The Space Face Case…

Two Andys of climbing, both characters, both a great influence on the North Wales climbing scene, Boorman and Pollitt. Credit, Ann Boorman.

Mick Lovatt and I decided to head inland to the rolling hills and broadleaf canopies of Conwy. We drove through Old Colwyn; past the recently done-up Co-op, past the chippy and kebab house, past the Cuckoo pub, where a woman wearing cut-off jeans, and a vest stood smoking a cigarette and holding a black Staffordshire Bull Terrier on a lead. We drove past Aldi on the right, and up the hill, past the new flats on the left – a high-end development, all chrome and windows, balancing on the cliff edge above the little sport crag. Turning right, up the even steeper hill surrounded by modern houses, until a levelling and the sea behind, dotted with a multitude of wind turbines. Downhill and into the village of Llysfaen, before a turn left down the track and parking in the sheep field. Craig y Forwyn, a large chunk of gleaming limestone nestled amongst the trees.

Mick and I were hoping to lead a route called The Space Face, a line that climbs the front face of Great Wall and first climbed by Calum Muskett, and given the grade E8 6b. In some respect, the climb is an odd one, it starts up Great Wall, going into Space Case, leaving Space Case (for some direct moves of its own, including the crux), before once again joining Space Case at the bolt, and finishing the same as that route, including its crux. The bit of new climbing of Calum’s route is technical with small crimps and even smaller pockets, but with hardly any protection. It’s wonderful to climb directly up this scalloped shield of solid white limestone, while burying thoughts about how contrived climbing can be at times. I don’t mean this to belittle the climb, it’s a great climb, and on that day, both Mick and I led it and loved the experience, it’s just an observation. What is odder, when Mick posted on Facebook afterwards, that he had done the climb, were some comments.

Mick Lovatt on, or at least near the crux of Space Case, having climbed The Space Face. Credit, Pete Johnson.

Boring as this may be, I have to give a bit of background, so here goes…

Space Case is a brilliant three-star Andy Pollitt E6 6b that he climbed in 1982 with one bolt high on the climb to protect the crux. Andy was a superb climber who soloed loads of hard stuff and climbed a whole host of even harder stuff, he was no slouch and as bold as they come. I’m sure if Andy had wanted to, he could have climbed Space Case without the bolt, (or rope) but he chose to put one in, possibly because the route was more balanced and much better for it, and for those wanting to try to on-sight it, or climb it ground up, (without fear they would crater from the top of the crag) they could. Andy died on November 13th 2019 aged 56, a great loss to the climbing community and those who knew him.

Big John Orr topping out on Space Case. Credit, Tim Neill.

Anyway, a load of years ago, I was more black and white and opinionated. With age and experience, I’d like to think I’m a tad more understanding and take a more nuanced approach these days, and I can see now, it’s better to take each case on its own merit. So, Space Case, a brilliant E6 6b with a bolt high-up, first climbed by Andy Pollitt in 82 and available for many people to climb on-sight, ground-up, or headpoint, until a few years ago when a local climber called Ryan Macconnell set his stall to work Space Case until he had it very dialled, before removing the bolt, and climbing it. I am told to do this he used an elaborate system of tensioned bungees, holding down the skyhook placements. Brilliant, bold and imaginative, and I really understand the personal challenge and dedication to a dream, but did it make Space Case a better climb for the bolt removal, I’m not sure it did? Fortunately, Ryan (good on him) chose not to fill in the bolt hole that meant anyone having a bolt and hanger could drop a line down the route, replace the bolt, and attempt it in whatever style they chose, and a lot of locals did just that, including myself. Unfortunately for anyone not in the know, or not local, they wouldn’t have the odd 8 mm bolt and hanger on their rack. They would also, possibly, not have the time for multiple visits to Craig y Forwyn to repeatedly work the climb on a top rope, so this great climb, a climb that had been available for around 25 years, was now, for most people, off limits.

A few years pass, and with access to the Great Wall area still sensitive, but less so than in previous years, the bolt has now been reinstated for good? I think for Forwyn, a crag that has always had a few bolts on a few climbs, and going back to what I said above, each climb has to be taken as a case by case, this was the correct decision.

Phew, so where were we. Yes, The Space Face. The day Mick and I climbed it the bolt was recently reinstated, and the route we climbed, (a direct line up the face) felt balanced, a good addition, a fine line for locals who wanted to pull on a few different holds as long as we kept the blinkers on. On Calum’s first ascent, the bolt had not been replaced, so at one point he traversed into Great Wall for protection, before traversing back, and continuing with the climb. I take nothing from Calum’s bold and creative ascent, a typical Muskrat endeavour, I can almost see him now bouncing up the cliff with abandon, but aesthetically, not that good when you have to leave the line to get gear in another route (a route quite a way to the side). Calum mentioned on Facebook he thought the route would be better with the bolt in, and Mick and I agree, because at one E grade less, it’s a much better climb when you climb the actual line without deviation.

Nick Dixon, a person I respect very much for his climbing, didn’t share Mick, Calum and my opinion though, and made a few comments on Facebook about how Calum’s climb had lost its challenge because the bolt had been replaced. Nick appeared to forget that fact the bolt was replaced in Space Case, the original route, not Calum’s route, a very recent addition. Did the challenge need making any more on that three-star piece of Andy Pollitt history? Yes, Ryan had climbed Space Case without the bolt, but no one has since, and I’m pretty sure they won’t again, because it’s not balanced and not the climb Andy Pollitt climbed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been into making routes consumer climbs. I love the quirky and individual, I understand there should always be climbs that folks will never do, or want to do, but I’m not sure affecting such an established three-star Pollitt climb is the way.

Nick also suggested the bolt had gone back in because Ryan was not a well-known climber, I’m also not sure about this, I think the bolt went back in to make Space Case the route it was when it was first climbed by Andy Pollitt. Replacing the bolt doesn’t make Ryan’s effort less, it’s just, I suppose, a more equitable and accessible experience for the many people who aspire to climb a great Pollitt E6, which there are many, and once again they now have the opportunity to try and climb it on-sight. [As a side note, I believe Ryan was asked about replacing the bolt in Space Case, which he said would be fine if someone else had repeated his effort. He asked two of the best local climbers around to repeat Space Case without the bolt, they both refused stating they would rather on-sight the route as an E6 with the bolt.]

