Barriers in Time.

 

Ticking.

Locked inside bone, how is that voice to be quelled?

Talking.

For some the voice is quiet. For others it yells. Sometimes the voice yells helpful, positive. Sometimes it screams destruction. Sometimes it waits and whispers in the morning. Sometimes it chatters before sleep at night.

Ticking.

How much is enough?

Ticking.

How much is not enough?

Talking…

…Scimitar Ridge, concave like the inside of a wooden rowing boat tipped onto its side, is a slice of corrugated basalt cut from the steep heather of the Llanberis Pass. Twisting through the valley base below Scimitar, a stream of clear mountain water slowly flows and in that slow flow is the reflection of the sun and the mountains. The stream is a glittering artery feeding the dark boggy earth – earth made-up of lives – lives blown on the wind of years – desiccated skin, blood, bone, sinew – lives lived, lives lost.

Scimitar is the home of hard climbing, climbing made difficult by the nature of the rock. There are few crimps and holds to pull down – it is open hand, side-pull, smears for feet, palming – spotting protection from below is difficult and reading the rock, even more. Scimitar rewards the confident. 

Two years ago, or maybe it was more, I opened my eyes to the minutia while working a climb called The Trumpet Slappers. There was an empty space to the right of the Jonny Dawes route, The 39 Slaps. But of course this space was not empty; it was an empty space on a page in a guidebook – a picture space without a line. In this, ‘real life’ there was the smooth grey of Scimitar’s Basalt. And in places, glued to the surface of the grey were cumulous scabs with sharp bubbled edges of metamorphosed quartz. There was also, one very small in-cut, triangular crimp and one mini basalt column and an overhanging groove and an overhanging arête. Unfortunately in this space – this ‘none space’ – there was very little way to protect, what would be difficult climbing.      

So, two years ago, or more, I successfully climbed a strange hybrid, The Trumpet Slappers – The 39 Slaps into the top section of The Trumpet Blowers – and sometime afterwards, Graham ‘The Hippy’ Desroy and I dropped a rope into the airy space around this ‘none space’ and decided very quickly it would go, all be with a lot of effort and courage, (pointless stupidity some may say) and time.

The start, a savage boulder problem, did not suit me, it was technical and powerful with smears for feet, but the bold and overhanging wilderness above, a strange eclectic mishmash of features – features to be used in a million different ways – did. And for two years, or maybe more, I imagined.

Ticking.

Last week, or maybe it was more, crisp northerlies caught on the rhyolite boulders as the wind travelled through the pass. I returned to Scimitar Ridge with Katy Forrester. I had spoken about this ‘none space’ frequently and had in my mind to warm-up on established climbs to get into the Scimitar smears and side-pulls before checking the ‘none space’ to the right of The 39 Slaps. Katy was the secret weapon to unlocking the technical boulder start as she is a much more gifted rock climber than I will ever be.

It was Easter and the snow streak, a long thin line high on the side of the pass clung to the shade in Parsley Fern Gully. Cars, motorbikes, busses, people and cyclists joined the flowing northerlies but unlike the cool breeze, which turned Scimitar’s unforgiving basalt into something friendly, I could hear car horns, the squeal of brakes and the odd shout of an annoyed cyclist.

Climbing appears worthless and useless and stupid to many people and in a way, I understand this point of view, but there is something primeval and liberating for me, to become involved with a piece of rock and the movement required to successfully journey up that piece of rock, until there is connection and personal history. Hubris? Recognition with a small R? Maybe, but climbing, and the associated things which surround climbing, make my life more complete, complete and fulfilled in the same way as a piece of well written prose, a great film, music, poetry, wild weather, a tasty meal, a rugged landscape, a glass of wine or watching a rare and shy wild animal.    

Katy worked a sequence of moves that involved deep drop knees, smears and many exact toe placements and after a while she had unlocked the lower barrier. My plan had backfired, no way was this going to work for me, so I took a more direct approach pulling as hard as I could from sharp edges and putting one on for a large slippery side-pull. The side-pull had to be snatched with an open hand and a thumb pressed very precisely to a roughening on its front face. That roughening is orange with a millimetre deep depression and as I write I can see it. Minutia. Body tension – so much body tension and as I write I can feel that tension. And this snap of tension has to be timed perfectly with hitting the side-pull and leaning to the left and the pressing of a toe to a high sloping smear.

Ticking.

The body’s ability to adapt and the minds ability to upload never fails to amaze and I knew with time and practice, my body and mind would become strong and tuned but I know also the mind is very practiced at denial and much like that ever decreasing Parsley Fern snow sliver, I knew time was the greatest price.  

Ticking.

Two stacked micro wires, impossible to place on lead was the protection for approximately the first half of the climb. A small section of rock had already broken next to the wires. I did not trust the wires or the rock they were placed, or my ability to hit and hold the side-pull and successfully continue with the moves afterwards.

This climb into ‘none space’ starts from Agamemnon, an established E1 and follows this for a few metres. Leaving Agamemnon, a high side runner could be placed, which would not stop a crunching fall should the micro wires rip, but it would stop a continued journey into boulders and down the steep hillside.      

Ticking.

Entering into this new ‘none space’ unlocking secrets in the minutia of landscape I learn. Time, past and present is all around; time is carried on the breeze. History is encompassing. And somewhere, in amongst all of this time, this history, these images and memories locked inside my head, somewhere is the voice, ticking, talking, ticking, talking, ticking, talking… doors open, doors close. Ticking, talking ticking… frequently walked corridors echo with the footfall of many. Ticking, talking… while similar corridors remain deserted.

Options.

I sit beneath the crag on the steep slippery grass slope with the cool northerly breeze and look up to slowly moving people-specks silhouetted along the ridge of Crib Goch. Below, running down the white lines in the middle of the road, three sheep trot and baa. Traffic builds on both sides of the sheep. Hot cars with peeping horns. The Parsley Fern snow patch is now the shape of Italy.

