The Wrecking Light.

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

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

Sat by myself, I drive north from Llanberis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking towards Suilven on the walk in to Cùl Mòr.

Looking towards Suilven on the walk in to Cùl Mòr.

Suilven.

Suilven.

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

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

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

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

Day two. Walking in to Beinn Dearg.

Day two. Walking in to Beinn Dearg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andy seconding the first pitch. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy seconding the first pitch. Credit, Nick Bullock.

Guy seconding the first pitch. Credit, Nick Bullock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Maia Papaya.

Inside the Maia Papaya.

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

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

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

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

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

Quebec City.

Quebec City.

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

Île d'Orléans Bridge, Quebec City.

Île d’Orléans Bridge, Quebec City.

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

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The GMC takes to the water.

The GMC takes to the water.

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

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

Bayard Russell. A big character with a big truck.

Bayard Russell. A big character with a big truck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript:

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

The GMC eventually finds the Sept-Îles hostel.

The GMC eventually finds the Sept-Îles hostel.

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

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

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After two hours of skinning...

After two hours of skinning…

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

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

Bayard climbing the first pitch of Speedy Gonzalez.

Bayard climbing the first pitch of Speedy Gonzalez.

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

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

Michael on the skin out.

Michael on the skin out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Rock and Roll and Rock and Snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

kev on pnd 2

Nearly at the belay with even more exposure.

Nearly at the belay with even more exposure.

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

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

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

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

Leading the last pitch. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Leading the last pitch. Credit, Kevin Mahoney.

Kevin Mahoney seconding the final pitch of Post Nasel Drip.

Kevin Mahoney seconding the final pitch of Post Nasel Drip.

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

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

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

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

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

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And another… Credit, Marty Molitoris.

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Flight into El Gato.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

not over till 2

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

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

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

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

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

“OH, this really isn’t good.”

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

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

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

“Go on Matt, its fine…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

end of blog

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

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

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

 

snake blog 1

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

Matt McCormick on the SNRF.

Matt McCormick on the SNRF.

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

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

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Back in the East.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Topping out on Ice Storm.

Topping out on Ice Storm.

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

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

Thankfully topping out on Bubba...

Thankfully topping out on Bubba…

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Returning to Llanberis.

Looking up The Nant Ffrancon toward Cwm Idwal.

Looking up The Nant Ffrancon toward Cwm Idwal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NF1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA Lecture flier

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An Open Letter to Derek.

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

 

“Two words: bear spray.

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

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

 

Hi Derek,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Bullock.

 

 

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From Dawn to Dusk. From Dusk to Dawn.

The calm before the proverbial…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher on pitch one. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

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

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

Greg higher on pitch three dreaming of the coffee shop…

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

And steep. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

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

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

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

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

The approach.

More of the approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red arrow is where the bear attack happened.

Bear meets Boswell, Boswell wins!

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The Glowing… Dawn of the Dead.

Stanley Headwall. If Carlsberg made mixed climbing crags…

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

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

I replied…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn of the Dead.

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

Greg approaching the climb.

Greg on pitch one of Dawn of the Dead.

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

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

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

Higher  on the third pitch. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg leading pitch four.

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

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

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Betty Battles The Ghost.

 

The Real Big Drip. The Ghost

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

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

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

Driving into the Ghost. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bivi in Betty. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

*

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

Greg climbing the first pitch.

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

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

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

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

Greg seconding to the belay behind the pitch four icicle.

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