Would people want to climb Calum’s route by traversing off into another line to get gear before reversing and continuing climbing? Nick said he had top roped it once, (a while ago) and he thought it was a good challenge, but he hasn’t been back, so maybe not that good a challenge to make it worth repeated visits? In my opinion, climbing The Space Face by traversing off route to get gear, before traversing back is not a challenge worth depriving people from attempting Space Case on-sight, or whatever?

So, anyway, Space Face, E7 6b, a great route for those who have done almost everything to do at Craig y Forwyn. Nick, I have a spanner and a bit of time, come over, I’ll hold your ropes, we can have a crack about the best style and experience of climbing Calum’s route, but I’m sure I’ll not change my opinion about the best way to climb Space Case, and that in the end is what it’s all about, a fantastic route from a great character and open to the many.

Myself on or around the crux of Space Case after climbing The Space Face. Credit, Rich Kirby.

Almost… Credit, Rich Kirby.

 

On the same day. Geoff Bennett climbing Great Wall, an on-sight attempt after no training throughout the whole of the Covid-19 lockdown and hardly any climbing after. Geoff’s enthusiasm for climbing is an inspiration for us all… A bit of a link, Geoff used to teach Calum at school.

Unfortunately for Geoff, on this occasion his enthusiasm didn’t quite get him through… Great effort though… 🙂

A bunch of old men with a bunch of gear on top of the crag at the end of a fun and memorable day. Credit, Rich Kirby.

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We went, we saw, we failed, we came back…

This podcast was recorded by Matt Pycroft and Emma Crome on a very rainy day in North Wales at the end of 2018. After listening to something I said a while ago, I still hold with most of it, which is surprising as I usually change my opinion daily.

Matt and Emma are a part of a team of talented folk who make and produce films, the company is Coldhouse.

Other more interesting podcasts from Matt can be listened to here at Terra Incognita.

As mentioned in this podcast, I did write an article about this trip that also included other ramblings. The article was published in Alpinist 68 and called Less Rich Without You.

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Smash and grab.

A unique shot of the whole of Craig Doris taken by Jethro Kiernan via drone.

I’ve been fortunate to have climbed a reasonable amount, (given all that’s going on in the world, and my shoulder) over the last weeks, but I’ve only climbed at three crags; Craig Doris, Craig y Forwyn and Rhoscolyn. I’ve avoided the Llanberis Pass and other crags that are generally busy, not wanting to have the weirdness of interaction – who steps where, how do I pass this person, don’t shake hands, don’t hug! I’ve mainly climbed at Craig Doris, with a couple of trips to Forwyn and one to Rhoscolyn. Rhoscolyn was the busiest, but it was still relatively peaceful.

I’ve read lockdown accounts from folk saying they enjoyed the isolation and quiet, personally I just got on with it because it was a necessary evil, although now that the roads are busy once again, I must admit, I do miss the peace and quiet and the clear air. I miss the hard edge to the hills that usually only happens when there is a Northerly air flow. Until lockdown, I never really appreciated the blast of noise and the mini hurricane caused by vehicles. Until lockdown, I didn’t appreciate the necessity for drivers to reach their destinations at breakneck, but here we are again, vehicles driven by tight-lipped and frowning; cyclists and other road users lives risked by impatient drivers crossing solid white lines on blind bends.

Craig Doris is always a sanctuary, a rickety, rubble strewn recluse, an oddity stuck on a windswept peninsular. The gulls, fulmars, ravens, stonechats, kestrels, pippets, skylarks, buzzards, choughs, they all frequent the headland, I find their cries and song evocative. It’s mesmerizing sitting and watching the fulmars, wings set, skimming the cliff at the same height as my feet that dangle over the edge. Charms of goldfinches raid the thistle heads on the bank beneath the crag and large field mushrooms look like moons glowing through the long grass. Out at sea, out into the yawning mouth of Cardigan Bay, above the waves with their white caps, gannets, oystercatchers, and cormorants cruise and call, and beneath the waves, most days at 4pm on the dot, a pod of dolphins pass, its like they have an understanding of time. Mick Lovatt and I look forward to watching the dolphins, the pod is eight or nine strong, adults and calves. We generally stop whatever we are doing and watch them. Mick sometimes ruffles his rucksack to find binoculars and gives me a commentary. Occasionally an adult breaches the water and the slapping noise on re-entry alerts us to their presence. They hunt fish causing a flush of blue bubbles and alert the birds to a possible bonanza. But eventually they pass and swim out of sight, going to where ever it is they go. There is always a gap in conversation, a time for quiet reflection after they pass. I know nothing about dolphins, I’m just another ignorant punter who finds charismatic megafauna a joy.

Lockdown for the time being is over here in Wales and visitors can once again travel freely. I’ve read some people complaining about the influx of people, which in a way I understand, but I also see the benefits for a family or individuals needing to take a break from the usual in this crazy year, we all need a break! Who has the right to say, no you can’t leave your area and travel to the countryside or a beautiful place, let’s face it, most climbers are tourists and the financial benefits for the local community is helpful and needed?