Ticking…

 

Getting into the headspace on Purple Paradise, Craig y Clipiau. Pic, Tim Neill.

Epilogue:

Returned today to Scimitar with Tim Neill and climbed the new line.

North by Northwest. E6 6c.

Climb the first few metres of Agamemnon, place a high runner or two level with two Imps, pre-placed just below the triangular side-pull. Down climb until level with a down pointing spike on the left. Climb to the spike and make hard moves up and slightly right past the Imps to the a large slippery sidepull. From the sidepull climb left and then back right to a small Basalt column and under-clings. Good gear. Move up and right until it is possible to stand on the top of the spike of Agamemnon. Arrange gear before climbing into the base of the steep v-groove above which is level with a flying arête on the right. Pull onto the arête using a hidden hold on the right and climb it to the top.

Thanks to Katy Forrester, Will Sim and Tim Neill for the belays, couldn’t of done it without you. :-)

 

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The Cluster Theory.

Myself on the first bivouac of a winter attempt of the Colton/MacIntyre on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses around January 1998. This seven day, quick hit from Britain came about when Jules Cartwright heard that a few mates had climbed this route, so we hot-footed in my van, day one, and jumped on even though the weather was looking a little shaky and the conditions on the face were far from good. Hit by a storm on day three of the trip, we had a second bivouac where we both hung all night waiting to be plucked from the face. Day four entailed a memorable descent and a flounder to the hut. Day five was back to the valley and beer and day six was a drive back to Britain. Day seven I think was a rest and day eight was back to work as a PE Instructor in Gartree Prison. No summit but this still remains as one of the most undiluted and memorable experiences I have ever experienced  in the mountains. Today would we have been called reckless and idiots and castigated by the internet posse?

 

At times, things appear to naturally occur in clusters. I’m sure this phenomenon has also been noticed by some think-tank people, who no-doubt will be paid vast amounts of money to give this theory a title but I have not heard of one so I have called it the Cluster Theory. I’m also sure that many people will not notice these natural occurring coincidences and will continue oblivious with absolutely no effect on their lives at all. I am not one of these people. I notice these clusters and over the last three or four days I have noticed a cluster that has had an effect.

Five days ago, via email, I had a conversation with a friend, who for use in this post I will call Jon.

Jon lives in Chamonix, he is a very active mountaineer and on occasion, when I am living in Britain, I will send him an email to ask his opinion about the conditions in the mountains around Chamonix. Sometimes, when I contact Jon to ask about conditions it saddens me; it feels like I’m losing something, even letting myself down.

Several years ago I did not have friends who live in Chamonix and the internet was something of the future. There were of course, the Alpine bongo drums and the French whispers, which were often incorrect, making the adventures large and memorable.

The feeling of excitement and anticipation on the drive, or sometimes the flight to the Alps, regularly threatened to explode from my friends and me, something similar to the avalanches that we often experienced rumbling down the cliffs all around us, after we had become involved with an out of condition climb, combined with a shaky forecast. Even now, especially when I am living in Chamonix for the winter and sometimes when I’m not, I will just go and try a line without anyone having climbed it that year, the year before or maybe for several years. I will go on gut instinct, not concrete evidence from the internet or by badgering friends. I will take a chance with what I get and use my judgement and experience to make an educated guess or accept that an adventure, or maybe even an epic is about to unfold. This, I’ll readily admit, may be the realm of the more fortunate – I have lived five winters in the Alps and I have made choices in my life that give me this opportunity and the time available. I understand this is not possible for everyone but I have long had the opinion that in today’s society of instant information, a large proportion of climbers are becoming followers and it appears, this need for a nearly certain outcome is becoming the norm.

In my opinion this cry for as much information about conditions on certain climbs leads to a less satisfying experience. Going into the unknown, opens the mind and electrifies the senses and the absolute joy when taking a chance turns to success, gives a feeling of euphoria. This, stepping into the near unknown for me and some of my friends, has been one of the main reasons to climb in the mountains and to be a mountaineer over the years.

Speaking to Jon, who had just returned from two attempts at a difficult and seldom climbed route on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, he was in total agreement that not every climb has to have a furrow made by a multitude of avid internet scanners or be in stonking condition before attempting to climb it. In fact, Jon said, attempting the climb at the moment, in difficult, ‘out of condition’, condition, was the challenge, this is what he was looking for and because of the difficulties involved, the climb became more memorable and rewarding.

I returned an email whole heartedly agreeing and continued by saying, that although a cliché, it is the journey that is the most important and nowadays there appear to be too many people who want a trophy or the kudos or the Facebook status and Jon’s ‘failing’ has actually given him connection with the mountain and long lasting memories, more so than he would have had if he had just romped to the summit climbing perfect névé, while following in footsteps of those who have gone before with a queue chomped at his crampon heels.

Three days ago – sitting in Wetherspoons, I watched the rain hit the herringbone flags in the centre of Fort William and people run down the street wrapped tightly inside their rain jackets. I read a report in the Guardian by Philip Hoare with the headline; Ladders on Everest are just the latest step in our commodification of nature. In this report Stephen Venables was quoted:

“The mountain has become a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other, we humans have come to expect the natural world to come commodified, negotiated, shaped to our needs. From high to low, there’s nowhere we can’t go, nothing we can’t do. In this age of the Anthropocene – the era of human manipulation heralded by the industrial revolution – it is a given that we have tuned the environment to suit ourselves. Dominion is all; human ingenuity has encompassed the planet. Now pass me the phone: “I’m on the mountain.”

Hoare went on to write, “What mystery is left when the roof of the world resembles your loft conversion?” Well Philip, there is actually no mystery left whatsoever in climbing the South Col Route on Everest and anyone who is a climber knows this but ‘the followers and trophy collectors are of course not concerned by this.

