. The three year old had drowned while attempting to escape Syria, and what I can only guess an existence like the horror of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. I sat in my friend’s apartment looking at my laptop and all I felt was guilt. Every day pictures  appeared –  my newsfeed was full of images of people travelling and eating and loving and drinking and exercising and marrying and hashtagging and @’ing and I thought about how content and satisfied I had felt having recently returned from climbing the Brandler, Hasse on the Cima Grande in the Dolomites. How insignificant it all was in comparison to how bloody terrible some people have it. I drove through St Etienne and the walls and letters closed-in.  

The Nemo seriously outclassed on Tre Cima carpark.

The morning thatTim Neill and I had set off for the Dolomites, we had left Chamonix at about 11am. The drive was long and it was night when we parked in the rain and the damp and the dark. We sat in my van and waited for the people to leave the toll gate which would allow us to drive, FOC, the final two or three twisty miles to the car park. I took the chance to ring my Dad who lived on his own since Mum’s death last Christmas. “Hey Dad, you’ll never guess where I am?” He didn’t, but when I told him, knowing Mum and he had visited Tre Cima, he couldn’t remember when, or even if he had actually visited the area. People in a hotel opposite sat in the warm and dry. Through the glass I could see blurred images drinking and eating and laughing. After a brief conversation I told Dad to take care and ended the call feeling sad and a little empty.

Tim walking in to Cima Piccola the day before we climbed the Brandler, Hasse.

Myself following on the lower section of the B,H. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

Tim Neill on one of the lower pitches of the B,H.

Tim displaying amazing no handed skills on a free ascent!

Tim Neill on the final (!) hard pitch of the B,H.

Back at the car park after climbing the B,H.

Tim and I dossed on the upper car park nearly at the foot of Tre Cima. The heavy rain had stopped by morning and the chime of the bells around the necks of the cattle reminded me of Nepal and yaks. The mist and cloud hung in the valley below and clung to the orange spires. The sun cut shadows full with energy. It’s been a few years now since I climbed in the Greater Ranges and I was beginning to miss Asia but in the previous two weeks I had been in the Alps, Tim, Keith Ball and I had climbed about thirty pitches on the North Face of the Piz Badile, five pitches on a great route down the valley from Chamonix and five pitches of a climb called California Dream on Pointe 3038 de Trélaporte before bailing in the rain. When Keith left, Tim and I had climbed a five pitch route surrounded by high Alpine meadow near a hut with bunches of flowers in the windows and an old Toyota 4×4 parked beneath a wooden lean-to. The climb was called Xscream Limit, which given a grade of 7a was the limit with l’ Arve Valley grading. I had filled myself on more climbing than you would ever do in ten years of visiting the Greater Ranges but of course going to Asia was not just about climbing and summiting, I missed the people and experiencing a world and a people and attitudes to life very different than in the UK.  

Myself on California Dream. pic credit, Tim Neill.

The hut beneath Tours d Areu.

A cow.

I drove further into the heart of France, past disused steel factories – corrugation, concrete, rusting metal pipes, guilt… It had been my first visit to the Dolomites. Rock towers and green meadows and mile upon mile of forest – there didn’t appear to be any litter, graffiti, rundown buildings, stray dogs, homelessness… but what could I tell on my first visit, a tourist, someone dipping in – there was not the run down feel that areas with poverty and low income have. Where did all of the wealth come from in places like the Dolomites and what do people do with it all? I wondered if money made the local people happy? The park warden who moved us on from where we were camping the moring after the climb didn’t appear happy. “You cannot do this here, it is not allowed, ten minutes.”  

The carriageway had turned to an A road passing through the large market towns of Le Puy and Mende. I stopped at a pedestrian crossing, a sure sign I was from the UK. A young woman with a beautiful smile crossed the road. She looked at me, dark hair flicked across her face. I waved and smiled. She laughed. I laughed and for an instant the world was friendly and fun. I continued through the narrow streets of the busy town. On the side of a building a large mural of a woman with red hair stroking a cat made me think of an ex-girlfriend. I drove across a humped bridge made of stone with beefy balustrades; a river flowed beneath – swans, swallows, willows… leaves starting to turn.

Recently, after one of my more extreme pieces of writing on my blog I had been attacked on Facebook by someone who does not know me. They said I was obviously very unhappy and I should go back to work and begin to climb for fun again. It’s strange how people don’t see writing as work, I suppose in some ways for me it also doesn’t really feel like work as I enjoy it and its not locking people up. How little this person understood me. A sign of these times we live where personal attacks have become an almost daily occurrence for anyone whose writing is challenging or thought provoking or even has an opinion. As for being unhappy about my climbing, I enjoy it much more than ever in the past when ego and comparing myself to others frequently affected me and on occasion made me beat myself. 

I was driving to the Gorges du Tarn specifically to try and climb a route I had been on once before in the spring after belaying Lucy Creamer who on-sighted it. The climb was called Les Ailes du Désir Extension; it was fifty metres long with spaced bolts. The upper headwall was orange pockets with gaping Goldfish mouths, big airy moves, technical and very overhanging. Since getting to know Lucy and climbing with her I find it difficult to believe she isn’t more well-known and celebrated within rock climbing as her on-sighting ability and determination and boldness are remarkable. I suppose her under the radar may have something to do with the fact she does not self-promote via social media, a lesson in humbleness to many including myself I think? 

The excitement and freedom I felt on my one venture into that big open space on the upper wall of Les Ailes in the spring had left an impression and I wanted to experience this feeling again…

Myself on the 7b+ bit of Les Ailes du Désir Extension. I became quite good at climbing this section! Pic credit, Rich Kirby

Rich Kirby on Les Ailes du Désir Extension.

…and so I did, many times and many times I took possibly the largest fall possible until I desensitised and saw only the mouths of fish heavily chalked with hope.

Morning sessions on the climb before the sun worked for me. I would drive on my own down the zigzags from our van doss on the plateau, high above Les Vignes, the small village with its bridge and bullfrogs, before Rich and Phil joined me. Sometimes I stopped on a hairpin to watch the cloud clinging to the valley base and above the mist there were often groups of Vultures circling slowly on thermals, gaining height, slowly gaining height.   

Reaching the shelf beneath the climb, a yellow rock-band already warm, I would stretch and solo the first few moves of the climb before sitting and watching the slow moving river and the heron as she set her balsa wood wings before splashing unceremoniously.

Another day breaks from the grip of the early morning mist. In the previous weeks I have grown accustomed to watching the red kites hopping from orange crest to dark furrow in the ploughed field. The smell of earth and wet pine with the backtrack hum of insects. I have looked across a million sunflowers each bowing their brown heads in acceptance. I suppose this is it; this for me is climbing and the life I live. What attracts me is the space, the thrill, the challenge, the learning, trying to understand, the unknown, the feelings, the emotions, the life around life that is life, but as important as climbing is, appreciation that it is not and never will be horror and war and displacement. It will never be daily hardship and survival. It will always be privilege and play at whatever level, be it millimetres of intense movement or days out on a north face and I will always try to remember this and reflect it in my writing and I hope I will always carry some weight.    

A car in the medieval town of Saint Antonin, South of France.

Unknown Czech climber on Tennessee.

Rich Kirby climbing Mistral Gagnant, La Croix

La Croix. I took some persuading to leave The Tarn but it all worked out!

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