Mick and I walked to Doris on a Sunday, the first Sunday since lockdown had finished, it was eleven am when we stood on the top of the crag. There were several boats in the bay, the first we had seen for a while, but they were anchored and the people inside reasonably quiet. But, as we prepared to climb, the first of the jet skis appeared, followed by others, their high pitch revving engines and bump, bump, bump as they hit waves, jumped, hit waves. As the day passed, more and more jet skis, some had loud music. The call of the birds was now engulfed by engine noise and bumping beats. The gannets were nowhere to be seen. At four pm, the doughnut spinning madness happening just out to sea had reached a new level of revving-screaming-fervour. I sat on top of the crag willing the dolphins to stay away, but right on cue, the pod appeared. They took their usual course, on occasion breaking the surface, dark glinting skin, a blow of air, but they were separated by jet skis cutting through the middle of the pod. Two dolphins turned back to swim in the direction they came, the rest continued their usual path. After several minutes, the larger group of dolphins had a boat and a flotilla of jet skis following, just metres away, and the two separated dolphins swam in circles some way behind. Having heard nothing, but the sound of revving engines and music all day, I watched the dolphins being disturbed, and longed for lockdown again. After everything people had experienced over the last few months, I hoped we may have had a deeper understanding and consideration for wildlife and other people, but in some way, for some, it appeared the opposite, now it appears to be a smash and grab, ignore everything and everyone else, get it while you can before the ‘good times’ are gone.

The flotilla closely following and disturbing the dolphins.

Myself climbing the new route Sold Under Sin E4 5c, on the clean white wall, high above the boulders and grass ledges, between the pinnacles at the start of Pysgodyn Aur, and the crazy overhanging crack (with a massive, vacated nest at its base) of Chosstokovitch. Pic credit, Mick Lovatt.

Mick Lovatt seconding the first ascent of Sold Under Sin.
Start from the biggest and lowest, ivy covered ledge at a small groove, on the right of the ledge, beneath the crack in the final headwall. Peg and good cam for belay.
Follow easy grooves and corners, up and left, (with increasingly better gear) until a small ledge beneath an overhanging red wall that has an obvious flake-crack. Climb the flake crack, step right, then a series of good, but bold moves to reach two solid flat holds on the left (crux) where a peg can be clipped (if tied off). A couple more tricky moves follow to reach the base of the finger crack. Follow the crack to the top.

Mick climbs Box of Blood, E7 6b, a memorable route, first climbed by Leigh McGinley. The lower section is the first pitch of an E5 called Crucial Condition, NOT Doris lite!

Mick leaves Crucial condition to get good gear before some, eyes on stalks, overhanging, unprotected groove climbing. Mick did a great job climbing Box of Blood with minimal practice and pre-inspection.

A Ray Wood shot of my ascent of Box of Blood from several years ago. This is the overhanging groove above the position where Mick is, in the picture above.

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Out on a limb…

Pic credit, Jethro Kiernan.

I’m not sure where to start this piece, or where to finish. Shall I go with a stream of consciousness, or slow and studious? Can I be bothered at all? Writing my pointless drivel hardly seems worthwhile with so much going on in the world. The loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods destroyed or put on hold. The murder of George Floyd and the riots that followed. The unbelievable hypocritical arrogance, madness and lies coming from Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, and ‘I-shake-hands-with-everybody’ Boris Johnson. And before I get off my wobbly stool, how about the arrogance of Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson’s refusal to sack him. If we ever needed an example of Johnson’s haughty belief that he, and his cohorts are more entitled than the rest of us, that was it.

While I’m on one, what about the whole global warming, deforestation, consumerization, exploitation, globalization, that of course is still happening and getting worse and has certainly had a big part to play in the pandemic. The year 2020 is just over halfway, and its already given us so much, thank you world, maybe we have asked for much of it, but if you can, please spare a thought for the caring and considerate people out there.

Given everything that has happened, and is still happening with the pandemic, I wanted to learn as much as possible, and for two months I did; I read, listened, watched – day in, day out, most of the day, but in another way, it all felt, and still feels too big for me to make a difference, and after hitting pandemic burnout, (at about the nine-week point) sticking my head in the sand felt more healthy than banging it against the wall. So, I sit here thinking about writing, about climbing, and it all seems pretty pointless and insignificant and selfish. But, on saying this, and truly believing it, climbing is also something I get a lot of joy and satisfaction, especially when I become a bit OCD about an area, or a crag and all of its foibles. A crag I’ve had a special relationship with for a long time is Craig Doris on the Llyn Peninsular and given everything happening, Doris, in some way, is quite fitting because its pretty wild and crazy, (although always honest) there are generally no other climbers, or people near the crag at all, so socially distancing is easy, and many of the holds are one-use-only, so cross-contamination is never going to happen.

TPM climbing the first ascent of Safe as Milk E7 6c.  Pic credit, Jethro Kiernan

Now, as I’ve obviously gone with the stream of consciousness and I’ve already explained I’m a selfish climber and this is my blog that no-one has forced you to read, did I mention my shoulder injury? No… OK, well, for the first time in twenty-five years I’ve injured my shoulder, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a bastard. I blame my injury on the pandemic and my stupid personality. Train, train, train… it was so obvious I was going to become injured, because for me, (and I stress, for me) the correct thing to do, given the thousands of folk dying and in trouble, (and because at the time no-one had a handle on what was the correct way to tackle the virus) was to completely adhere to the advice to separate myself. I certainly didn’t want to encourage others to go out climbing, not going out and not been seen climbing felt morally correct. I know some people think this is a misguided form of solidarity with people in a less fortunate situation than myself, but if we don’t support people with less than ourselves, what does that say about us and how will change happen? I was also told to get a grip when I said I thought we should hold fire on climbing, as thousands could soon be dying. I wonder if I still need to get a grip, figures today from Johns Hopkins are thirteen million Covid-19 cases and five hundred and seventy-one thousand Covid-19 related deaths?  Taking to the fingerboard was the correct way for me, all in all, it was a bit of climbing I was missing, and as painful as this felt, it’s a bit of climbing. So, in about sixty plus days of lockdown, I completed thirty weighted fingerboard sessions, which, given the age of my shoulders, and the fact I only usually fingerboard twice a week through winter, this was always going to have an effect, but of course, because this is 2020, the year everything is messed up, it wasn’t the desired effect! Day two out of lockdown and in a quarry where I would never usually be climbing unless it was with a set of axes, I was slithering around in a groove when I heard and felt my shoulder explode, deep joy! There was no way out from the climb other than to climb, so, with much gnashing of teeth, that’s what I did, and all the dentists were closed at the time, so this wasn’t good either. Anyway, two months down the line, I’m still being kept awake with pain and it looks like I’ve either torn the rotator cuff tendons or the shoulder labrum. But the force is strong (or is it that I’m a sad, addicted climber?) and after much ringing around and chatting to friends who have had similar injuries, I’ve continued to climb; albeit cautiously, with the occasional near vomiting with pain episode.