What I am concerned about, is the increase in the lack of mystique in climbing as a whole. This concerns me I suppose because I feel people are losing out on the true essence of climbing. I know this is my problem and I also know there are many people out there that will say having an adventure and deep rooted memory, is irrelevant to them and standing on the summit is the be all but it is this uncertainty within climbing that distinguishes it from sport and makes it very special. It is this stepping into the unknown, the un-measured experience in a time when so much is controlled and regulated – I would say this is the truly rewarding and deeply soul satisfying experience that a large percentage of the climbing community appear to be moving away from. The more this guaranteed success is embraced the more the experience is diluted and the more climbing becomes sanitised and regulated by people who have never had this experience and the more climbing for adventure will suffer.

In twenty years’ time, will climbers be arrested for not wearing a helmet or not having a valid rescue insurance policy?  And will these laws come to pass because the people making our decisions for us do not understand that climbing really can be stepping into the unknown, it can mean having the freedom to attempt to climb something not in the best of condition or at least, the best of condition for the masses? Even now, people are forced to stand internet trial and defend themselves when the internet posse bay for blood if a climber has been so stupid to make a mistake or attempt a climb that has not been in pristine condition. Certainly on occasion, people have made a bad call or been plain stupid, but we don’t all need to have, or in many cases, want to have, perfect, forgettable, following the crowd conditions and a plethora of information. The conditioned climbers out there should remember this and accept we are not all after the same thing. There are still people who want to challenge themselves and have an adventure.        

I utched my high chair closer to the table and sipped espresso and went on to read a second Guardian report, this one was written by Jason Burke with the headline, Everest may have ladder installed to ease congestion on Hillary Step, but unlike the first report, which was telling me nothing surprising, this report was shocking and it was shocking because of the comment, which I’ll admit may have been reported out of context, by Frits Vrijlandt, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), who said the ladder (on the Hillary Step) could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain.  I would say take down all of the fixed rope and the ladders, stop using oxygen, a performance enhancing drug and let people who want to climb Everest, actually climb Everest and then, a solution for the traffic jams on the Hillary Step would certainly be found. An even more shocking comment from Vrijlandt followed, “It’s for the way down, [the ladder] so it won’t change the climb,” This must have been taken out of context as I do not believe anyone who knows the slightest about climbing, seriously believes placing a ladder on a mountain will not change the nature of a climb? 

This Cluster Theory bouncing in my espresso infused brain then began to flash like a meteorite shower and extend to an episode from earlier in the winter here in Scotland. I was accused of FOMO (fear of missing out) by someone who does not know me. This spurious accusation, (as if J) came from a friend of a friend on his Facebook status after I had cried in dismay when he posted a picture of a crag and a few words about attempting a seldom in condition and even more seldom attempted climb. The climb was one I was very excited to try myself and I knew it looked in reasonable condition because Katy, my girlfriend and I, had taken the two-and-a-half hours to walk into and two hours to walk out of the crag in quite harsh weather. Katy and I climbed Umbrella Falls that day and very good it was too but a part of the day was to check-out other possibilities for later in the week.

I did not begrudge my friend an attempt to climb the route – which actually, I think he was only attempting after he saw a picture Katy posted on Facebook of the crag, which, after I moaned so much, she took it down to shut me up – not at all, he had every right to be there and try the route. I would have been pleased for both him, and his partner, had they successfully climbed it and proudly told the story but they didn’t. In my mind, opening up this climb without a story to tell, to people who had not used their imagination, judgement, leg power and suffered the discomfort to check out possibilities for themselves, devalued the experience and lessened the adventure for those who had and wanted a wild, un-hooked and challenging time – possibly something similar to that of the first ascent. On a personal note, I also hate the stress of racing people and competing to be the first to reach a route and so would rather not bother if it comes to doing that but maybe that is my problem.

I am aware for some people this makes me sound selfish and they will not understand my feelings, and that’s fine, we can’t all be the same. I don’t think I am selfish and I don’t think holding on to some information about an in-condition climb is selfish either. When did it become law to report to the masses about conditions? I would argue that once a climb has lost its mystique, it loses a massive part of its character, well, at least it does for climbers who find the adventure side of climbing very important and sometimes it may be worthwhile holding back or at least holding on to some of the finer details and pictures to spare others who, like me, want an un-diluted and un-crowded experience which is becoming more difficult to receive in today’s instant access society. So FOMO, no … more FODE, fear of diluted experience.

I also know there will be people reading this who say, ‘don’t look at the internet’ and I would answer by saying in a lot of cases I don’t. I rarely read conditions reports, as most of the time, I would rather go and check for myself and not be swayed by the judgement of others. I do not scour the internet for up to date pictures of crags or read blogs that heavily feature condition reports. But why should I not be free to chat with friends via Facebook and see what friends are up to? Why should I be penalised from highlighting stories I’ve read in the press that I want to share? Why should I have interesting writing kept from me and why should I not be able to advertise a piece of my own writing I wish others to read? The internet is here to stay and it is part of modern society and I love it, it is such a great resource, but for climbing, and especially reports and pictures of climbs and conditions, I think it is changing the essence of what climbing is about.       

What is climbing becoming? Well, more adventurous and imaginative, it certainly is not!

The Cluster Theory continues…

Yesterday – Waking at 5am, the stars flickered in a clear sky and for the first time in this winter, I had to clear the windscreen of ice. Guy Robertson and I went to climb on Carn Dearg and, as for the whole of this strange winter, judging the conditions and the weather and deciding where to climb was nearly the crux of the day.