New topo of the sector. Mick Lovatt.

So, where was I… yes, Doris.

A section of Craig Doris I have hardly bothered with apart from one climb, Tonight at Noon, is the far-left hand section. This left section always felt a little like Doris lite, as in, it’s reasonably short, thirty metres over-all, but about ten metres of this is scrambling, and it just doesn’t cut it in comparison to the forty metres of Stigmata. There is of course the very overhanging cave, but this has never interested me, and I’ve always been drawn to the other, longer, more exciting sections. The wall to the right of the cave is attractive, no doubting, but it’s up high and above a load of chossy pinnacles, it just didn’t appeal. But all sorts of things start looking good in a pandemic (even a quarry), and after taking a close look, it quickly became apparent the wall was, in-fact, a thing of reasonably solid and pocketed beauty.

So, over the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting my old Doris partner in crime (no, not the Hippy, not that old!) Mick Lovatt, and we’ve been climbing a few things on the section of crag to the right of the big cave, it’s been the perfect antidote to everything going on in the rest of the world and it’s helped my shoulder recovery, or at least that’s what I tell myself. It’s also been a real tonic to be away from the internet, sat on a deserted headland watching the gannets and dolphins who appear to be enjoying the lack of jet skis.

TPM climbing Harmony.

Myself climbing Harmony. I took a lob from the crux first go, it’s about as big a fall as you can take, but the gear’s good and the fall-out zone safe.

Myself on the first ascent of Harmless, E7 6b. It stars as for Harmony but goes straight up the wall into the crux of Harmony and direct up the top headwall.

The final section of Harmless. The small groove to the right is Pysgodyn Aur, E5 6b, and the thin crack to the left is the finish to Harmony. Pysgodyn Aur starts from the top of the flat ledge (can be seen in the picture below) after a scramble and a bit of chimney. Its good climbing, but the pegs that protect much of the climbing are not bomber. On another day I climbed the new Harmless start and finished as for Pysgodyn Aur, it’s a good link up at the same grade and less faff with ropes.

TPM on the first ascent of Safe as Milk, E7 6c. Terrible name, and possibly a tad over graded at 6c, Mick must have forgotten to take the Sanatogen, (other old age supplements available) or maybe I’m on fire, but a brilliant climb, possibly the best on this section alongside Tonight at Noon. Pic credit, Jethro Kiernan.

TPM just before the crux moves of Safe as Milk. Jethro Kiernan.

Myself seconding the first ascent of Safe as Milk. Jethro Kiernan.

Another day. Myself on the second ascent of Safe as Milk.

All the best routes (or at least the ones I manage to climb) have a sit down. Safe as Milk before the headwall.

TPM bringing Rodella knee bar skills to Doris on the (possible, but happy to change this if its incorrect) second ascent of Dissonance, an E7 6c first climbed by the, not-so-young-any-more, wunderkind, Calum Muskett. It starts from the flat top of the pinnacles, as for the original Pysgodyn Aur, then traverses left into Harmony, which it climbs to the group of pockets, before a few hard moves and the final crack of Harmony.

TPM gets the second ascent of Harmless.

My withered right shoulder and lockdown hair and beard, (although my hair looks like this lockdown or not!) but happy to be in the sun and away from the internet. Pic credit, Zylo.

 

 

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The smell of change… reading

Unknown climber having a kip on the floor, unknown climber on Coliseum, and another unknown climber on something hard, think its Gemenis 8b+ Rodellar, Spain.

I wrote The smell of change, a 4500 word piece published on UKC, in the week following my return from a climbing trip in Spain. A link to the full written version can be found HERE. When I’m in the UK, I’m a bit of a sucker for the PM programme hosted by Evan Davis on Radio 4. The Covid-19 crisis has become a big part of the programme, well, its all the programme (no surprise), and a new item that interested me was a 400 word written piece to be recorded by the author, and then played on the programme called Covid Chronicles.

After writing The smell of change, a piece describing leaving Spain and travelling through France as lockdown happened due to the virus, I thought it would be something to do, given the time I was now sitting on the sofa, to try to edit 4500 down to 400, and send this to the PM programme. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the original down to under 700 words, but sent it anyway, and of course, didn’t hear back (note to self, don’t ignore word count!). The piece was possibly a tad dark for 5pm, or maybe I need to face the truth, it wasn’t very good. Anyway, I thought bugger it, I’ll do my own reading, so that’s what I did, and in the process I incorporated my friend Mark Goodwin, a trained sound recordist (he will no doubt tell me this title is wrong, but what the hell, you get the idea!).

Now, as good as a person is, they can only work with what they’re given, and a recording on my phone, while shuffling about under the duvet, was never going to be brilliant, (at one point I thought I was suffocating) but Mark did a great job sorting it out, and I think it’s OK.

Here’s a link to the piece, its 8 minutes long…  The smell of change. (audio)

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Footsteps.

The Orion Face, Ben Nevis in great condition.

Lockdown has the occasional advantage over usual life (not many), but one is the lack of guilt and concern about the time I sit on the sofa staring at the computer screen. Trawling my documents, it’s odd going back to a piece of writing from long ago. It’s even more strange going back to an experience from long ago.

I don’t remember when I first wrote Footsteps, a piece that has just been published on the Mountain Equipment site, but it wasn’t immediately or even close to being after my solo of the Orion Direct on Ben Nevis, because the climb would have taken place in the winter of 95/96 (possibly), and I didn’t start writing until 2000. Twenty-four, or twenty-five years on, I still remember the experience vividly, especially going off-route and climbing the groove near the top of the climb. At that time, climbing the Orion Direct was a big thing for me, and given the poor conditions, it turned into an even bigger thing. It was the final climb of that winter season, I didn’t need to do any more after this experience.

Its crazy how experience, appreciation, gear improvements and conditions can turn something on the limit, to something reasonable. Several years (possibly ten or twelve, maybe more) after my first time climbing the Orion Direct, I walked again, on my own to the Ben. It was late March, birds in the bushes were bouncing around and singing, and the bushes themselves threatened to bounce into life. The weather and conditions were perfect – hard frost, hard ground, blue ice, blue sky. I soloed Point 5, then The Orion Direct and finally Zero Gully, before returning to the valley for a late lunch. Like the first time I climbed The Orion Direct, this was also the last climbing of the winter season, because not only was I keen to begin the rock season, but after climbing these three great climbs in a morning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything else in Scotland that winter, how could I better this experience? For many years I had held onto the dream that one day I may solo these three climbs on the same day and now I’d done it, it was another of life’s dreams realized.

We’re lucky as climbers that in times like this (pandemic lockdown) we can look back and remember, and after re-editing the piece about my first time soloing The Orion Direct, I feel especially lucky to still be around to remember!

The newly edited and quite raw version of Footsteps, which was published in Echoes as the chapter called Honesty, can be read on the Mountain Equipment site here 

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The smell of change.

Lowering from the top of Coliseum, Rodellar, Spain. Credit, Rich Kirby.

As mentioned in the previous post, here is the latest bit of writing, a new piece published on UK Climbing. It’s about being on a climbing trip in Catalonia, Northern Spain, when the Covid-19 crisis hit. It can be read HERE

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Crossing the Years.

Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Credit Ray Wood.

Crazy covid times means no climbing, which equates to writing. Although for some reason my mind doesn’t feel in the right place for new writing, (although I have done something  that will be published soon on UKC, I think?) so I’ve been looking at some old stuff and playing around. The first to be published is on the DMM website and called Crossing the Years. The time frame of the story is early 2000s, I couldn’t remember the exact year. I’d been staying at the CC hut Ynys Ettws in the Llanberis Pass, listening to some stories from the ‘old boys’. I had also been soloing loads that week, so I thought finishing it all off with something ‘traditional’, a solo of the 928ft West Buttress Girdle of Cloggy would be good. It wasn’t!

Ray Wood has included a few of his shots of Cloggy which are great, thanks Ray.

The story can be read here … Crossing the Years

 

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The hot air in between…

On the off-chance, Grimer got in touch, “Nick, are you about? I’m in Llanberis, do you fancy a chat for my podcast, I’ve been doing an interview with Hazel Findlay, a proper climber, I wondered about off-setting it by having a chat with you? (To be read in a Norther Irish accent) I told Grimer I was about, and to come over, what’s the worst that could happen?

Grimer took ten minutes, and in those ten minutes, I told myself there were two things I would not chat about, unfortunately for me, Grimer had other plans, and being a bit of a gob shite when I’m having fun, the two things that I told myself were out-of-bounds, were almost the only things we talked about.

I listened to the interview to see how bad it was, it’s pretty bad, but for those of you that feel like inflicting it upon yourselves, the good bits about it are; it starts with an advert for Grimer’s, Boulder Britain, second edition, and finishes with a really great Van Morrison track, the stuff in between is hot air, not to be taken seriously, but we did laugh a lot.

Be warned, there is a lot of swearing, mostly by me!

You can inflict the interview (term used loosely) on yourselves below…

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Not ferret food.

[I took this picture of a starling yesterday, it reminded me of a chapter from Tides. Below is a long and less edited version of what became chapter 34]

Please Queue Here

I sit on a stone wall and soak the afternoon sun. The newly constructed entrance of the Midi Téléphérique Station is in front – glass, metal, stone, wood – the structure proudly shines. How many times in my life had I sat and waited like this? How many nervous and excited minutes and hours, even days? But like a sharp stone rubbed smooth by the sea, I could not help think, some of the innocent mountain magic has been lost now with the passing of almost twenty two years.

I had driven from Llanberis to Chamonix at the beginning of December and on the way, I visited my parents who still live on their canal boat called Jasper moored near Northampton. As I stood to leave, my Mum handed me a Waitrose shopping bag of Christmas gifts – mint chocolates, dried dates, a Christmas cake she knew I liked to eat on bivouacs, a really good bottle of South African Shiraz and a birthday card containing cash she could not afford to give. Dad sat in his chair smoking and drinking tea. I took the hessian bag – a bag for life – from Mum’s painfully thin and arthritic hand and after a gentle hug, left the boat. I didn’t realise this was the last time I would see my Mum. 

Jack Geldard, my climbing partner for our attempt on a climb called Stupenda, had still not returned from the boulangerie and as I sit and wait – wait with the Chamonix hubbub happening behind – I watch two workers dressed in blue boiler-suits, chipping and spreading salt on a patch of ice that looked like the outline of an island. Pocked brown and jagged – water ran from the disintegrating edge of the island. The slow brown flow trickled and meandered and finally disappeared into a deep crack between paving slabs. Above, starlings look down while standing on the sparkling steel frame of the Midi station.

*

Heavy breathing and the rumble of rocks loosened by the late afternoon sun is the only sound now. Jack and I had skied the Valley Blanche – past The Tacul with all of the routes on the east face I had climbed in 2007 and past The Super Couloir where Rich, Boy Wonder, Lucas and I had climbed in 2004 and on through the Séracs du Géant, to eventually turn right and on to the Leschaux Glacier. On my left, a single ski-tip, old, and very slowly pushed downhill, pointed like a finger from the glacier. I check to see if it is an Atomic, one of the set I lost when airlifted with a broken ankle from the Petites Jorasses. It wasn’t, and with a dull ache in my right ankle, I continued toward the Leschaux hut.