I had been staying in the CC hut, Riasg, at Roy Bridge and knowing how severe the snow storm had been on Saturday – when Tim Neill and I had failed to leave the Aonach Mor car park – my gut was saying, ‘try Cairn Dearg’. It also helped that a few guys from the hut had been to Ben Nevis the day before and had taken a couple of photos of the crag, which at that time, looked wintery but not at all a certainty. The fact that these guys, experienced climbers had bailed, due to the amount of snow, also did not bode well, but as stated above, at times you have to go on instinct and experience and have a punt.

Also, over the last few days, I had been on Facebook and in my newsfeed as normal; I could not fail to miss the odd picture and conditions headline for Ben Nevis. I did not read any of these reports but it was obvious the amount of snow on the hill was a debilitating factor that was stopping people in their tracks.

6.30am – Daylight, and like my frozen van windscreen, for the first time this winter, walking to the CIC Hut with the alpen glow warming the white summits made up for much of the battling. We were still heading for Carn Dearg, but with open minds and a monster rack of gear which would hopefully cover all bases.

9.00am – Gently, I flicked an axe. The pick curved in the cold air and penetrated a thin skin of ice. Gentle, the second axe-pick connected but with downward dragging force, the pick puckered and wrinkled the frozen water until it caught and held on some hidden obstruction.  I breathed deep and stepped from the snow. Above me, the steep corner with a continuous stream of thin ice beckoned. And above this, the two hundred and eighty five metres of Fowler and Saunder’s, thirty five year old climb, The Shield Direct. Flakes, chimneys, rock-overhangs, snow-fields, overhanging-ice, history, reputation, connection, surprise. What was going to happen, well of course I didn’t know because I had not even read the route description, we didn’t even have a guidebook and we were here on a gut instinct, not an internet report?

OK, enough said, I’m off now to tweet and Facebook this blog post and drink more coffee and wait for the next cluster!   

 

Nick Bullock on the first pitch of The Shield Direct. Did they successfully complete the climb or did they bail? Was the ice continuous or did it peter-out? Did the snow and wind stop the ascent or not? Did the attempt of this climb come from following reports on the internet… No. Was this climb a step into the unknown and because of this a much higher quality experience… Yes.

    

 

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In the Rucksack Straps of Mick.

In the winter of 2009, as high pressure sat firm and fixed over Scotland and low pressure dominated in the French Alps. Pete Benson and I, both resident in the Chamonix Valley, took the unusual decision to fly from France to Scotland for the week. The final climb of the week, a snatch in thaw conditions, was what we thought at the time Mick Fowler and Mike Morrison’s wild and only once repeated in twenty two years, West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe. Pete showed some pictures to Guy Robertson and it was discovered we had actually climbed a new variation, passing right around the large overhang instead of left. Pete Benson supplied Simon Richardson with the information about the ascent and named it The Bullhorn/Benson Variation

****

Hood up, head bowed, torch glowing – I chuntered. The rain slapped into the saturated earth and the sodden snow sponged up the moisture. The steep heather hillside, to reach the summit ridge of Beinn Eighe, was not the place I wanted to be in this deluge – in this wet miserable morning at 7am but Keith Ball was in-front and try as hard as I could to catch him, he remained far enough away. And the reason he remained out of shouting distance was because he knew this was rubbish. The small streams running from high on the hill could have been canoed and thick black bands of clouds covered all of the summits. Not half way up the horrible hill, my feet slewed like greasy chips in a bag.

An hour later and the summit ridge, clagged in cloud and swathed in sheets of spindrift, turned my nightmare into white buffeting reality. Any heat that had not been sucked from my soul blew away on the body juddering gusts. Large wet flakes of snow slapped into both Keith and my face.

After going around in little whiteout circles for a while we found the top of West Central Gully and decided to take a look. I abseiled the line of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. The steep overhanging walls drooled blue strings of ice and out of the bruising wind my world turned pink. And as I abseiled my glasses became rose tinted and in some moment of madness, I suggested to Keith, when we both stood in thigh deep snow in the base of the gully, that we change from the cunning plan of a quick wiz up the Central Buttress, for a quick wiz up the Fowler/Morrison route, West Central Gully.

“It’ll be quicker than plodding around to the central buttress, its only two pitches and I’ve done the first one before, it’s easy… how hard can it be… we’ll be up and out and back to the van, dried and fed and set up and ready for something more-tricky tomorrow.” I said, quicker than you can say the word epic.”

“OK Nick, I’m psyched, but we don’t have any ice screws, do you think that’ll be a problem?”

Keith looked up, up into the depths of the mountain, to the back of the gully, the line of the climb. A cave, a third of the way up was capped by a massive roof and to the left of the roof, blossoming from the overhanging corner, were two ice drips marking the way we would climb. After the roof thicker ice led to another overhang and after this steep continuous ice flowed to the top.

“Naa, we’ll be fine, it’s got all of that rock around it and let’s face it, its ice up there, who needs screws to climb ice in Scotland – ice in Scotland is never more difficult than WI4 and WI4 is piss.”

Keith thumped a track – knee-deep plunges into unconsolidated snow – and as I followed, I saw the temperature increase and in my worried wallowing, I watched the steep towering walls, walls that had suddenly turned into our cloistering prison, begin to cry with laughter.

In 2009, when Pete Benson and I climbed the fowler/Morrison line, my contentment swelled – this climb was one of those that had engrained itself beneath my skin – it was everything about it – the line, the first ascentionists – but most of all it was the story written by Fowler of him being on the edge, pumped stupid – pumped and slumping and hanging from a chord leading from his axes attached to his rucksack strap. When I first read the account of West Central Gully I had imagined and pictured, I could see him dangling from rucksack shoulder straps with legs kicking and now I had shared the same ground, or so I thought at the time.

Keith and I were surrounded by an armadillo of orange quartzite. Lumps and ears and bulges that shed their frozen skin and the two frozen drips blooming from beneath a large flake-roof poured clear water from the tips of their fragile formations. I pulled into the cave from which Keith had belayed. The gully had become dark and the cave, in which we now sorted gear, was darker still. Spindrift carried on the wind, rumbled from the top of the gully, it cut a trench in the rotten ice and launched into space pouring over our horizon to thump into the snow packed gully a long way beneath us.