I had stayed in the Leschaux many times and with many different partners including Tim Neill, my friend now for seventeen years after we had snow holed together on out winter mountain leader assessment. Earlier in the winter I had climbed a route with Tim called Fantasia per a Ghiacciatore…

Tim was up front, on occasion I saw his headtorch shine in my direction. We had left the Torino Refugio at six thirty heading into Cirque Maudit with the intention to climb Fantasia, an enclosed ice line I had climbed in 2007 with Steve Ashworth. My lungs crackled and I wondered if this was the same strain of infection that had killed Mum? In my mind’s eye, I saw her lying on a trolley in a hospital corridor tended by ambulance men. Lesley, my sister had been with her, she said they were in the corridor for three hours before being taken to the intensive care unit. My skis cut the snow and my breathing burnt and in the dark, all around, I could see my Mum lying on a trolley in a corridor.

It was light now and in the distilled red striped horizon were jagged mountains. Choughs circled, their wings spread wide to catch the breeze. The Choughs reminded me of the birds from my childhood. As teenager, to feed the ferrets, I would shoot starlings with an air rifle. As a fourteen year old, Starlings were scrawny scavengers, they had nothing to offer, no beautiful song, no beautiful plumage, no grace – Starlings were ferret food. Tim and I geared up, the same as I had geared up a million times, the same as I had geared up beneath this climb a few years earlier when Mum was still alive.

Mum was tall and slim with dark Mediterranean features, but in that frame was strength and determination and as I sat on my rucksack, fitting crampons to my orange ski boots, I could see the deep scar in Mum’s leg where as a child, I had opened all of the draws of a steel filing cabinet, and as the cabinet toppled forward, she jumped in-front taking the force of the and supporting it as it pinned her to the floor with me underneath her fragile body. Someone eventually found us and lifted the cabinet away. SNAP, the crampon locked to my orange boot and the holes in the snow at my feet filled with powder. Arriving home from school once I found Mum covered in oil under her blue Hillman Minx changing the starter-motor, it was a time when cars with diesel engines were rare and this engine had been taken from a large van, it was old and the starter motor was big and heavy, “Pass me that spanner love, I’ll get some tea on in a bit …”

Tim set-off, wading deep snow and crossing the bergschrund beneath the stream of ice clinging to corners and flowing over rock overhangs until it hit the col beneath the summit of Mont Maudit. I followed, clipping to a belay by the side of the first steepening. 

There were many times I thought I would not outlive Mum, I thought she would be in that unenviable situation which, I’m sure, most parents dread, of outliving one of their children. I was wrong and as Tim and I climbed higher and the wind on the col increased, this time, for the first time, the situation felt different, I realised if I died, there of course would be upset and sadness from friends and family, but the one person who would have been truly devastated was now gone.

Mum always took a delight and interest in whatever activities my sister and I were involved, to the point that when I became interested in mountaineering and climbing, within months she could name mountains, mountaineers, Scottish winter climbs, summer rock climbs, Alpine climbs, Himalayan climbs, South American climbs – the lot, and she could enter into conversation about the subject with confidence. This of course was not always the best, because pulling the wool over her eyes was now impossible.

Leaving the sun, climbing into the shadow, into the confined icy corner – images and memories flow with every drag of the pick, every kick and swing and pull… I could see Mum totally worn-out, falling asleep in a high backed chair, with a half filled mug of strong instant coffee balanced by her side. Sometimes, so tiered, the mug fell from her hand. Strong coffee was certainly a big part of Mum’s life and she was seldom without one and it was generally partnered with a super long cigarette. It says something about her determination, that after nearly fifty years of smoking, one day she decided to give up…

… up … up, up above, the spindrift rips into the blue sky and swirls… like steam from a mug, like Starling murmuration, like smoke, like ashes… And either side of this slender ice formation, the granite mullions hem us, hem us the same as the strong skeletal Oak that stood either side of the wooden church gates as we wait, just a few days earlier for the hearse carrying my Mum.

Jack and I left the Leschaux Hut at 5am. We had crossed the glacier and climbed the approach slope beneath Stupenda, an overhanging and direct crack line in the Aiguille du Tacul. I was now deep inside a chimney at the beginning the third pitch and struggled to remove the gloves stuffed down my front, but the food in my chest pockets, and the bundles of blue 4mm tat, still bulged like a beer drinkers paunch. The Styrofoam Jack and I had read about in the Philippe Batoux book, The Finest Climbs in the Mont Blanc Range was nowhere to be found, instead, stuck to the dark, beneath the numerous overhangs, was meringue.

Stupenda is given a grade, V A2 M5+ WI6, I’m not sure what this means, grades in the mountains can often be superfluous. I climbed higher, squeezing deeper, deeper into overhanging granite, deeper into the mountain, to finally reach the pitch three belay. Jack seconded the pitch and I set off on pitch four. I swing through the overhangs directly above the belay. Certain I had just free climbed the crux I shouted to Jack, “Hashtag, first free ascent!” But as I pull through another overhang and into another crack and look up, I see flared and overhanging off-width. My hashtag hubris smacks me and I made a pact with myself to try to be more humble in the future.

On the smooth wall to the right are two, spaced bolts. I realise this must be the A2 section and the bolts had been placed for upward progression. I squirm and arm-bar and leg-bar and body-bar until I feel drunk and I can hardly bar no more. My stomach feels punched.

A few summers ago, one wet weekend in the Llanberis Pass, I was climbing with Dan McManus and we tackled a bunch of off-width test pieces in preparation for Dan’s trip to Yosemite. A body eating, E4 crack called Fear of Infection had me nearly vomiting. I slithered and swore and squirmed. Pushing up, pushing down, hanging in, hanging out… thighs, elbows, back, soles of feet, face… anything to stop me slithering and slipping and losing the millimetres that had taken so much effort. The damp rock rubbed raw the soft, sweating skin of my face and I eyeballed the individual grains of wet Rhyolite. Dan, belaying directly above, laughed, he laughed nearly as hard as I had when he first approached me.

“If ever you need a climbing partner, I’m keen; I lead E3 and will follow anything.”  I’m sure he must laugh about our first meeting – or maybe he doesn’t, maybe he is comfortable in his flesh and maybe I have learnt my valuable lesson.

The walls either side of this Stupenda were Fear of Infection, but this time I was wearing crampons, using axes, wearing several layers of clothing and the rain was substituted with spindrift, but the nausea was much the same.

My torso was above the highest bolt. I attempted to swing a pick into a clear slither of ice glued to the back of the crack, but each time, only a single tooth caught. I could not swing the axe because of the restricting crack and my body was balanced precariously – taught, extended, I needed to escape these constricting granite chains, but my left foot, shin, knee, thigh, failed to purchase and repeatedly I slithered back to the one foothold inside the crack. ‘You can do this.’ Suddenly I realised how important free climbing this stupid Stupenda had become and my younger determination was shocking.

I wanted to free climb Stupenda for the physical and technical challenge and because free climbing is more natural for me and my attitude – pulling on gear has never felt satisfying. But deep inside, as I climbed higher and higher, somewhere in the back of my brain, was a rusty nail driven deep into twisted grain. I wanted to prove a point to Philippe Batoux, the first ascentionists, because in the past he had openly questioned some of my climbing. There was also the thought of being able to instantly show and tell, show and swell, puff up my chest like a starling. A free ascent of this climb would do it, I would show all the others what a good time I was having in the Alps. But, but, don’t I look down on climbers for lack of modesty, being full of hubris and pushing their ‘great’ ascents repeatedly and forcefully down my throat? In Fact, I was so sick of the spray this winter I needed Milk of Magnesia. But deep, deeply driven was that nail and that nail wanted to be liked and accepted and loved as much as everyone, but that nail was corroded and it filled my brain with flakes of rust…

Knee bar, arm bar, squirming, battling… ‘first free ascent’… millimetres … arm bar …’look at me’… I take hold of the axe jabbed to the drool of ice. Thrutching. Sweating. A millimetre, a centimetre. ‘Still clean.’… Hunting. Hanging. Wedged. ‘Still clean.’ Held in-place by a twisted thigh, body tension. ‘Still clean.’

Level with my right foot was the higher of the two bolts which had a carabineer clipped. I stared; it was tempting for a front point, ‘who would know?’ But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, because of course, I would know and some of the less honest or should I say, some of the things I have said or done, that I am less proud, still haunt me and I have learnt that my life is more healthy without echoes or ghosts.

I stripped myself to skin and bone and sinew to make myself light. Ego, and the fear of failure, could, at one time, weigh me down but fortunately, not that often anymore. So what if I fall and the free ascent was lost, so what if I didn’t clamour to update my status – this fight is my fight and my fight alone. I match the axe with both hands – pull and squirm. Millimetres. Millimetres. The right leg flaps and scrapes. Millimetres. Squirming… but the ice grows tired and the axe rips and ice shards explode, hitting me in the face, and I fall like a Starling shot with a lump of lead, fired from a teenagers air-rifle. And as I fall, being scared hardly enters my mind, but for a second, just one plummeting second, being disappointed and even being angry does. But the disappointment and anger was only for a second, and by the time twenty-five feet had past, I was happy and in some way content.

“Are you OK?”

“Yep, I’m good ta.”

Learning to live this life and move through this life is often about accepting the contradiction within us…

I pull myself up the rope and this time, using a front point neatly placed into the karabiner clipped to the high bolt, I managed to find a hook and once more, begin to squirm and thrash and eventually reach the belay.

Three bold and technically demanding pitches follow but finally, finally, I’m stood in the brèche at the top of the climb. Exhausted. Enshrouded by dark. I had taken a claw hammer to my brain, my life is taking a claw hammer to my brain. Mum would have been proud…

A few days after climbing Stupenda, Jack and I were in the hills again, hoping this time to climb the Dru Couloir Direct, but unlike Stupenda, we knew this climb had been in condition, it had received four ascents earlier this winter. The Dru Couloir held a special place for me, it was one of my earlier, successful Alpine climbs, but it had not been a giveaway and the thought of returning fifteen years later, intrigued.

It was September 2000 when I had driven from Leicestershire to Chamonix with Paul Schweizer. Paul was a reasonably affable West Coast American with a penchant to rant – we immediately connected.  Old – older than me anyway – a tad crusty, goatee sporting, round wire frame glasses, straggly hair sprouting from a thinning – quirky, off-the-wall, intelligent, articulate – Paul was an Edinburgh University Lecturer in computer logic, and fifteen years down the line, I still don’t know what this is. To be honest, I think I’m incorrect by calling it computer logic, but this is my limited capacity for understanding the subject Paul actually lectures.

Heavily laden, stepping from the Grands Montets Telecabine, Paul, lumbered, a bowed six-foot something dressed in black with purple Scarpa Vega boots. His weight caused the snow-dusted wooden floorboards to sag. It was 4pm and outside, the wind and snow and cloud were swirling. This was the last lift of the summer; the téléphérique was now closed for maintenance before the winter season started in December. We added several layers and waited, planning to sleep in the toilet and approach the Dru North Face in the morning. A friendly guy from the café guessed our plan and handed us left-over food including cake; he then departed on the final lift of the season. The cake, eaten in the dissolving warmth of the long drop, lost a little of its French eloquence, but was still tasty.

Leaving the cloistering stench of the toilet early, I don’t remember exactly at what time or anything about the approach or even anything about climbing the initial snowed up granite slabs, but I can still smell those toilets. Being American, I pointed Paul at the Nominee Crack… A1, no problem for a 70’s Yosemite Valley dwelling Septic, but Paul forgot to say, at that time in the valley, he was one of the new breed of climbers – living, smoking, drinking, partying, living free and climbing free, not with aid – he had as much an idea about aid climbing as I, and that was about as much idea as I had about computer logic.

Six hours passed, possibly longer and in that time I sat and willed and looked around at the sheer walls feeling isolated and exposed. Paul at last made it to the top of the Nominee Crack, a bowed overhanging crack, by fighting and back cleaning, he had left me little to grab and many years before big handled axes and no leashes, I attacked the crack in a free, thrash, grunt style and still wearing my monster rucksack.  Needless to say I struggled and in one moment of pulling-like-a-train desperation, an axe ripped and the massive adze of my straight shafted Grivel Super Courmayeur smashed me in the face with a sickening thud and the splatter of and taste of blood. I had ripped my cheek, making me think I’d smashed the bony, inferior orbit just below my eye and blinded myself. But I could see stars, so maybe not. 