Before Keith had started on the first pitch, I said I didn’t mind who climbed what and if he wanted to climb both pitches that was fine, but as I pulled into the cave, Keith had said that he thought it best if I climb the top pitch. I was honoured that Keith had so much faith in my abilities, I wasn’t that certain myself. Braced – feet on one wall and my back on the other, we sorted gear and on occasion I stole a glance to the dark wall I was hoping to cross.

Oh yeah, just can’t wait to get at it!!

“I’ll use those sloping footholds to get out to the ice and see what happens. Got a feeling a few ice screws would have helped, there doesn’t look to be much in the way of rock kit.”

Three trips in and out from the belay resulted in a small cluster of rock gear, a pumped right arm while hanging from small edges and placing gear and a whole lot of nervous tension. On one of the soirees I had leaned back from a torque that could easily rip and cleaned the large fringe of icicles before attempting to make a placement in the ice above. The ice being in a delicate state decided to fracture and shatter and break and explode into the deep snow below. The gully reverberated. Another swing and another fracture line… I reversed a move or two and doubt flooded into my mind.

“This is going to be stimulating, the ice is all melting.”  When I get scared I do have a habit of stating the obvious.

Once again I leant-out from beneath the roof and the ice drip and swung and once again the ice cracked. I imagined the whole lump cutting loose with me still clinging to both axes planted firmly into it.

I ran back to the embracing arms of the belay cave. Why did we have no ice screws, what the hell? The climbing was overhanging and the ice was melting and all of my experience told me that the moves above my highest position were going to be even more committing as the ice would no doubt be rotten and mushy. I blamed Keith for getting me into this, ‘what a bastard, I would not normally have left my bed in weather like it had been, he was to blame, he did this to us, he had let us down.’ But after a few seconds I got a grip and remembered who had suggested this climb and remembered that I was a grown man who could have said no, so instead of complaining I decided to get on with it.

Nick Bullock building the courage to pull into a world of melting unprotected.

Trusting one pick into the ice blob I leaned-out, and leaned out some more and eventually I pulled. Eyes darted – footholds, gear placements, ice condition, the height I was above the cluster of gear, in a flash I took it all in and in that same moment, once that barrier has been crossed my mind quietened and focus was everything. Small edges for the left front-point were crucial, I pushed my shoulder to the right wall relieving weight from the axe-picks which were placed in mush and attempted not to think about what would happen if the left front-point slewed and I shock loaded the axes. 

Inching, inching – mush, no gear – inching – melting ice, no gear – inching … I was past the first drip beneath the second more continuous flow… fifteen minutes… fifteen minutes, maybe more, planning and digging and building courage and planning and digging. I changed feet several times to try different inching up combinations that would put the least amount of force on both axe placements. I’m useless at crosswords and puzzles but this was a puzzle I had played before and eventually, after much thought and many mind twisting combinations of feet and axe placements I made a decision and pulled.

****

Stood at the side of the semi-circular snow gutter, just beneath the summit ridge on a flat rock step, the same place I had belayed in 2009, shards of snow exfoliated my face and in between sinking into the depths of my jacket, I looked around and in that looking around, into that pale blue sky, that electrifying wind, once again I felt the same bursting glow of contentment which was filled even more when Keith pulled into the gully above the overhang and was continually pounded by spindrift. ‘Ha, that’ll teach you Keith Ball, getting me out in such rubbish weather.’ My day was now complete!    

Keith Ball getting his just deserves!

Glad to be out…

The eyes of old men who should know better!

 

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Centurion

Climbing in Scotland – especially in Scotland this winter -  it is something similar to being Keanu Reeves in the film The Matrix – you have to believe to be able to make that leap of faith.

My alarm shouted at 4.30 am as the beads of condensation dripped from the roof of the van. The rain had been playing a thrash metal beat for the whole of the night.

I breakfasted and left the CC hut at Roy Bridge. The rain continued and if I had been up on thrash metal it may have been Slayer, but I’m not so who knows!

I met Keith Ball who was also in a van but a van I could have parked my van inside with enough space left to have a concert. “What’d you reckon?” I was certainly looking for a way-out, in the words of some female crooner, which I also have limited knowledge so I can’t name, but Keith being of stronger, Plas y Brenan, out in all-weather stock, wittered on about it not being so bad and made me question my drive. “OK, let’s head to the dam, but I’m telling you now, if it’s raining I’m not walking.”

At the dam it was raining. “OK, I’ll put on my boots and if it’s raining I’m not walking.”

Head down, head torch on, the rain pattered against my hood, “OK, if it’s raining at the CIC, we turn around, I’m not climbing.”

The snow, driven by the wind, caught in the lee of the sastrugi and hissed and sloughed. “OK if it’s still this grim at the CIC I’m turning around.”

Keith and I stepped into the dark damp of the CIC entrance, into the quiet, an escape from the maelstrom of driving snow outside. The snow was being blown so hard, I wondered if it was being test driven by Jeremy Clarkson.

“Keith, this is shit, we should save ourselves for a big push, we should re-group, re-think, re-do anything – going out there in that, is utter madness.”

But then after some smaller climbs were mentioned the word Centurion entered into the conversation and in an instant the snow stopped, the damp stopped being so damp, and the world turned into a lovely friendly place.  And in my ear, Don Whillans whispered ‘You need to man up and get on with it… ‘

Keith Ball on the first pitch of Centurion.

Keith Ball getting involved on pitch two.

 

Nick Bullock following the second pitch.

Nick Bullock higher on pitch two of Centurion.