Flopping onto a small sloping ledge alongside Paul, I was bleeding and bruised and exhausted. We stayed on the ledge and in the night it began to snow and the snowflakes were the biggest and most perfectly formed, they settled and covered our gear. In the morning the snow continued but we decided to climb-on. Following an old description and after most of the morning, Paul, on the sharp-end, and getting very close to the ice in the continuation of the couloir, was squinting and clearing condensation from his round glasses and looking at some desperation lying between him and the easier ground to his right. Blankets of powder fell regularly making the steamed up spectacles even more of a problem. “Fuuuucking hell man, this is shit.” Paul drawled while balancing, cleaning glasses and moaning, before being hit by another cloud and having to repeat the whole operation again. Eventually with avalanches pouring down around us, we bailed.

A few abseils from our high point, in the slabby open arena and on full rope stretch, I kicked into the snow making a small step and to save time, unclipped from the rope to allow Paul to come down while I set up an anchor. The ropes pulled through my belay plate, springing out of reach. Paul began abseiling and suddenly yelled, and for once it was not a laid back American Hippy drawl, his voice sounded sharp and intent, near manic. “WATCHOUT MAN, AVALANCHE.” Looking up, I had time to see an arc of white pouring from the top of the most beautiful and direct cut, cleaved into the mountain – a steep and overhanging darkness, a siren with a smattering of ice baubles and granite flakes like the fins of sharks – mesmerising – this was the mythical Dru Couloir Direct, first climbed by Tobin Sorenson and Rick Accomazzo in 1977, but coming from the tooth filled mouth was a wave of whispering white and as the snow hit, I reached up grabbing the dangling ends of the ropes which fortunately were now in reach with the weight of Paul. I twisted them around my wrist as the snow hit. My shoulder stretched as the snow built and poured over me. Hanging, tucking my chin to my chest, I managed to gulp air and after about two days, the snow slowed and turned to a trickle.

Reaching the Dru Rognon beneath the West Face, Paul and I stripped off layers in the warm sun. What had just happened? We had escaped another world – a dark and foreboding world where dragons live. This we had now, this was another life, a warmer, safer life. We began the walk downhill but soon collapsed and made a bivi in the damp, pine-needle earth, below trees with flitting birds that pecked cones and hunted insects. The next day we thrashed the giant rhubarb and down-climbed disintegrating rubble because we didn’t know about the ladders on our left that safely led to the Mer de Glace. Sometime, mid-morning, surrounded by sweet smelling people, we caught the Montenvers Train and returned to the green valley.

Armed with a more up-to-date route description, several days later, Paul and I returned to the Dru Couloir. We had a bivi before, a bivi on route, a bivi at the Brèche and a bivi on the Charpoua Glacier when we abseiled too low and missed the turning for the Charpoua Hut. But we had successfully climbed The Dru Couloir and we were happy.

Jack and I had a leisurely approach to The Dru North Face and we had a leisurely bivi on the glacier. We cut depressions in the snow to allow our blow up matts to sit, we chatted, melted snow with our efficient gas stove, drank tea, ate biscuits and at 4.30am, left to climb the Dru Couloir Direct. At approximately 3.30pm, we stood in the Dru Brèche, looking through a granite picture frame at a cumulous enshroud Mont Blanc. A leisurely return to our bivi by abseiling the line was uneventful and after a cold, but safe night, we prepared to boot back to the Grand Montets station.

Leaving the bivi, the same bivi Pete Benson and I had shared when we had climbed the Dru North Face in a bitter winter high pressure, 2008, the memories flood. We passed beneath a new line I had climbed with Jules Cartwright called Borderline, beneath a line I had climbed with Andy Houseman and Ian Parnell called Russian Roulette and we walked in the fifteen year old footsteps of Paul Schweizer and myself. The sun cast jagged shadows as we crossed crevasses and beneath my feet, I imagined the depth and age, the icy layers and history. My boot sank into warm snow and I remembered more recent events and the ski-out after Jack and my ascent of Stupenda.

I lay on a wooden bench looking at the stars. Jack lay on a second bench doing the same. There were millions of them, a Starlings chest of iridescence – black plumes smattered with silver flecks amongst an oil slick of green, blue, purple and red. It was half past midnight, Jack and I had skied the bottom section of the VB and walked the steep snow-slope, leading through the woods to the small wooden hut at the start of the narrow, and zigzagged, James Bond Track. The track would eventually lead us back to Chamonix. I sat up and looked across the orange glow of town, across the moving white headlights, the dogs and cats, the parties, the blue shutters, the frosted pewter cobbles, the cafes, the silver icicles hanging from gutters, the stationary lorries with smoking chimneys and on – my eyes moved on to the snow slopes of the Brèvent and Flégère and the piste bashers out on the hillsides, moving around like a War of the Worlds invasion – flashing yellow lights, powerful white beams, smoothing and grooming, hunting and searching.

“How you feeling?” Jack asked.

“I’m totally knackered,” I replied without taking my eyes from the moving lights of the piste bashers that were now blurred by the cloud of condensation rising from my mouth. “Bloody love this feeling, never want it to end.” And then it hit me, because of course, it will end. I had lost my Mum and I had already crossed the halfway point in my own life and as I lay on the bench looking at the stars, I knew this queue was the same queue as we all stood, and this almost made me weep, but it also made this time expanding, opaque, alpine life and the sacrifice to live it, even more worthwhile and wondrous. And as I lay in the chill, with thick steam rising from my clothing, I realise that I still cling to the alpine innocence, but with growing older, it needed more of a jolt. But with this growing older, other facets also became more important – the shared experience, the connection to the surroundings and of course the memories.

And in the branches of the trees surrounding Jack and myself, I imagine are Starlings, such gregarious and beautiful survivors.

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