Keith topping out pitch three of Centurion. In my normal style of being unable to follow a route description, I climbed direct, as I’m sure others have before and instead of traversing to the left and climbing grooves on pitch three I pulled through a roof. Definitely worthwhile and good climbing but the rock is a tad concerning in a few parts.

 

 

 

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Northerlies… Creme de Violette (FA) and Umbrella Falls.

The opening spread from Ian Parnell’s superb Alpinist Article. Bruised Violet in yellow and Crème de Violette in red. Credit Ian Parnell.

 

Seeing the pictures in Alpinist Magazine, the angles, the steepness, the flakes and cracks and then reading the account of Ian Parnell climbing the first ascent of Bruised violet, I have always wanted to share his experience. The West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe is such an atmospheric place – the lines are striking. History drips from the steep walls. Even the name Bruised Violet is fitting and evocative.

On Friday afternoon, Tim Neill and I stood at the top of the crag with wide smiles watching the sun dip and looking at the Torridon mountains – ancient white-hat wearing sentries. The route we had just climbed had been one of the most sustained and fulfilling outings ever. Well done Ian for putting that one up I said, enthusing to Tim, but I’m not very good at following complex descriptions and the line had appeared a tad undergraded.

I texted Ian as we drove back to Roy Bridge and said Bruised Violet was one of the best routes I had ever climbed in Scotland, top five for sure… “Ian must have been going well at the time of climbing Bruised Violet,” I said to Tim and continued, “I would have graded it 9 for technical climbing and maybe IX for the overall grade.” I continued, that I thought the route we had just climbed was better than Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears, the four star outing to the left. Don’t get me wrong, I think BS&FT is a great route, I just thought this route was better and harder and more sustained.

****

Run-out –  a steep groove above a roof, about 15 to 20 feet above a bulldog placed in ice while tentatively pulling one tooth pick placements and balancing on tiny footholds focuses the mind. And the climbing, it just kept coming, which was following a wide and bulging crack line.

The second new pitch had me pulling through a steep roof into a bottomless corner with  knees pressed to a wall and no footholds. Back-footing, burling, locking off … arms cramped. I wanted gear, but I couldn’t stop with feet smeared and locking the torqued axes … the fall was not very inviting – the gear was placed in the bottom of the corner. Pick placements became baggy and I didn’t want them baggy, I wanted solid – a front point on an edge – burl and pull… body tension, control, lock off… And there was still more…

After a phone call to Ian Parnell and Tim, and much study, it looks like Tim and I have climbed a new route and the best route yet of my winter 2014 by mistake and the in ability to follow a description, or as Tim put it in an email,

“Good work Nick….strong image! (Alpinist follows strong line in off route/new routing shocker :-O “

Crème de Violette. IX/9 FA.  West Central Wall, Beinn Eighe. Nick Bullock, Tim Neill. 7/2/14

A direct on Bruised Violet, culminating in two new long and quite serious pitches. Super sustained, burley and on occasion, rather emotional!

1 30m Chop Suey pitch 1.

2  40m Climb cracks up the right wall of the groove (as for Chop Suey) to the upper girdle ledge then pull through the roof and follow the committing groove, (past in-situ pecker of BV,) where Bruised Violet goes hard right, continue direct until beneath a roof. Carefully pull right around the roof and climb the even more committing groove above without thinking about where the last piece of gear is or even what the last piece of gear was. At the top of the grove continue direct following the wide bulging crack line. 

3 30m Climb direct to beneath an overhanging corner with a thin crack. Pull into the corner and climb it to the top to a rest and a wide crack. Climb a few moves right before continuing direct via small overhangs to the top. 

 

Ian Parnell’s topo from Bruised Violet, Crème de violette is the blue line.

 

 

 

On Saturday I returned to Torridon with Katy Forrester and we climbed Mick Fowler’s Umbrella Falls on Liathach. We were thinking of Poacher’s Fall but so was everyone else and with loads of lines we couldn’t see the point of queuing … a rather pleasant and relaxing day after the previous day.

 

Thanks to Tim Neill, Ian Parnell and Katy Forrester for the pics. And thanks to Ian for the info and the Alpinist pic and the inspiration.

 

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The Road.

The rain… The bloody rain … it poured. And poured.

The bloody permanent dark. The dark. Cloistering. Depressing. Invasive. 

I ran the lane from Roy Bridge heading to Glen Roy. Undulating. Ancient trees. Narrow.

The brown peaty river – flowing white and bubbly – churned its twisting way around mossy boulders. Running, sweating, steaming – the layby – The deserted layby – empty bottles – Glen Vodka and JP Chenet Blanc, soggy tissues.  Deserted.

I was running along Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. I felt separated in this post-apocalyptic highlands. 

I had walked into four different crags in the week and walked out again. The bag remained unpacked. The most memorable and inspiring part of the week’s failures had been the 5am battle to reach the Cairngorm Plateau. Driving snow and gales. Whiteout. What the fuck had Robbo and me been thinking? In the beam of the headtorch I picked out a white carrier bag blowing in my direction. It was only when it tumbled nearer I realised it was a Ptarmigan, being beaten by the wind.  Her wings so used to being strong, carrying her body ,flapped like polythene. She clawed to snow and found purchase and hunkered down a metre away. I shone the torch. Her dark eyes blazed survival.    

I sat in my van on Morrisons car park watching people leave the train station and meet loved ones – a wet, close, loving embrace in the pouring rain. Closeness.  

I felt alone.

Heading for the underpass toward Fort William town centre – rippled and stirred by the wind, I avoided the large puddles. My mood was grey and dark. It had been too long since the last climb and hanging in wet Scotland made me dour – I had too much time to think.  

Streams of water poured down the tiles on the front face of the underpass. The inside was lit, almost dazzling compared to the nether world outside, music echoed and begrudgingly filtered outside and into the gloom.  

Buskers stress me, if I don’t add to their guitar case, hat, cup or whatever receptacle they use to catch change, generally I feel embarrassed and guilty but maybe that’s me and my prejudice – maybe busking is like writing and climbing, you need to be heard or read or actively involved no matter the pay, the piece of prose, the song, the grade…  but somehow I doubt it, I’m sure many buskers busk out of necessity?

This busker was in his fifties, a medium sized guy – wax jacket, bit of a belly, flat cap made of tweed, grey complexion and a life worn and weary face. He played an acoustic guitar and his singing and playing was really good. Emotion stirred deep into the pit of my stomach. I wondered why he needed to busk, what had gone wrong? His eyes were bright and sharp, eyes that also stirred something in me – something that punched me in that hollow self-pitying gut. I placed a few coins in his guitar case and looked him in those eyes. Swinging the guitar from side to side – strumming, singing – he gave me a nod and a knowing smile.     

Walking from the underpass, back into the rain, my mood felt lighter. I made a pact with myself to stop wallowing in self-pity and raw emotion and to cheer up – there was always a glimmer of hope and the small un-noticed things of life, like the Ptarmigan, bring some relief.

Walking back from internetting at Whetherspoons, along Fort William high street, a young boy sat in the doorway outside a shop licking a sherbet lollipop. He looked like the lad from the front cover of a Roddy Doyle book called Paddy Clarke ha ha ha – blond, skinny, very cheeky, his whole life ahead of him. ‘Lucky bugger’ I thought.

The first day of the BMC Winter International meet, the forecast was atrocious. What to do? My mood was once again sliding, but I thought of the busker, music, life, love, the cheeky young boy and the Ptarmigan and I knew life was a curve ball –  lows and highs, rights and wrongs, shit happens, sometimes times are good, sometimes it rains – this is what makes life, life, and this is what makes the good times good.

Extasy. VIII/8 Craig Meggy

Canadian, Jon Walsh and I, walked in, checked it out and the following day climbed the third ascent of Extasy on the Pinnacle Face of Craig Meagaidh. Its difficult to imaging that I will have a more compelling, engaging day of the winter than this one. We climbed the route totally on ice but the ice was less than perfect and the ground at times was steep. The gear to protect the climb was minimal and the descent ‘interesting’… All in all, a pretty full-on day.

     

     

Making the Cut VIII/8 FA, Jon Walsh, Greg Boswell, Nick Bullock. West Central Gully. Beinn Eighe.

The perfect day. Stunning settled weather, a magnificent situation and a line both Greg and I had spotted a few years back. I lost Scissor, paper, stone all day and climbed the third pitch which was still good but not as spectacular as the second pitch or as sustained as the first pitch. We called it Making the Cut after talking to Simon Richardson about the amount of entries he has on his blog Scottish Winter climbs.

 

For further info on The BMC International Meet the report is Here

Thanks to DMM for covering the cost of the week and thanks to Nick Colton and Becky McGovern of the BMC for the great work, friendship and help throughout the week.

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Another Dark Start.

 

Another dark start.

Greg, Will, Guy and I, just a few hours before had sat close together in front of The Kingshouse fire. The history inside these walls would have once been magic. Older now, the trick is to remember younger thoughts.

Another dark start.

I always find the stone stepped walk into Stob Coire Nan Lochan steep and miserable. It’s dark so I can’t look at the savage scenery. There are no animals or birds awake. Or if there are, they are hidden by the night.

The stream flows over ice-glazed rock and chunters its cold complaints at having to leave the hills and join ‘that’ other water.

The path is steep.

Following Guy Robertson in the opposite direction to the stream, I chunter about the rain. We sit on our bags and blather while taking a minute for a drink. This makes me laugh, when oh when did I become so laid back to stop and sit on bags and blather on a walk in?

Greg Boswell and Will Sim catch us. Greg complains that our sit and blather is an excuse now we have hit the snow. He’s wrong though.

****

Beneath the cliff the boulder field is no longer a boulder field. A field of white welds to the earth and butts against the fortress of rock we have come to climb.

Light now, one line in particular stands out. Greg and Will have also seen it, though to be honest you wouldn’t need the eyes of youth to pick this line.

“Are you looking at the Beyond Good and Evil line?” Will said to me without looking away from the cliff.

“Yes.”

“RACE YOU.” And with that Greg runs toward the cliff in thigh deep snow while laughing.

We all laugh. Even Robbo who takes this game very serious.

****

Entering SC Gully, chocked to the brim with fresh snow, my mind, at times like these always wonders what it would be like being buried.

“Well, best you get on with it.”  

****

The corner is text book. Nearly ninety degrees with cuts and folds a tailor would be proud. A ripple of ice runs directly down, or is it up, the fold. The ice crawls onto each of the walls, either side of the corner … but stood beneath this feature I can see that the rock has no footholds, apart from the thin cold mould of ice.

The friendly ice soon turns nasty once it realises my intention. And behind its rotten heart, the fold is full of muck which a hook is pounded to give the only protection.

Bridged-out, I survey my options.

No footholds until the same height as my axes. Rotten ice. Poor protection.

Repeatedly I pull up, lock off and excavate. Lumps of crud crack and crumble. My mind quietens and a second hook, poorer than the first is tapped into turf.

It would be good at this point to say how I romped, but it would be a lie, because I crawled like a lover begging to be let back in. Half a body length higher, once again I began to excavate. A cam into frozen moss did not give me faith but the footholds now were oh so close.

Willing the lumps of icy crud I hooked to stay in place, I brought feet beneath body, pulled, locked and fished for something…

****

Stood belaying, while looking down to Robbo climbing the corner, smiling and laughing, enjoying the very good climbing, I didn’t feel jealous of his top-rope. There had definitely been a point where it would have been very easy to back off. Maybe getting older does not affect my commitment, but tempers it and turns it into a more solid, safer thing?

****

The two new pitches above the corner did not diminish in quality at all, in fact, it possibly improved. The top pitch, a magnificent steep wall veined with cracks, in a fine and exposed position, is certainly the highlight of the climb with possibly the most difficult climbing, but the first pitch is certainly the crux which in similar condition will stop most parties unless their will is strong.

Slenderhead. VIII/8 100m Robertson, Bullock. 13/1/14

1 The Corner on the right wall of SC Gully. 30m

2 The ice line and wide crack above the corner until a line of flakes takes you right to the arête. Follow the arête direst and belay beneath a slim tower to the left of the final corner pitch of East Face Direct Route.

3 Climb directly above the belay up the front face of the tower, difficult to start, to overhanging cracks. A difficult move left leads to a wide crack on the left side of the tower which is climbed. From behind the tower finish direct.            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cure for a Sick Mind. (New routes on Creag an Dubh Loch)

 

The Robbenator taking his chill pill! A new route on the left on the Creag an Dubh Loch.

Driving to Chamonix before Christmas, mile upon mile of autoroute… I smelt the desperation in Guy Robertson’s text messages… ‘I need. I want. I have to have.’

I sent a text back, ‘Chill Robbo.’

He continued to send texts, each becoming more desperate sounding and including bigger and bigger, more difficult to understand adjectives.

I replied… ‘Are you pissed?

Truth be told I’ve always worried about Robbo’s sanity, that’s possibly why we get on so well, but he was worrying me more than usual.

****
I returned from Chamonix keen to drive straight to Scotland to meet my slightly emotional, disturbed friend but two weeks had passed since the original texts and he was still devoid of that first success of a Scottish winter season. I now had more chance of sense from a daffodil.

“We meet Monday, we meet Tuesday, we meet Wednesday… I’m not meeting you now, I’m going out with Greg, with Pete, with anyone on Saturday, Sunday, in the day, the night, the never world… ”

I drove to Wales and the texts continued…

“Bloody incompetent weather forecasters.”

I surmised that the weekend had not gone to plan and now imagined my slightly off the wall friend turning into a camouflaged vest, combat trouser, Bandana wearing, AK 47 toting, Robbenator, who screamed lines from Rambo while lying in wait on the top floor of the multi-story car park outside the BBC weather centre.

The text messages continued…

“Get ready. Meet on the Spittal of Glenmuick car park on Friday.”

The messages told me what gear to bring including a map and compass. I knew then he had lost the plot completely!

The next text spelt all change once again…

“I’m not climbing with you, I’m climbing with Greg, you can climb with Will.”

The Greg in question was Greg Boswell and Will was Will Sim … No problem at all as I had climbed with Will and given the state of Robbo I did not have the correct drugs in my medicine cabinet required to bring him down to the same planet as the rest of us.

Will texted me then asking if I was free to climb at some point? I sent a text back saying I thought we already were?

It was finally decided that Greg, Will and I would arrive at the car park with a rack of gear each, push bikes, ropes and sustenance to climb in the Dubh Loch and as many chill pills as possible and fit with whatever plan the Robbentaor came up with.

At 9pm on Friday evening a small group huddled around my van and a plan was eventually made…

As I lay in the back of my van waiting for sleep to come, I said a prayer for good weather, favourable conditions and success for the following day as I feared for all our sanity and safety should Robbo fail once again!

 

Guy Robertson on his and Greg Boswell’s new route.

 

Iain Small climbing the first pitch of his and Simon Richardson’s new route on the right!

Will Sim setting off on our new route up the middle and into no-mans land!

Will Sim on the first pitch having just climbed the crux and wondering which way now?

Nick Bullock setting off on pitch two and regretting only having one stubby screw and a borrowed screw from Iain Small.

 

Into a world of thin…

Looking up to me on the belay beneath pitch three.

Will Sim at the top of pitch two.

Three dimensional on the start of pitch three which leads into thin and steep ice dribbles.

Boom… And relax!

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Terry Gifford Review of Echoes.

On the eve of travelling to Scotland, where hopefully, in this winter of discontent I will climb something other than the walls of the CC hut in Roy Bridge, I thought I would post this review of Echoes.

I first read the review before flying to Canada and my initial impression and feeling which was one of enlightenment is intact.

Virtually all reviews of Echoes have been favourable but this one, more than most is  important given the credentials of the reviewer Terry Gifford.

 

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The Forming of Ice.

Nemesis on The Stanley Headwall in 2013 form.

 

At the moment I’m fascinated by the movement of time.

And as the trip to Canada comes to an end it’s quite fitting that the last route was Nemesis, an ice-climb I climbed first with Dave Hunter in 2003 and at a time when Greg, who I climbed Nemesis with on this trip, was only twelve years old.

****

With each placement, pick into hard frozen, the ten previous years splintered. Shards – some clear, some smoked, some big, some small – splattered and flew to the snow at the base of the climb.

And what have I done in those ten years? Where will the next ten years lead?

I climbed Nemesis with Dave Hunter in March 2003, and it was later that year I left the Prison Service to become a writer and full time climber.

I have not seen Dave since. I wonder where he is and what he is doing with his life.

Time moves. Seasons change. Waves and tides turn.

The night turns to day, temperatures rise and fall. Water drips, freezes, drips and freezes.

Ice forms.

And with the forming of ice, people will climb it in whatever form it makes that year.

Sometimes it will form easy to climb. Sometimes it will form thin, brittle, chandeliered and stringy. It will be difficult to protect and difficult to climb, it will be difficult to see yourself ‘up there’.

But hopefully, the ice will continue to grow.

 

Nick Bullock on the first pitch of Nemesis 2013. Greg Boswell.

 

Greg Boswell, pitch two of Nemesis.

Nick Bullock, pitch three of Nemesis. Greg Boswell.

Another sun sets on our final visit to The Stanley Headwall 2013.

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